If one dared to choose one sentence to express the zeitgeist of contemporary China, my vote would go for the following, reported by Xiao Qiang at China Digital Times to be currently coursing through the Chinese blogosphere:
"I would rather be a pig for the Olympics than a human in a coal mine!"
The lament juxtaposes two recent causes célèbres: the news, originally reported by the Financial Times on Aug. 5, that secret pig breeding centers had been set up to provide organically produced pork -- untainted by growth hormones that could cause athletes to fail doping controls -- for the upcoming Beijing Olympics, and the ongoing horrific death toll in China's mines. According to Reuters, 2,000 Chinese miners have died in mining accidents already this year. The latest blow: the deaths of 182 coal miners who perished when two mines in Shandong were flooded in late August.
If one were feeling especially dour, one could further juxtapose this outbreak of black humor with the news that the works of China's arch black humorist of all time, the great essayist Lu Xun, are being excised from Chinese high school curricula. This tidbit comes by way of longtime China hawk Arthur Waldron, who takes as his source the Chinese language newspaper World Journal, and who declares that the reason for the censorship is "The Tiananmen Massacre, of which Lu Xun's works uncomfortably remind the Chinese government."
I am a little doubtful of this assertion, which has yet to be reported anywhere else in the English language press that I can find. Not only does Waldron have a long history as a China basher, but the World Journal is owned by a Taiwanese publishing company and sports its own long-established record of eagerness to portray the CCP in the worst light possible.
Which is not to say it isn't true. But if there's one thing to take away from this, it's that Lu Xun's spirit still survives, even if his short stories are currently being shoved to the side. "I would rather be a pig for the Olympics than a human in a coal mine!" is exactly the kind of exercise in dark absurdity you might expect to burst out of the mouth of a Lu Xun character. Whether or not its popularity in the sino-blogosphere points to an emergent civil society that can shake off the threat of government censorship with impunity is a question I can't answer, but I find the bitter joke strangely heartening. Post-Tiananmen Chinese society has long been accused of political apathy, but the wellspring of discontent symbolized by that one sentence is the kind of thing that can crystallize quite speedily into immense potency.