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The Prisoner’s Dilemma

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China Power

The Prisoner’s Dilemma

The Lahu people in south-west China are an inward-looking people. But will this protect their cultural identity?

In September 2000, I visited Yunnan Province’s Muga township in the green hills along the China-Burma border. I spent a month there researching minority education in China, focusing on the Lahu tribe, considered one of China’s ‘losing’ minorities for their failure to assimilate into the Chinese mainstream. As a Western-educated, politically correct journalist, I had decided the Lahu had refused Han Chinese schooling to protect their cultural identity. 

But wouldn’t the Lahu prefer a better life?  After all, if they insisted on community coherence over economic progress, then their society could ultimately fail and die, as Jared Diamond pointed out in his book Collapse

I spent the next four years researching the Lahu, eventually directing a documentary about them called ‘Children of Blessing.’ During my research, I discovered that the stubborn determination of the Lahu not to fit in—by failing school, by refusing to learn Chinese, and by secluding themselves with poverty and ignorance in the hills—was matched by an intense self-hatred of that sub-group of Lahu who had assimilated.

In the parlance of game theory, both Lahu groups were employing strategies to maximize their individual outcome. Those Lahu who failed to fit in sought to maximize their survival by maximizing their allies; they emphasized community to avoid being abandoned, and made it taboo to be ‘Chinese.’ (Lahu kids were pressured to fail in school.) Those Lahu who did fit in had to justify abandoning their community, and to swear their loyalty to the Han Chinese mainstream. 

This anthropological/sociological phenomenon isn’t unique to the Lahu.  In 2006, when I was a UN official in Kabul, school burnings were commonplace in Afghanistan. The media reported that the culprits were Taliban fanatics determined to stop the modernization of Afghanistan, but I wondered if it might be village conservatives who sought to keep their youth by keeping them illiterate and ignorant of the outside world.  And after reading Zhou Yeran’s profile of his Chinese classmates, I couldn’t help but see the similarities between the Chinese and the minority they love to mock so much—the Lahu. 

Zhou was responding to a New York Times article ‘The China Education Boom on US Campuses’ that glorifies Chinese students studying in the United States. Zhou Yeran wrote that the majority of Chinese students aren’t like those profiled in the Times, and ‘don’t join debate teams, don’t go partying every weekend, and most certainly don’t convert to Mormonism.’ In fact, many are ‘are troubled, isolated or sleep-deprived.’ 

Here is Zhou’s account of one classmate: ‘During his three years studying in America, (he) had never made a single American friend…He spends most of his spare time in the dorm room, playing Counter Strike, doing homework and reading Japanese manga.’ 

Zhou also tracked down a Chinese student interviewed by theTimes

‘(She) refuses to hang out with her Chinese classmates. When being interviewed by the New York Times she explained why. “They can’t talk,” she is quoted to say, “They can’t communicate with American people.”

‘Her Chinese peers, furious after reading the article, left angry messages on Zhao’s homepage. Many called her a “traitor.”  Hurt and depressed by the harsh criticism, Zhao went to her American friends for a shoulder to cry on. They comforted her and told her not to worry, “We are your real friends, not them.”’ 

You would almost see the sparks fly if you were to put the two in the same room.  It’s likely that the Chinese who can’t fit in will return to China, where they’ll help fuel Chinese prejudices about the United States (Americans discriminate against Chinese). And the Chinese who can fit in will stay in the US, where they’ll help fuel US prejudices about China (Chinese can’t speak English). Instead of helping bridge the Sino-America divide, Chinese students studying in the United States may make things worse.    

A decade ago, when I was a patriotic Chinese, I would think the United States was at fault for being so culturally domineering. But after four years of the Lahu I’ve had some second thoughts. 

I respected the Lahu for protecting their cultural identity, but I also found them impossible: whenever I visited the Lahu offered angry stares, their dogs were allowed to bark at me, and the kids hid behind sheds. The Lahu community was coherent, but a result more of fear and inertia than of love and loyalty: people just gossiped, neighbours fought, and villages never lacked lazy drunks. I could see why any ambitious Lahu would try to get away.

At the end of the day, it’s the high-achieving, outward-looking Lahu who are the community’s best chance of a better life for all. But if the community helped these ambitious Lahu leave in the hope that they return, there’s a good risk of abandonment. The Lahu are trapped in ‘the prisoner’s dilemma’: Trust is necessary for the Lahu community to advance, yet any risk of betrayal is unacceptable (no matter how great the rewards of trust). And, in the United States, Chinese students are often so imprisoned by their fears and insecurities that they choose to attack people like Zhao rather than try to see any truth in her words.

The Lahu’s Chinese neighbours tell me that the Lahu are a dying culture because they’re an insular, xenophobic community where people try to keep each other down rather than help each other up. But, if I were to show them Zhou’s article, could they say that the Chinese are that much different?