Philip Hensher: Human rights, in the Chinese sense

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It was an undeniably bad week for the Chinese government.

It was riled into one of its periodic, highly touchy statements of self-righteousness when the Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to Liu Xiaobo. Mr Liu is a Chinese citizen, and former head in his country of that well-known dangerous organisation, PEN. In 2009, he was tried for “inciting subversion of state power” – thought crime, in other words. He is in prison for 11 years.

All hell broke loose on the announcement of the award. The Norwegian ambassador in Beijing was summoned by the Chinese government for a dressing down, and a stern warning that this would damage Norwegian-Chinese relations. Norway, for instance, has sold 10 million salmon to China in the last 22 years, a fact deemed worthy of a party to that festive nation. Anyway, the Norwegian ambassador limited himself to pointing out that the Nobel committee is not under the thumb of the national government, but has its own opinions – something unfamiliar to the Chinese government, I dare say.

Things look likely to get worse. Tomorrow, Tate Modern unveils its new Turbine Hall installation, one of the biggest honours in the art world. By chance, it has also chosen a Chinese dissident, Ai Weiwei. Mr Ai comes from a distinguished line of troublemakers – his father, Ai Qing, was imprisoned first by the nationalists, as a Communist, and then by the Communists, as a dissident. He plays a dangerous game with the government – he helped to design the celebrated “birds’ nest” stadium, with Herzog and de Meuron, for the Beijing Olympics, and was then very noisily critical about the festival.

An installation in the West consisted of the names of as many child victims of the 2008 Szechuan earthquake as he could discover – some 5,000, learnt by going from door to door. The Chinese authorities regard the numbers of death as a “national secret”, and Ai has been beaten up and kicked in the head by Chinese police as a consequence of his inquiries.

The Chinese authorities can be no more keen on the prospect of Ai’s installation than they are on Liu’s Peace Prize. I have a suggestion for them. They don’t seem to like the opinions of the rest of the world one bit. They often like to spare time from their busy days to lecture us on what we ought to have done, and whom we ought to reward. Instead of listening to Scandinavian opinions on human rights, why don’t they set up their own Chinese Government Human Rights Prize? They could award it, year after year, to any old executioner or apparatchik they liked. They can perfectly well celebrate their own choice of artists, too.

It is true that when Shanghai offered Ai Weiwei an exhibition, he entitled it “Fuck Off” and the authorities had to close it down. I expect they can find some more obedient fellow, however.

Children’s minds need nourishment, not junk food

Not everybody agrees with Michael Gove when he says that: “The great tradition of our literature – Dryden, Pope, Swift, Byron, Keats, Shelley, Austen, Dickens and Hardy – should be at the heart of school life.” Some people have thought it obviously ridiculous that any schoolchild should have Dryden, in particular, foisted on them.

I don’t know. You absolutely never know what will interest children. When I studied English at school, the syllabus was predicated on notions of “relevance” – the then hot-off-the-press poetry of Ted Hughes and Seamus Heaney, and socially concerned fiction by John Steinbeck. I read Dickens eagerly, guiltily, in vast gulps, out of class, with not much sense of how odd this was. The A-level syllabus was perfectly good, but nothing really spoke to me until I got to university – as it happens, to the same college at the same time as Mr Gove – and somebody put Pope and Swift and Spenser in my hand.

The point is, you can’t persuade anyone of the magic and power of literature by giving them Letter to Daniel, by the BBC journalist Fergal Keane, as one exam board notoriously did. When children are old enough to eat at a table, you don’t develop their tastes by giving them nothing but Jelly Babies to eat. You give them a range of grown-up food over time. Why should the teaching of literature be any different? For the past 30 years, exam boards have been handing out Jelly Babies, and giving a pat on the head in return. I wish Michael Gove well with his programme to reintroduce Pope and Swift to the syllabus. Whether he can find anyone to teach them is another matter.

I was faced with homophobia – and turned away

It was last Thursday, taking a small train from Exeter to the small town where I live part of the time. Two teenage girls sat down opposite me. Both of them had attained the results you get if you ask a Devon hairdresser to try to make you look like Cheryl Cole. From their conversation, I wouldn’t say that they had troubled the educational system for very long. They had clearly spent the afternoon going up and down the high street, and now, from the ziggurat of tat on the floor, they started extracting their purchases for comparison.

The first one got out a pair of shoes. “Look at that,” the other one said. “That’s just so gay.” I looked up, startled. But then the second one got out a belt – I admit, not very lovely – and it was the first one’s turn. “That really is gay,” she said disparagingly.

Should you say something? Say: “Look, even a thick yokel like you should know that it’s not acceptable to use ‘gay’ as a derogatory term?” If you heard someone using overtly racist language, you would ask them to stop it, or challenge it, wouldn’t you? A well-meaning YouTube campaign enlists celebrities like Hilary Duff in challenging the use of “it’s so gay” as a derogatory expression. If we can judge by how far the expression has spread, the campaign has failed.

You can guess what I did: got off at my stop without saying anything. The train carried the two girls on to Exmouth, turning their cheap purchases over and over; denigrating each other’s Primark treasures with the sullen language of hatred.

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