‘Understanding’ China

c05Is there anyone alive today who still sees China as a grey, hostile country, closed off to the rest of the world, where everyone sports Chairman Mao hats and rides bicycles while chanting passages from the Little Red Book? Certainly anyone who has visited the country in the last 20 or so years is genuinely surprised by the size and number of the skyscrapers, the traffic jams and the brand-new shopping centres selling the same fashions as in the West.The Chinese are proud of their new country, and pleased that people come to visit and see the results of the changes for themselves. Foreigners visiting or living in China are encouraged to spread the word, to use the benefit of their broadmindedness and wisdom to impart the truth to others abroad who ‘don’t understand’ how much things have changed. And the authorities also see their own job as ‘educating’ foreigners about the new China. According to Sun Jiazheng, the head of the Ministry of Culture:

(We) have many foreign friends, including some ambassadors. They have special opinions about China because they are knowledgeable about our country and are very friendly to us. I often travel abroad, and I make self-criticisms when I come back … sometimes I find foreign countries know so little about China. As a minister in charge of cultural exchange, I feel that I have not done a good job in introducing modern China to the world. Our foreign guests here (on the CCTV discussion show Dianhua) are all experts on China’s issues or know a lot about our country, but most foreigners are not like them, and know little about China. Take our trip to Germany for example: When we asked a taxi driver about his impression of China, he said it was a country with a vast area. Then he added that he did not know much and the country seemed quite mysterious to him. Changing the Subject: How the Chinese Government Controls Television, Ann Condi

Apart from the example of the German taxi driver, what does not ‘understanding’ China mean? According to the Government, many people happily expose their own ignorance, not by talking about Mao hats or little red books, but those other tired items of former importance so beloved of foreigners – Tibet, the Cultural Revolution, Tiananmen Square, and Human Rights.

When the Government talks of the importance of educating the world about China, it’s not just pride in the new shopping centres full of consumer goods. What it is, is code: what they really want is for the debate about China’s past, present and future to be on China’s (meaning the Government’s) terms.

My students, as I had expected, were evidently taught to be very suspicious about any less-than-positive information regarding China. But what is interesting is that they weren’t taught to see it as ‘imperialist lies’, but rather as the result of a misunderstanding. Put in these terms, of course, it sounds generous, tolerant and forgiving; but what is actually happening is that the authorities are exploiting the goodwill and naivity of the young in order to encourage them to automatically reject anything that contradicts what the Party tells them. Both Chinese youth and foreigners resident in China are encouraged to talk about the occupation of Tibet as an issue too difficult to discuss. The Cultural Revolution is sold as a terrible period in the past with no bearing on the country’s present. Human Rights is a confusing issue because, as we all know, ‘all countries have problems’ (China now goes as far as to produce a regular report on Human Rights in the US, just to emphasise what a complex issue it really is). Democracy as practiced in the West is perhaps not appropriate for China…and so on.

It’s true that many of these issues have complicated aspects to them. But the Party line is that any conclusions reached about them which does not show the Party in a flattering light are based on a false or superficial understanding – so the Government tells China’s young people and ‘foreign friends’ that they have a special duty to tell others the ‘truth’ – ie. that these things are just too complicated to discuss.

It is of course flattering to be told that you have a ‘special understanding’ of an issue which your peers lack. Foreign politicians seem to fall for the CCP’s rhetoric just as foreign teachers do. One foreign ESL teacher gave the following formula for avoiding controversy in the classroom:

Tibet (“I’ve heard a lot of contradictory information about that place, let’s talk about something else.”)
Tiananmen (“I wasn’t there, let’s talk about something else.”)
Taiwan (“I am certain that the people of Taiwan and the Mainland can work out this issue in a peaceful way, let’s talk about something else.”)
Religion (“People have so many strange and wonderful superstitions, let’s talk about something else.”)
The ‘superiority’ of western democracy (“Every country has its problems, let’s talk about something else.”)

But it seems to me that if we agree to conclude, whether in class or in public, that these topics are not up for discussion for whatever reason, just as the Party insists they are beyond the understanding of ordinary Chinese, we end up conceding a huge amount of ground to the CCP.

Surely it is better for foreign teachers, instead of saying ‘it’s too complicated’ or ‘both sides have their arguments’, to respond with the basic truth: “One of the conditions of my being here is that I’m not allowed to talk about those subjects”.

Of course there are some subjects that the Government does permit, although not encourage, discussion over: the economy, the environment and corruption. I think this shows that they are, at least for the moment, confident of being able to control the debate over those issues, acknowledging them as problems and promoting the idea that they are doing everything they can about them. Sometimes this can lead to bizarre admissions: a university professor interviewed during the BBC’s China Week of documentaries claimed that the Government had simply never considered that economic inequality might result from the policy of economic liberalism.

On other issues – alternative political organisations, the legitimacy of the CCP’s rule, the status of Taiwan and Tibet – debate will remain completely proscribed and penalised, as they know that to even acknowledge them as issues would jeopardise their very existence.

Another irritating and troubling aspect of the Government’s propaganda regarding free information about China, is the argument that any criticism is due to jealousy of China’s economic success. This trite argument unfortunately seems to appeal to the young. It is, needless to say, a contemptuous way to deal with genuine concerns about social injustice and human rights, and about the sustainability of the economic model they have adopted.

The authorities have so far been extremely adept at dealing with the Internet Generation. Throughout all my time in the country, despite all the restrictions and without using proxy servers, I was able to find pretty much all the information about Tiananmen Square, Tibet, the recent riots etc etc etc that I was looking for. But when I told my students about the Guardian’s special week of articles on China, despite the fact that they had never heard of the Guardian before, and although the Guardian site is not in any way blocked in China, none of them was prepared to take a look. Of course they claimed that they would find the language too daunting, but I think that this was a pretty poor excuse for an excuse. I think that one reason is that they are genuinely apprehensive of the possible consequences of being seen to visit a non-Chinese website. But I think the main reason is that they feel they might encounter information which contradicts what the Party has told them about China; and if they do, they will have to take the time and effort to systematically disregard each and every word of it.

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