China: How to discuss politics without causing offence (or worse)

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I lived in China from September 2004 to June 2005. At the time the invasion of Iraq was turning into the catastrophe we had all predicted, and I often took affront when people would even suggest that the whole debacle was something to do with me. After all, I’d been living outside ‘my country’ for more than ten years at that point, so didn’t feel that what its government did was my responsibility.

For some of that time I lived in Dublin, making semi-regular trips back to the UK. On one of those visits I took my then girlfriend to meet my family. My dad was particularly fascinated to learn that her father was 70, ie a little older than one might expect of someone with a twenty-something daughter. Throughout an extremely uncomfortable and exasperating evening he asked her again and again how old her father was, way beyond the point at which she was visibly upset. I asked him bluntly to drop the subject but there was something about it that compelled him to go on causing us all profound embarrassment.

The Chinese Communist Party has been in power for 70 years. It has often been said to have a paternalistic attitude towards its subjects, which involves much more than making sure there’s food on the table. It also takes a strong interest in the educational and moral well-being of the Chinese people. Over the last year or so there have been reports about the way the State treats potentially disobedient offspring: by grounding them, in a massive network of camps throughout the west of the country. This BBC report is one of many documenting the system of incarceration that may be holding up to a million Muslim Chinese people. It almost defies description, with many similar characteristics to the Russian gulags. People are locked up for indefinite periods of time just for being Muslims. Owning the Koran, praying or going to mosque can get you and your family locked up. The only way out is to convince the educators that you love the Chinese State, at which point you are set free and rewarded with a plaque outside your house identifying you as a loyal citizen.

When I lived in China I worked in a university. Although there was already a considerable age gap, I did make some friends among my students but never got to talk about the things that I wanted to find out, specifically how they viewed the State, the party, etc, what they knew about Tiananmen Square, etc. My assumptions were skewed, and I had an extremely simplistic and superficial view of the profoundly complex society that surrounded me. People may acquiesce or resist in all sorts of ways that are certainly not apparent or communicable to an outsider who can barely order a meal. There were certain taboos it would have been impossibly awkward to break, and it would be deeply unfair to insist that an 18-year-old from a peasant background share their private feelings about a changing public reality they themselves were presumably struggling to get used to with an authority figure in a foreign language. Had I stayed longer and developed deeper relationships with people I might have learned more. Or I may have just adjusted to a very different reality, found an acceptable routine that allowed me to feel at ease. As it was, my official status, that of a ‘foreign friend’ (wai pengyou), made me feel compromised. (I wrote about some of these dilemmas here.) I came to feel like I was legitimising the State with my presence. One of my English-teaching colleagues was pulled up before the university authorities for having (I think, innocently) called Taiwan an ‘independent country’ in class. He was admonished, nothing more.

Now, fifteen or so years later, I’m at a university in the UK taking a master’s course. Around a third of my fellow students are from China, essentially the same cohort that I’ve been teaching for the last few years on pre-sessional courses. Like all my students when I’ve got to know them, they’re smart, resourceful and highly-motivated. They’re not the only Chinese speakers on the course, as there are also some Taiwanese, and everyone gets on remarkably well. Although I’ve not exactly hidden my dissident attitude towards my own government as we lurch towards our own Cultural Revolution/Great Leap Forward, I haven’t yet spoken to them about Chinese politics.

Partly that’s because of not wanting to cause mutual embarrassment. I don’t want to be like my dad, badgering them about something that is not their concern. I’m also aware that my stance when I was in China, of disavowing my national background as a means of avoiding awkward questions and feelings, was to some extent an act of moral cowardice. However, when it comes to one of the main issues discussed in relation to China in the outside world nowadays, ie the treatment of its Muslim population, there’s a much more serious risk, and I don’t feel that I have the right to take that risk on my colleagues’ behalf by raising the topic.

The BBC article linked to above details what has happened to Chinese students studying abroad: in cases where family members have been detained, they have been recalled to China and locked up too; Uighur students have disappeared upon returning home for ‘political screening’. (Amnesty International reports on one of those cases here.) For all that international students may come into contact with radical concepts and paradigms on their academic courses, political disloyalty is not highly prized back home. Anyone wondering about how information about potential dissidents can travel from a classroom or canteen in a UK university to state security authorities back home should read up on the role of the Chinese Student and Scholars Association (CSSA) on campuses around the world.

I don’t get the impression that my Chinese colleagues engage much with the Western media, partly as the challenges their courses present take up so much of their time in any case. I don’t know how much news or rumours of what’s going on have spread around the world of Chinese social networks. Even if I spoke the language I’d probably be unable to find out, as in order to stay beneath the surveillance radar users of Weibo and Wechat potentially dodgy topics are usually discussed in a fast-evolving code. I’m also acutely aware that at this particular moment someone in the UK insisting on talking about political injustice elsewhere may be looked at askance.

This is a moral maze and I have no idea which way to turn, so will for the moment choose to stay still and wait for help. One obvious solution is to get on with my course, work together with my Chinese colleagues, and see if any opportunities to breach awkward topics eventually presents itself. It’s certainly better to try to discuss this with fellow students, rather than my own charges, where a different power dynamic applies. There’s almost certainly a Chinese proverb that encapsulates this dilemma. Maybe I should try to ask someone, without, hopefully, causing too much embarrassment, or worse.

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