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'Understanding' China - The Three Ts

About 'Understanding' China

Previous Entry 'Understanding' China Jun. 30th, 2005 @ 07:25 pm Next Entry



Is 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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From:(Anonymous)
Date:July 1st, 2005 07:35 am (UTC)

"I Want to believe!"

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Great post.

Other Lisa
From:(Anonymous)
Date:July 1st, 2005 03:39 pm (UTC)
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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.

I guess this is not the reason. Instead, young people in China don't care much about politics or something on a news paper from somewhere as far as Brittain.
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From:rwillmsen
Date:July 1st, 2005 06:37 pm (UTC)
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I know what you mean, but I was referring more to their reluctance to visit any foreign based website - the basketball fans all visit www.nba.com.CN, and would not consider visting an American site. Very few of them will admit to visiting the BBC or ABC news, for example. There seems to be a Chinese internet, some of which is in English (the China Daily forums are hugely popular, especially for 'discussing' (hem hem) political issues) but which contains no links to anywhere outside China.
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From:(Anonymous)
Date:February 13th, 2006 10:05 am (UTC)

Chinese University students

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My name is David Taylor. I am new to this site. But I have looked at many of the comments about Chinese students and China in General. I have a few problems with many of the comments. I am coming in to my fifth year teaching in China, I have taught from Changchun and Ningbo to Hainan island. I often discuss political issues with my students, I often compare the CCP to American and Brit democracy. I have talked with them about Taiwan, Tienamen Square and encouraged them to check out western web sites for news. We have some wild discussions on many of these issues. I have talked with them about Chairman Mao,Zhang zhe Min, and all the rest. So please don't tell me that Chinese students are reluctant to talk about these issues. I teach Freshman and sophomore. Last year I was awarded the Zheijiang Camila award for contributions to education by a foreigner.
I agree with one blog that we do get some real wierd foreigners coming here, many who come because they can no longer get jobs in the west for one reason or another. Religious nutters, we have lots. If I were the government I would boot their asses right out of China.
From:(Anonymous)
Date:July 10th, 2005 06:32 am (UTC)

Martyn

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Ha! Richard W receives his first trollage! At elast I think it's the first.

The sad thing is however that that guy above is more mainland Chinese than troll and no amount of pathetic jibes and a victim mentality chip on the shoulder will change that sad, sad fact.

I can read Chinese ok but I rarely if ever read Chinese websites/newspapers because I find them just plain wierd. That's unfair of course but what I mean is, I have read the websties/newspapers/magazines of everywhere I've worked, HK, Taiwan, Caribbean, Bangladesh, Thailand, US, etc. etc. and I've never had a problem. China is the only place that I know of where the media is very inward-looking, works within tight parameters and in most cases has a political/heavily cultural agenda.

The way the Cinese newsreaders don't say "China" but "My country" sounds ridiculous to westerners but that's what they do.

The way reports of the Madrid bombings tended to have the headline "No Chinese killed in Madrid" is offensive to most westerners but that's what they printed. I could keep coming up with similar points but I'm sure you get my meaning.

One of the reasons I think Chinese mainlanders shy away from western sites, despite the obvious language barrier, is probably much the same as why I don't read Chinese sites, they're simply too different to what They and I are used to.

Another reason might be that the Chinese world view is so shockingly different to the way that vast majority of the world looks generally at the world and its history, that it throws up all kinds of reading problems which we all take for granted.

As a cursory glance at the China Daily Forums, conversations with some mainlanders in China and even the smug remarks above, demonstrate another fact that there is too much hatred and xenophobia in China. A lot of China's problems are blamed squarely on the foreigners, god forbid that the CCP would accept any blame. Foreigners are accused of humiliating China and now trying to keep it down. It's really not that surprising that mainlanders shy away from anything foreign.

Also, as mentioned in Richard W's piece, being confronted with new information that hasn't been spoon fed to them by a paranoid CCP, raises quite a challenge because no one is comfortable with having their most basic beliefs and their long-held views challenged.
From:(Anonymous)
Date:July 10th, 2005 08:24 am (UTC)

from Other Lisa - trollage

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Hey, I think I had that same commenter - the "Christian Bigot" and the Middle East one - on my site. And it was the weirdest thing - I was posting about the changing economy in Dongguan - nothing negative about China at all - and I got this weird-ass comment. And right below that post I'd put up a post in support of the online campaign to close down Guantanamo and end detainee abuse!

Plus I'm not a Christian! I am not religious at all...
From:(Anonymous)
Date:July 10th, 2005 11:41 am (UTC)

Re: Martyn

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"Sad jibes"?

"Victim mentality"?!?

Just who does he think he is? When someone takes it upon themselves to publicly laugh at the suffering and murder of innocent people I don't think there is ANYTHING wrong with calling them to account.

I think this is nothing short of outrageous and shocking behaviour and I don't hesitate in condemning it.

I don't know exactly where the above postee is coming from... Perhaps if they were laughing at the death of his countrymen it might be different?
From:(Anonymous)
Date:July 10th, 2005 09:30 pm (UTC)

Re: Martyn

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Sigh, wrong again. I deeply understand US Christians are very uncomfortable with having their most basic beliefs and their long-held views challenged.

But that is how the Americans behave. The Chinese philosophy is all about Change. The reason why the Chinese moral is superior is because it is a constantly evolving process. Unlike the Christian Bible where any change is a taboo and attack on their deity.

To your surprise, the Chinese do not value their most basic beliefs and their long-held views at all. The Chinese are seeking to ask challenging questions to find out the best answer. These questions usually make most Christian white Americans mad immediately.

For example, why Christian churches are segregated?
From:(Anonymous)
Date:July 10th, 2005 12:02 pm (UTC)

Martyn

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"Re: Martyn" Did you just comment anonomously or am I missing some name somewher? I'm not au fait with live journal.

Anyway, you're stating the obvious mate. If you live here in China then you should know better than to be surprised by that "Ha ha ha HAHA" bloke above. If you can read Chinese then go to sina.com or 163.com and you'll see far worse than that. It's pretty typical of some mainlanders, quite a few even.

For English translations of some Chinese chat-room comments try "Kevin In Pudong" blog and I provided some translations at Peking Duck on the Open Thread with 167 comments.

I'm not sure what your point is, is it that I wasn't hard enough on him? I wouldn't waste my breath, my comment was directed to my mates Richard and Lisa.
From:(Anonymous)
Date:July 10th, 2005 12:19 pm (UTC)

Re: Martyn

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Yeah sorry... My names James and I've been working in China for just over a year now.

I can only say that what might seem obvious to some people obviously isn't to others. I simply cannot ignore comments like that. To leave them unchallenged riles me so I thought I had to step in...

I trust these viewpoints are a tiny minority across the country? I haven't been here long enough to really feel mainlanders opinions of us expats and where we come from...
From:(Anonymous)
Date:July 10th, 2005 01:41 pm (UTC)

Martyn

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Mind you, Richard (we can dispense with the "W" on your own site I think!) it's definitely a step in the right direction, having your own trolls I mean. Personally, I'm quite surprised how you could live with the embarassment in your pre-troll days. Now, however you can look other longer-established bloggers in the eye. Congrats and all that.

Hello James, I think there's a "James" that's recently popped up on Peking Duck as well. That you mate?

No, I agree, the comments are terrible but after you've heard it for the umpteenth time, just you roll your eyes and ignore it.

From my experience of China and that, while of course, I'd only expect a tiny minority to actually be so nasty as to write or say something like Richard's new troll above, if you push your average mainlander (in my personal opinion) into a conversation about the London bombings, they'll inevitably raise some of the issues like those I've been reading on the Chinese message boards such as, Bush/Blair are the bigger terrorists, London had it coming, what do you expect after the Iraq War etc. etc.

Mind you, I don't think the difference between what Richards troll said and these comments are particularly huge.

If you do visit Kevin in Pudong's site, it'll really put those troll comments above into perpective I think.

Anyway, hope to see you around James.
From:(Anonymous)
Date:July 10th, 2005 02:33 pm (UTC)

From Jamesz Re: Martyn

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Cheers mate...

No it wasn't me on the other website, though I'll be sure to check it out... Not that I'll enjoy anything I find there, by the sounds of it!

I'm not entirely sure where all of you people are?! I'm looking at working in Dalian next year, so any infomation you guys could give would be much appreciated... What is it like for a foreigner working there?

I guess there are very few Westerners there, right? I won't think of that as a major problem, though after working in HK it would be a shock to the system!
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From:rwillmsen
Date:July 11th, 2005 04:15 pm (UTC)

Re: From Jamesz Re: Martyn

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Well thanks for all the support guys, all this trolling makes me glad that I kept my mouth closed pretty much all the time in China. I just wish I had the time to read this guys comments in details and have myself a right old laugh.

James, I wouldn't recommend Dalian as a teaching destination for reasons that I've outlined here, it's a fairly characterless city in my opinion. There are some foreigners there but there aren't necessarily many you'd want to mix with - not wanting to sound elitist but I do think that some people have fairly superficial reasons for being there - that's if they're not hardcore Christians. But I went there this time last year wanting to find places where I would find young Chinese people I could hang out with, and I was disappointed. If I was to ever consider going back to China it would be anywhere other than the Northeast in fact; Beijing I quite enjoyed, but I would have to go for somewhere deep in the south. Not that it's anything like in my plans, though.
From:(Anonymous)
Date:July 10th, 2005 03:01 pm (UTC)

Martyn

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You're in luck I think. Our congenial host Richard just left Dalian.

I've never been there (I'm in Guangzhou now) so know zero about the place apart from the fact that it's a second tier city which says it all I suppose, haha. After HK, it'll seem like a 20th tier city!



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From:csn
Date:November 20th, 2005 10:59 am (UTC)
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I am happy that at least some of my students have the guts to ask me what I think of Taiwan or what the American people think of Taiwan.
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