The Chinese authorities keep a very close eye on the internet. Their objective is to prevent Chinese people coming into contact with information that shows their Government in a negative light. Just recently they have been trying to delete all references to the sometimes violent anti-Japanese protests. In this context, then, just why is it that an estimated 150,000 foreign teachers, most of whom are in their twenties or thirties and share a relatively informed view of the world, are allowed, mostly unsupervised, into classrooms to tell the new generation about how free and prosperous the outside world is?
In fact, I don't think we're here to present a positive image of the West. Actually I think we're here to present a positive image of China.
Let me explain. The best selling book at the moment in China is a biography of Jiang Zemin, the former leader. Why is it so popular? According to the Washington Post:
The biography, "The Man Who Changed China: The Life and Legacy of Jiang Zemin," by Robert Lawrence Kuhn, argues that the party has brought unprecedented stability, prosperity, global prestige and personal freedom to the Chinese people in the years since Mao Zedong died in 1976.
Who is Robert Lawrence Kuhn? Well, apparently he's a managing director at Smith Barney Citigroup and an unpaid economic adviser to Chinese officials, ie a businessman. The Times also says that he speaks little Chinese and is not a China specialist.
And what about his book?
The book presents some new material about Jiang's life, but most reviews of the English edition have panned it as a fawning work that exaggerates Jiang's impact and seeks to defend him against almost any criticism.
The Chinese edition is even less revealing, with references to the internal political battles that Jiang fought to stay in power and other sensitive material deleted by censors. Kuhn said he was disappointed that portions of his book had been cut and said the work represented his own best effort to write a "personal story as told by Jiang's family, friends and colleagues" that conveys Jiang's "way of thinking" in the context of Chinese history and culture.
Now this is the interesting bit of the article, and I think it says a lot about why we were invited here:
Public reaction in China has been mixed. Some readers have praised the book for breaking a taboo against discussing the personal lives of high officials and for presenting details of Jiang's life that were new to them. Others refused to buy it, dismissing it as propaganda.
"Kuhn is like a fan worshiping a celebrity. There's no distance, no objectivity," a Chinese editor who has read (the) book said on condition of anonymity. "It's strange to us that a Westerner would write something like this."
The editor said the fact that Kuhn is a foreigner is a selling point because many readers believe that any book written about the country's leaders by a Chinese author must be propaganda -- unless it has been banned.
In fact, a prominent Shanghai writer, Ye Yonglie, has alleged that the biography was sanctioned by the party and that officials quashed an early plan for Kuhn and Ye to write it together, perhaps because they wanted a foreigner's name alone on the cover.
Now Chinese people, left to their own devices, might start to become suspicious of what the Government and the press in China tells them about China's up and coming position in the world, given the corruption and mass unemployment they see around them. The Government here desperately wants people to believe that China is just another capitalist country, albeit one with massive growth. And who better to convey this message than foreigners?
Think about it. We are foreigners who live here, apparently comfortably. We are surrounded by McDonalds, KFC, shopping malls, English language media and all the trappings of Western life - remember, of course, that the overwhelming majority of our students have never actually been outside China, and don't know what these things mean in a Western context.
When we talk to our students we talk most of the time about things we have in common - sports, DVDs, families, traffic jams. And contrary to what our students may have heard in the past about what foreigners think of China, we don't seem to have any particular problems with life in China. We never mention Tibet, Taiwan or Tiananmen Square. We never talk about democracy or Human Rights and we never question the rule of the Communist Party. Instead, we talk about the massive changes that have taken place in China - the "unprecedented stability, prosperity, global prestige and personal freedom" - implicity endorsing a crucial point of Communist party ideology, that it is only a matter of time until China achieves parity with the West and can be regarded as just another capitalist country.
The conclusion I draw from all this is that our presence here has very little to do with presenting the outside world to the Chinese - and, as we all know, very little to do with teaching English. It does have a lot to do with normalising China as just another capitalist country with which the West has no major issues.