Charter Member of the Sub-Media

September 01, 2004

Some of you may have noticed I tend to be somewhat of an apologist for China.

I hope I can help you understand why. I hope I am accurate in my self-assessment.

Simply put, I love China and I love the people of China. I love the society, I love the atmosphere.

In 1998, I spent 6 weeks in Beijing studying language. It was perhaps the best time of my entire life. We spent 30 hours each week in scheduled language activities, but I'm still amazed by how slowly time moved while I was there. I could travel around and talk to a thousand people and see a million things and still have the entire evening to go out and do it again. If I didn't have family and responsibility and ambition and if I had an independent source of living income, I'd move there in a heartbeat to live out the rest of my days. The people are open and friendly, the food is awesome, and the water unsafe to drink.

Don't get me wrong, there are some significant annoyances there. Beijing is dusty, windy, polluted, too hot in the summer, too cold in the winter, and sanitation is primitive: people throw their rubbish on specified street corners on Monday mornings for workers to pick up with shovels...

And yet, I don't think I've ever been more at peace then while there. Perhaps that indelible impression affects my viewpoint.

On the other hand, one must not forget that the reports regarding freedom in China are often filtered through people with axes to grind. China was founded as a Communist nation (they are not Communist anymore, really, although they are still totalitarian without an established Rule of Law) and so they are automatically hated by certain people for that reason. The Communists also displaced the very corrupt and very wealthy (and equally "evil") totalitarian power structure known as the Nationalist Party, or KMT. The people who were on that gravy train, or children of those who lost power and influence when the KMT were forced out of China still harbor those resentments and that colors everything they say and do about China. And let us not forget that China had its own McCarthyism, except rather than just not being able to continue in the entertainment industry, many people were unjustly imprisoned and tortured, and they still wish to punish China for those experiences...even though it is no longer the same China.

And so you hear reports of political dissidents or Christians being thrown in jail and tortured on a whim...

...but the reality doesn't match that. You can be a Christian in China. You can criticize the government in China. Nothing will happen to you. I saw protesters, I attended church where there were a thousand people in attendence with only a smattering of occidental faces. From my perspective, reports of harsh crackdowns are exaggerated, if not fabricated outright.

Where do these reports come from, then? After being worked to the point of literally breaking his back in a Chinese prison, Harry Wu has made a career out of exposing China's cruelty in the prison system. Unfortunately, the things he reports have no outside corroboration; he has revenge as a possible motive, and the wealth and comfort he has acquired as an activist may provide additional incentive for him to produce allegations.

Have Christians been thrown in jail? Aren't "underground" churches illegal? Yes. But in China many of the underground churches are fronts for people plotting the overthrow of the government. They often have the exact characteristics of what we consider "cults" in the United States, in which people are preaching without ever having even read the Bible. Stop a moment and think of what happened at the Branch Davidian compound in Waco and how it could be portrayed by a foreign press who might be willing to distort a few details to score political points.

Well, then, what about the Tian'anmen Square massacre? Well, what about Ruby Ridge? What about Kent State? What about Selma? What about WTO protests in the US? First, it was a tragedy, but all four examples from the US should demonstrate that using military or para-military forces not trained in riot control as an attempt to intimidate an unruly crowd is a recipe for disaster. Second, China has addressed that problem by training and equipping riot-control troops, and there has not been a repeat of that incident. Third, since the United States has these same blots on our record but still thinks we have the moral standing to criticize other nations, at what point does the statute of limitations run out? There were only 19 years from Kent State to Tian'anmen, when we felt safe enough to criticize an event that differed only in scope...but I'll bet you'll hear plenty about Tian'anmen at the 19-year-mark when Beijing hosts the 2008 Olympics.

We incarcerate people at a greater rate than China, as well.

And when you consider things like speed traps, IRS audits, and Democrat smear campaigns if you dare criticize their candidate for President, Chinese people live in far less fear of their government than US citizens do. I don't dispute that China is more harsh on their criminals than we are...but I think that differing opinions on deterrence/rehabilitation is not really a human rights issue. Especially considering that they have a far greater potential problem in the intersection of population density and poverty. What would the United States do if we faced an inner-city the size of California with 300 million people? That's the situation China is trying to address with its judicial system...and as a result, in a city with 14-16 million people, there was no place I felt unsafe walking alone at any hour of the night. Contrast that with San Antonio, a US city of approximately 1 million where there are some portions I don't feel comfortable driving through during the daytime. Is basic safety a human rights issue? If so, the US fails miserably in that regard. Why do we allow so many of our citizens to terrorize each other?

I have had long conversations regarding this with friends and family in China. Many of them assume that the United States is as chaotic and violent and drug-ridden as was depicted in the movie "Training Day". And while there are elements and places in the US that might actually be like that, most of us never see that kind of circumstance outside of the movie theater. From my conversations, it is clear that the characterization of China as lacking freedom is as inaccurate as characterizing the United States as an anarchistic gangland.

Anyway, maybe this helps you understand a little more where I'm coming from, and why I tend to respond to negative reports regarding China with a little skepticism.

Posted by Nathan at 11:23 AM | Comments (8)
» The White Peril links with: The Ron-Yasu relationship, then and now
» Dean's World links with: Thoughts On China

While I don't exactly buy your picture of utopian China, it does sound as if things have improved a great deal. When they get a constitution constitution and an equitable legal system in place I'll be interested to hear more.

I can testify, though, to the religious freedom, while not total,there is much better than the West would ever believe. My church supports a missionary family in the Philipines and they spend more time planting churches in China than in the Philipines. The Chinese govt insists on two things - Chinese pastors for the new Christian congregations and no new Catholic missionaries or churches.

We're told that Christianity is exploding in China just as it is in South America. The Lord appears to have relinqished Western Europe and North America to the powers of darkness, eh? and now looks to bring parts of the third world to His Bosom in the coming century.

Posted by: jane m at September 7, 2004 09:10 PM

Nah, it's not Utopian. But it doesn't have to be Utopia to fall in love with a place and a people. And once you love them, you are willing to overlook or at least accept some of the obvious faults.

I'm mostly just a little distressed that no amount of progress is ever good enough for some people. They will always condemn all of China now for something done by leaders 50 years in the past. There is a saying in Chinese: "The one who runs away 50 paces is mocking the one who ran away 100 paces as a coward!" Not exactly "Pot calling the kettle black," exactly, but certainly a concept worth considering.

But in any case, thanks for the assist in pointing out that at least some of the press on China is not exactly accurate.

Posted by: Nathan at September 7, 2004 09:25 PM

Your impressions of daily life in China are most likely more accurate than mine (I've never been there), but you are writing as an appreciative Westerner. My interactions with the Chinese have always been that of a person from Taiwan. They tend to emphasize China's economic gains, boast about China's rising prestige, throw in something like "The Americans don't really care about Taiwan", and then state point-blank that Taiwan _has_ to be part of China. Why? Because Taiwan has _always_ been part of China. You can't argue with them, you can't bring up Taiwan's aboriginal, immigrant, and Japanese roots, you can't bring up the difference democratization has made. What the Chinese say when they think I am an American and when they find out I'm Taiwanese is different enough that I see, at best, hypocrites and, at worst, bullies.

Posted by: Michelle Y. at September 7, 2004 09:44 PM

I guess I start to feel a little uncomfortable when someone says, "this entire nation is like ______." I wonder who you talked to, y'know? The Chinese church I attended in Hawaii managed to be about 1/3 from Taiwan, 1/3 from the Mainland, and 1/3 from Hong Kong without bullying or hypocrisy being a big problem.

Perhaps part of the problem is the definition of "Taiwanese". The Guomindang members who fled to Taiwan and oppressed the aborigines, not letting them have any vote until 1996 don't seem to be any better than the Communists, in my book.
Then there's the issue of all the treasures those people took with them when they fled. If Taiwan is part of China, why shouldn't those treasures be returned to their proper location? If Taiwan isn't part of China, why are they illegally holding on to China's historical treasures? The typical Taiwanese citizen's answer to a question like that usually reveals hypocrisy and bullying, as well.
It angers me when Chen Shuibian stirs up the Independence issue just to get a rise from Mainland China in order to booost his popularity. It really bothers me that the lack of contact between the Mainland and Taiwan is due to Taiwan restricting the contact. If Taiwan is so free and the Mainland so oppressive, why doesn't Taiwan allow people to fly dirctly to Fuzhou?
As to Taiwan being a part of Mainland China, well, yeah, Taiwan has a history of being separate and largely ignored by the mainland government. Furthermore, how can the PRC claim something is their territory if they cannot collect taxes or write binding laws for the territory? I think one of the dumbest things the US has ever done was to sign the agreement recognizing "One China", especially since we have broken that agreement in spirit over and over and over.
I recognize that the younger generation of Taiwan considers themselves Taiwanese first, and Chinese only ethnically, not as a citizenship issue, and I absolutely agree that the PRC should not reunify by force. the way, I've met Zhang Xueliang. He's held my son in his lap. And one of my favorite teachers was the eldest daughter of Admiral Zhang who organized the KMT flight to Taiwan. I have many friends on both sides, most of them have no problems getting along with each other. I think I favor the Mainland people a little more because I've stayed there so much and because I actually have family there. But I do see both sides to the issue.

Posted by: Nathan at September 7, 2004 11:21 PM

I guess my frustration stems from meeting people who are otherwise thoughtful, friendly, and (in the case of the postdoc I'm working with) hyperintelligent, who nonetheless parrot China's official line regarding Taiwan. Outside the lab, my extended interactions with the Chinese are limited to politically apathetic classmates and, memorably, a buffet with Chinese embassy officials.

On a side note: I can't match meeting Zhang Xueliang in a personal setting. The closest would be getting to see Wang Dan twice. Then again, Wang Dan has himself said that Taiwanese expats are always more interested in him than his fellow Chinese.

Posted by: Michelle Y. at September 9, 2004 10:35 PM

My name-dropping of Zhang Xueliang isn't any attempt to trump your opinion...I just thought it was pretty cool and figured there'd be a fair chance you'd recognize the name.

In some ways, I think this is a persepectual thing: chance and the very human tendency to generalize on the basis of few clues leave indelible perceptions that tend to be reinforced by what we believe to be true. And that probably applies more to me than to you.

I don't know. I wish I could introduce you to the Mainlanders I know. On the other hand, outside of church and teachers, I haven't really liked any of the Taiwanese people I've met....but my favorite teachers were all from Taiwan. What does that say about me?

...and I've only met one person from Taiwan who wasn't highly educated. That girl was so ignorant, even though she was now an American citizen, and a teacher we both knew was an American citizen, she hated him simply because he was from the Mainland. What kind of sense does that make?

I do love Taiwanese singers, tho. Like Liu Ruoying, Zhang Yu, Wu Bai, Qi Yu, Qi Qin, Liang Yongqi, Wan Fang. From mainland about all I like are Na Ying and Chen Ming.

Maybe I'm putting to much of an emphasis on the differences between Mainland and Taiwan? [Shrug] It's quite possible.

Posted by: Nathan at September 9, 2004 11:32 PM

Is there any Mandirin Speaking worship near Kent State University?


Posted by: Jing at November 30, 2004 08:10 AM

I don't know. I've never lived in that part of the country.
I'll see what I can find out for you.

Posted by: Nathan at November 30, 2004 08:37 AM
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