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Change Ain’t Good

High Chancellor Adam Sutler (played by John Hu...

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“And the truth is, there is something terribly wrong with this country, isn’t there? Cruelty and injustice, intolerance and oppression. And where once you had the freedom to object, to think and speak as you saw fit, you now have censors and systems of surveillance coercing your conformity and soliciting your submission.”

V, V for Vendetta

“What we need right now is a clear message to the people of this country. This message must be read in every newspaper, heard on every radio, seen on every televisionI want this country to realize that we stand on the edge of oblivion. I want everyone to remember why they need us!”

Chancellor Adam Sutler, V for Vendetta

As a fresh faced youngster in 2006, I wanted to save China.  I wanted to shine a light on the corruption, the censorship, the human rights abuses and I wanted to open the eyes of the Chinese people, and really let them see what China was, and let them understand what the western world thought of China.

Of course, it was an utterly pointless exercise.  I got my first Chinese girlfriend, a 19 year old economics student (ok, I’ll admit that I was 27 at the time), and I really thought that I’d be able to bring her around to the western way of thinking, hoping that this article that I wrote about movie censorship, or that column I wrote about plagiarism, or the things that showing her pictures of Tankman and the 1989 protests would make her see sense.  I even dragged her around the old Qianmen area that was scheduled for demolition to make her see what her government was doing to these irreplaceably historic buildings.  I got shooed off the makeshift living areas for the homeless behind the infamous “mini great wall” behind the Qianmen bus station for taking unwanted picture of the squalor.  For all my procrastinations, for all my heartfelt appeals, for all my solemn, headshaking, I didn’t make a dent.

Her father was a government lawyer, and was having none of it.  After a couple of months, I had gotten around to the idea that her life revolved around getting a manicure in Wang Fu Jing, going to KTV, and going dancing till three in the morning and coming home stinking of cigarettes and baijiu.  Occasionally seeing me, and quite possibly buying more shoes.  Things didn’t work out between us.

I like to live in a sea of information.  I’ve got Facebook open, Tweetdeck tuned to some of the top China commentators and bloggers, the TV on mute tuned to BBC News 24, and BBC World service playing via the Internet – I do all this whilst chatting on MSN, sending and receiving text messages and answering Skype calls and downloading podcasts to my iPod for later listening.  It all adds up to the fact that I know more about what’s going on in China than most Chinese people, and I barely speak the language.  All of my information about what’s going on in China comes from English news sources.  This is a source of friction between me and the Chinese people that I talk to, basically because the news isn’t always good news and Chinese people don’t believe that western news sources can be trusted.  This is a rather inconvenient situation for foreigners, because nearly all Chinese people don’t actually know that it’s illegal for Chinese journalists to work for foreign publications.  So how the hell else are we supposed to get the skinny on what’s happening in China?  What is interesting though, is that the things that I’m interesting and repost on Weibo or Kaixin, aren’t the same things that my Chinese friends are interested in.

Starved, in the first few months of my return to China from Japan, of Facebook, I signed up with Kaixin which slaked my thirst for constant new news.  Last week I disabled my account, mostly because what my Chinese friends on Kaixin were blogging about was pretty much diametrically opposite to what I was blogging and reposting about.  That and I was getting pretty pissed off with everything I was reposting as “newsworthy” was pretty much instantly deleted by the censors

And this is where we come to part one of my theory of why everyone in this part of the world defends their culture so much.  It’s a cliché, and it’s not going to be popular, but in a nutshell: everyone looks the same in this part of the world and the historical and cultural background is the only thing that can help people differentiate Korean from Chinese from Japanese.  Part two of my theory attempts to answer a question that was posted last weekend about why the Chinese government is so good at “playing the crowd” at home, but not particularly good doing it on an international scale.  Every citizen has a certain preference as to how they perceive their country.  The Chinese government has the advantage because for a long time, it’s told people how to perceive their country.

Let’s take a look at the Japanese for a moment.

The Japanese prefer to think of their country as small.  You’ll say you want travel somewhere, and they will almost faint away in shock at the very thought of the great distance you want to travel.  You’ll meet someone in Osaka, enthuse about the country to a certain extent, and hear about how small the country is.  Then you’ll mention that you want to travel somewhere like Himeji (a mere two hours away from Osaka Station on the limited stop service).  Hands will fly up in horror, girls will faint away in a swoon, sirens, klaxons and alarms will sound and Japanese special forces will abseil down from the ceiling and crash through the windows as the Japanese people you are talking to try to contemplate the great distances involved in the epic journey that you are planning and very likely may not survive.  Japan is small, but everything is Very Far Away. And Japanese like to think of it like that.  And it’s the same with China, Chinese people have certain preferences that they adhere to when they think of their country.

Chinese people prefer the idea that China has been ruled in a ceaseless, uninterrupted chain of dynasties and emperors.  The actual details of wars, in-fighting, assassination attempts, treachery and other insidious parts of Chinese history are not important.  What is important is that the rule of China as one country has been how it has been, and it is the way that things will be to come.  This is why slogans like “a thousand years of the CCP” and suchlike were so popular.  It made Chinese people feel secure that someone was actually going to be watching over them, that something would be there.  In China, there’s no corruption.  Corruption is just a means to the end of being comfortable about knowing the outcome – the accumulation of money is incidental.

Chinese people prefer to know what’s going to happen – my love life is littered with Chinese girlfriends who thought obsessively about the future – they wanted to know if I had a life plan, if they should have a life plan, if they should have a monthly or 6 monthly plans.  My most recent ex was given the advice that if she didn’t get a promotion in the next six months, she should quit the company.  That was last June, and as far as I know, she’s still at the same place.  One of my go-getter Chinese friends sits down and writes a yearly schedule for herself every January 1st.  Last year, one of my students wouldn’t even move to Xian because (amongst a myriad thousand reasons), she was afraid of what might happen.

Fear of failure is rampant in China, and it all comes from the Chinese education system.  Students are repeatedly told that they know nothing, that they are empty vessels and they need to be filled with instructions on how to carry out the simplest of tasks (one of my students in the English school I was working in last year asked me to do a class on how to tie a tie) without instruction, without clear leadership, without the feel that they are being told something that they didn’t already know, Chinese people are lost.  Into this steps the CCP, which rather than being run as a voice of the people, sees itself (and calls itself) the ruling party of the country and indeed, of Chinese society.  Chinese laws don’t so much protect individuals, but they protect social and economic stability, a legal situation, and a national mindset that goes in completely the opposite direction to the western ideals of protecting individuals first.

The Chinese Communist Party is very proud of the fact that they have “opened up China”, with their policy of reforms and, er, opening up.  In actual fact, no one actually did anything, rather, the Party stopped interfering with people’s lives, and let them get on with whatever they wanted to get on with.  The problem with opening up has been that the focus in China has shifted from the collective “China” to the individual “Chinese”, and the laws in China, as already pointed out do not take into account protection for the individual.  There are no independent courts, no due process, and very channels for legal protection for the average Joe Chun.  The people are left with one alternative: The authoritarian protection of the ruling CCP.

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  1. pug_ster
    March 3, 2011 at 4:59 pm

    As a fresh faced youngster in 2006, I wanted to save China.

    “White Man’s Burden” sentiment came to mind.

  2. chris
    March 3, 2011 at 6:58 pm

    I was the worst expat ever when I arrived in China. I really was, I hated the place. Now I’m speaking Chinese…

    There was a great blog entry (now long lost in the ethers of time and cyberspace) by the esteemed Imagethief that quite neatly sums up how I feel now and how I should’ve felt then. I’ll try to reconstruct from memory:

    “Let’s face it: I got addicted to the rush in here that is quite simply absent anywhere else. To be a foreigner in China is to live in a state of perpetual voyeurism, like being a guest in the household of a proud but slightly eccentric family. The last 8 and a half years have been quite an education, and it’s an older and (incrementally) wiser me who corresponds with you today. China years are like dog years. It’s not so much the frequency of events as the amplitude. China seems a nation always on the threshold of crisis, with about one reliable trip per year over that threshold.”

    In an unrelated matter, I found a rather large “map” of Chinese history that neatly illustrates the point that I made in the blog post about Chinese people preferring Chinese history to be seamless and uninterrupted. I’ve lifted and Photoshopped it together from Peter Hessler’s “Oracle Bones”. The original seems to be unavailable on the Internet and was produced by Nanjing University Press – http://bit.ly/dQX93G

  3. pug_ster
    March 3, 2011 at 7:54 pm

    Sorry, from what you said above I could not tell about your sentiment today.

    I don’t agree with you that Chinese education system rather the problem is that I think the problem is that the country is changing so much so that people don’t know what will become of them when they get older. Many of these students’ parents are not exactly a role model because many of them don’t work in white collar jobs. Many of their parents tell their kids don’t work in the same blue collar jobs as they are so many of them compete for the same white collar jobs when a typical blue collar job pays about the same. Heck in the US if you ask a typical College graduate today what will happen to them in 5 years from now they will give you blank stare also given the US as a country is on a decline recently.

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