© 2009 Steven Wong

This ain’t your father’s China…

My wish to update more frequently is a complete and utter failure. Sorry about that. It’s not an excuse, but I’ve been trying to concentrate on my Chinese homework. Really, I am actually going to class here (photographic evidence above). However, I hope to make it up in the quality of my posts, if not the quantity.

So one of the things that had most intrigued me and simultaneously most scared me about moving to Beijing was this idea, this concept I had of China’s central government playing Big Brother in the daily lives of its citizens and visitors. Indeed, I recently read an article somewhere on the interwebs about what it was like just 20 years ago, when foreign visitors were almost always accompanied by a state monitor, whether it was overt or not.

I’m sure the practice didn’t end then, but the change that took place between then and now must’ve been enormous because, from all that I’ve seen and experienced so far, there is little to suggest that the government is really poking its eye into everyone’s business. Rather, I think it’s really when you start making a name for yourself doing something they don’t like that they start to monitor you.

I’m not suggesting that everything is A-OK here. They’ve still got websites like Facebook and Twitter on lockdown (go ahead, if you’re in China, try clicking on one of those links), and I’ve heard that the government has literally cut off all internet ties to Xinjiang region, where there’s been some, er, activity since the summer. But it also hasn’t been the 1984-ish world that my parents had me expecting to see.

Nowhere was this more evident than the lecture on Chinese history I attended a while ago. Every week at the university where I’m studying Mandarin, there’s a lecture (delivered in English) on some aspect of Chinese culture – cuisine, philosophy, poetry, etc.

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Well, one of them was on Chinese history, and the lecturer was a professor from the university. Since Chinese history spans something like 5000 years, it was really going to be impossible to do anything in an hour, but the professor tried to give us what she considered to be highlights. Amongst them was the theme that the change between every dynasty was rather brutal, whether they be due to external forces attacking or internal pressures like peasant rebellions. In fact, much of China’s history involves quite ruthless or cruel rulers, with sporadic periods of enlightenment that would always eventually be crushed under the weight of greed and corruption.

So imagine my surprise, when a question about what today’s China could learn from its own history, posed during the Q+A session, was answered with two simple words: “Human rights.” I nearly fell out of my chair. Did I just hear that?

The professor explained what she meant: with so much of Chinese history characterized by the greed and brutality exercised by the ruling class and suffered by the peasants, the Chinese people should collectively learn about how to treat everyone with more dignity and compassion, in order to create a longer-lasting harmony between the government and its people.

Still, I was really quite shocked by what she said and what it implied. I actually looked around the room to see if anyone else was in the same state as me (sadly no, which I’m sure explains more about me than them). And I’m quite certain that though there were many foreign students there like me, there must’ve been some local Chinese students in attendance as well. The lecture was being videotaped too, for future viewings I’m sure.

And yet there were no Big Brother interventions. No stormtroopers to drag away the professor in mid-sentence. Maybe they’re a bit more discrete about it now, but I didn’t sense that the professor thought she was going on a limb to say what she did. Just the opposite actually – she ended with the admission that she wouldn’t have said something like that as recently as 10 years ago.

So now I’m left in a strange place. The informal street markets that seem to spring up everywhere, these street vendors and hawkers who are exercising capitalism in its most basic form, were illegal in the not-too-distant past. The scenes of masses of bicycle commuters have been replaced by masses of car commuters (and some of the most ridiculous driving you’ll ever bear witness to). The rich and their BMW X5’s and Audi A8’s co-exist with the poor and their slow, labouring, single-speed pickup tricycles.

This isn’t the China that my parents and grandparents fled after the Communists took over. It’s not the China that I was told about and warned about. It’s not the China that I was expecting to see, but I’m glad to have found it.

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