Posts Tagged 'politics'

Conversations in China

For the past few months, I’ve (Liz) been facilitating a weekly English conversation corner in the downtown business district. My students are all university-educated and in the business world – ranging from salespeople to scientists, technicians, managers, real estate developers, surgeons, and more. Every week we have a specific business-oriented topic to discuss, like ‘using computers’ or ‘attending a meeting.’ Then, we have a free hour to discuss whatever we like.

During this hour, the topic almost inevitably turns to cultural differences and opinions about a range of interesting topics. We’ve discussed discrimination in the workplace, gun control, capital punishment, presidential elections, freedom, terrorism, the United States’ reasons for interfering (or ‘meddling’ is more properly the Chinese word my students are accustomed to using!) in other countries’ matters, war, crime, Tibet, marriage, dating, amongst others. It’s been a rare and wonderful opportunity for me to hear many different opinions and ideas about a very broad range of subjects from a group of well-educated Chinese.

There have been a few particularly interesting moments. I plan to write more about these conversations as I have a bit more time to blog in the coming weeks. But for now, I’ll tell you about today’s conversation regarding Tibet. So, word has it that the French president is going to meet with the Dalai Lama. This has angered the Chinese government. My students think that the French president is recognizing the Dalai Lama as a legitimate leader of China, and therefore is insulting the true Chinese government. They also believe that the Dalai Lama himself incited his followers to violently attack the government last March, and they think he is a very bad person. Further, they believe that the Tibetans and the Dalai Lama have simply not responded to the reasonable and mild approach of the Chinese government in negotiating their differences, and are being stubborn, unappreciative, and somewhat ignorant.

I offered a few counterpoints, one of them being that some people believe that the Tibetans seek greater freedom. Since the Chinese government does not allow this, some believe the Tibetans have a right to seek better conditions. One of my students asked me, “Do you feel free here living in Nanjing? Nanjing is so safe, I would think you would feel free here. Safety is the first condition of true freedom.” It is true that Nanjing is a very safe city (very low crime, etc.), but I didn’t know how to say, ”Well, I don’t really feel free to answer that question straightforwardly; I wouldn’t in fact feel safe.” I answered by saying that for some, feeling safe does not define freedom, and many Americans feel this way. I then wrote out and explained the motto “Live Free or Die” to illustrate the idea. We had some good laughs saying it very intensely. It was a great conversation, and gave me a window into how some Chinese view Tibet.

After class I noticed that my blackboard had the following phrases written on it:

Live Free or Die

I decided to erase the board before I left, not wanting to attract any extra attention.

One-Child Revisions?

China instituted a one-child policy in 1979. The current generation of Chinese families rarely boasts a multiple-child family. The fine for having a second child is exorbitant, approximating an average person’s salary for a whole year by some accounts. For the small rich minority, the fine is no problem, but the majority of China’s 1.3 billion residents are restricted by this and other measures from having multiple children.

One of our textbooks has an essay devoted to this topic, or more exactly, devoted to discussing the benefits of this system. Children now are better cared for by their parents without competition from siblings. There is more food for them to eat, and more resources can be devoted to their education.

Obviously in the wake of the massive famine in the 60’s, the current order seems to be an improvement. But is it the result of the new population measures? Is it even a direct result of the Reform and Opening movement that is so often heralded as the new beginning for China? Or have other global forces been more direct agents for China’s growth and prosperity rather than national policy?

Our teacher today even expressed her own doubts about the one-child policy. If there are 4 grandparents, 2 parents, and one baby, there is a tremendous burden placed on the two working parents to support a family of 7, and afterwards on the child itself. Economic policy also exacerbates the challenges. The mandatory retirement age here is 50 for blue-collar women, 55 for other female workers, and 60 for men. Saving like crazy for a 20 to 30 (or 40!) year retirement is a huge concern. No wonder people pick through garbage cans with methodical patience in their spare time, dredging up pennies by finding a piece of cardboard here, a plastic bottle there.

Our teacher also said there is talk of reforming the policy (only talk, no actual measures as far as she knew). Perhaps doctoral degree holders should be permitted a second child, so the rationale goes, since they can provide a learned environment within which to raise another child. One wonders if this will really solve any problems, or just create resentment among the classes?

At least there seems to be some willingness to address the social challenges at hand, and perhaps revise the restrictive policy if the need can be proven pressing enough. Now is a time of unprecedented change in China- surprising and swift change is undoubtedly in the cards, if they choose to play them so.

Taxi Cab Politics

In a taxi ride home recently, I (JM) chatted with the driver about the usual things- how long had I been here, isn’t Chinese difficult, and so on. Surprisingly, the cabbie came out with:
“America is my favorite country.”
“Really? Why is that?”
“Americans understand human rights. Our country doesn’t. If someone here says you’re wrong about something, then you’re simply wrong. No one can argue.”
“Well, the two countries are different. America’s government likes to protect human rights.”
“If we didn’t have America, the world wouldn’t even know what human rights were.”
At this point, I was a little surprised at his strong opinions, especially in critique of his own country. Most people are overwhelmingly in favor of all that the government here has accomplished in recent years while developing the country. I pointed out the huge advancements China had undertaken in the last few decades.
“Yes, now we have food to eat. But the government is still the same. It won’t ever change. We won’t ever have the freedoms that Americans have. I think they have it the best.”
It really gave me pause to hear this from him. Where did his ideas come from? Did he have any firsthand experience that conditioned his negative opinions? And was it as hopeless to change the current order as he made it out to be?
I don’t have nearly as much perspective on his own country’s problems. I do hope, however, that the future will bring some resolution to long-standing challenges that the Chinese confront with their wealth distribution, huge population, and cultural differences with the law-loving West. Human rights aren’t an absolute, but there will likely be more and more demand for some form of them by the populace here as they continue opening up to the rest of the world beyond.

Dinner politics

We went to dinner with two classmates, one from France, the other from United Arab Emirates.  Conversation was wide ranging, from business to our language abilities to French food.  We’re used to political topics coming up, but it’s a new ballgame to have discussions with people from foreign countries.  Everyone brings different perspectives to the table, we’ve come to realize.  We’ve never heard someone sing the praises of the Iranian language before, which was described as being the most respect-filled language you could ever imagine.  Hearing about Iran in a flattering light was definitely new.

The stability of Tibet also came up, amid reports of violent demonstrations being planned by Tibetans in a neighboring province.  Our Frenchman promptly responded, "I don’t understand- how will they attack?  With incense sticks?"  Something must have happened in France, as one of my teachers mentioned that Chinese people have talked about boycotting French products (sound familiar?).  The Tibet issue is receiving attention over here too, by what little we can understand.  It doesn’t seem to be an engrossing part of daily life, however- most people are just as focused on day to day activities here as Americans are in the midst of the Iraq war.