April 2009

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The following is an essay written by Jack, a Chinese friend of mine, who studies at Beijing’s Foreign Affairs University and will soon begin a career in China’s Foreign Ministry. He recently translated my father’s book Free World into Chinese (Ziyou Shijie) – which you can now find in Xinhua bookstores.

I will only preface the below with one comment. I believe that the majority of Westerners – even those with little to no knowledge of China – would regard Seeing Clearly‘s comments not as seeing clearly at all, but as hyperbolic mouthing off. There are valid arguments on both sides of the fence to be made on the issues raised here, but loud minorities like Seeing Clearly (or his Chinese netizen equivalents) should most certainly not be the ones to make them.


A China in the eyes of a Chinese

My friend Alec asked me to write an article on China. As a matter of fact, in this highly globalised world, there is still a lot of misunderstanding between China and the West. So I am writing this article to hopefully help our western friends know more about China.

About three months ago, the shoe-throwing incident against Wen Jiabao at Cambridge engendered a hot debate online. I followed the debate closely and read comments of some western friends who believed that they knew a lot about China. But their biased comments made me realize that the information they received was very distorted, thus giving them a wrong impression on China. In the following are comments made by a netizen called ‘Seeing Clearly’ after the show-throwing incident on the website of Christian Science Monitor. His views are what I think shared by some other western friends. I have responded to them one by one with the purpose of showing a true China to our western friends.

‘Seeing Clearly’ has the following comments on China:

  • To all those zealots so keen to rush to the defence of the Chinese leader, did it ever occur to you that in China anyone who attempts to protest either ‘disappears’ or is stalked for months by the secret police there?
  • Do you know that Google colludes with the Chinese government to censor internet content there?
  • Do you know that Nike and other sportswear manufacturers contract out production of their goods to vast ‘enterprise zones’ in China and other far eastern countries, where workers live in shacks or converted Pigstys, and have to work up to 16 hour shifts in vast temporary warehouses for a few cents/yen a day, because they are not allowed to have a union represent them?
  • If they try to set up a union, all those involved are instantly dismissed, meaning they’re likely to become homeless and end up begging? If anyone persists in unionising, the contractor (i.e. the multinational making out the orders, whoever they may be), cancels the contract, dismantles the warehouse and goes off to another ‘enterpise zone’ in another country, leaving the workers jobless.
  • Did you know that any visitors to China wishing to do media coverage of the area have to get offical (Ed: sic) permission to do so, their coverage is vetted by the government and they are tailed wherever they go by ’secret’ police?
  • Did you know that any Free Tibet protests within China are mercilessly crushed not only by the police but by the military, and anyone thought to be an organiser of said protests is imprisoned and tortured?
  • Did you know that the religion Fulun (Ed: sic) Gong is outlawed in China and practitioners are persecuted?
  • I have absolutely no gripes at all with the citizens of China, and I am no racist, but you have to face facts, China’s goverment (Ed: sic) does not believe in free speech in the way that we do, whatever PR they happen to be putting out at the moment.
  • In fact, my comment on this article in China would probably result in my arrest and disappearance.

As a Chinese, I really feel that our western friends should come to China and learn more about this country, instead of being misled by some questionable sources and materials.

To the questions raised by ‘Seeing Clearly’, which I believe show, to some extent, the biased views held by some western friends, I would like to respond one by one.

First, if we attempt to protest in China, we will not either disappear or be stalked for months by secret police. What matters is the way we protest. For those who take violent means like burning shops and hurting or even killing innocent people, they will be prosecuted in China, as in any civilized nation, simply because they violate laws. However, if we take civilized ways to make our voice heard, the government will listen to us and get the problem solved. For example, there was a famous incident in recent years, called PX incident in Xiamen city, where many Xiamen citizens organized a ‘big walk’ in protest against a government’s decision to establish a PX factory there, because that would be harmful to the environment. These people informed each other of this activity through short messages and internet bulletin boards, and walked together with slogans calling for stopping building this factory. As a result, the government listened to their appeals and stopped the factory which was expected to create billions of dollars for the locality. Many incidents like this have happened in China. The way that the Chinese government handles them has been changing for the better, and the civil society in China is also learning to carry out more acceptable and effective campaigns to express their views. As a result, the interaction between the government and the civil society is becoming better and better.

Second, censorship used to be, and to some extent is, a problem in China. But the Chinese government has been relaxing its regulation on the society and making itself more transparent. It would be a more reasonable and objective way to look at a country by taking account of its history, tradition, culture and status quo. As Wen Jiabao put it, we are encouraged to ‘see China in the light of her development’. Feudalist society was in place for thousands of years in this country, and regulating the idea of the public for the sake of social stability has been a normal practice for Chinese rulers, be it right or wrong in the eyes of western democracies. Recent years have witnessed dramatic changes in this aspect, particularly after SARS incident in 2003. Censorship has been relaxed faster than many Chinese expected. The coverage on Wen Chuan earthquake and Beijing Olympic Games was so transparent that helped China earn applause of the whole world. In addition, CCTV news at 7 p.m., which has been the official and most authoritative news for the Chinese people, broadcast the whole footage of shoe-throwing at Wen Jiabao at Cambridge. If we do some research, we will find out that every country has censorship. Governments ban contents that are in violation of laws in their countries. For example, the Chinese government has been banning pornographic websites and websites doing propaganda of Tibetan secession. This kind of censorship has won great support from the Chinese people. Freedom is not absolute or without limits, so the key point is to strike a balance. And this is the direction that we are moving toward.

Third, ‘Seeing Clearly’ depicted a grim picture of the Chinese labor, but the fact goes in the opposite direction. On the one hand, labor-intensive industries are what China needs at the current stage, largely due to employment and education considerations. China has a population of 1.3 billion, and urbanization is an irreversible trend, meaning more and more rural residents are migrating to urban areas. But due to lack of educational resources, these people don’t have high enough education, and many of them even haven’t finished high school. Labor-intensive industries could provide jobs to these less-educated people. When these people get jobs in cities, they need to start from the scratch, resulting in poor living conditions. And the government has been carrying out measures to accommodate the needs of the migrant workers, for example, setting up affordable residential areas for them and providing accessible education to their children. On the other hand, the Chinese government enacted a very strict labor law in recent years in an effort to eliminate acts harmful to the interests of migrant workers, such as delay of payments. As a result, some multinationals are leaving China, simply because the cost of labor in China has been unaffordable. We can find a lot of such examples in Guangdong, Zhejiang, Shandong, as well as many other provinces which used to be heaven for multinationals to build manufacturing centers.

Fourth, unionizing is a trend in China in recent years. For example, union members in Walmart negotiated with the company on their payment. Many companies in China are having strong unions to represent the interests of workers. In addition, the media and the civil society have been doing a better and better job to help the vulnerable and disadvantaged workers. For example, a group of university students from Hongkong revealed the bad labor conditions in Nine Dragons Paper company, a leading paper-making company in China. This company has been under severe criticism and forced to make changes.

Fifth, journalists don’t need to get official permission to report in China, nor will they be vetted or tailed by anybody, according to a provision issued on Jan. 1st, 2007. If we ask our western journalist friends based in China this question, I believe they will tell us how big the changes are in recent years.

Sixth, on the question of Tibetan protesters, echoing my first point, we need to differentiate among the protests. Protests without violence are allowed in China, as in the rest of the world, for example, the Xiamen PX incident, Chongqing taxi incident. However, violent protests, as what happened in Tibet on March 14th, are outlawed, which is the same as the rest of the world. Criminals must be prosecuted, simply because they burned houses and hurt people, for example, some protesters even beat Jin Jing, a handicapped girl in wheelchair, to grab the Olympic torch during the relay in Paris. These people must be criminalized, because their acts are against human conscience and violate laws.

Seventh, Falun Gong is not a religion. Their leader Li Hongzhi used techniques to make fake pictures, in which he was sitting in a lotus like a saint. He didn’t allow practitioners to take medicine, because practicing FaLun Gong would be enough to cure their diseases. However, records showed that Li Hongzhi himself went to hospitals when he was ill. Lies like these are numerous. Some practitioners even killed themselves in order to find the so-called ‘Falun’, meaning a sacred circle in Chinese, in their bodies. China bans cults that lead people to commit suicide and make them perverted, but we respect real religions. In China, there are over 100 million religious believers. As an Olympic volunteer working for the Kenyan team, I was able to see that even the Olympic village has a religious center, providing service for athletes and officials.

Last but not least, we will certainly not be arrested or disappear due to making comments. China recently adopted its Human Rights Action Plan, which clearly protects the right of comments.

Generally speaking, I admit that there is still a long way to go for China in all aspects. We welcome criticisms which can press us to move forward. But criticisms should be based on sources which reflect the real condition in this country. A big problem I am finding in western countries is that many western friends are criticizing China based on totally wrong information, and this will make our misunderstanding even worse. Dear ‘Seeing Clearly’, as well as other western friends who are holding similar views on China, you may not know as much as you thought or see as clearly as you expected. Please come to China and see this country with your own eyes, you will find that many of the views or images that you once held on this country have been wrong. And I’m sure you will like the real China.

GRE: worse than GBH?

An unmissable feature of the reading rooms at Beida are the Towers of Babels, or – for the non-engineering students – the more precarious Leaning Towers of Pisa, constructed of GRE books. That’s Graduate Record Examinations for those of you who are not Chinese, applying for an American university, and as a consequence in the library hoping your neighbour is an architecture major.

It’s a comprehensive test of language (vocabulary and analytical writing) and maths skills which can be decisive in your application. Leonidas is preparing for it now: he tells me he will be tested on a selection from 15,000 English words in the vocabulary section. And we’re not talking about words like ‘eat’ and ‘bright’ here. We’re talking ‘masticate’ and ‘incandescent’. Remember, this isn’t a test for Chinese students: it’s a test designed for Americans taken by Chinese students.

So today, like every day for the past few months and every day for the next few, Leonidas will revise a page of words in his preparation book. I once did this with Mary over a coffee last year, the two of us coming up with mental pictures and funny stories to remember difficult words by (at least one in every five I wasn’t familiar with). But the whole thing – however you go at it – is a long slog, by the end of which Mary in her own words “didn’t feel like learning anything”. Unfortunately it was all a little too much for her: her score was low, “not high enough to get into a good program, especially my writing”.

I thought I’d include this vignette of GRE hell as another illustration of the absurd pressures Chinese students put themselves under, and the walls they’re up against – on the other side of which, a lot of the time, is the dream of studying in America or the West, where we lament the laziness of our own students.

Bits and bobs

Three bits and bobs…

  • I’m delighted 6 gets a spot in CNReview’s list of ‘Ten Eclectic China blogs you should follow‘. Cheers!
  • Danwei notices that Beida requires its medical school students be not too short and not too fat … presumably not too clumsy enters the mix, also?
  • A friend and I recently did a napkin calcution of how many students applying to university in a high school year group will get into Beida or Tsinghua (if Chinese), compared to students who’ll get into Oxbridge (if English). The results … 1 in 100 for the UK, 1 in 10,000 for China.

I took this picture at Peking University’s East-South gate last Friday morning at around 8am. My count was thirty odd protesters: all chanting against Sun Dongdong. It looks like they will continue to speak their mind until either Sun leaves Beida, or China forgets they are there (no prize for which I guess will happen first).

I asked one of them his opinion on why Beida students were not supporting them in condemning Sun Dongdong. I get the impression he was somewhat carried away by the chance to rave and exaggerated his point of view in the process, but his answer was interesting nonetheless: “to them it’s like a joke”. I wish I could have asked what he meant by that, but a rather unsubtle plainclothes policeman kneeled by us to listen and I felt that was the time to move on.

Playing into a paradox

The way out of the two holes the world finds itself in – its frozen economy and overheated climate – are for the time being mutually exclusive when it comes to talks with China. We need China’s economy to keep booming to help us pay our own bills, and we need it to slow down please before our environment is decimated by those dirty factories which are fueling that same economic boom.

This isn’t to say there won’t be a way to accommodate the two further down the line: commentators like Thomas Friedman think the biggest companies of this century, digging us out of our financial hole, will be the green energy companies which are also working on the ecological one. But for the time being, not polluting is expensive – much too expensive for a government like China’s, which needs its economy to keep growing to legitimise its rule.

I keep thinking that the most immediate solution, without China having to endanger its economy to a point it will clearly not tolerate, is technology transfer – the West giving away clean technology secrets to countries like China (which either can’t or won’t foot the R&D bills themselves). That’s certainly what William would like to see: he gets very excited at the mention of technology transfer, but is concerned that China’s terrible record on IP protection will prevent American companies from playing ball.

In the midst of these economic and environmental crises, I see ten articles or commentaries on the former for every one I see on the latter. In a lot of them, there is reference to ‘future generations’, ‘for our children’ etc. etc. (or take a look at the banners in yesterday’s US ‘tea-parties’). Well, I’m one of those future generations. And you know what I’d like the older generation to get mad about? Not my employment and pay-check prospects, but my prospects of living in a world not too unrecognisable from the one I enjoy living in now.

First, the quickest of skimable summaries: Professor of Law (a ‘specialist’ in mental health I hear) at Peking University Sun Dongdong (that last bit means ‘East East’, so no sniggers), in a recent interview with a Chinese magazine (their homepage here), called 99% of petitioners (with their troubled history) mentally ill. This sparked protests by petitioners outside both Beida’s West and East gates (picture from boxun.com). He’s since apologised, but still… I feel ashamed to be a student at a university at which Professor Sun still teaches.

I asked a couple of my friends at Beida what they thought. One of them witnessed the protests outside the West gate himself last Tuesday morning: he confirmed it was a completely peaceful protest of 30 to 50 petitioners, one holding up a sign ‘Fight for Human Rights’. They looked more despondent than insane to him. Here’s what he writes:

l have just checked some other responses about this event from the internet. There are more than 99% of them against Sun. So l do not think l need to write any word about him. If anyone would like to consider him as somebody, then they must be crazy.

From last year, especially because of the well-spread wrong expectations from so-called experts opinons about the finacial crisis, there are common opinions about the disvaluation of any experts. So, Sun would be just another case for that. You might call it the Experts’ Crisis.

Secondly, there is another common opinion which has lasted for a long time (many many years): you do not need to care so much about some experts’ statements, especially when he/she claims they come from Peking University.

Thirdly, l agree with such an observation: if more than 99% of petitioners are mentally ill, that must become true simply because the system makes it so. That is, the petition system in modern China makes originally normal petitioners become crazy one day.

Finally, in my eyes, those elder petitioners l saw that day are just a hopeless, peaceful, calm, and pure or even naive older generation who must be disadvantaged because of the rapid transformation pace of modern China. l can not see any wild behaviors they would make at all. They need help. That is all.

And Tony‘s liang juzi:

Yes, I read the articles on the web about Sun. He is too careless with words, as many people (and even him himself) have pointed out. And it is a dangerous judgment. More petitioners will be forcefully sent to mental hospitals because they “interrupt the public order” under his logic.

But there could be other incentives for Sun to say those stupid things. As soon as I heard the news, what directly came to my mind is Sun, just like many other PKU professors, was making use of the media and public debate to make himself famous (or notorious, as it turned out). chao zuo …… these things DO happen around us. Many teachers in the university are respectable. But there are some professors who dream to be popular overnight. And the rising of mass media in China provides them with a great opportunity.

About the Chinese xinfang/petition, it is a “decent” way for people to challenge the government according to our law. But the institution is not effective enough. Petitioners’ appeals are often ignored by local government officials, who concern about their personal interests all the time. Many petitions become insane because they get refused from time to time by the county government. They want to go upper to the provincial or even central government (in China, people trust the central government in Beijing rather than their local ones, exactly different from the United States), but are sometimes blocked and threatened by county officials.

So far, I’ve heard no wind of any kind of protest by Beida students themselves – however much their sympathy lies with the petitioners (I’d consider the two opinions above pretty representative of more liberal students at PKU). But I’ll bet even more officials in Zhongnanhai than foreign observers will remember that the May 4th coming up is ninety years on from 1919 and twenty from 1989 – two days when Beida students rose up for what they believed is wrong in the society they would soon take a leading role in. And this time, with graduate unemployment rising, there’s a grumble rumbling.

On a lighter note … happy Easter everyone!


A lonely police presence inside Beida's West gate - and outside the gate, over 30 policemen and another half dozen cars. I took this pic on Friday morning: I got the wrong gate! 40 or so petitioners gathered outside the East gate shortly after my class began. Shucks.

UPDATE: The first friend I quote above has since written me an email in response to my final paragraph above:

Each year, May fourth and June fourth comes around, and for students, their major concerns are just employment. So they are not political but economical animals right now. But do not assume that they would go on strike this year because of financial crisis. Because they are patriotic,too. That means they know their country are better than others. And they have a duty to make it as stable as possible. In sum, they know they would have a better future (especially compared with foreign countries), but only in a relatively stable environment. And they believe this administration tries so hard to make them have better life already. They are satisfied with current administration so much.

I agree with this – my experience of Beida students has been entirely in line with the above. The absence of student outrage over Sun Dongdong points most of all to an off-hand dismissal of his ridiculous comment, but also to a tendency to keep quiet rather than risk
anything by speaking up. My argument, to clarify, is that prospects of unemployment only make it more likely students may argue for reform within, not of, the system. And my hope is that no student ever takes it for granted that such a comment from a representative of their university is so out there as to not bother to condemn it openly.

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