May 2009

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A couple of Peking University themed stories. First, a reminder of why 2009 is not 1989:

  • I usually link to articles in the left hand column, under ‘6 things I’m reading’. But given the focus of this blog, I’ll press the point with two pieces on modern students at Beida and Tsinghua, in the New York Times and the FT. Both argue, rightly, that the class of ’09 is a world apart from that of ’89. The FT piece is better: the NY Times overplays the angle of students being scared into inaction. Journalists have even cited the heavy security presence on the gates at PKU as evidence of this. What rubbish: noone who goes to Beida gives a second glance to those guards, like they never go further than the first glance at your ID. More on this topic soon.

Next, a reminder that the more things change the more they stay the same:

  • Here’s a telling news story from Beida (a month old, sorry), which I heard from a contact in its administration. A PKU student went into one of the many little photocopying stores on campus to copy a legal letter of protest to a computing company who sold him a faulty computer. Nothing big. Nothing political. But they refused to let him copy the letter when they saw it was legal in nature. As did every one of the other campus copying stores he tried. Evidently some kind of restriction passed down from university administration, which deems students writing legal letters too sensitive. Really shocking. This was picked up by Chinese media I gather, but I can’t find a link.

    Happy dragon boat festival! Remember, don’t drown yourself in a river unless you’ve first written some beautiful poetry and been wrongly accused of treason.

    The brain drain (China’s best and brightest being lured by life overseas) is still one of China’s biggest problems – that Guardian piece by Jonathan Watts cites a study saying 7 out of 10 Chinese studying overseas don’t come back. So I’ll choose to politely ignore the Folex-hawking China Daily which declared the drain “reversed” back in 2003.

    Well, Leonidas is one of the brightest Beida students I know, and he hopes to take a PhD in America, possibly 5 years in Linguistics or a related field. So I asked him – though not in such alarmingly medical phrasing – if he thinks his brain will be drained.

    For one, his reasons for wanting to study in the US are different to those of a parallel Leonidas twenty years ago might have been. He simply wants to open his eyes and see what America is like. Just why I came to China. And, like me too (though the jury’s still out…), he wants to “seek a foreign experience but not a different lifestyle forever”.

    With China’s growth and the question-marks floating over the Western hemisphere in the wake of the economic crisis, it’s an obvious point that there’s less incentive for Chinese to abandon ship. Their ship is sailing just fine. An obvious point … which Leonidas didn’t make:

    Those who go to live in America give up much: fathers, mothers, friends, memories. To go to America is to restart everything. The cost is very high.

    Too high for him? Seems so:

    I can’t give up what I have in China. I can’t imagine beginning a new life in the USA. If I begin a new life, I don’t know if I can be accustomed to it … After all, I have spent almost 20 years education in a Chinese culture and atmosphere. So I think I have a different cultural system with America. This is too big a problem if I live there forever.

    That’s one quote in a shouting shop. Some anectodal evidence for you (what else would you except from a lowly blogger?). Leonidas still thinks the brain drain is a big problem, and so do I. But we both think things are changing quick. Right now, I’m studying in a university way off the top ten lists (50 in the Times list last year). Watch this space 40 years on. (Check in 10 too.)

    Following on from Jack’s thoughts on the ten year anniversary of the NATO bombing of China’s embassy in Belgrade, I asked the younger Tony (former secretary general of the model UN, if you remember) for his take. I myself find how Tony’s classmates seemed to have been indoctrinated against the US in ’99, and then reacted to 9/11 as a result, fascinating…


    I was still in primary school when the accident happened. That was a gloomy Monday, May 10th, 1999. Early in the morning after the flag-raising ceremony, the headmaster came to the front, protested against the US-lead NATO, and asked all the students to repeat him, sentence after sentence. I guessed primary schools, junior and senior highs and universities were using the same protesting words, full of various “-isms”. We could not grab the whole meaning of the slogans. We just repeated them.

    On my way back home, buses were rushing on the street, sending protesting college students to the US embassy. Dazzling red flags hung on the outside of the buses, indicating which university they belonged to. Later on came the evening newspaper, in which Xinhua published photos of furious citizens throwing stones to the embassy.

    I wasn’t exited at that time, nor indifferent. Just like many other classmates, I was watching the fun.

    That reminds me of the day after September 11th, 2001, when I was in junior high. At that time, it was routine for us to write short articles and hand them in every week to our Chinese teacher, who was a middle-aged lady, strict but respectable. I cannot explain why, all of a sudden, everyone was writing under the title “US was bombed” unanimously. Even more ridiculous, all told the story with a cynical tone, saying “this was the revenge that the US deserved to get”, without a single word related to terrorism, without any feeling of compassion. After all, the mass media didn’t say such things, and neither did my family members.

    We were scolded by our teacher the next day. “Don’t you have friends and relatives in the US? How can you be so cold, indifferent, or even teasing when you saw families losing their members and desperate people anxiously waiting for their relatives to be rescued out of ruins. You are taking pleasure in other’s misfortune. That is shameful.” These are the words I will never forget in my life.

    In regards to Chinese nationalism, it is too vague a concept for me to define. The Chinese are prone to describe the Western world as “diversified”, without noticing its universal ethics and beliefs. Similarly, when it comes to nationalism, the western side tends to take China as a single monolithic actor, but they overlook its diversity of ideas, mixed and disorderly during the transformation era.

    I began to understand that my two experiences are inter-related. Yes, the United States had done shameful things and China has the right to protest, to impose pressure against the US government.

    But it doesn’t mean that I, as an independent individual, should hate all US citizens.

    It doesn’t mean I have been granted legitimacy to throw stones into their embassy, regardless of existing international law.

    It doesn’t justify the actions of Milosevic, under the hidden logic, “we support all the things imperialists oppose”.

    I’m not talking about common sense, but it is a formidable task for Chinese people to separate man and state, to recognize the principles of international practice, to strengthen the immovable belief in humanism and rationalism. Such a tortuous journey started as early as the 1840s. The cost has been tremendous but we are still on our way.

    Let’s move on.

    Over lunch with Mary the other day, she asked if Indian women really lead horrible lives. She’d read an article and seen some pictures along those lines … like this one:

    Well, I’ve no idea of what life is like for women in India, but I think it’s interesting that that’s how they’re portrayed on a Chinese website – and how that view of Indian society filters through to Mary. Beijing-based journalist Pallavi Aiyar in her book Smoke and Mirrors talks about on-the-street Chinese impressions of Indian women being, in order: 1. surely they all sing and dance like in the films? 2. isn’t it very dirty there?

    In any case, it got us talking about gender equality in China – the greatest legacy of the Mao era, after millenia of patriarchy. (Though there’s a Chinese proverb from way back in the day – yin sheng yang shuai – female strength/superiority over male.) I always thought that equality between the sexes was something admirable in modern Chinese society.

    Then Mary told me of her job application last March to a coal mining engineering company. He had a strong CV, good experience etc. etc. But they told her outright that they didn’t want a girl. Their reasons were equally forthcoming: some kind of unease of sending women down the coal shafts, and also the other role was filled by a guy – meaning a separate dormitory had to be set up, at added cost to them.

    She has a female friend who had almost exactly the same experience … and who has a boyfriend with exactly the same qualifications as them who got the job. So it’s depressing to see that the more things change, the more they stay the same.

    Here’s a snatch from an interesting conversation I had with William the other day…

    William: I think that we must strengthen civil society to limit the power of government. Here the government is very powerful. Its power must be equal with its responsibility.

    Me: How?

    William: We should fund more NGOs for environmental protection or fighting poverty and social problems … The government has funded many NGOs, but we call them ‘Gongo’ [government organised non-governmental organisation]. Every citizen can fund genuine NGOs.

    Me: Isn’t that difficult in China?

    William: The government doesn’t want to let its citizens fund NGOs. Laws for [registering and maintaining] NGOs are not suitable. But citizens can register a company, and then do non-profit things … Government can do it best, if they’re willing. But they have much power, and not enough responsibility in comparison to their power.

    Me: Are there other methods for citizens to correct this?

    William: Protesting/uprising [youxing] is not suitable, it’s not rational action. We need more rational action … Public participation can surprise government.


    Calligraphy in the breeze at Sichuan Normal University, a year on from the earthquake which killed tens of thousands (picture by Katrina Hamlin)


    Young, patriotic crowds gather in Chengdu's Tianfu square to mark the anniversary (picture by a friend of one of Katrina's students)

    Below is a guest post by Katrina Hamlin, a friend of mine who has taught English in Chengdu since last August. I find especially interesting the idea (in the fourth from last paragraph) that the earthquake has encouraged in the city’s youth the spirit of a civil society, at the same time as channelling immense pride in China’s state.


    Tuesday 12th May 2009 in Chengdu, Sichuan. A year since the earthquake. In the morning, I attended my Chinese class at Sichuan Normal University. In the afternoon, I taught English. No-one mentioned the anniversary. There was no memorial or silence. I don’t think I heard the word ‘earthquake’ once.

    In the evening, I found the teachers’ flats surrounded by dozens of paper wreaths, taller than me and glowing with colour. There was a tent containing trestle tables and the remains of a banquet. I slipped inside. No, the guests assured me; this has nothing to do with the earthquake. They showed me a picture of a serene old man who had recently passed away.

    I know my students and colleagues won’t forget last May. I’ve heard many stories about comforting hysterical friends and sleeping on the basketball courts for a week. Why, then, did they act as though the earthquake had never happened?

    I wondered if I’d mistaken the date.

    I didn’t see anything until the end of the day, when I spotted a line of pastel posters; doves, candles and rainbows. Behind, calligraphy hung in the trees. It was beautiful in its simplicity. But I still struggled to see how thousands of deaths prompted a few pictures while one old man had drawn a crowd.

    I thought of what I heard before the anniversary. I’d asked my boss whether class would stop in honour of the occasion. She stared, told me not to expect a holiday, and promptly changed the subject. I also had a meeting at the university’s international office.

    “Don’t speak about that,” the wide eyed secretary implored me.

    So I avoided the topic in this week’s classes. Instead I prepared lessons on national identity and moral dilemmas.

    What does being Chinese mean to you, Candy?

    “Since the earthquake, China has changed for me; I feel more together with the Chinese people; more united.”

    Why would the passer-by not rescue the drowning boy, Serena?

    “Sometimes, we must be selfish. Even in the earthquake, some people were selfish, not everyone can be a hero.”

    I slowly learnt that the earthquake was on everyone’s minds. I finally plucked up the courage to speak to some students in private. I asked about the anniversary, and how they’d marked it on campus – if at all.

    Well, they’d made a banner. There were some photos too, but they were taken down because it rained. What else? Nothing.

    What was their impression of Wenchuan’s recovery?

    They were overwhelmed by the initial response. But now they feel very aware of how much remains to be done, though resources and media interest are dwindling. Moon, an English major, told me about her concern for the victims� mental health. Many psychologists had volunteered to help those suffering from severe emotional trauma. But without a salary, they couldn’t stay. A year is a long time without your home or family, but far too brief a period in which to come to terms with such a loss.

    Moon and the other students responded to all my inquiries with a great deal of thought and quiet passion. They’d kept up with developments, and spent time thinking through what had happened. They really did care. But had they found a more public way to express that, beyond posters and photos? Some had.

    Jia you!
    Xiong qi!

    ‘Add oil!’ – ‘Go! Go!’. Sichuan Normal University might have been quiet on the Tuesday, but Chengdu’s Tianfu Square was not. Moon’s friend had joined the crowd. We pored over pictures taken on his mobile phone. People laid chrysanthemums beneath the Chinese flag, sung the national anthem and observed a three minute silence. Then they sang again: ‘tuan jie jiu shi li liang‘, ‘Unity is Strength’, and ‘wu xing hong qi‘, ‘The Five Star Red Flag’. But here too, grief wasn’t much in evidence. Optimism came first.

    After speaking with my students, I sought out other members of Chengdu’s foreign community to ask them to share their observations.

    Teachers’ and students’ experiences mirrored my own. There’d been little signs of mourning in their schools and campuses.

    Sichuan Quake Relief’s project manager Walter Brown has worked with young people in Chengdu and the disaster zone since last May. He described his impression of the youth’s response.

    To him, they seemed increasingly selfless. Many were eager to contribute to relief work. Children are declaring “I want to grow up to be a volunteer”. Overall, the quake was encouraging the growth of a civil society. But, Walter cautioned, it also represented another way for them to express their national pride.

    I believe that despite what I could – or couldn’t – see on the day itself, the students and young people in Chengdu felt the anniversary deeply. But they are only comfortable showing that in certain ways and contexts. The posters and banners provided one, superficial, outlet. But more striking expressions required a large group and a collective confidence. Individuals responded as a part of the crowd, or as a part of China; and that public response had to be positive.

    When they came together they demonstrated determination and pride. Not sadness. I think – I’m certain – that grief and anxiety are there too. But for now these are private emotions, out of sight.

    I hope this doesn’t sound like a nothing conclusion – ‘they are sad’. It felt like a revelation after what I did not see here on 12th May.

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