Telling the truth about China

As I prepared myself for leaving China to embark on something of a speaking tour of American churches, I was told time and again by friends, co-workers, former students, and even the Party Secretary of the hospital to tell them the “truth” about China. The undertone seemed to be that Americans were truly ignorant about China and thought it was a place of human rights abuses, corrupt officials, a draconian one-child policy, tainted food and polluted skies;  and somehow I was going to counter all of those “misconceptions” in a cozy 1-hour talk.

At the same time, I know that in most respects China is a better place than the average American is imagining. Compared to other developing countries- most Chinese children can read and attend at least a few years of primary school, wanton violence is rare, and basic social services exist (even if it is a very basic level in many areas). And, as I’ve reported here before, there is a great deal of progress being made on several social issues by small, determined groups of citizens.

On top of that, after spending 20% of my life there, China feels like a second home, and I take a great deal of pride in its accomplishments. I find myself wanting to present China in as positive a light as possible. So each night I stand in front of a small group of people and try my best to tell the truth about China.

In my presentation, I talk about the explosive growth of the church in China; projects to protect the environment, increase farmers’ wages, and support new teachers; and even manage to sneak in a few pictures of pandas, the Great Wall, and the Terracotta warriors. It’s a hectic thirty-minutes of information, but each time I do it, I feel like I’m sticking to the “truth” my Chinese associates would approve of, without feeling like a shill for the Party.

Then comes Q&A.

Are women’s rights improving? Are Chinese Christians completely free? Do they still enforce the one child policy? What is the conversation about gay marriage in China like? While none of these have easy answers, I feel that most of these issues are slowly heading in a positive direction, and so I give them something that ends up slightly longer than my typical blog post length.

Then someone said, “It doesn’t seem like the gov’t puts much value on the life of an individual.” I struggled and searched for a “truthful” answer. I thought back on Chen Guangchen’s case, the abuse Ge Xun suffered for trying to meet the mother of a Tian’anmen square protester, and the inhumane treatment of Chen Pingfu, before lowering my head and saying, “No, they don’t.”

And I would be receptive of anyone’s advice on a way to respond positively to that question. From what I have seen time and again from Chinese officials is the willingness to let someone else (typically rural residents) “sacrifice” for the privileged few. Issues like labeling executed prisoners as organ donors, bulldozing the homes of farmers, and allowing the flagrant abuse of power by public officials hang like a dark, disappointing cloud over China’s otherwise inspiring achievements.

It’s an answer I take no joy in, and I wish there was a way to respond to that which would make my friends and students proud, but so far the Party hasn’t given me much to work with. So while I try my best to tell the “truth,” the truth gets in the way.

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About T

I have been working in China for nearly five years now. I have traveled to more than 30 cities and towns, and have lived in 3 provinces. I am interested in issues concerning development in China and the rest of the world. I hope to provide a balanced look at some of the issues facing China as it continues its rise to power.
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12 Responses to Telling the truth about China

  1. I think there’s a positive spin for that question but it’s a long answer…

    Chinese culture isn’t structured around the individual. In fact the culture is structured around what is best for each unit, the family, the business, the local area, the state etc. This doesn’t mean that there’s no value in individuals; it’s just that maintaining a higher level of social well being is the primary motivating factor in Chinese culture. The government spends less time concentrating on the needs and rights of the individual and more on the needs and rights of a bigger framework. It’s neither better nor worse than our own approach – just different.

  2. You didn’t answer a question; you agreed with a comment. But if you were answering a question, the truthful answer would probably be “depends which individual.”

  3. 34f67dg72 says:

    “maintaining a higher level of social well being is the primary motivating factor in Chinese culture”
    But does the *government* really always let social well-being take first priority? The problem is that the institutional mechanisms are not in place to lead to optimum attention to social or individual well-being. Rather it is all too easy for officials to put themselves and families first and give in to greed. This is not a cultural issue, but more of a political issue. At the moment there are nowhere nearly powerful enough mechanisms in place in the government to prevent power abuse or bring about really accountable governance practices.

    • I’d sugges that this is true everywhere and every culture can demonstrate the use of counter-cultural values when it suits them. A good example of this would be the torture and detention of citizens and overseas nationals without trial or representation by the American government in the wake of 9/11. People might feel they can justify it but it is a hugely glaring example of; “Do as I say and not as I do” when it comes to lecturing the rest of the world on human rights.

      • Hua Qiao says:

        Here we go with the equivalency argument again. Well let’s turn it around and suggest the scenario where Al Qaeda attacks China. Do you think for one minute the Chinese Security Bureau will hesitate to employ any means possible to obtain critical information from captured prisoners to help stop another terrorist attack?

        Now let’s take that behavior, which is the basis for your equivalency argument, and compare it to the hundreds of cases of peaceful citizens of China merely asserting what their Constitution assures them only to be put in black prison, beat up, etc.

        Go read the Chinese Constitution and then tell me if the hundreds of incidents (and those are only the ones we hear about) can be compared to the handful of terrorist imterrogation incidents you refer to.

        Nonsense.

  4. Hua Qiao says:

    Recall Mao’s line in the famine that followedmthe Great Leap forward. “Better that half the people die so the other half can eat their fill”

    That says it all.

  5. Chopstik says:

    The truth is rarely pretty, Tom. And I’m sure your friends would appreciate an honest, if sometimes ugly, truth rather than a pretty lie.

    I have also talked with many Americans (or other non-Chinese) who have a very narrow view of China (garnered from negative news reporting) and have tried to explain that they should view China (and Chinese) in much the same way that they view their own home nation. It is not just news of government corruption or human rights violations but a vibrant reflection of life in all of its phases and our perspective should be viewed with that context. Unfortunately, most people will never realize that unless/until they go and see or themselves. For those that don’t, I hope they will hear people who are more open-minded (such as you).

  6. Vinc says:

    There is no positive answer to the question about the individuals. Human life is not valued at all. The government only makes social progress in order to maintain a certain order within the masses so that it can ensure its own existence.

    Your friends must accept that or they are in denial. It is not wrong to question your country’s politics, it is a proof of independent thinking and only this can bring progress, one step at a time. Chinese who blindly support Beijing’s politics when talking to foreigners are just individuals afraid to lose face.

    The main reason China has been able to develop so fast is because it is a merciless single-party government which does not need the debates, votes etc … order is maintained brutally and only when it becomes too much public (social media, reported news to foreign countries which come back to China etc …) does Beijing rethinks its strategy (cf the little village in Guangdong i forgot the name of, which got “elections” set up … although until now nothing has changed).

    That said, a lot of the most brutal and ugly actions are taken by local politicians and industry owners (not only big companies). Each scandal that appear on Weibo reminds you of that. Local officials, dangerous foods, fake goods, beatings, humiliations etc … this is the most blatant proof that human life is not valued, because those are decisions made by “commoners”, not only higher rank officials.

    So if the masses can not trust the masses, what is left for a society in order to live together ?

  7. sounds to me like the type of “Christian” that tows along with the secular and relativistic “values” of the current communist regime; what Mo is to Chinese writers is this “missionary”, for he is truly embarked on a mission, but I am not sure it is one for the sake of Christ.

    • Tom says:

      I don’t think you are familiar with my work, nor are you in a position to gauge my commitment to the work I do in China on behalf of my church. I’d say more, but I feel that this blog stands as a testament to who I am.

  8. chinakristen says:

    @Shards of China: It’s just a different culture? This is your excuse for a government that forces women to abort their children, forcibly sterilizes their citizens, steals children, and burns down people’s houses when they can’t pay a fine or simply so cadres can make millions.? Not to mention destruction of the environment. Oh it’s a different culture so this is OK? I don’t think so. What kind of Koolaid propaganda are you drinking there in Shenzhen? You already admittedly will not upset the Chinese government as you state on your blog. So just keep drinking the Koolaid but don’t expect those of us with brains to chalk it all up to being OK because China is “culturally different. In the rest of the world, this is called oppression and human rights abuse.

    Sure it’s not Confucian but…as Vinc states “It is not wrong to question your country’s politics, it is a proof of independent thinking and only this can bring progress, one step at a time. Chinese who blindly support Beijing’s politics when talking to foreigners are just individuals afraid to lose face.

    @Chopstik: Re ” I’m sure your friends would appreciate an honest, if sometimes ugly, truth rather than a pretty lie.” Yes we do want the truth, unfortunately we will never get that from the Chinese government because they only promote propaganda. So who is left to report the truth and where can we as foreigners get information? Foreign journalists and bloggers like Seeing Red in China. Because Chinese journalists are forced to promote the Party Propaganda. And if they don’t they lose their jobs. Some are imprisoned for even tweeting any slight or dissenting opinion. Is that cultural too? I don’t call it that freedom. Most in the world call it stifling oppression and control.

  9. Vinc says:

    I am not sure the author of this blog has, in any way, said that China being culturally different therefore it is acceptable to have the restriction and oppression you mentioned in your comment. I you read the many entries, you’d see it is quite obvious.

    Now, in the same manner, what i meant was that change can only happen little by little. Why ? Well because there are social, political and structural factors that wont allow a radical change just with the flick of a switch. “Cultural” may not be the best word, its not outrageous either.

    On another level, let’s not hype up the West, there are a lot of similarities between both West and East hemisphere, only they do not translate the same way, they not show up in the same fashion.

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