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The News on China

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Posted on Aug 15, 2013
Jonathan Kos-Read (CC-BY-ND)

By Will Ford

People are fascinated by China, and its high profile now attracts more interest than ever, with entire websites devoted to “China-watching.” China-watching, like most news and commentary, focuses on large national and international issues, with experts weighing in on what it all means. Students all over the world now study Chinese for career reasons. But there’s something being lost in all the hubbub—what everyday life is like there.

I decided to live in China because of a dinner. I was 14.

That was my first time in China—almost 10 years ago. Over spring break that year, I visited a yearlong high school exchange program in Beijing with my own U.S. middle school Chinese class. Five high school juniors from the exchange program took my classmates to their host families for dinner. The Chinese family stuffed us with dumplings and forced shots of baijiu (Chinese grain alcohol) on my math teacher. I was in awe of the student who hosted us—he spoke quick, fluent Chinese and made everyone laugh at the dinner table. I wanted to be just like him, so I applied to the program.

When I first lived in China at 16, the country was gaining rock star international status. It was hosting the 2008 Summer Olympics in two years, and its economic growth held the world in awe. But I arrived as a teenager knowing nothing about the nation’s history, culture, economics or politics—I just kept thinking about that dinner.

Later in college I studied Chinese politics which I, like many, found fascinating. That said, I’m glad my introductory class on the topic wasn’t my first experience with the country. The syllabus covered, as it should have, every hot issue—leadership, government structure, human rights, environmental concerns, political infighting, corruption and so on. But if I had learned about all those issues before going to China, I would have analyzed every conversation, observation or general experience I had there as fitting one of those “issues.” It would have been difficult to divorce people from policy. I was fortunate to study under a brilliant professor who presented sensitive and controversial subjects with a measured and unbiased view. However, studying a nation from afar, no matter how responsibly approached, can unavoidably leave you with preconceived notions about it.

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Learning about a foreign country before living there, while advisable, will always create expectations. Journalists and students in particular often seek out everything they’ve heard about once they arrive. And once a person has decided what to look for, he or she can usually find it. Political dissidents? Just ask around until you find a Chinese person who has had a family member thrown in jail, although contrary to what the media might lead people to believe, your average Chinese hasn’t been imprisoned. (China incarcerates many people, but you have to include those held in pretrial and administrative detention centers for the numbers to be on par with the United States, a country with a much smaller population.)

When I returned from China to finish high school, I continued to follow events there by reading the news. And what I read was disorienting. Newspapers were littered with stories about the country’s human rights abuses, environmental degradation, social problems and analyses of its figureheads. Everything was political. For one thing, many of these stories described China as politically oppressed, which seemed strange to me because many Chinese people love political gossip. It’s true the Chinese Communist Party oppresses political dissent. Despite this (or perhaps because of it), the citizenry is politically vibrant and opinionated. Many articles on oppression in China can leave U.S. readers falsely thinking civic political discussion in the country is nonexistent.

In college, a review board of academics initially rejected a research project I proposed on the Chinese environmental movement in the wake of democracy advocate Liu Xiaobo’s 2010 Nobel Peace Prize. The most sensitive questions I planned to ask during interviews had to do with recycling campaigns, mostly on college campuses. A board of Ph.D.s was concerned that my questions might leave my subjects at risk of political persecution. Apparently, trying to recycle could be just as dangerous as calling for electoral democracy in China. It took a letter from my adviser, an expert on China, to convince the board that my interviews about recycling wouldn’t land anyone in jail. When I tell this story to Chinese friends, they either laugh or become angry. With a media environment that creates such perceptions, it is no wonder Chinese people often protest CNN and roll their eyes at the Western media’s portrayal of their nation. With some exceptions, it’s not because they believe the coverage is false; it’s because the stories talk about only one thing—controversy.

More important, the sensationalized issues in the news weren’t the ones that actually consumed Chinese lives. And, even though Chinese people like political gossip, politics certainly doesn’t dictate their whole existence. Mostly, people talk about family, jobs and local hearsay—just like anywhere. Many political matters stem from basic needs, but they feel far more removed on the ground. I liked the little anecdotes. Neighbors often chuckled about the bike repairman up the street secretly throwing nails in front of unsuspecting cycling tourists from outside Beijing. A news piece might frame the story as an example of China’s deeply engrained suspicion of outsiders, or the lengths that lower-class people often go to in an effort to support themselves. Both observations could be true—the story may indeed represent those things—but if the representation is all that matters, it’s easy to miss the actual point: that everyone found the story funny. When it was told, no one in the room thought about how to headline it for a newspaper; they all just laughed.


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