Everyone in the west knows China as a fiercely authoritarian regime featuring draconian internet censorship and systemic repression of anti-government sentiment, but it's more complicated than that. Because of course it is.
There are 1.5 billion people living in China, and they are most assuredly not all completely ignorant. People know what democracy is. They watch the same movies that we do in the west. They read the same books, listen to the same music, eat the same food. But that's all in the context of a culture that also has its own movies, and books, and music, and food, and an unbroken national history stretching back thousands of years. A common refrain you hear from Chinese is that because their civilization is so old they take longer to consider the right path forward. There is an unsubtle implication that the Chinese pick the best from the west and leave the rest. I suspect there is a seed of truth here, but conveniently it's also a philosophy that plays into the party narrative that a political system that may work elsewhere will not work in China.
And the party has a narrative, for sure. All you need to do is read China Daily side-by-side with a western paper for a few months and compare the reporting. The party likes to come up with catchphrases - "one country two systems", "belt and road initiative", "socialism with Chinese characteristics", "industry 4.0" (aka "the fourth industrial revolution") and so on. Then the media weaves those catchphrases into every second article, even when it doesn't make sense. At first the Orwellian nature of it seemed frighteningly alien, but thinking about it more objectively i have to concede it's exactly the modus operandi of propagandists in the west too. Currently we are putting up with reams of articles filled with now-meaningless references to "fake news", "deep state", "neoliberal" and so on. Going back we've had "death panels", "coastal elites", "axis of evil" and countless other nonsenseburgers. Certainly this sensationalist pap has an impact, but critical thinkers either seek out more measured sources or learn to read between the lines. Why should we think people in China too dumb to do the same?
The difference is, i guess, there is only one source in China. In other countries different sides weaponize language and engage in tiresome propaganda wars with one another, so the proles get to pick their poison. In China there's only one visible side because the players on the other side get disappeared. But i get the impression the vast majority of people in the country do not give very much of a shit about politics precisely because it's so one-sided, so the propaganda just becomes background noise and the disappearing doesn't affect them anyway.
Which isn't to say i at all agree with press censorship. Just that i think in a place where the press is so clearly biased, people appear to place less value on it than they do elsewhere. In Hong Kong and Taiwan, you see people reading the newspaper. In China, you see them sitting on it.
It's unfortunate, perhaps, that the Chinese don't follow the news as avidly as i do, because i was in the country during a fairly interesting time for the region - the 20 year anniversary of the Hong Kong handover, tensions in Bhutan, the North Korea ICBM test, the G20 summit, the death of Liu Xiaobo... Not to mention the background of Brexit and Trump turning two former powerhouses into pariahs, leaving a vacuum of the likes we haven't seen since the fall of the USSR. All this stuff was reported in the English-language Chinese media, but none of it appeared to prompt any spirited debate.
Of course, it's hard for me to be sure about any of this, thanks to the language barrier. That's something i want to change, which is what makes this post more personal. I am considering spending the rest of my savings on staying longer in this part of the world. I am floating the idea of going to school to learn Chinese.
When i was in Hong Kong a couple days ago, i sat down at a pub to have a drink after a long day walking the hills and bays of the New Territories. On the bar was Apple Daily - a notorious pro-democracy tabloid published both in Hong Kong and Taiwan. The front page was about the four pro-democracy activists who got booted from the legislative council for using their oath-taking ceremony as a platform to protest the mainland. The Guardian and western papers breathlessly reported it as yet another example of Xi and the party cracking down on the Hong Kong democracy movement. Which is true, but it's not the whole story.
In speaking to people at the bar, they were in two minds about the situation. Some of them knew and admired one of the more notable activists - Leung Kwok-hung or "Long Hair" - but they still admitted he was a real-life troll who goes out of his way to annoy Xi as much as possible. On the front page of the South China Morning Post it showed he was wearing a "free Liu Xiaobo" shirt; Apple Daily had cropped it. There is a place for the tactic of being a big enough thorn in the side of The Man that he overreacts and shoots himself in the foot. It has helped in certain contexts like pipeline protests, anti-capitalist demos, the pro-squatter movement and so on. But thumbing your nose at the system is less useful once you have achieved political status. These activists managed to forfeit what little power they held by allowing Beijing to dismiss them on a technicality. Even the guys sympathetic to the movement were unhappy about that. One lady said to me she expected gaining democracy in Hong Kong would take a long time because "it is the Chinese way". And this from someone far outside the propaganda bubble of the mainland.
I met someone else interesting at the bar - a young stoner. If he had lived in a democratic nation he would likely have been a single issue voter - legalization. When i said i came from Canada, he talked legalization there. He talked about Amsterdam and Colorado. I asked him if he saw it happening in Hong Kong and he said it may take a long time, because "it is the Chinese way". I asked how he felt about China. He said mainland China was far more dynamic than Hong Kong, because so much more was happening - more innovation, more development. He looked young enough to have been born after the handover. Perhaps from that perspective, China is the "big brother" who protected you when the world was in economic crisis and who is now achieving great things and wants you to join his team. For a kid stuck in a hideously overpriced enclave, why wouldn't you eye the opportunities across the border? It's not like you ever had democracy anyways. And, you know, they'll legalize marijuana, eventually. They'll brand it "getting baked with Chinese characteristics".
When i mentioned being Canadian to the seaman i met on a ferry in the Yangtze, he said "like Bethune!" The only reason i know that name is because i had recently read Liu Cixin's Three Body Problem (a sci-fi novel), where Bethune was mentioned in passing and then explained in a translator's footnote. He was a Canadian doctor and communist who moved to China to join Mao and became a socialist icon over there. I am quite sure no one in Canada has heard of the guy. No doubt there are countless examples of similar teachings where the whole history of the world has been bent through the lens of Sinocentrism. It makes me wonder how much of the history we learn has been warped by Eurocentrism.
In Shenzhen i went to the museum. I looked at several exhibitions, but the most interesting was the recent history of Shenzhen, illustrated (in the Chinese way) with full-size brass figures and loud multimedia reenactments. The perspective on contact with the west was interesting. A 6-day Punti resistance against the Brits when they nabbed the New Territories took up a whole room. The Second World War didn't rate a mention. Why would it? The War of Resistance against Japanese Aggression started before WW2, continued throughout and was bookended by the Civil War and War of Liberation. The Cultural Revolution was skipped over, but Deng's "opening up" most certainly was not. He's practically the patron saint of Shenzhen.
When you open Baidu Maps for the first time, it shows you a zoomed-out version of China. Taiwan is included, of course, but so are a bunch of pissant little reefs just off the coast of Malaysia. It's utterly transparent to everyone in the west that making a claim on a submerged bank 1000 miles offshore is a blatant resource-grab, but perhaps the kids here see it differently. Perhaps to them the South China Sea makes sense as part of China because it's historically been a route of Han fisherman, traders and migrant workers who set up shop all over south-east Asia. Or perhaps they just roll their eyes and answer the question like the book says because they have bigger things to worry about than questioning a nine-dash line around a piece of water they will never see in their lives.
So, the Chinese people are ignorant, perhaps, but not in the way we in the west might like to think. They have a different culture, a different view of the world, and a different set of values. Perhaps, from their perspective, we are ignorant too. Certainly i was and - despite this short holiday in the country - still am. Who can blame Chinese for being less interested in democracy than us laowei when so many "democratic" nations around the world are hotbeds of corruption and inequality? If the party keeps the economy churning along and makes enough of a move to stamp out the most blatant corruption in its ranks, what is there to complain about?
Ah, yes, the disappearing. The human rights issues. And that, my friends, is my stumbling block. I really enjoyed my time in China, and i would very much like to spend a bit longer there. More than a few weeks of touristing around the place, anyway. But how can i feel good about indirectly supporting a state that jails people for speaking their minds, a state that practices extreme surveillance, censorship, torture and kangaroo court trials? Sure, the party is slowly improving their criminal justice system, but let's not pretend they are anywhere close to a paragon of virtue. The only thing i can come up with is that The People Are Not The Party.
That feels like a bit of a cop-out, but i guess many Americans must be familiar with it, since "none of the above" has won almost every election in their history. And, i guess, i've been dangling in this ethical limbo my whole life too, as a perpetual immigrant without the right to vote. Still, something doesn't quite sit right.
So, why not Taiwan? Or, as lots of happy expats put it, China without the human rights issues. Honestly, now that i have visited both, i am less drawn to Taiwan. Without a doubt, Taipei is a pleasingly cosmopolitan city. The nation looks outward, which makes it very accessible and gives it a more multicultural feeling. There is a rave scene and gay marriage and indigenous rights movements and all kinds of good stuff. But it also misses out on some of the unique culinary and cultural quirks i found so endearing on the mainland. And there is nothing to compare to the industriousness and urban development going on there right now. If you dig cities and nerd out over infrastructure and the public space like i do, mainland China is spectacularly thrilling.
Also - let's be practical - for learning the language through immersion, mainland China is far better organized. Standard pinyin is everywhere, whereas in Taiwan they often use a different phonetic system for learning, a different entry method for computers/phones and pinyin is not standardized anyway so names are romanized as pretty much anything. Taiwan also didn't adopt simplified characters, and they have politicized the retention of traditional characters. I understand the historic appeal of traditional characters, but as a foreigner i can 100% confirm that simplified characters are much easier to recognize and retain when you don't know the language at all. Also, it seems people in the mainland are more used to differing accents and dialects, so they know how to slow down and help you learn, whereas in Taiwan there is a tendency to switch to English or a phone app.
All that said, my destination on this little jaunt down the east coast is ultimately Kaohsiung - the city i most enjoyed in Taiwan. I want to give it a second opinion. If i do end up studying for a while, money is going to be a significant factor and Taiwan is somewhat cheaper than the mainland. It will presumably also be less bureaucratic, since Canadians get 90 days visa-free and there isn't the compulsory registration thing. Plus, you know. Democracy. Not that that makes any difference for me personally. Sigh.
What do you guys think? I have several countries on my shit list that i would never even visit for a layover, much less a holiday or course of study, but China was never one of them despite its record on political dissidents. My shit list is primarily reserved for countries whose oppression is gender- or race-based. After this trip, i am much more aware that China is a real-life police state, but somehow that feels far less like a dystopia than i thought it would. Am i just being wilfully ignorant? Does spending any more time there legitimize the human rights violations in their criminal justice system? Bear in mind i have privately cancelled the US as a holiday destination due to the current administration.
I guess some of this will come down to how much money i have left. Today was my day to sit on the beach and get my thoughts straight on LiveJournal. Later this week i am going to try find a hotel with a beach view and/or a beach with internet so i can research the practicalities.
Also, i am considering making a short loop "home", to Canada. I would love to land in Vancouver then travel across the prairies and back, but North America is not a cheap place and would likely blow my funds quicksmart. We'll see.