inside thoughts on China and beyond

Patriot Talk

My Chinese language teacher is a fervent traveler and true patriot. Had she only lived in, let’s say, March 8, 1421, she would surely have joined admiral Zheng He, whose ships (each an impressive 5 times the size of Columbus’ dinky boat!) crossed many seas. She would have explored the new worlds of Australia and Africa and beyond and enjoyed the cultural diversities and tried to comprehend it all. That’s how curious she is. She would have returned home with spoils of arts and animals and sing glory to the Middle Kingdom’s achievements and greatness. That’s how patriotic she is. But then she would also have been uncontrollably upset when eventually the emperor burned all ships, shut down China’s borders and closed off the country for any contact with the outside. That’s how headstrong she is -and angrily disappointed. I won’t say it aloud, but I am sure she would have started a rebellion, back then.

We often talk about news, especially the news that didn’t make it into China’s papers. News that is spread over the internet instead. She is well versed in China’s history -both the approved and unapproved version. She does not shy away from the black pages of last century’s history but fiercely defends her country against arrogant foreign perceptions. But about the economical wonders of China’s recent decades, she remains obstinately pessimistic. The Chinese society, she feels, is losing its cohesiveness and is more and more falling apart into a loose bunch of self-serving individuals that do not care for fellow countrymen, like in the old days.

Lately, she has seen a growing concern about bad appearance caused by misbehaving Chinese. In China and abroad. It appeared first on the web and later also in the printed press -where officials determine the papers’ content: half of the stories selected are a reflection of the Party’s most recent campaign, the other half is made-up to serve the same purpose. And today, unanimous concern is voiced out about bad behavior -silly even, sometimes. A tourist from Anhui province was part of a tour group on a famous mountain (not named; might harm local tourism industry) where they admired the view while standing by the fence on the edge of a cliff.  Pictures were taken and to get a better and more unique pose, the lady stepped over the fence, and, seconds later, over the edge. I can’t stop thinking of her husband snapping away, saying: “one more, just  step a little bit further back darling!”  Now that’s news! Then a Chinese tourist visiting the famous natural bridge of Utah. Ignoring all signs and warnings, he thought it funny to climb up, only to find himself rolling all the way down. He too didn’t make it.

Sad, you may think, but who cares, really? Well, my teacher does; and the Party does. In this collectivist society, the individual’s actions affect how the whole group is perceived. By the rest of Asia, Chinese are seen as rude and disrespectful. We all know how this works: all Dutch are tall and drug-users, all Americans are arrogant and noisy, all Germans are war criminals with beer bellies, and all of us have learned to ignore it. But not the Chinese officials; they take this serious. To them, this is hurting China’s image and need to be dealt with.  Although the ‘face’ issue is important, there is a much greater fear. What they will not say, is that this is yet another sign that they are slowly losing control -and my teacher is sure of this. Urbanization, increasing mobility, accessible advanced communication technology and the growing financial independence of the younger generation make for a fluid and slippery society. My teacher explains:

“We tend to think that a collectivist society is more social than its individualistic counterpart that is typical for western countries. After all, everyone is, in one way or other, part of a group and will feel responsible not to let the group down, just as that group will not fail to correct if things do go wrong. And that is still true. In China, each person lives, in a way, in 2 smaller circles: the family clan and the danwei, (the work unit). The Party is another circle, but only for a selected few and it can be seen as the extension of the the danwei. Within these circles the member is safe and cared for; and under ‘control’.  But there is another side to this coin: the inclusiveness of a collectivist society is at the same time painfully exclusive. Outside the community circles, you are on your own and it is survival of the fittest. That explains why large crowds at the site of an accident can stand by without helping: it’s not my sister that is being raped, so I don’t care; it is not my father laying on the sidewalk so no worries; it’s not my bike that they are now stealing, so I keep quiet; it’s not my child being driven over by this van, so I’ll keep walking.”

“These spheres of social networks are bendable but hard to penetrate. Migrant workers, having moved away from their own social spheres and living in large cities far away from home, have lost their traditional circles but aren’t able to become part of others. They are vagabonds. And so are the millions of white-collar workers in Beijing and other first and second tier cities. They don’t belong anywhere. And when you don’t belong and cant’ be part of, you won’t feel a group responsibility; you feel free to do what you want.”

“I noticed that the exclusiveness of these circles were especially apparent in Tibetan area and Xinjiang, when I was there. These are ‘they-versus-us’ societies. Chinese have no respect or understanding for local culture and traditions (except to have them all together dance on a large stage for a Chinese TV station) and for that, the locals loath the Chinese. Chinese are not bothered to learn the local language and locals are reluctant to use Chinese. You stay in your circle  and I in mine.”

“This egocentric behavior -no, I should say: this anti-social behavior- is really angering me. Beijing is too far away! [I am worried about the table now because her fists keep hammering on it harder and harder.] It is not dealing with it hard enough! The people need to unite and force a change!”

What could I possibly say?

2 responses

  1. Sonck, Koen (K.)

    Great article!

    Koen Sonck Quality Volvo Cars Chengdu

    December 7, 2013 at 3:00 pm

  2. As always a well thought-out and crafted post. Interesting to hear this discussion on anti-social behaviour in China from the perspective of your language teacher.

    December 8, 2013 at 4:06 pm