Misconceptions about China

This follows neatly after my last post about how China was badly portrayed in The Mummy 3, and we’re also just over the 90th anniversary of the Chinese Communist Party, which was on July 1st. Anyway, in this post I’m going to go along with the powers that be, while conceptualizing a future post that really doesn’t.

Last week, I finally got MSN to hook up with Facebook with the help of some friends, and so I was able to talk to people on Facebook without using a VPN. The first person who messaged me on Facebook chat was my MA supervisor. He had just returned to Canada from a research leave in Taiwan, and one thing he said in our conversation is that the West still holds the illusion that it’s superior to the East. I commented that even if the West admits that they cannot be said to be more technologically superior anymore, they still believe that they are morally superior. “Another illusion,” my supervisor said. He noticed that much of the interaction in Asia goes on with complete disregard for what the West says and does.

It’s important to me that the world doesn’t view China as the incarnation of pure evil. As a Chinese-Canadian who has lived in some very remote corners of the world (a suburb in Galway, Ireland, for example), I’ve noticed how Chinese immigrants were treated as second-class citizens based on the view the media has crafted about China. At first it was that China is an extremely undeveloped country. No one in Ireland in 1995 believed that China had highways or buildings over 3 floors high, and people a school probably thought of me as a refugee. I remember being very puzzled as one boy firmly declared to me that China must not exist because he hasn’t heard of it. Then, as China became more powerful and developed, the conception was that yes, China is developed now, but it’s going in a wrong way. It’s a threat that needs to be tamed. Primarily it’s based on a notion of moral superiority.

How Chinese immigrants are treated aside, another reason that the image of China matters to me is that it’s an alternative in a world where real alternatives are disappearing all the time to be replaced with pseudoindividuality. Admittedly, China is managed with a completely different philosophy and setup than in the West. However, difference does not entail a division of good and evil. I must emphasize that I have not been brainwashed and I can clearly see China’s shortcomings, however most media ends up building an extremely negative image of tyranny and poisonous food. If everyone subscribes to this image it would influence them to reject positive differences as negative ones.

There are 2 ways to comprehensively build a positive image of a subject. One is to contradict the negative things said about it, and the other is to say that yes, those negative things exist, but there are other positive ones to balance things out. In this post, I’m doing the former. Below are some points I have noticed in China that contradict things I’ve heard in North America.

1) There is no recycling, and more generally, Chinese people don’t care about the environment at all.

While I was living with my grandmother in Beijing, you couldn’t tell the Recycling Bin apart from the Garbage Bin apart because garbage had completely caked both, and for someone who was willing to dig through my housemates’ garbage to short out recyclables, I was disgusted. However, there actually is recycling here – people didn’t use the Recycling Bin because they had their own system. In China, one would see many men and women on tricycles loaded with styrofoam and cardboard. That’s the recycling force.

If you have things you want to recycle, just find one of these people. There are usually a couple hanging around each apartment complex and are easy to find. Tell them you have stuff to give them and take them to your apartment. They will usually bring a scale with them to weight the recyclables you have, and pay you a small amount for taking them off your hands. Everything that I could recycle in Canada I found that I could also recycle here.

The objection is that it’s not centralized, however centralized recycling doesn’t necessarily encourage recycling. I had friends who still threw their bottles into the garbage in Canada, and once the bag is tied and the garbage truck leaves, they’ll still end up in a landfill. In some ways, the system in China where a monetary reward is always offered for recyclables could encourage recycling more. Not being centralized just means that it’s harder to earn a living if you’re one of those men and women on tricycles, but that has nothing to do with how much recycling is done.

As for the environment in general, Chinese tech companies are creating energy-efficient air conditioners just like Western companies are, and in Nanning, the city I’m staying in now, made a rule that no one can lower the temperature of their air conditioners below 26 degrees Celsius or they would have their power cut off. This isn’t an idle threat, either; a couple of weeks ago the city experienced mass power outages because the power grid was overloaded.

For an interesting movie on the same topic, there is a movie whose name translates to How Yukong Moved the Mountains – but not the documentary about the cultural revolution under the same name. Yu Gong Yi Shan (How Yukong Moved the Mountains)is a 2007 mockumentary about Shuang Liang Li, a factory worker who devised a plan to remove a slag pile of 10, 000, 000m^3 over ten years to make his hometown living environment healthy and safe. It’s quite inspiring. You could say that this is propaganda to make other countries believe that China is doing something about its nasty environmental record, but that doesn’t mean that it doesn’t influence its Chinese audience to be more conscientious.

The main point is not to judge other nations just on surface discrepancies and not to measure them with the same ruler and apply the same system. When I first got here, I was unhappy that many manufactured products, such as cookies and toilet paper, would be individually wrapped while sold in a large package. My friends in Canada have also joked that imported junk food from China, while tasty, isn’t very environmentally friendly – it seemed that China has traded off environment for convenience. However, I realized that there are other factors as well. Compared to developed countries, a greater percentage of Chinese people live in very poor conditions, such as a shack beside train tracks. There’s no humidity regulation and of course rodents and insects are all around. If food isn’t individually wrapped in a larger package then it would be inedible within a day or two, and similarly in a monsoon season type of weather toilet paper would be completely mushy in a couple of days.

2) The government completely disregards its ethnic minorities.

Especially after what happened in Tibet before the Olympics, everyone in the world frowns even more on China’s human rights and how they treat ethnic minorities. China is in a very interesting position for having 55 groups of ethnic minorities in addition to the most widespread Han majority. Places like North America and Australia probably pat themselves on the back for having Native reserves and programs while lambasting China for wiping them out.

The situation in Tibet was awful, and the Dalai Llama was indeed wronged when the Communists “liberated” Tibet, however it doesn’t necessarily mean that every minority is oppressed. Currently I’m living in Guangxi, west of the better-known Guangdong (Canton). In this province, the largest group of ethnic minorities is the Zhuang group, and this province is called the Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region. How much autonomy this place has is doubtful, but I heard that a certain level of government (my Chinese isn’t good so I didn’t catch which one) is required to have a certain percent of members of the Zhuang minority on board. Of course, that could just be in name only, and you can say that the rest of the members pick one they think is more in line with their own views, but certainly North America and Australia has a long way to go before it gets even here.

Additionally, art- and media-wise, ethnic minorities are always included in things like New Years Gala shows. On the central CCTV channels, there’s a channel specifically devoted to music, and every evening there’s a program where musicians from ethnic minorities are invited to perform. Of course, this can be token multiculturalism, but North America has definitely applauded itself for doing just these things. And as a classmate has said, one can argue about the theoretical falseness of such things all day, but people who participate in these activities often still feel empowered.

The most important factor to support that China supports its ethnic minorities is that they are exempt from the one-child policy. This policy has also drawn a lot of ire, because most people in the West believe that it’s not the government’s business how many children a family wants to have. This kind of emphasis on the individual pursuit of happiness overriding the needs of a community is perhaps not really something to be proud of, but that’s not the topic so I won’t get into it. Anyway, middle and upper class members of the Han majority nation can only have one child, but poor peasant families and ethnic minorities can have more children if they wish. Compare this with eugenics in America.

That said, I wish the education system took ethnic minorities’ cultures more into account. A friend who is doing policy recently wrote her MA thesis about education in China and said that due to the standardized curriculum, ethnic minorities’ points of view are mostly left out. In addition, schools don’t respect the customs of ethnic minorities, for example having male teachers for Muslim girls when their families would rather they have female teachers.

3) It is impossible to find wholesome food.

This scare took place after the scandal about Sanlu Milk Company putting too much melamine into milk and causing a huge number of babies to get sick. In the time that I was in China, I heard more like stories about watermelons with dangerous growth hormones and sticky rice wrapped with leaves with unsafe colouring and so forth. This is indeed a problem with packaged food. However, unpackaged food is another story.

Agriculture in China is on a different system than in more developed countries. Things like vegetables and fruits are grown by small-scaled farmers, like an extended family. This might seem “primitive,” but this is the standard that the West wants to return to. for example, Vancouver in Canada just passed a law that allows people in single residences to keep up to two chickens in their back yard.

Most people don’t go to supermarkets in China – they are extremely empty considering the population density. Most people go to farmer’s markets, and you can find a farmer’s market almost every 15 blocks or so. Because these small-scale farmers have to come daily to this market, it means that they don’t live far away and hence it’s very easy to live by the 100-mile diet in China. It also means that what you’re eating is in sync with natural cycles, something which naturalists complain about not having, when you can have bananas in the dead of winter. Bittermelon, this cucumber-like gourd popular in China, was conspicuously absent during the winter here. Because I’m used to a diet where i can find anything shipped from anywhere, I tried to find bittermelon among the 10 or so stalls in the local farmer’s market in February. The farmers looked at me like I was insane. Now it’s summer and it is selling for 1 yuan/500 g, while this leafy vegetable that I enjoyed in March is gone. And it’s perfectly fine.

4) The entire country is materialistic and wasteful.

With burgeoning consumer culture, this is true of most people, especially young people. This point is largely a bitter idea older Chinese immigrants (including me) have about how the emphasis on thrift and basic living from their youth (childhood) is gone now. I have seen my Chinese housemates throw away whole meals because they don’t like the taste and take a taxi to campus, which would have been a 15-minute walk.

However, this isn’t the case with everyone. In China, most people are less materialistic than their Western counterparts – by counterparts I mean people of the same socioeconomic background in the West. For example, there are small stalls by the road where you can get your shoes stitched for a few RMB if something breaks, such as the thing between the toes on flipflops getting pulled out of the base. Most people in the West would just throw away their flipflops and buy a new one, but I had to line up to get mine fixed. There are also people who would sharpen scissors if they get dull or adjust the fit of your clothes if you find that they no longer fit you. Partly the reason that this is possible is due to the huge income gap – the people who repair shoes and sharpen scissors and sew clothes don’t earn much and hence their services are affordable to most other people, whereas in North America if you go to the tailors to re-sew your clothes you might as well buy a new one. However, the only reason that North Americans can afford to buy a new one is that the new one is probably made in a country where people earn a lot less than they do, so the income gap is still there, it’s just that they can’t see it.

5) Everyone is brainwashed by the Communist Party and have no mind of their own.

This is probably the least true of everything on this list. This might have been true 20 years ago. I remember my mother refusing to watch the movie Seven Years in Tibet because she believed it to be counter-propaganda (Is it true that Brad Pitt is not allowed to set foot in China because of it?), but she’s come around now. Anyway, most people with half a brain know that China is on the road to hell and really don’t believe anything the news says about growth and development and people living better lives.

I had a few friends over a month or so ago and they began to heatedly discuss things like the gap in income, the poor standard of living for peasants and migrant workers, corruption, the Chinese education system, homophobia. Some of my co-workers at the college also discuss similar things in the staff room and then say “what we just said doesn’t leave this room” before leaving. Yesterday was the singing competition for staff in my college to celebrate the 90th anniversary of the Communist Party, and I ran into one of my students and she was surprised I was there. I told her that it’s intriguing to me because the anniversary of political parties aren’t ever publically celebrate in North America, and she said, rather matter-of-factly, “Well, it’s not like we want to celebrate it .” Lastly, a couple of months ago, I set a writing topic about arguing whether or not students should join the Party, and a large number of students professed in their homework that it’s a waste of time. Most of the time Chinese people can’t publicize their views (yet), but independent thought is a huge improvement.

For a more policy-oriented and more academic article, take a look at “5 Myths About the Chinese Communist Party.”

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2 thoughts on “Misconceptions about China

  1. I usually don’t have the patience to read something this long, but I actually managed to read most of this because I was intrigued by the title. But I don’t believe it’s just the media that’s causing the negative image. It’s the people who are doing ridiculous things that give their own country a bad name. Yes perhaps the media went overboard with the whole poisonous food deal, but you have to admit they did add toxic chemicals to the food and put their own kinsmen at risk for their own profit. It’s the whole culture that’s messed up. Most of the issues stem from people putting themselves way above the rest. So what if other people die as long as I make money? That’s why you have problems like people not lining up for anything, pushing and shoving to get where they want, spitting in public places… because they only think of the “self”. And ironically in a communist country too…

  2. Pingback: Bystander Apathy in China and Other Social Ills, Part 1 « Radical Compounds

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