An American Visits China
by Douglas Young
China is a vibrant collection of contradictions. Perhaps no nation has navigated such massive change in so short a time as China since the late 1970s. My most recent trip there confirmed what an endlessly fascinating blend of opposites the country boasts: East meets West, ancient meets modern, Third World meets First World, and political communism meets economic capitalism. Yet China has skillfully integrated these contradictions to create its wealthiest, most opportunity-rich society in five thousand years.
My strongest impression was how friendly the Chinese are. They greeted me with unpretentious charm and were always helpful. A Xining airport worker even let me use her personal cell phone to call long distance, and waitresses would offer me a fork.
And how appreciative they were when I, a Westerner, tried to speak their language. Indeed, almost every time I greeted anyone in Mandarin, he would grin and eagerly reply.
The farther from Beijing and Shanghai, the more I was asked to pose for pictures with them, since they see so few foreigners. The first time a pretty girl asked for a photograph, I cynically wondered if she were a pickpocket. But no, she merely typified the remarkably open people I met all over the country. Men referred to their “brother” workers at the office, and I saw females holding hands as a natural gesture of friendship.
There’s enormous reverence for the old. In parks, the elderly sang, played instruments, danced, and exercised together, and there were bus seats reserved for senior citizens who could ride for free.
I was treated well simply because I was an American. At Beijing’s National History Museum, a University of North Georgia colleague was waved to the head of the line, and I was exempted from a security check. A stranger on the street exclaimed to me, “America great!” And I got a guided tour of a major Buddhist monastery, which included meeting the head monk.
China is not politically free. On hotel computers, I was denied access to Facebook and even an obscure libertarian website. Chinese must buy illegal “over the wall” software to access such banned sites.
Seeing me take a picture of a Xining housing protest, police promptly told me to put away the camera, and I avoided getting arrested by making them laugh at my Chinglish. In three trips to China since 2008, I have yet to see a Western news magazine or newspaper, and the only non-state-controlled TV news networks at hotels have been the BBC and CNN. A Beijing buddy had to bribe a satellite company to get forbidden networks at home.
At the National History and Art museums, I saw a clear Marxist narrative with no mention of the Maoist era’s repression (1949-76), mass famine, and the violent Cultural Revolution (1966-76). Even the painting of China’s first astronaut was dominated by an outsized image of President Hu Jintao (the leader at the time) in the center.
State propaganda posters abound, and they are not always subtle. One in a Beijing restaurant showed a government fist smashing any impurities in food. And there was no shortage of security cameras. But, to be fair, we now have more of them than ever here in the U.S., too.
But I also saw many signs of recent liberalization. There were far fewer propaganda posters in 2013 than just before the 2008 Olympics and, on hotel computers, I accessed almost every conservative, anti-communist website I wanted.
Regarding religion: In 2008 there were police vans across from Beijing’s famous East (Catholic) Church on Wangfujing Street. On my last trip, there were none. I witnessed the faithful pray openly inside. In Xining I saw mosques and many Islamic gentlemen wearing white taqiyah caps while Muslim ladies hid their hair with stylishly beautiful hijabs.
At the big Buddhist monastery outside Xining, everyone worshipped freely, and a friend’s corporate boss was a practicing Buddhist. He was still allowed to join the Chinese Communist Party, although the Party is officially atheist and doesn’t tolerate proselytizing.
Socially, in some areas, the Chinese enjoy as much or more freedom than Americans. Despite anti-smoking signs, people smoke almost everywhere, and traffic laws are routinely ignored. On my last trip, I saw more flashy Western outfits worn by young ladies, including some skimpy ones that would have gotten girls arrested in Chairman Mao Zedong’s time.
But pollution is something China’s huge cities have in abundance. On many days Beijing is engulfed in smog. In 2013 I saw more residents donning surgical masks than in 2008 and 2010 combined. Cars are covered in dust, and locals hope for a breeze or rain to bring relief. I never saw the sun or a blue sky in the capital. Now I understand why Chinese students studying at the University of North Georgia in Dahlonega exclaim how bright the sunlight is in America.
Despite record economic growth in this capitalist era (shh: it’s “socialism with Chinese characteristics”), China remains a Third World country. Even off the main streets of big cities, people live in real poverty by Western standards. But “market socialism” has helped enormously.
A huge lesson of my travels is that a nation’s government — especially an unelected regime — is not synonymous with its people. Rather than criticize our differences, I thought we might be grateful for China’s great leaps forward in freedom, engagement with the rest of the world, and prosperity during the post-Mao era. And history reveals that the more people engage with each other through trade, investment, education, and travel, the freer and more developed they become.
My adventures in China have made me appreciate how many wonderful universal human qualities transcend vastly different cultures. Kindness, curiosity, creativity, endurance, strength, optimism, and hope are virtues in abundance all over God’s green globe.
Copyright © 2014 by Douglas Young