Thursday, April 3, 2008

Controversial Topics

This morning after an unusually heated class debate on the topic of gay marriage, I ran into one of my students, Mars, at the bus stop. Contrary to his namesake, Mars perpetually sits in the back row beaming benevolently upon the rest of the class and occasionally making wisecracks. He is one of my most outlandish students, and easily one of my favorites. This morning the God of War and I sat together on the bus chatting about class and the usual topics: the weather, pollution, and inevitably, the Olympics -- Qingdao will host the Olympic sailing events this summer. "You know the smokestacks downtown?" Mars asked me chuckling. I nodded a little guiltily. Ethan got a great picture of one towering above a sign that reads: “Clean Energy Supply for Better Environment.” "Well, the government is destroying them now." He was still laughing. "Why?" I asked, smiling too, wondering what the joke might be. "Well, they don't want the foreigners to think bad about China so they are taking them all down, but...they even take down the ones that are giving off steam, not just smoke, because they worry about what the foreigners will say." We both laughed at this, the government taking down supposedly innocuous "steam-stacks" simply because they are worried about the impression it will give foreigners. But at the same time I had to wonder: who was I laughing at exactly? The government's less than thoughtful efforts to gain favor with foreigners, or the extreme environmental demands imposed on China by westerners? Where did Mars get this story in the first place? And how benign could these smokestacks, er, steamstacks really be?

Mars sighed and then looked at me intently, "But you know," he began seriously. "The real threat to China right now isn't pollution, it's the bad gangs." I paused to think. "Bad gangs? Like bang-bang?" I asked pointing my finger at him and firing. "No, no," he answered. "Bad gays." Oh, no not this again! I didn't think I could summon the energy to patiently address this issue for the second time that morning. "Bad gays...?" I asked forlornly. "No! Bad guys!" Ohhhh. Bad guys. "What bad guys?" I asked, relieved. “You know, the ones who want to divide China.” I knew at that point that we were talking about Tibet. Since the March 14th riots and the flurry of Chinese newspapers that had begun appearing in class, I hadn't broached the topic with any of my students, colleagues, or even our Chinese friends. I had read and heard enough to know that the accounts that the Chinese were following in the news were wildly different from the stories I was poring over in the New York Times through a serendipitous crack in the great firewall of China (many of our ex-pat friends can't access the site), and if I did mention Tibet and talk about my views I wasn't sure what the consequences might be. Sitting on the bus outside the classroom, I felt safe enough to at least utter the T-word, so I asked, "You mean in Tibet?" Mars nodded. After that, I didn't add much to the conversation. What could I say? Debates about gay marriage aside, the last thing I want is for a student to go to the administration with a list of grievances claiming that I'm a threat to Chinese security; I could be fired or sent home. I listened to what Mars had to say and recognized the familiar rhetoric plastered all over the China Daily, China's English newspaper. Mars, like China's journalists, was distressed that these "bad guys" were trying to divide the Chinese people.

If I were Mars, and all I had to read were Chinese publications like the China Daily, I'd probably be worried about the "bad guys" too. The headlines read more like "slam book" entries (think Babysitter's Club) or messages scrawled on bathroom stalls than actual news coverage, and the vast majority of the stories focus on vilifying the Dalai Lama and his "clique", critiquing the western media's supposedly "biased" coverage (one article dripping with irony angrily thanks the Western Media for "teaching" China about freedom of the press - click here to read.), and emphasizing the victimization of the Han Chinese without asking the question at the center of the violence - why is this happening? I've begun to collect headlines as souvenirs. Here are just a few from the China Daily web site:

Voices Rise to Counter biased Western Media

Evidence of Dalai clique's role in riots released

Don't see Tibet through tainted glasses

Do you call this peaceful?

Facts exposing Dalai clique's masterminding of Lhasa violence

Dalai clique racks brains to sabotage ethnic unity: living Buddha

China urges int'l to see true features of Dalai clique

Dalai Lama's 'Non-Violence' Stance Disproved by Lhasa Riot

The epicenter of lies

I wasn’t exactly surprised by the China Daily’s skewed news reporting. Early in our stay Ethan and I spent six hours riding around in a cab as a favor to a student who asked us to help her young journalist friend with an investigative report on whether or not taxi drivers could understand and respond to English-speaking tourists. The poor cab drivers had all learned the same unfortunate phrase -- “welcome to my taxi driver” -- but other than that only hand miming and the generous guidance in Mandarin from the back seat got us around town that day (Ethan wasn’t allowed to use his Chinese – one of the rules of the game). When we got a hold of a copy of the Qingdao Morning News the next day, we had a Chinese friend translate it for us and learned that 1) it was apparently us who had called the paper asking them to report on the topic, and 2) the cab drivers had passed their impromptu exam with flying colors. Not only that, we discovered we had missed out on the generous compensation that people usually receive for providing information to newspapers.

Just a few hours after talking to Mars I read an article in the NYT that traces China's reaction to the riots to a sense of injured nationalism (click here to read the article). China's nationalism, a nationalism I am struggling to understand, seemed to be just the issue in my conversation with Mars. Mars was saddened and concerned that "separatist" groups would want to hurt China in this way. He couldn't understand it. After reading the article I immediately clicked on the icon to share the link on my Facebook page - I hadn't realized you could do that before. When Ethan got home I found out he had read the article too, and was planning to send the link back home. When I mentioned that I had already linked to the page on my Facebook account with a description of the conversation I’d had with Mars, he did a double take. “You did what?” We spent the next fifteen minutes frantically deleting it before some phantom censor could read my comments, all the while joking about losing our jobs. The thing is we feel safe here, but we just don't know. We don't know what our colleagues think and we don't know what the consequences would be of sharing our views. Maybe our colleagues don't know either. So, between secret visits to the NYT website, Ethan and I talk about Tibet at home in our university apartment, trying to ignore the stories we heard from ex-pat friends recently over brunch. Like the one about the American couple who after having a blow-up fight one evening about on of them forgetting to call to get the refrigerator fixed, received a knock on the front door first thing the next morning from the refrigerator repairman. Sometimes surveillance can be convenient, but I think I’d opt for the broken refrigerator.