February 12, Baotou

Hello all.

    Today is February 12th and it’s been exactly one year since I came to China. It’s also nearing the end though and we should be in Denmark three or four weeks from now! It’s going to be a little strange of course, so many things have changed since I left, but I am looking forward to getting back home. Since I wrote you last, we’ve been applying for Lisa’s visa and I’m happy to say that although there are some horrifying stories out there about the Danish immigration authorities, our application seems to have gone through without a hitch. I still need to get some paperwork about the security in order but that’s pretty much a formality and we should be should have the visa real soon.

    Right now I’m on vacation. I’ve graded the exams, I’ve collected my last paycheck, I’ve been evicted from my apartment (which was part of my paycheck) and Lisa and I have moved in with the brother-in-law. Unfortunately that also means that my internet is limited to visits at the local internet café and I am therefore not be able to access quite as often as I’d like to. This then, will be my final letter and I’d like to use it to touch down on some things that I’ve been reluctant to discuss ‘in public’ until now; some of the more controversial issues of China.

    One of the things that people have asked me repeatedly is what do the average Chinese people really think about things like Falong Gong, the student demonstrations in 1989, and the situations with Tibet, Taiwan and Hong Kong to name a few. I’m sorry to say that I haven’t had the opportunity to discuss these things with many people here, the main reason being that the average Chinese person is largely unaware of them; or I should say, they might be aware but what they know is a truth that has been spun to reflect a world view more in line with the views of the government in Beijing. Let me give you some examples…

    You remember I told you how Lisa had been arrested with her whole Yoga class about six months ago? The reason that they were taken in was that the police thought they were Falong Gong practitioners though they were in fact doing normal yoga. For those of you who don’t know; Falong Gong is a movement that started as a kind of meditation/exercise technique and evolved into a pseudo religious/political group which is now illegal in China (its members being persecuted and in some cases incarcerated and tortured)… Anyway, at the time of Lisa’s incident I asked some people, friends of mine and thoroughly nice people, why she was being arrested and in explaining they told me about Falong Gong, referring to them as “these bad people who like to burn themselves”… I didn’t think much of it the first time I heard the phrase, nor the second but when people kept referring to the movement as “people who like to burn themselves” I got the impression that they were repeating something that had been repeated to them. And this is of course the problem at its root. China is a big place and people are depending on mass media for information; mass media which is owned, operated, and rigorously controlled by the government. I guess it only takes a few months of work; show some guy burning himself on every edition of the evening news with a big subtitle saying “yet another Falong Gong practitioner sets himself on fire” and pretty soon this is the opinion that people will hold. And why wouldn’t they? No one is contesting it.

    Now here’s the odd thing. Most Chinese people above the age of 25 or so know or at least suspect that the news are controlled by the government and that they only show what the government wants you to see; Chinese people are by no means stupid. Far from everything on TV is a lie though so how do you separate the truth from the spins? There are a lot of crazy people out there, so a cult-like organization with members that like to commit suicide by burning themselves doesn’t really sound all that farfetched; at least not if you don’t know any Falong Gong people personally. And if you believe that, wouldn’t you think it right for the government to outlaw such an organization and incarcerate the members (for treatment)? It’s all about the way you seve the story.

    Another example is the situation in Taiwan. Again, as most of you know the island of Taiwan is independent in all but name and has been so since the Chinese revolution fifty-odd years ago. But Taiwan is not recognized as an independent nation for the simple reason that any country taking that step would find their relations with China severely strained and possibly lose their access to the lucrative Chinese market. Now I’m not allowed to interfere in Chinese foreign policies as a teacher but I have from time to time asked my students about their opinions on things like Taiwan. Just like with the Falong Gong thing, I get the same reply every single time, without fail: “Taiwan belongs to China”. Sometimes a particularly clever student (and I do mean clever this is not me being sarcastic) will hash out all the arguments and the reasons for why Taiwan belongs to China but most will just repeat the same sound-bit “Taiwan belongs to China” and then get a look on their face like the discussion is over. It’s almost a religious phrase like “God works in mysterious ways” or  “Allah is great”; an absolute “truth” that doesn’t require argumentation or allow for any kind of discussion. Again, my students are not by any means stupid but this answer is all they’ve ever seen on the news, it’s all they’ve ever read in their books, it’s all they’ve ever been taught by their teachers, and it’s all they’ve ever been told by their parents (who of course also were similarly influenced when they were growing up). There’s just no way that a young mind, anywhere in the world, could go against that kind of conditioning without some personal experience to the contrary.

    I told a friend from Denmark about the arguments that a student presented for the case in an essay and he (quite correctly) pointed out a number of conflicting conclusions and was unable to understand why she could not see the problem in the argumentation. The trouble with independent thinking, which I mentioned in a previous letter, is of course a factor here but there’s a bigger issue. Turn your eyes to the west for a moment and look at the many conspiracy theories that are so popular in TV shows, movies, literature and of course on the internet. Imagine that any one of these was in fact true, for example the one about America never actually landing on the moon but merely fabricating the whole thing in a Hollywood studio. This is a theory that seems well supported. Logic, pictures, science, interviews, reports and so on. So why don’t most people believe it (I don’t believe it either)? Well, because it flies in the face of everything we’ve been taught and everything we know about the topic. Very few of us have any first person knowledge about the Apollo program but most of us are nevertheless very reluctant to believe it could be a lie. I guess that’s what it like to have grown up in China during the Cultural Revolution and to some extend what it’s like growing up in China today. You might have some vague idea that you’re not being told everything but to believe in these crazy conspiracy theories like that Tibet should somehow be ‘occupied’ by Chinese troops or similarly anti-Chinese propaganda is just ridiculous and repeating it well only make you a laughing stock.

    A few people here and there know about some of these issues though. Lisa knows some people who were present that day in 1989 in Beijing and she’s got friends in Taiwan but most people aren’t that lucky and get all their information from the national news agencies, knowing only what they are supposed to know. The debate might spread by word of mouth but usually the people who know what’s going on are (quite understandably) not willing to risk getting in trouble. That friend of Lisa’s for example; I met him one time and hoped to get an opportunity to pick his brain but I was disappointed. In 1989 he was a straight A student, holding two university degrees and going for a third. He was headed for a lucrative government job but after participating in the demonstration he was thrown out of school and put on the black list for any positions of influence. He got off easy you might say but still he learned his lesson and he was not about to criticize the government in front of some guy that he just met – I don’t think they have statues of limitations for the kind of ‘crime’ that he committed and although the government probably doesn’t pay much attention to him anymore, it’s just not a risk you would take lightly.

    If any of my students are reading this, and I hope you are, these are some of the reasons why I told you not believe everything you read in your books or are told by your teachers. I am sorry I could not tell you about these things in person but there’s really no good way to tell someone that they should distrust information from everyone else. I think most of you have the capacity for originality and independence of mind and I hope some of you will trust yourself enough to use it. I know you all deserve it.

    China, for all its fascinating culture, great food, friendly people and interesting history is still a country where a select few people exercise an enormous amount of control. Concepts like “right” and “wrong” are often a matter of who has the best connections, “legal” and “illegal” depends on who you bribe and “fair” and “unfair” are distinctions made by the naïve only. For all the democratic reforms, ‘opening to the world’ and Beijing Olympics it’s still not a democracy in any meaningful sense. But it is getting there. More and more people are getting influence not through government positions but through their own industry and subsequent wealth; they in turn inspire their neighbors to do the same. Small businesses are opening up everywhere and although they don’t all succeed I believe that a rising middle class of independent business men, which is certainly being hampered by corruption and a shady legal system, might be the ingredient that was missing in 1989. One way or another Chine is developing, not only economically but also culturally and I guess it’s only natural that that development should bring political change as well.

    For all the seriousness of those issues I can honestly say that I’ve had the time of my life during my stay here. No amount of state controlled TV and police corruption can make me forget the positive experiences I’ve had in China. Teaching at the college here has been extremely rewarding for me, and while in Baotou I’ve had the privilege of meeting friendly, forthcoming people almost on a daily basis; if you are reading this and considering teaching abroud, I can warmly recommend comng here. I will never forget Baotou and I will be back from time to time, if for no other reason then to visit my new family and look up old friends.

    But yeah, that’s going to be it for this time except to say that Spring Festival is coming which we will be celebrating with Lisa’s family. After that we’re off to Dalian on the east coast for a short visit and then… home… to Denmark.

That’s all for this time, the webpage should be updated with the lastest pictures, and there might be a few more after the Festival. Goodbye for now; we'll see most of you soon,