To understand anything about China, you have to know a little bit about its history. China occupies one of the longest continuously inhabited spaces on the planet, and currently has a population of nearly 1.4 billion. China was governed under dynastic systems until the turn of the 20th century, and it was only in 1949 that the current Communist Party took what is essentially full control of China's provinces and various territories. The government which had previously been at war with the Communist Party moved to Taiwan and claimed/continues to claim autonomous rule. It was also around this time that China seized Hainan and claimed ownership of Tibet. In the sixties and seventies, China experienced a cultural revolution which will sound incredibly familiar to you if you know anything about Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge (read my take the Cambodian genocide here). The cultural revolution capitalized on the idea that "traditional" Chinese, foreigners, and those with Western ideals were destroying China's social, political, and economic stability. To be fair though, China has suffered greatly under imperialist actions on the part of the US, various European countries, Russia, and Japan.
Mao Zedong's administration supposedly aimed to restore the "true ideals" of communism by taking property, moving millions of people away from urban areas (especially young people), replacing most of the party's officials, imprisoning and torturing citizens, destroying historically significant buildings and artefacts, and encouraging people to denounce old Chinese values and traditions. Young people who were influenced by Mao's propaganda team formed what were essentially student body militias all over China and murdered a lot of people, and forced intellectuals out of their posts, and imprisoned many people who were thought to be enemies of the party.
The cultural revolution is considered to have been a failure, but to his credit, his policies modernized China and provided a foundation for the country to become a world power. He forcefully advocated for women in the workplace, and women did begin working in China for almost equal wages and in numbers that rivalled men in the workplace. Unfortunately, most of the gender equality advancements have been lost and the expectation for women is that they will be child-rearing subservient housewives. There is even a term for women who cannot find husbands --so-called, "Leftover Women"-- who people assume are crazy or not attractive enough to be married. In the end, people began living longer in China and the economy boomed, albeit at the cost of millions of lives and the near destruction of the functioning state.
Now, here is the important bit: after the mess of Mao's administration, China's government is incredibly involved with the personal lives of its citizens, the press, and every facet of Chinese life. In addition to this, only about half of China is what we would consider "developed," which partly means that large sections of its population have limited access to education and connection with the outside world. In order to maintain its hold on the populace and influence the success of China on a global scale, the Communist Party has implemented various measures to keep citizens from being informed about both domestic and international goings-on. The Internet in China is heavily censored; only state-approved news stories make it online or on the air, and studies, data, stories, or social media posts which are seen as detrimental to the Communist Party's agenda are blocked or deleted from Chinese web space within minutes or hours. Even private messages between people are monitored and censored to ensure to Communist Party's continued existence.
Now, I do not mean to make China sound like the only country which has a complicated and terrible political past/present. The United States has its own issues, even with propaganda and censorship, but this post is intended to focus objectively on China. So chill.
Nearly everything in present-day China is some form of propaganda. Ads on the television are made to portray foreigners as sleazy, stupid, or buffoonish, albeit beautiful. There's an odd dichotomy here; white people are the beauty ideal, but if you ask the people of rural China (most of whom have never met a foreigner in their life) what they think Westerners are like, they will nearly always answer, "Very handsome, not serious, and individualistic."
This obviously isn't a product of their experience with foreigners, but is instead reflective of the TV ads and America's Funniest Home Video-style videos which play constantly on the subway and television. Probably the worst thing about these videos (or ads, news stories, etc...) is that they never, ever, ever feature people of color. That's left to Hollywood movies, and causes even more problems for people with darker skin in China. For a couple of weeks in my ESL classes, I focused on the topic of racism and sexism. After going through examples of racist behavior and discriminatory thinking, I asked my classes (about 45 students each) whether racism existed in China. The answer was a resounding, "No!"
When pressed further, an uncomfortable truth comes out.
"When you see me," I said, "or when other people in Nanchang see me, what do you think they do?"
"They take pictures!" Some students would laugh and add, "Maybe they want to talk to you, or think you are handsome."
"How would you react if you saw a black person walking down the street?" I asked.
"Oh, maybe I would go to the other side of the street. I don't know if he wants to hurt me," was a common answer.
"Do you think that's fair?"
A moment of silence, and then, "No, maybe not."
Rural China largely has not had experience with people of other races. For nearly all 215 of my university students, I was the first or second foreigner they'd ever met, let alone talked to on a regular basis. And the only time they'd ever seen a black person was in a Hollywood movie, and --we only have ourselves to blame for this one-- black men are overwhelmingly portrayed as villains, immoral, or stupid. In a way, their prejudices are manufactured and reinforced without any dose of reality to keep them in check. At one point, the issue of skin color came up between two friends and I over lunch.
"All the lotions and skin products here have skin bleach in them," I said, laughing. "I can't find any normal stuff for my face. If I get any more white, I'll literally disappear."
"Not me, I'm so ugly!" one of my friends, whose skin tone was only barely darker than that of her classmates, responded. "I'm black!"
In Thailand and in Nanchang (I'm not sure about the rest of China) it's common to equate lightness of skin with beauty; even beyond that, with personality. This can be an uncomfortable reality for Westerners, especially given our current political climate and the power of discrimination and marginalization we are (//should be//) aware of.
China is also notorious for its "One China" policy, which provides direction for nearly all its policy and censorship decisions. The Communist Party benefits enormously from a sense of unity and peace within China, and any evidence to the contrary damages the party's credibility. Because of this, anything which promotes the independence of areas over which China claims authority, or literally any civil unrest is seen as a threat. You'll never read anything while in China about the independence of Tibet, Taiwan, parts of North and South Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong, bits of India, Bhutan, and several islands that belong to different island nations unless is it pro-One China. Principally, the areas of interest are Taiwan and Tibet. Many Chinese express strong negative feelings and even hatred for the Dalai Lama, who advocates an independent state for Tibet.
"Do you think Taiwan is a different country?" one student asked me in class. This may have been brought on by Donald Trump's phone call to Taiwan, but I can't remember.
"I would say yes," I posited, to gasps. It's a complicated question, and I'm not even sure there's a right answer at this point. Taiwan has been fighting for independence after being ousted from the mainland for several decades. The attitude in Taiwan is mixed; some sympathize with mainland China, while others express a complete hatred for what they see as an oppressive military and political force. China's "One China" policy bars the government of Taiwan from being recognized as a sovereign entity, and has stated numerous times that should Taiwan try to claim such independence from China, they may impose sanctions or seek military action against the island.
The northwestern-most province in China, Xinjiang, borders several other countries and is ethnically more diverse than the rest of China. Especially in the province's most populous city, Urumqi, its people more resemble Turkish and Pakistani people than Chinese Han. They also speak their own language, which itself is an anomaly in China.
While celebrating my Australian colleague's birthday with a group of Chinese women, we had a heated discussion about how many languages were spoken in China. The woman across from me also had a degree in Linguistics (the Chinese word for this is 语言学, which simply means language studies, so it's not an easy 1-to-1 comparison) and would not acknowledge that more than one language was spoken in China.
Even Cantonese, she argued, was simply oddly pronounced Mandarin (it's not), despite not being able to understand another woman's speech who was at the table who was speaking her village's language. Most languages in China share a common writing system, which is logographic (in which symbols represent ideas) rather than phonetic (in which symbols represent sounds); so the same written character can, in theory, represent any number of phonetic representations. In practice, this means that the various languages of China can rely on a single written language, even if speakers of those languages cannot understand each other in conversation. However, this can lead to lead to some very strange interpretations of Chinese policy, even by nationals.
"They have their own dormitories, and their own cafeterias," one student explained, on the topic of Uyghur students. Uyghur is the word used to describe the ethnic people of Xinjiang and Central Asia, who learn to speak Mandarin as a second language. "They get extra points on their exams too," the student continued. "I think it's not fair. It's easy for them to get into a good school even if they don't study as hard as me." It was only after I discovered that their native language was not Mandarin that this began to make sense. Various news stories coming out of Xinjiang are banned in China because they relate to police brutality, racism, and religious/employment/housing discrimination against Uyghur people. I used a banned video in a class to draw my students' attention to these issues in China, after introducing them to the ubiquitous issue of racism in the USA and around the globe.
The most tangible consequence of the One China policy for foreigners who have gone to China to live is that the internet is heavily censored. Without buying special software to get around the "Great Firewall," it's impossible to access most non-Chinese websites. That means no Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, Google or its permutations, YouTube, Wikipedia, CNN, NPR, etc. It's possible to access Yahoo (though it's modified in China to cooperate with government regulations), and the search engine most people use, Baidu, does not contain search results which are not in alignment with government policies.
That means that you can't find information on various historical events which cast the Communist Party in a negative light (lots of historical events and news stories have had relevant numbers, figures, and timelines edited or wiped completely), you can't find anything on dissent in China, etc. Want to see it firsthand? Visit Baidu.com and search for Tiananmen Square, and then make the same search on Google. Then check the images tab for both search engines. See the difference?
All foreign movies are censored as well. I saw a few movies while in China, and the running length of the Chinese version vs. the American version was shorter, and it was obvious while watching them that scenes were missing. And after leaving China to see what I'd missed, the cuts normally didn't make sense.
Even more unnerving, the government monitors social media so that any posts they see as threats or which do not pass muster according to the filter are deleted within hours of being posted. Even private messages between people are monitored and can be deleted, as I found out while trying to send a closeted student websites for survival support. China, not surprisingly, is a terrible place for LGBT people. As my gay Chinese friend in the States said before my departure, "Get used to being watched."
I was very open with my students about my being gay. As you'll read in a future post, the two most common things you'll hear when meeting someone in Nanchang first are 1) You're handsome, and 2) Do you have a girlfriend? Even though I'm single, I would always answer the second question with, "I have a boyfriend." I felt an obligation to use my status as a foreigner to make a sort of political statement, and word spread very quickly. Several people began messaging me privately on Chinese social media with cryptic messages like, "I have a secret that no one knows, and I feel I can tell you." Queue the heartbreak:
Been there. 🙁
"I don't know how to survive if I came out." Just let that one sink in.
There's a lot more that I could write about on civil unrest and racism in China, but I don't want to make this post too long. What I would encourage you to do is do some research of your own. The point of this post, honestly, is not to make China look bad. By learning how other countries process discrimination, I hope people living outside of China can look critically at their own belief system and try to understand how the politics and culture of particular areas affects your ability to empathize with people from a different economic, linguistic, or religious background. But if you choose to live in China for any period of time, these are the kinds of ideas you may be dealing with on a daily basis.
When writing this, my page wasn't blocked in China, but I feel like that might change soon...