Yes. This banner was hanging in the middle of
one of the busiest walkways in Southwest Normal University, right
above the building that houses all the foreign teachers. So imagine
our indignation when we found out the meaning – here we are, besieged
by smiling, anxious students eager to learn English so they can
get the good job and right above our heads hangs an accusation of
inciting revolts. I cannot speak for the rest of my foreign friends,
but I began searching for hidden meanings behind every word and
every smile – after all, these students had been walking under that
banner for some time now, and had told us nothing. Perhaps they
were protecting the "faces" of all involved.
We complained, the banner was removed and life
returned to normal. But I was determined to pursue the matter, so
I asked my students what they thought of the outlawed sect and why
it is that the government hates them so. My students responded with
smiles of understanding directed at the confused foreigner and told
me about the deaths, suicides and cases of insanity the Falun Gong
was responsible for. The exiled leader of the sect, Li Hongzhi,
was ridiculed in a lighthearted manner for his obviously ridiculous
views and self-serving schemes.
The moment I began speaking of mind-control and
media brainwashing and the fears of a corrupt government the slightly
condescending smiles turned into narrow-eyed tight smiles of disdain.
Not because I was supporting the Falun Gong or attacking the policy
of "Beat First, Incarcerate/Execute Later" that the PRC
has adopted towards all practitioners, but because, I, a foreigner,
was "interfering in internal affairs."
And this is what matters more to Chinese than
Tai Chi movements and hysterical news reports. If the Falun Gong
comes up in conversation (which happens more often than you would
imagine) it is treated as a joke and everyone laughs heartily at
the feeble-minded peasants and professors who fall victim to such
nonsense. Who could possibly listen to a quack like Li when there
is money to be made, bills to be paid and kids to educate? The only
people who seem to take the Falun Gong serious are Party officials
and cops and foreigners. Party officials consider Mao thought to
be important, cops like to hit people, and foreigners, well, we
just don't understand, I guess.
The 36 recently-expelled protesters confirm a
lot of the fears the Chinese government and the Chinese people do
have about the Falun Gong. The foreigners were in the heart of Beijing,
at the site of several other previous protests and were criticizing
the government as well as supporting the Falun Gong, openly. The
combination of foreign protesters and Falun Gong supporters really
gets under the skin of the government and the police, but I believe
the common Chinese does not necessarily hate the Falun Gong as much
as he hates "international antigovernment tools." Perhaps
this points to a stronger appreciation of freedom than one would
at first surmise.
If you asked the normal American what he thought
of the Branch Davidians, he would probably respond with a grin and
make fun of all the poor misguided souls who allowed their wives
and daughters to become Koresh's concubines. But how many Americans
truly hated Koresh? How many feared him? Only the government and
the police took him serious enough to attack, resulting in the fire
and death. So it seems we have similar problems on both sides of
the Pacific, and the people aren't the root of the evil, as far
as I can see.
Another sign of a China freer than anyone would
like to admit is the attitude toward our late, old buddy, Deng Xiao
Ping, and his successor Jiang Ze Min. Deng Xiao Ping is probably
the most admired man in China, far above the Chairman. In fact,
after the effects of the Opening Up Policy began to take effect,
Chinese began to realize just how far Mao had strayed from benevolent
Liberator toward cruel tyrant.
The young kids don't know, but Luo Sifu tells
me all about the Cultural Revolution and the absolute chaos of that
era. Everybody fought everybody and the streets of Chongqing (as
well as every other city in China) ran red with blood and fury.
Doctors like Mr. Wu were sent to Mongolia, while his brothers worked
in labor camps, teachers and students were slaughtered on the front
lawn of Southwest Agricultural University – Professor Mu saw it
all – workers fought with shovels and hammers in the streets of
Nanping and, worst of all, the average income as of 1979 was roughly
27 yuan a month. Families survived on two kilos of rice a month
and meat was nowhere to be had.
When incomes began rising, people were treated
to the aroma of meat and vegetables; they left their destitute danwei
and made for the city to make their fortune. A cab driver in any
city in China is likely to hang a little Mao pendant from his mirror
(though doing so isn't as common as it once was), but he gives thanks
to Old Deng for the income he enjoys and the pork he wolfs down
three times a day. Deng ushered in economic freedom as well as freedom
of movement (if not by decree, then indirectly) and these freedoms
are the ones that count for a people accustomed to poverty, starvation
Freedom of thought quickly follows the freedom
to open up shop and all you have to do is listen to the old folks
talk to realize that there is no fear of reprisal as there was before.
Now, if you write an article in the paper, you may face punishment,
but even the stranglehold on journalism is slowly easing. Countries
like Turkey, a staunch and loyal ally, are no freer, or are less
free, than is modern China.
The June 3 Incident/Tiananmen Massacre is a
small matter compared to the relative prosperity enjoyed today by
Chinese. In fact, if the Incident is discussed at all, it is so
in the context of means which justified ends. The young Chinese
remember seeing burnt corpses of valiant soldiers and screaming
mobs of demented students – that's what the media shows them, but
the old folks remember what it was like 25 years ago and thank God
and Deng for their current situation.
What they think of Jiang is another matter altogether.
The man is "too slow" in carrying out Deng's reforms.
He travels to every country in the world and shakes hands with the
premier, president, or despot but nothing comes out of it except
a headline – and some gibberish about "The Three Representations"
that only Francesco Sisci of the Asia Times seems to comprehend.
He has done nothing – the WTO was 15 years in
the making and the Olympics are fun and fortune for the capital
– and the people know it. Cabbies don't hesitate to tell me that
Jiang is useless and his smile and extremely thick glasses somewhat
annoying. One bold fellow even told me that Zhu Rongji is being
held back from truly helping the country develop and open up to
the world by the fearful government. Jiang faces a population that
expects improvements and expects incomes to continue to rise as
quickly as they have been for the past 20 years. This is one of
the major reasons why WTO membership was considered a top priority
of his government.
Chinese are proud of their economic progress
and expect more of it to come on the double, as it were – and they
are equally proud of a country that they consider to be no less
repressive than a certain superpower can be in times of war. The
main threats to these two veins of progress are considered to be
overcautious leaders and foreign interference – both of which can
now be openly lambasted in any cab in China.
printable version of this article
is a teacher living and working in China. His articles have appeared
in the South China Morning Post, the Minnesota Daily,
and elsewhere. His exclusive Antiwar.com column (usually) appears
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