The Real China?

December 1, 2015

“Where is the real China?”

Since I’ve been here, I’ve been asked variations on this question from the American teachers at our school for which this stint in Shenzhen is their first time in China.  I struggle to come up with a good answer because I am not sure I actually know the answer.  Depending on the day and my mood, I recommend checking out Beijing for a good contrast between the old and new China with a bunch of government formality thrown in for good measure.  Or maybe I extol the history in Xian with its terra cotta warriors and ancient city walls still standing.  Or even Yangshuo (阳朔) for its beautiful scenery and Yongding (永定) with its tulou (土楼).

Maybe Shenzhen is actually the best representation of the real China. 30 or so years ago it was nothing more than a 50,000 person market town through which the Guangzhou – Hong Kong through-train passed.  Now it’s a metropolis of over 15 million people, depending on how many of the surrounding towns you include in that count, and home to an endless supply of high-end malls, one of China’s two stock exchanges, and extreme wealth on display throughout the city.   This dramatic transformation, which at this point has been noted by anyone who has spent time here or in any number of China’s other Tier One and Tier Two cities, is almost a given when speaking about China. However, the teachers for whom Shenzhen represents their introduction to China, something rings hollow about the city and the experience.  It’s not that it’s not pleasant or convenient, but it almost feels too easy and not what they expected of China.  But I have to wonder what they expected China to be if not a temple of consumerism and capitalism with very little in the way of apparent angst about the country’s problems and where it’s going.

Just an aside to note that I must give props to my dad for bringing to my attention Andrew Jacobs’ “Notes on the China I’m Leaving Behind“, which was published in this past Sunday’s New York Times.  In short, it’s his take on where China is at after spending almost eight years on the ground.  It means more to me that my dad brought it to my attention because I’d like to think that it’s my being here on the ground that caused him to stop and read it whereas if I wasn’t here, there might have been the chance that he would have skipped over Jacobs’ piece.   Thanks, dad.

Jacobs notes this disconnect between the shiny veneer of consumerism and deeper problems that lurk beneath this surface.  He writes, “[T]he Communist Party, largely through fear and intimidation, seems to have trained much of the population to channel their energies into the pursuit of consumerism.”  This sentence gets to the heart of what is so strange about China, especially to Americans who are so used to the constant bombardment of negative news that makes it hard to enjoy Black Friday or Cyber Monday.  Most Chinese people seem rather oblivious to the problems around them, including a slowing economy, rapidly degrading environment, disadvantageous demographics, and the detention of anyone who dare challenge the regime.

Shenzhen is even more of a conundrum because it should embody the idea that the further one is from Beijing, the less reverence they have for the government and its policies.  That actually may be true to an extent in Shenzhen, which is richer and freer than most other parts of China, but the vacuum that exists from seemingly not caring about social and political matters is what makes the city feel so strange.  Its proximity to Hong Kong and relatively porous border only heightens the strangeness. Shenzheners cross quite regularly between the two cities, but it’s mainly to shop in Hong Kong because of its better selection of Western good and lower prices.  Yet, Shenzheners bring little else back with them except bags and suitcases full of purchases.

To an American like myself who goes back and forth quite frequently and have been doing so for over a decade, I still marvel at the feeling of how different Hong Kong is from the moment I step off a plane, train, or boat. I don’t know for certain, but would guess that most Chinese people crossing the border just see the city as a giant shopping mall.

Foreign Policy is running a special series on education and the relationship between the U.S. and China.  Zara Zhang, a Chinese student at Harvard, writes about her experience there and acting as a bridge between the U.S. and China.  Her experience at Harvard is a fascinating read, especially as someone who has taught top university students in China.  Among her many observations, one stood out for me at the end of her piece, “If China will one day become a more democratic and open society, it will probably be a result of the effort of this large group of culturally hybrid individuals whose heads are now used to Western thinking — but whose hearts are unchangeably Chinese.”

I have thought about this point a lot and I think it’s what any Western country that hosts a large number of Chinese students at its high schools and universities thinks, too – that by welcoming Chinese students into the halls of Western education, they’ll be imbued with ideas of freedom and democracy and bring those ideas back home to clamor for change.  The question that is not answered is whether those ideas will be subsumed upon returning home once those same students start working and realize that the current system is better set up to reward those with degrees from top universities.   Another way of thinking about it is this – will coming home and joining the existing system prevent these idealistic students from carrying out the reforms they may have been so excited to see through when sitting in a classroom in New Haven, Melbourne, or Oxford?  I don’t know the answer, but I would like to see where the Zara Zhang’s of China are in ten years’ time.

Jacobs’ point that the government has so successfully turned people’s frustrations and desires for change into a force for consumerism could mean that even successive generations with more exposure to people and ideas from outside China might not be enough to correct the social and political problems that China faces if it’s to make that jump from purely an economic juggernaut to a true global power.  For those who wonder if Chinese people actually care about these social and political problems, Jacobs makes it clear that there are people who are disgruntled, but they’re powerless against the huge tide of people who would rather shop than think about what ails their country, especially since there are a lot fewer restrictions on spending money than doing other things.

And for those looking for the real China, if you’re in a city like Shenzhen, you’re probably experiencing it every day.  Just walk to any one of the many malls on a Saturday afternoon and wander around taking in the people milling about and there you have it.  Happy shopping.


At my talk last week about the enforcement of anti-monopoly laws around the world, I wrote that for two hours after my speech I took on the role of an expert about all things American.   What surprised me the most about the questions was the breadth of topics in which the audience was interested.  I have spent the past few days wondering where these people I met received their information about America.  I have also have been turning over a question asked by one of the audience members., ” How much and what do Americans know about China?”

Timothy Garton Ash, in a Los Angeles Times opinion piece, published April 16, 2009, examines the issue of a China bias in the Western media through the lens of media economics.  Ash’s reason for why the American media is inundated with China stories about Tiananmen, Tibet, Taiwan, corruption, and its repressive government is because this news is what the American public wants to hear about China.  It becomes a vicious cycle whereby the American public learns only about these things and then expects the news coverage to cater to these needs.  It becomes very hard for the average American to learn about what day-to-day China is like, the China that I have been experiencing for the past eight months.  If I only paid attention to the American media, my impression of China would be black and white, ignoring the large grey area that is the real China.  Ash hits on what is an unfortunate reality, that many American newspapers are cutting back their foreign desks and this is affecting the quality and quantity of stories coming in from the rest of the world.  With this happening, can Americans be called upon to take their own interest in international affairs and other countries by subscribing to blogs and other alternative media sources?

In my faculty and staff class this evening, we talked about Ash’s article and media bias.  A professor in my class said that Chinese people know more about America than vice versa because more original sources are translated from English into Chinese than vice versa and more Chinese speak English than Americans speak Chinese.  Both of these ideas would explain the breadth of questions I experienced after my talk last week.  

So two questions remain: First, how does one get more Americans to understand the real China that is a society as nuanced, if not more so because it’s still developing, than America?  Second, how does one work to minimize the distrust and misunderstandings that exist between the U.S. and China?  

Neither question has an easy answer.  More of what I have been doing in China is definitely part of the answer.  Every day that I am here, I am learning a little more about this country, it’s culture and it’s people.  When I was a freshman in college, I was drawn into China because I thought back then that no matter how much I studied the country, I could never begin to understand all of it.  Now over ten years later, that idea remains more true than ever and I am still fascinated and surprised on a daily basis.  This blog is supposed to chronicle my surprise and education living here and bring along some of you in the process, many of whom have never been to China before.

It’s here that I leave you to ponder those two questions and perhaps how to work these questions into the larger framework of U.S.-China foreign policy.

The “real China”

March 1, 2009

My friend, Henry and his girlfriend, Sara were in GZ yesterday for the day visiting some of Henry’s family.  We managed to meet up for dinner before they headed back to Hong Kong and I had a chance to show them my apartment, the campus, and my favorite Sichuan restaurant, which is right outside the East Gate of campus.  They were my first visitors from outside China.  As we were walking to dinner, Henry remarked on how cool it was that I was getting to live in the “real China” compared to so many other foreigners who park themselves in Hong Kong or Shanghai and feel as if they’re roughing it.  Now living in GZ is certainly not roughing it, but it’s definitely more “real” than HK or Shanghai in terms of how little the city caters to its foreign population.

One aspect of the “real China” I always seem to be bumping up against is just how not obvious it is to the people here that I am a gay man.  After Henry and Sara left, we went out to meet up with our friend Superman at a corny GZ nightclub called Nana Club that was hosting an’80s party.   Wherever there’s Superman, there are sure to be lots of foreigners because he is a Chinese guy that enjoys surrounding himself with them.  Anyway, we met a lot of his friends from Australia and France and they were fun to hang out with, but the whole night these guys kept asking me if I had a girlfriend.  When I told them no, they asked me if I was into Chinese girls because that could be the only thing keeping me from having a Chinese girlfriend.  I finished the night amused at all the assumptions that were being made and wondered if the idea of gay is so ephemeral in China that even the straight foreigners here don’t have gaydar.  

One place where I think everyone knows I am gay is at the LGBT organization I volunteer at, Guangtong (广同).  This past Friday I was asked by the head if I could come in and facilitate a discussion after their screening of “Milk.”  It was funny that they were showing it because I had just seen it last week and was going to suggest showing it to the group on English night.  However, every Friday night they show a movie and this happened to be their selection this Friday.  It’s an understatement to say that it’s an amazing movie, but after watching it, I wanted to get back to the States and re-immerse myself in the fight for gay rights.  Before watching the movie I had no idea just how important and powerful a figure Harvey Milk was, but his role in the fight for gay rights in the 70s was so important to get the movement to where it is today and a powerful reminder of how much more needs to be done.  Now I was sitting in a room full of gay men in China and having a discussion about the movie and its message, mostly in Chinese with my friend, Kevin acting as my translator.

I opened up by asking the group how the movie made them feel and I received quite a few responses along the lines of inspired.  One man said that China needed to stand up and fight like Milk did, but it would never happen in China because Chinese people do not have anything to fight against the same way that Americans do.  This idea that there are laws in America against gay people, but none explicit in China and the presence of these negative laws is the motivation for the fight in America came up repeatedly throughout the evening.  After three or four people echoed this sentiment, I asked the group of 16 how many of them were out and only two were out in some way, shape or form.   I then raised the idea that it’s not only having laws telling you that you can’t do something that serve as the motivation to fight for change, but you also have to fight to change beliefs and perceptions in a society that will not let you be who you want to be or live your life the way you want to.  I was greeted with some murmurs of approval, but also looks of skepticism.  The discussion then drifted to what progress has been made in the U.S. since Milk’s assassination and what to do if a girl  hits on you, so it was a bit of the serious and then some not-so-serious.  Once again it was a great chance for me to see how far China has to go and how hard in China it is to get a group of people being hurt by society’s attitudes to realize that you can work to change those attitudes, that fighting something is not always synonymous with going against the government.

Of course the “real China” is also the land of confusing and poor signage, so I leave you all with this sign hanging in the supermarket located in the Jusco department store (a discount Japanese chain) that I stumbled upon Saturday afternoon in the basement of Teemall.

Make sure to brush twice a day and use your toothpasta

Make sure to brush twice a day and use your toothpasta