Chinese Embrace Progress

It took me a long time to figure out what the banner above the Foreign Expert Building meant, but finally one of my more studious colleagues translated it for me: "The Falun Gong is an international antigovernment tool."

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 and immobility.

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.

Read more by Sascha Matuszak