Letters from the Pearl Delta: The ‘Global’ View

Note: This is the sixth in a multi-part series about my year spent working and living in Guangdong, China. It’s not the series for a definitive and authoritative account of Sino-US relations and cultural differences. It’s mostly a lot of rambling and inaccessible humor.

In truth, the growth and prosperity of China has shown that such values held by European countries are not solely owned by them…”

“Much talk has been made of China’s peaceful rise, mostly in the economic and military sense. What are these countries so afraid of? Better yet, why are they so afraid of China, where they aren’t afraid of the US?…”

“The poor global view of China is a matter of education. Since 1950, literacy in China has jumped to nearly 100%, and national education stresses the culture and history of other countries. Other countries have not followed China’s education model, and if they did…”

“Whites need to wake up and realize China is no longer sleeping. As Napoleon Bonaparte once said…”

“As Sun Yat-sen once said, ‘To understand is hard…’”

“As Marx once said…”

“As Plato once said…”

As Bill Gates once said…”

Prompt: What is ‘China: The Global View?’

Entrants will have three minutes to give a prepared speech.

The ‘Global’ View

The above were actual excerpts I overheard after deciding to sit in on a speech competition one of my students was in. The prompt? Simply a memorized speech on ‘China: The Global View.’ I agreed to help my student with his, since it had to be spoken in English, unaware of just how big the competition would be. On the actual day of his speech, there were a couple classrooms filled with nervously pacing, frantically reciting Chinese college students. It was the second most surprising thing I saw that day, next to the revelation that countless students can somehow all give speeches sounding more or less the same.

I probably need to back up a bit.

When my student brought me the first draft of his speech, I read it over while he stood there, patiently awaiting. “I have some notes,” I said right afterward. What had attracted my attention were a series of lines talking about little else than how powerful China was becoming, and that the European and American countries needed to ‘recognize this strength.’ The prompt, as it was explained to me, was about how other countries thought of China. The tone of the draft in front of me was a bit more nationalistic than I expected.

My first batch of suggestions included a change in attitude. “I mean, you say these other countries need to get in line, but I don’t feel like you’re treating their fears seriously.” The student processed it all, and then, unblinkingly, told me:

“I know all of that. But I have to give the judges what they want.”

Rhetoric, with Chinese Characteristics

This particular student was from Taiwan, I learned, and didn’t actually have any illusions about China’s new place in the world and what many other countries actually thought of it. But this was a competition, and despite what he personally believed, he wasn’t going to bat an eye saying something more to the judge’s liking. “The military power thing…is sort of controversial,” he explained to me in reference to one of my notes on what to add to his speech. It was better to just not mention it, he said.

Some odd timing went on with this competition, as it came right during the week I was teaching my students about rhetoric: the art of persuasion, which features most prominently in speeches. It was thus strange to go listen to a Chinese student’s style of rhetoric right after teaching a class of mine what rhetoric is. For this competition, what was most interesting about the rhetoric was not what was included, but what was excluded. Same as my student, nobody was going to touch the military issue. Not even praise for China’s new might would have gone over well, it seemed.

Similarly, Chinese economic power, arguably the most concerning thing to certain other countries, was only going to be brought up in terms of marking progress. As in, China’s people are now this much richer than 1950, China’s economy is this much bigger than the USA’s, etc, etc. What was left, in virtually all of these speeches, was effervescent indignation at how anybody could be scared of China, the big, friendly giant. After all, by taking out the aforementioned bits, the speeches made it sound like there was really nothing to be wary of in the first place. There were many excellent, endless quotes by famous people, though.

There is something of a debate going on, outside China, that questions how much the average Chinese citizen actually believes in their government’s propaganda. Working at a college, with Chinese college students, I have a very conflicted view on this. Even though many Americans and Europeans might think Chinese society is a closed-loop, with any dissent scrubbed out on the web, it’s clear just from talking to students that that isn’t true. There’s already been an excellent study by the Mercator Institute on how ideologies diverge even on the limited internet sphere. From what I’ve observed, there is plenty of debate and questioning going on in Chinese society, especially among college students. But the form they take is factional, tepid, and usually within the realm of being acceptable by the ruling Communist Party anyway.

The nationalistic narrative I overhead in so many speeches is probably the one thing that I took as genuine, no matter which student was talking: Chinese students especially seem to feel very nationalist, likely the result of an endless cycle of programs like this very competition alongside the natural fondness for a country that is on a titanic upswing in stature. However, the appropriate form of nationalism is where Chinese students might disagree. Some students, despite what outsiders might think, genuinely do believe everything the ruling Party says and will endlessly defend it. Others strongly feel China needs more respect on the world stage, but aren’t really too concerned about who is running things. A smaller minority is upset at the recent reversal in economic freedom, and couples nationalism with a desire to return to the post-1979 easy-going market reforms.

All of this is to say no-one is really thinking too deeply on ‘the Global View’ as I understood the prompt to ask for. Instead, every speech focused on China, with constant refrains about how other countries are being irrational and China is completely peaceful and don’t they understand China has a long, rich history and culture?

Guangdong province is slightly more free-thinking than other parts of China, owing to it being a hotbed of those aforementioned market reforms. Here, I feel a lot of students are probably about the same in attitude as the one who sought help for his speech: they don’t really buy what they say, they just know what the ‘official’ line is. The level of emptiness in Chinese state rhetoric is not exactly hard to pick-up on, no matter where you are. But in talking to my other students, the official line and its repetition has definitely had an effect on darkening their understanding of other countries. It’s somewhat telling that I teach foreign language majors (Arabic, Spanish, Russian, etc) yet none of my students know much about the countries that actually speak the language they study. Nor are they expected to.

The result is a lot of young, middle-class Chinese citizens are nationalist in spirit, but unconvinced about the other talking points put out by the government. It’s weird how I have to explain to my American parents that China is not much of a communist country at all, yet the average Chinese citizen knows that perfectly well and doesn’t have an issue talking about this cognitive dissonance (‘You guys don’t have free education?’ I said, chatting with another student this past week. ‘No,’ they responded. ‘But CCTV keeps calling China a socialist country?’ ‘Yes.’)

The true, effective propaganda, then, stokes that nationalism. And it creates a speech competition where I can observe that the constant platitudes around China’s ‘national strength’ might be exaggerated, but the lack of understanding of other countries is not. There is little ‘global view’ in a competition where students compete by trying to disregard other countries the hardest. It’s a very self-centered sort of rhetoric, where dialogue is extremely one-sided. For the China I saw in that dim lecture hall that day, China is paramount in importance, and other countries and people need to adapt to it, not the other way around. There is a dissonant respect for Western culture in Chinese society, paired with frustration that China does not yet enjoy the same status as, say, the USA abroad. There’s a certain degree of ‘homage’ that the average Chinese student, regardless of how well they bite the official Party line, thinks China deserves from the outside world.

As if to cap off my days-long meditation on this subject perfectly, my last class of the week had to vote on its lesson for next time. I had just taught them rhetoric, but due to some strange scheduling issues involving Friday classes and Chinese holidays, they were technically going to be a week ahead of my other classes. So I decided to let my students vote on an extra class. Something more light-hearted, to cover any topic they wanted. They suggested many different ideas — ‘European Medieval History,’ ‘Greek Mythology,’ and ‘Current Events in the News,’ to name a few.

Yet the one to win, by near-unanimity in voting, was simply ‘What do Americans think about Chinese food?’

Guangzhou, China.
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