(written for LexSolo’sPoliticalRantings)
China has always been close to my heart. I spent eight years in Hong Kong and four in Taiwan, but it wasn’t till more recently I finally realized my hearts desire of living in southern China (for four years). Even after so much immersion in Chinese culture I cannot say that I have experienced more than the tip of the iceberg, as such I feel unqualified to write about it, but at least I can perhaps clear away some western misconceptions.
To understand any people you need some idea of their past. China’s immensity and complex history, stretching back millenniums, makes this difficult. Though I studied many books I never grasped it fully, but an essential point is, successive Chinese dynasties exercised unlimited, deity like power over their subjects.
In spite of the surging enthusiasm and optimism in China due to their thriving economy and glimmers of change on the horizon there lingers an underlying inherited sadness. If you read Chinese history you’ll soon see why.
Although the heart is the same, Chinese thinking tends to be different to western in many ways, particularly the subordination of the individual. This often makes it difficult to merge western and Chinese companies/employees. Instead of a Chinese “boss” substitute “demigod” and you’ll get the idea. I never realized how much our civilization was founded on Christian ethics till I lived there. Many things we take for granted are a far off dream to Chinese families.
Much of the west blames communism, but this isn’t really the underlying problem. Many of the changes the communists brought about where good (changes in women’s rights for example). Much of the actual legal structure they initiated was beneficial also (so I was told), the problem is the laws are not enacted and corruption is rife in every aspect of life. The emperor’s dynasties have been replaced by new equally autocratic family dynasties who wield unlimited power. This is not to vilify all Chinese officials, like the emperors some are good people trying to do the best for their country, but unfortunately where no balance is in place corruption and despotism tend to thrive. Many of the safeguards we take so blithely for granted in Europe do not exist there. Some families are above the law, likewise military or government officials.
This was true in the days of Chiang Kai-shek and supposed democracy also and not only in China. The early “purges” in Taiwan were equally, if not more, oppressive than those of the communists though never publicized. I know only because I lived there and heard the stories sometimes whispered. The only unstained revolutionary leader I found was Sun Yat Sen (a true, selfless, hero in my book and revered in China and Taiwan)
There’s a restless urge in China now. They want freedom to build their business etc. without the fear that someone can just step in and take over; they want security and liberty to speak freely. Even among my westernized, highly educated friends no one could grasp that in England there are demonstrations outside parliament every day without anyone being arrested. They would not believe me it was so far from their scale of reference. I don’t see how these changes could come about peacefully and if violence did erupt it would be a blood bath, the very vastness of the population, now held in check, would make it uncontrollable.
I realized a lot about democracy while there. It’s not just a political system that can be imposed by revolution, foreign intervention or even peaceful negotiation. It’s formed gradually over a great many years and must be founded on sound laws and safeguards to which all are accountable. It also depends a lot on the integrity of the people, particularly those enforcing it. I became so thankful for English law (and police) but it took over a thousand years to develop amid much struggle, blood and sacrifice, even now it must be safeguarded.
China is surging forward in power and influence. I was astounded by a European news comment a few years back that the US couldn’t afford to go against China as they were too heavily indebted and were China to call in the loans it would pull the last financial props from under them. (I checked it out and it seems to be true!) We could learn a lot from the Chinese. For example even a lowly street sweeper will try to follow the tradition of half whatever he earns goes into savings! Families co operate together to “build their fortunes” and though often poor they are seldom in debt.
Their view on life seems honed by generations of having to survive in difficult conditions. Marriage for example is usually a very practical affair, with engagements sometimes continuing up to ten years till enough money is set by, and a man or woman’s suitability is judged very much on family and affluence and discussed pragmatically with in laws.
Children are pushed unmercifully to attain. A 7am to 9pm schedule of studies (including mounds of homework, after school classes and private tuition) is quite normal for elementary children of middle income families. Understand, after years of frustration parents have a chance to break free and they often see their children as that ticket. On the other side of the coin parents work hard and spend a very high percentage of those earnings on their children’s education in the hopes they will sustain the family in later years. Sadly many of China’s brightest and best are leaving for other climes where they can build more secure lives for their families. It is not a lack of love for their country that motivates this but a frustration at the corruption that curtails their efforts again and again.
I love China and consider it my second home. While it take some time to form genuine friendships (they are suspicious of foreigners and really check you out first) once formed they tend to be permanent. They are deep, emotional, wonderful people.
China has been described as a “sleeping dragon”. It is stirring now; to what effect I do not know.
(If you’d like to understand more deeply I’d recommend Jung Chang’s “Wild Swans. (Three Daughters of China)” which tells the story three generations of women (her grandmother, mother and herself) from 1909 to 1978. An honest, unbiased book it helps to understand how things came about and affected people’s lives.
General Chinese history is more difficult. The easiest and clearest source I found (for those without months to study) was a subtitled video made by Chinese Christians (“China Confessions”). While I would not recommend it to atheists (due to its very strong Christian message) it has a great encapsulation of Chinese history (watch with a box of tissues nearby!)