Oh, China.

18 Nov

It’s weird, living in China. Everyone here knows that China has a repressive government, “disappears” people (including Nobel laureates!), and takes a dim view towards dissent, but all of this just sits in the back of your mind. Life is short and busy and there are interesting things going on, like that lecture on eco-anthropology, a (semi) break-through in how the Tibetan language works, those two thousand words you need to write for NaNo today, and Ladies’ Night at Mooney’s Pub. The Internet may be censored by the Great Firewall, but you have that handy VPN that lets you access Facebook, YouTube, and the New York Times. You don’t watch Chinese TV, having sacrificed the precious single Western outlet in your room in favor of keeping the laptop running. There’s a local newspaper and everyone’s favorite English language propaganda machine. China Daily, but that’s two kuai you could spend on a bus fare or ji dan bing in the morning.

 And then something breaks through this inclusive little bubble you have going for yourself and you go, “Oh, right. China.”

 This happens about once a week, more or less.

 The moment of clarity this week was brought to me by the Telegraph via a friend’s Facebook newsfeed: a man set himself on fire in Tiananmen Square on October 21, in protest of corruption. Mr. Wang survived the attempt, as Tiananmen literally has the most surveillance and guards in all of China, what with the officers and plainclothes detectives constantly prowling the Square, and he was put out within a minute. (Ow, by the way.)

This is a story. The bigger story was that, despite a great deal of pictures and video taken by bystanders, it did not hit the web in any meaningful fashion. Nothing on Sina Weibo (Chinese twitter), nothing on Wangwang (Facebook) or QQ. The Beijing Police Security Bureau (PSB) did confirm that the self-immolation occurred, but not on the six o’clock news. It’s like China’s PSB looked at 1984 and thought, “Wow, that’s a great idea, we should do that!”  So-called “net nannies” delete sensitive topics from forums and websites or the companies do the censoring themselves.  (See James Fallows here for more information.)

Oh right,” I said to myself, “This is China.” Like Alice, one must learn to believe six impossible things before breakfast. There’s a cognitive dissonance here, where I can have thoroughly critical conversations about the US Drug War policy with other foreigners and yet feel the need to remain silent when asked about Tibet with other members of my department. It came as some shock to the younger grad students the other day that I would not be joining them on any research trips to Tibet because I would need a special visa. What also went unsaid was the fact that my presence would hinder my advisor’s research – if I went along, so too would an official minder. No one really wants to talk frankly when there is a member of the official security apparatus keeping an eye on the whole interview.

(Note: I will make an effort to travel to Tibet on my own come spring – I refuse to leave China again without having visited Lhasa.)

 China is like every other place in the world – it has its ups and its downs. The positives outweigh the negatives most of the time. I’ve met cool people, seen amazing things, and grown as a person. But I can never really let myself forget the negatives and that my little blue passport is what keeps me safe. It is dishonest to myself and to the experience of modern China to do so otherwise.

You can find out more on Mr. Wang and the Orwellian-minded Tiananmen Square incident here and here.


EDIT: I have since found out from my parents back in the States that this was a thing… about a month ago. Jeez. Sometimes I feel like I’m still living back in the 19th century, where mail takes a month and a half to get to you and the news is all old and out of date by the time it reaches to you. Which is probably a feature and not a bug.


2 Responses to “Oh, China.”

  1. Dad November 19, 2011 at 5:07 am #

    I sent your post to the Huffington Post

  2. Trish November 27, 2011 at 2:43 pm #

    Yeah? Well, we have people Occupying the downtown area of every major city. They sit outside and get Turkey Dinners on Thanksgiving and have wifi for their macbooks, but they’re really protesting. So beat THAT, man who lit himself on fire to prove a point.

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