A Discussion with the Least Likely Dissenter

My Chinese friend Grace is about the last person you would picture when you think about dissidents. She’s happily married to a doctor who doesn’t drink or smoke. She is pregnant with her second healthy (and perfectly legal) baby. She has a college education and a good job by Chinese standards. Grace doesn’t like reading the news, and refers to the Cultural Revolution as “some unpleasant times that aren’t good to talk about.” Her family is firmly part of China’s new middle class.

She isn’t an artist or a lawyer, she doesn’t know how to get past the great firewall (even though she wants to), and she definitely wouldn’t be considered an intellectual (she’s not stupid, but she avoids reading and writing at pretty much all costs).

So you can imagine my surprise when she brings up revolution (especially considering that she never even heard about the failed Jasmine revolution).

Over the past few months I’ve had a couple small shocks from her, before I finally got the chance to have her explain her view in more detail. The first of these shocks came when she asked me about what was really happening in Egypt, and why the people there were revolting. I tried to simplify it by saying it was because of high unemployment, inflation, and a gov’t that was corrupt and in power for too long. “Sounds like China,” she said with her usual beaming smile, “Maybe we should have a revolution.” I was too stunned to say anything, and by the time I had fully processed what she said, another co-worker walked in and I couldn’t ask more.

Then again a few weeks ago we were talking about inflation (like I mentioned in an earlier post, this is a pretty hot topic). Grace said, “You know the gov’t raised the gas price again, and now it is higher than in the US.” I nodded and let her continue, “But they tried to tell us that the cost of gas is actually lower, just the taxes are higher. How can we accept this? Maybe we need a new gov’t.” Then she went back to shopping on Amazon like she normally does.

Finally today I had a chance to talk with her without any risk of our co-worker returning. It all started when she repeated her request for me to bring back milk powder from the US (read about that here).  I told her that I found it a little sad that she had to import milk powder, and she said, “To be honest, my husband and I are just waiting until our first daughter goes abroad for school, then we will leave China too.”

Up to this point I had no idea that she was so disappointed by the state of things in China. She explained that this feeling started about 6 months ago with the story of Li Gang, and she was saddened by the fact that guanxi (relationships) had so much leverage in China. She went on to say that honestly she would rather live anywhere else than China, she didn’t even exclude the typical Chinese list of places that they consider beneath them: Vietnam, India, the entire African continent. Grace simply didn’t care anymore.

“You know our government tells us many things that aren’t true,” she said still smiling. “The newspaper now tells us more bad news, but maybe that means it’s opening more, but still many things are hidden.” She repeated these kinds of ideas a few more times before really getting to the heart of the matter, “I just want them to tell us the truth.”

Then I mentioned the protests in Wisconsin, and she giggled as she told me that she wants to protest against the gov’t sometime, but she knows she would end up in jail for it.

Grace really isn’t asking for anything extraordinary here. She wants laws that are applied consistently, regardless of guanxi, she wants to be able to send her daughters to decent schools without having to fight other parents for the few spots in the good public schools, Grace wants to be able to openly voice her opinions (which seem pretty reasonable) without needing to fear the government.

If this is how sweet, smiling Grace feels about the current state of things in China, I can only imagine how much more resentment is smoldering just under the surface.

12 responses to “A Discussion with the Least Likely Dissenter”

  1. Err, I think there’s more to what she’s leading on to.

  2. Joel says:

    I had a similar shock along these lines just yesterday. Semi-annual student speech contest (yawwwwn), and the first guy up opens with a picture from you-know-where in nineteen-eighty-nine of that imitation Statute of Liberty facing Mao’s portrait! Then he goes on to explain that then, people’s ideological development had outpaced the country’s economic development, but that now the opposite was true and that Chinese people aren’t ideologically/psychologically prepared for the wealth and relative openness that they now enjoy, and therefore need more freedom of information and expression. I think he also cited the Li Gang example. My eyes literally got wide when I saw the picture; definitely not what I was expecting! (This was followed with the usual: awful karaoke, “My Dream” speeches, and a thing about Gundams).

    Some days the people around me parrot exactly what they’ve been told, but some days they surprise me.

    • Tim says:

      That. Is. Awesome.

      Makes me wanna sign-up to judge more speech contests at my school – just with the hope that someone will go for it!

    • Tom says:

      Speech contests really are so consistently bad, but that tiny hope that someone will go off message almost makes them bearable.

  3. Mark Walker says:

    Really interesting stuff. I wonder if the cost of revolution is something they weigh into their dreams.

  4. Chopstik says:

    I suspect there is a lot just smoldering under the surface. In my various travels, I’ve encountered a few episodes such as you’ve described. I’ll mention one that sticks with me most often.

    This was perhaps about 10 years ago after the Bush v. Gore election. We were visiting with friends and relatives in China with another friend from the US (who is Taiwanese and staunchly Democratic in her US-centric political viewpoint) when she brought up how unhappy she was with the Bush election. The Chinese were absolutely fascinated by this and wanted to learn more about what had happened and how the US could have had such a contested election without it causing riots and revolution. They asked all kinds of questions about how it had occurred and the US democratic institution and then started offering comparisons to the Chinese system in a none too flattering manner. Several of them were actually party members but none offered anything nice on the party itself (though I had previously heard them offer the normal platitudes). It was by far the most eye-opening of the political conversations I have encountered in China as views were expressed privately that would never be given (indeed, would be disavowed) publicly.

    Come to think of it, some of the most staunch defenders of the party have not lived in China (or not been there for a while and thus have only fond memories of the country) while some of its harshest (private) critics have been in the country all of their lives. I guess there is something to be said for this…

    • Tom says:

      These moments when we see behind the public mask of our Chinese friends are truly illuminating. Thanks for sharing your experience.

  5. […] My Chinese friend Grace is about the last person you would picture when you think about dissidents. She’s happily married to a doctor who doesn’t drink or smoke. She is pregnant with her second healthy (and perfectly legal) baby. She … Continue reading → […]

  6. […] know he’s really dead?” Which coming from Grace, who talked with me last week about her distrust of her own government, isn’t surprising. There is an internet rumor here that the US has reported Bin Laden’s […]

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    This story was submitted to Hao Hao Report – a collection of China’s best stories and blog posts. If you like this story, be sure to go vote for it….

  8. Jin Zhao says:

    It’s sad that Chinese all want to leave China, except those in power (whose children are all abroad).

  9. Wei says:

    @Jin Zhao: I believe you are wrong in the “except” part.

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