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.