Yesterday we looked at how China can be rife with small crime, while still seeming safe to foreigners. Today we’ll be exploring a few of the ideas Chinese citizens hold about other countries, and why these views might be promoted by the state.
I’ve honestly lost track of how many times I’ve been told that everyone in America has a gun, and that I come from a very dangerous country. While the US does have the highest gun ownership in the world, that doesn’t actually effect my daily life in the way my students might think. My wife actually takes a little joy in responding to this with her students, her grandfather sells antique guns and in the past had a room full of them. Despite owning hundreds of guns in his life, he hasn’t fired one in at least four decades. She also enjoys watching their heads spin when she informs them that she owns two herself, and that the majority of guns in the US are used for hunting instead of robbing.
However the occasional story of a Chinese student getting mugged in the US at gunpoint sticks out strongly in the minds of young Chinese, but ignores the thousands that don’t write about the fact that they weren’t. This idea is so deeply ingrained that many students rejoice in getting accepted to study in Canada instead of the deadly US.
But America isn’t the only dangerous country according to my Chinese friends, so far I’ve been told that several dozen countries (and the entire continent of Africa) are all places that are best avoided. After the first reports of the London riots one co-worker asked if she should cancel her trip to Sheffield in October (I assured her they would be under control by then). I’ve also heard staff in the foreign affairs office remind travelers to stay in their hotel after work, and don’t go sightseeing without a group. Another friend mentioned that he’d visited Africa, but would never go back because “black people are very violent”. It’s a kind of fear and naivete that keeps people from heading abroad.
These rumors are in fact propagated by the gov’t in state media and textbooks. The negative experiences of the few who do travel spread across weibo quickly, and establish them as a typical experience to have abroad.
During the run up to the Shanghai World Expo, the commentators on CCTV repeated ad nauseam that it was better to explore other cultures at the Expo than traveling abroad because it was safer. It was something I heard again repeated from co-workers, until they actually visited the Expo and realized they could hardly see anything through the crowds.
The gov’t promotes these ideas for a few reasons. One strong reason would be that if every other country is plagued by violent crime, then Chinese people are relatively lucky to only have their pockets picked occasionally (see this comment on yesterday’s post). This is a milder version of the kind of propaganda North Korea uses, which tells citizens that even though they only get one proper meal each day, at least they aren’t as bad off as the Japanese who have to sell their organs just to get by (from Escaping North Korea).
Another reason is that traveling to foreign countries, especially Western ones, often bring up questions about China’s governance and policies. Ideas like: democracy, government oversight, a free press, and that some developing countries aren’t exactly thankful for China’s aid. Away from the guiding hand of state media and Chinese tour guides, these ideas take root in the mind of those who head abroad (You should read Evan Osnos’s incredible report on heading to Europe with a Chinese tour group).
I’ve seen this side-effect in conversations with co-workers and friends who have studied in the US and Australia, when they return they are shocked at how different these countries are from what they had learned. My friend said on returning from the States,
“In short, I have met the nicest people there. This trip showed me how civilized, generous and hospitable Americans are, for which I feel deeply grateful. It also proved most of my presumptions about the US were wrong, though I have learned the language and the culture for many years. Moreover the trip helped me realize how my country really is, with all the contrast against yours.”
Surely this is one reason that travel outside of tour groups makes the Party nervous. As long as they can keep people from wanting to look beyond their own borders, they can maintain control. For decades the average Chinese person was too poor to travel abroad, but as the economy grows, it will become increasingly difficult to keep Chinese citizens from exploring abroad, unless the Party can convince this generation that China is the safest country in the world.