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What I learned by blogging about China for a year

When I started Seeing Red in China one year ago, the plan was to write a post every weekday for a few months and see what happened. I am incredibly pleased by the way this site has grown into something beyond a typical travel blog, into a more complete guide to modern China, and that every post has been further supplemented by your excellent comments.

Through researching my posts each day, I’ve greatly improved my understanding of China, and today I’d like to share two of the major underlying themes that I wish I had known earlier, as well as my overall impression of this year spent studying China.

Scandals are all the same

While I had had some sense of this, after following the People’s Daily closely for a year, I realized that scandals in China really are all the same. They start as a murmur on Weibo, and spread faster than the censors can contain. This explains why the scandals are often so shocking, the only ones that survive the incubation period on Weibo are the ones that are not targeting issues already deemed “sensitive”.

The second phase involves a candid admission in either People’s Daily or Global Times that something did happen and it will be investigated. Many scandals disappear at this point since the gov’t knows that moving slowly allows for interest in the story to fade. If interest does not fade then they might actually investigate.

The third phase almost always involves a discovery that relevant laws were in place, but they had not been properly enforced (so it is not a problem at the national level). This means that a handful of local officials will be forced to step down from their positions for failing to enforce the laws.

Finally, several months after the incident, these officials are quietly reassigned to new positions.

China has no room at the margins

Until just a year or two ago, sign language was not taught to China’s deaf community. Instead, programs focused on teaching the deaf how to mimic speech. In fact, it was only after parents and children were taught sign language, that many parents realized their children suffered no other handicaps.

This is because there is very little room in China for those classified as “other.” This can be seen not only in handicap programs, like autistic children being trained to “act normal,” but also in how educational programs are designed for a single type of learner, or that society only accepts one kind of family (read: Why I hate the Chinese idea of marriage).

This causes China headaches when dealing with the minorities of Tibet, Xinjiang and Inner Mongolia, since the country’s policies are generally designed for one type of person: Atheist-Han-Farmer/Factory Worker who will sacrifice themselves for economic gain. Gov’t officials seem to have an incredibly hard time understanding why everyone doesn’t fit this role (not only minorities resist the model).

One year later

At times it is hard to tell if I’ve just been following the news more closely, or if things are actually getting worse. At the end of the year though, I can say that: The number of activists detained far exceeds the number released, Weibo is becoming more tightly controlled, the gov’t is more sensitive to criticism and perceived trouble makers, and all of that will get worse if China’s economy slows down in the way many are starting to predict (I’m not certain it will). After reading thousands of articles on China this year, my confidence in the Communist Party is at an all time low.

That being said, the last year has also brought many advances: new methods of activism, both online and off; waves of bold candidates attempting to run in local elections; stronger calls for transparency and environmental protection, even in the countryside; and in many cases, open defiance of gov’t policies that deny people basic rights. I am quite pleased to say that after further discussing many of the issues facing China with co-workers, friends, and activists, my faith in the Chinese people is at an all time high.


18 Comments

  1. mrchopstik says:

    What’s the old adage? Familiarity breeds contempt? I wouldn’t say that things are better or worse, simply that your perspective has changed and you now see things that perhaps you didn’t see before. “Better” and “worse” are simply objective degrees so what may seem worse to you may be better for others depending upon their own perspectives. And now I’ll stop before I really dig too low into the whole philosophical debate… 😉

    Congrats on your one year anniversary (I assume that is what you mean – I do remember you started last December though I found you last February, I believe)! I, for one, have very much learning both from you, Yaxue and Casey as well as the many commenters to your blog and look forward to more in the future.

  2. Meryl Mackay aka 马美丽 says:

    Your wonderful Blog has been the highlight of my 2011, Tom! Many thanks! FYI, BBC Radio 4 devoted 15 mins of their weekly 20 min programme for the visually handicapped (called “In Touch”) to the plight of blind activist Chen Guangcheng. It seemed to confirm your view above that the Party has become a lot more paranoid recently.

  3. I’ve been here (on and off) since 2006, and no, it’s not just you, things do seem to be getting worse. It may just be increased exposure of the type you’ve outlined (weibo is huge now, isn’t it?), in which case things getting worse might just be reporting getting better.
    I’m enjoying reading all these entries by the way – the previous generation of blogs seem to have stalled or just started repeating themselves. It’s quite some effort and focus you must put into this thing.
    Oh, and do you have a link for the thing about sign language not being taught? I’d really like to read that.

  4. Mark walker says:

    I was listening to a report on industrialization of robotics and it was mentioned that the one thing that can turn out products cheaper than low paid workers is robotics. A warning of things soon upon us and what could be a devastating development for China’s factory workers.

  5. Marvin Eckfeldt says:

    Tom, best to you on your first anniversary and your good writing and helpful perspective! I am learning a lot from your writing and those who contribute as well. You and your wife have a good holiday and wonderful Christmas season. Had coffee with your Dad last night in Bellevue and we talked about you and your overseas outreach! Take good care. – Marvin

  6. Congrats on blogging for a year! I am so impressed that you have interesting, insightful and meaningful posts every day. My blog is better because of you influence. Cheers!

  7. Lorin Yochim says:

    Thanks for your good work on the blog, Tom. You’ve written any number of good posts, and I do appreciate your patience with those whose views are less thoughtful or generous than yours. As the Chinese like to say, I should learn from you!

    A couple of thoughts on today’s post. First, I agree with mrchopstick. I wouldn’t torture myself trying to figure out if things are getting worse or not by any quantifiable measure. Maturing social contradictions are a hard thing to track in the first place, all the more so when one is a stranger in a strange land. I’m sure as your language ability improves, that should give you access to a widening range of voices from the Chinese side. Your posts in which you discuss some academic work on China are definitely better informed than those that rely on he said she saids between propaganda publications that tend to present polarized views of the country.

    Second, your comments on China having “no room at the margins” raises the question of “are things getting better?” This, of course, is just as hard to know. The record is mixed at best. I do want to offer a modification to your comment about the “atheist-han-factory-worker/farmer” representing the ideal citizen. Han, yes, atheist, perhaps (I’d argue that religiosity is not a major concern these days), but factory-worker/farmer no longer represents the ideal citizen except for in the more cynical rhetorical flourishes of spring festival variety shows. The new ideal citizen is something quite different. A comparison of old and new school texts reveals a quite stark change in this respect.

  8. Andrew The says:

    Tom, yours is quite simply the best China blog of its kind out there. I can’t even tell you how many times it has stimulated conversation for my friends and me.

    Keep up the good work, and I hope a book is in the making.

  9. Pudding says:

    Congrats on the first year. I too would like to express my thanks for keeping a level headed view on most of your posts. Myself, I know it is especially hard not to look down, stereotype and generalize, and complain about everything here. Even though it may be true it’s not the best thing to portray.

    I also would like to add that I personally really enjoy the guest posts you have had as of late. Actual perspectives on real issues. Marriage, dating, buying houses, etc. I realize it’s hard to probably find Chinese that are willing to share such thoughts in a honest way, but, I really enjoy them. This does, in my opinion, help break some of the typical stereotypes that we have all heard at some point or another.

    Thanks again.

  10. Lao Why? says:

    Congratulations on the anniversary! Keep it up. I have learned a lot.

  11. Frieder says:

    Tom, among the many things I like about this blog (selection of topics, attention to details, level of author’s immersion etc.) I can relate to your 态度 quite well. Keep up the good work!

    孟飞

  12. Yaxue C. says:

    A+ year-end summary! Just don’t submit it to your boss in the hospital 🙂

  13. Anonymous says:

    Thank you for keeping all of us posted. Reading that you still keep some faith in this country cheers me up a bit. Have been groomed after reading Sheng Shi Zhong Guo 2013. Can’t get over it.

  14. ben says:

    I’m new to your blog. I’ve been teaching in China for 2 months every year since 2002. I don’t know how you can write about China so calmly and thoughtfully, without sevral Valium………….or do you? Great work! Ben

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