For those who have never visited China, the country offers much more freedom than you are probably imagining. For those who’ve visited for quick trips, China is likely far more restrictive than what you’ve experienced. For most people in China, the lack of freedom only occasionally asserts itself as the veneer of “reform and opening up” gives way, exposing the fact that in many ways, China is still a police state.
Despite my daily reading of abuses and scandals, these breaches rarely appear in daily life. This is partially why I try to avoid reporting on every act of depravity, they don’t reflect the China I know. At times it feels like there are two completely separate realms, the one in the papers and the one that I love. However, from time to time I do catch a glimpse of something that leaves me shaking (often with rage or sorrow), unable to mesh the disparate realities into a coherent picture of China.
Twice I have seen petitioners dragged away screaming.
Once was during my time in Chengdu. Just as my bus passed the central square, an older woman dropped to her knees in the road, prostrating before an official’s sedan. She kowtowed two or three times before men appeared, and pulled her into the gov’t compound. The passengers on the bus pressed their faces to the window as the woman called for justice, but their interest disappeared almost as quickly as the woman.
A few months before that I had stood in the same square celebrating the 60th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China. It was one of the few moments outside of Chinese New Year that I had seen such public revelry. A crowd of thousands had gathered for a fireworks display and the street leading to the square had more flags than I could count. It was a reminder of not only the progress China had made since 1949, but also how far it had moved since reform and opening up began.
These two memories of the square seem at odds in my mind, yet occupy the same space.
Another time, I saw a group of men holding signs outside the gov’t building in Nanjing on my way to work. The morning traffic allowed a slightly longer view as the scene unfolded. Both sides were dressed in the puffy black jackets symbolic of a Chinese winter, for the most part it seemed as though the gov’t was willing to permit this venting of frustration. Then chaos descended and out of the mess of violence, I saw a man handcuffed and dragged, his arms behind his back, out of sight.
I pass that same place every morning. When I see the plain clothed officers pacing back and forth with their coats and purses, which seems to be their unofficial uniform, or when I’m not too distracted by traffic, the weather, or the shoving on the bus, I remember the man who was taken away.
Other reminders of State control are no less jarring – having police wake you as you sleep in the airport so they can record your passport number in their log, or waiting as officers check ID cards on long bus rides between cities (occasionally dozens of times on a single trip). For me the most unnerving was a visit to the Public Security Bureau (to renew my visa), and being questioned about the various hotels I had stayed at throughout China. The man behind the desk knew far more about my travels than I had thought possible.
For many of my students, their first inkling that China is different from other countries came as they began to explore the web. One day at lunch a Chinese friend who had just returned from the US was struggling to remember the name of his favorite actor, and decided to check IMDB with his iPhone as he had done in the States. The page failed to load, and my friend turned red trying to explain away the error message, even though we both knew the reason.
Who knows how many thousands of netizens stumbled into restrictions over this past week as word spread of Bo’s sacking – my co-workers have been talking about it for days.
I would love to be able to tell you that the things you read in Western papers are complete fabrications (and I hope that day comes soon), but even though China has made reforms in many areas, movement is still restricted, laws are bent at the whim of the powerful, and opposing voices are silenced – China is still a police state.