As I prepared myself for leaving China to embark on something of a speaking tour of American churches, I was told time and again by friends, co-workers, former students, and even the Party Secretary of the hospital to tell them the “truth” about China. The undertone seemed to be that Americans were truly ignorant about China and thought it was a place of human rights abuses, corrupt officials, a draconian one-child policy, tainted food and polluted skies; and somehow I was going to counter all of those “misconceptions” in a cozy 1-hour talk.
At the same time, I know that in most respects China is a better place than the average American is imagining. Compared to other developing countries- most Chinese children can read and attend at least a few years of primary school, wanton violence is rare, and basic social services exist (even if it is a very basic level in many areas). And, as I’ve reported here before, there is a great deal of progress being made on several social issues by small, determined groups of citizens.
On top of that, after spending 20% of my life there, China feels like a second home, and I take a great deal of pride in its accomplishments. I find myself wanting to present China in as positive a light as possible. So each night I stand in front of a small group of people and try my best to tell the truth about China.
In my presentation, I talk about the explosive growth of the church in China; projects to protect the environment, increase farmers’ wages, and support new teachers; and even manage to sneak in a few pictures of pandas, the Great Wall, and the Terracotta warriors. It’s a hectic thirty-minutes of information, but each time I do it, I feel like I’m sticking to the “truth” my Chinese associates would approve of, without feeling like a shill for the Party.
Then comes Q&A.
Are women’s rights improving? Are Chinese Christians completely free? Do they still enforce the one child policy? What is the conversation about gay marriage in China like? While none of these have easy answers, I feel that most of these issues are slowly heading in a positive direction, and so I give them something that ends up slightly longer than my typical blog post length.
Then someone said, “It doesn’t seem like the gov’t puts much value on the life of an individual.” I struggled and searched for a “truthful” answer. I thought back on Chen Guangchen’s case, the abuse Ge Xun suffered for trying to meet the mother of a Tian’anmen square protester, and the inhumane treatment of Chen Pingfu, before lowering my head and saying, “No, they don’t.”
And I would be receptive of anyone’s advice on a way to respond positively to that question. From what I have seen time and again from Chinese officials is the willingness to let someone else (typically rural residents) “sacrifice” for the privileged few. Issues like labeling executed prisoners as organ donors, bulldozing the homes of farmers, and allowing the flagrant abuse of power by public officials hang like a dark, disappointing cloud over China’s otherwise inspiring achievements.
It’s an answer I take no joy in, and I wish there was a way to respond to that which would make my friends and students proud, but so far the Party hasn’t given me much to work with. So while I try my best to tell the “truth,” the truth gets in the way.