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Coming out in the countryside

Several years ago, when I was working in a very rural university, I hosted a group of college graduates from the United States. They were invited to visit with the students, and one of them became very popular with the girls in class. He always had more attention than any of the others, perhaps because he was incredibly friendly, had a bright smile, and was by most accounts handsome. However, what the fawning girls didn’t notice was that my friend was gay.

So after a week or so of having girls ask for his QQ number, I asked if he would be willing to host a very special English corner. Even though it was specifically in my contract that I was not to challenge traditional Chinese ideas about homosexuality* (which Richard Burger would point out, are actually a new construction), I decided that the students would find such a conversation interesting and hoped that it would expand their world view.

So after closing the doors and the windows, my friend explained to fifty students from rural China what it meant to be a gay man in the United States. He wasn’t quite sure what their reaction would be, but it was far more supportive than either one of us had expected. The students didn’t seem to understand why anyone would care. The questions focused mostly on how his family reacted, and several students wondered whether or not I was scared to be friends with a gay man. One girl after the session, who clearly didn’t quite get it, slipped him a note telling him how attractive he was and gave him her number just in case he wasn’t really gay.

Several hours later I received a text from a student who had grown up in the countryside asking if he could meet with my friend and I. That night he told us a truth about himself that he had never admitted to another person, that he too was homosexual. He said it was something he had always known, but had been too afraid to say out loud. That was until he heard a story that sounded so much like his own.

My friend, who was leaving the next day, worked frantically with this student to try and come up with some sort of plan. They knew it was too risky for him to come out to his classmates even though it meant suffering through another two years of people wondering where his girlfriend was, and his only hope was to move to a big city like Shanghai or better yet, overseas. The student though was far more realistic, he said, “I should just marry a woman, it would be too hard for my family to accept a gay son.” None of us tried to deny the fact that homosexuality is not tolerated in rural China, but we also didn’t want him (and his wife) to live that lie.

As Richard Burger details competently in his book, Behind the Red Door, attitudes towards homosexuality are changing quickly in China and this seems to be supported (not everywhere), but not when it comes to one’s own family. The sentiment seems to be “why would I care if someone in another family is gay?” but there’s a markedly different attitude if it is their relative. As my student lamented, “My parents want me to have kids, and I should just make them happy.” To which my friend replied, “But what about your happiness?”

I’m glad to say several years later my student has given up the notion that his parents’ desires for his life trump who he is.

*This part of the contract was not from my church, we believe that all people are created by God as they are.

Telling the truth about China

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.

You might be right, but you’re wrong with that tone of voice

Now, I generally know better than to go sticking my neck out on issues like this, but I actually agree that China should be in control of the Diaoyu islands. The problem is that I was tempted to side with the Japanese after witnessing the disgusting display of mindless nationalism over the weekend (which in some cases included calls for wiping out all Japanese, and seemed to be state-sponsored).

Hidden behind the calls for boycotts and sanctions, and the embarrassing claim based on the policy of “first come, first serve,” (which can be found in legal texts between “Dibs” and “Finders keepers”) makes it seem like this entire issue is nothing more than a ploy to drum up support for the Party. Or, that perhaps the islands really do belong to Japan, since the Chinese papers keep referring to them as having been “stolen” and that the Japanese gov’t “buying” them from the owners is “illegal,” which make China’s current assertions seem dubious.

However, People’s Daily does have a very calm explanation of China’s claims over the islands, but they last stated the rational case in 2010.

In January 1895, three months before the Treaty of Shimonoseki was signed between Japan and China, after the latter was defeated in the Sino-Japanese War of 1894-1895, Japan illegally took over the Diaoyu Islands and included them in its Okinawa Prefecture. It cannot be denied that the Diaoyu Islands were ceded to Japan as subsidiary islands of Taiwan in 1895 after the Treaty was signed.

However, in December 1943, leaders of the United States, Britain and China signed the Cairo Declaration, declaring that all the territories that Japan had seized from China should be returned. The Potsdam Proclamation signed by China, the United States and Britain in July 1945 (later adhered to by the Soviet Union) stipulated that: “The terms of the Cairo Declaration shall be carried out”.

In August 1945, Japan accepted the Potsdam Proclamation and surrendered unconditionally, which means both documents came into effect.

After World War II ended, China took back its territories stolen by Japan, including Taiwan Island and its subsidiary islands. Therefore as part of the Taiwan Islands, the Diaoyu Islands were returned to China under international law.

However, in September 1951, Japan signed the San Francisco Peace Treaty with the US and other allied powers, and single-handedly surrendered the Diaoyu Islands, along with Okinawa, to the administration of Washington.

In response, Zhou Enlai, the then premier and foreign minister of China, sternly declared that a San Francisco treaty signed without the People’s Republic of China’s participation is unlawful and illegitimate.

In June 1971, Washington and Tokyo signed the “Okinawa Reversion Agreement,” parceling up the “administrative rights” of Diaoyu Islands to Japan.

The Chinese Foreign Ministry in response issued a statement in December later that year, which said “the agreement is a blatant infringement on China’s territorial sovereignty that is intolerable for the Chinese people. The US and Japan list China’s Diaoyu and other islands into the agreement’s ‘reversion area’ is completely unlawful. It cannot change the People’s Republic of China’s sovereignty right on those islands.”

Unfortunately, People’s Daily, Global Times, and seemingly every other newspaper (but Caixin, which toed the line), has lost their ability to reason coolly this time around, and are now in the process of trying to contain the firestorm they have ignited.

The current banner of People’s Daily, which doesn’t seem to be promoting a peaceful solution

So why is it that the Party has a fairly reasonable claim that could be argued to the international crowd, and yet they seem to prefer throwing eggs and running military drills to practice capturing islands? Perhaps, the Party isn’t trying to win any of the foreign countries over to their side, if they were the protests would involve a lot less profanity and genocide, and a touch more English. Instead they are simply interested in winning over their own people – even if it means losing the bigger battle over the islands.

The one thing you can be angry about

On Saturday Yaxue shared the story of “Subverter” Chen Pingfu. Essentially, he was deeply in debt after paying for a surgery, and turned to performing in public to try and pay off the money he owed his family members. For this he was threatened and eventually beaten by “public servants,” but he continued on. When he complained about this treatment online, he was further harassed by police, and was forced out of the only job he’d been able to find in years. Chen was a man desperately clinging to the last shred of dignity he had and local officials were determined to take that away from him.

Apparently in China, when the gov’t takes away your job and threaten you by saying, “I’ll send you to your death if you dare be a nuisance! Who do you think you are? Making you die is nothing for us! Go with us if you dare, and see how we will tidy you up!” you are supposed to swallow the bitter pill in absolute silence. For if you are angry, and express that in any public forum, you can be sentenced for “subverting state power.”

But we saw this weekend, that there is still one thing you can be angry about – Japan.

There were massive protests against Japan’s gov’t buying islands (from a Japanese family) which China claims (for excellent coverage see Eric’s coverage at Sinostand). Friends in Nanjing reported seeing smaller crowds gathered and one emailed me to comment on what happened during the Rape of Nanjing, “I still believe only a twisted and distorted nation could have done such horrific things and have enjoyed. It runs in the blood.”

From what Eric at Sinostand saw first hand, he had little doubt that these were gov’t sanctioned, if not gov’t supported protests, as the crowd hoisted Mao posters, and chanted for the long life of the Communist Party (in Xiamen they clearly were). People’s Daily has also hosted a series of other inflammatory news about Japan, which makes it seem as though the gov’t is not done stoking the fire. Global Times condemned the violent protests, but supported the protests over all (this is perhaps the most explicit piece from GT that shows their allegiance to the Party). This fits neatly with the Party’s beloved narrative that they are the only force that can protect China from being carved up by foreign imperialists (of which Japan is the worst).

Perhaps Chinese people really are this upset with Japan (over a move that has changed nothing as far as the issue of the Diaoyu islands is concerned). China does not accept Japanese control of the islands and so Japan’s recent actions should be as upsetting to Chinese students as China buying Hawaii from some guy in Gansu would be to an American. Furthermore, supporters of the Party like to remind us that the Chinese people are of low character, and would be very warlike without the firm control of the gov’t. Or perhaps it’s just that this is the only issue that one can actually take to the streets over without fear of being beaten by police, forced out of your job, or disappearing into the back of a Public Security Bureau van.

A friend in Chengdu told me that one of his greatest regrets in college was participating in the anti-American protests sparked by the bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade (these were also massive). He told me more than once, that after the U.S. apologized, the protests were halted, and the students were sent back to their universities lest they begin to protest anything else. He feels now as though he was nothing more than a pawn in the gov’t’s game, but at the time it had been a liberating feeling to go and scream and wave banners.

For now the students seem content with venting their frustration with the Japanese gov’t, but as China’s economy slows down and graduates can’t find jobs, it’s only a matter of time before they realize who they are really angry with.

Where good news is disappointing and bad news is hopeful

Just a quick thought today:

As I tell people in the States, when it comes to China, seemingly good news is often bad, and seemingly bad news is often good. In many cases, like increased numbers of AIDS cases, higher numbers of people living below the poverty line, and shrinking college admissions, bad news can actually be signs of problems being acknowledged and addressed. On the other hand, reforms to the criminal code, the completion of bridges and rails, and “elections” often serve as reminders of how far China has to go in terms of human rights, safety, and developing a gov’t that is actually selected by the people.

In a story published the other day in People’s Daily, the gov’t announced that it planned for every other village in China to be staffed by at least one college graduate. This seems like a rather necessary step, as one begins to realize that the statement means that at the moment most villages in China do not have a single college grad on staff (not that they are necessarily qualified to lead either, but would likely bring new ideas). Surely, this kind of policy would help to spark innovation and develop the countryside.

However, as the article goes on, it seems to be another well-intentioned, but poorly thought out policy. It’s a rather transparent effort to create 400,000 jobs for college grads to stem the growing number of unemployed students (this article is explicit in the intent). Again, it seems that the raw number is more important than whether or not these individuals are actually improving services in these areas, and with that bulk of new employees it’s hard to imagine that they will be very carefully screened for their abilities instead of their connections. As one applicant said in another article on the topic, “becoming a civil servant means a lifetime of insurance, stability and being relatively well-paid.” Such a program will further strain local budgets that already fail to adequately cover education and health care.

So what may look at first glimpse as good news, may actually be another costly policy that looks better on paper than it does in practice.

On the other hand, today People’s Daily reported that a Professor had plagiarized his student’s work and then claimed that he won an award with it (although PD found no evidence that he had actually won.) The article doesn’t do much to help with the underlying problems as it still refers to the man as an “award winning professor,” and includes a quote from a school official that seems to imply the award was what really mattered.

It seems at first like another example of the rampant cheating that happens in China’s universities, but in this instance the student has vocally opposed his former professor. Even after the prof. apologized and added the student’s name to the project, the student has continued to reject these attempts to calm the story.

This is not the first instance of a student rebuking a teacher for claiming their work, even though the students could face rather stiff punishments from their schools. To me it is a great example of the awakening in China of individual rights, and the value of creativity.

Thoughts on the South China Seas – we should be more worried about fishermen than politicians

For over two years ocean rocks have dominated China’s foreign policy issues. So far the Party has managed to anger virtually all their neighbors and has left an opening for America’s pivot to Asia. In my opinion, regardless of whether or not China’s claims are valid, the gov’t seems to be losing the battle on the international stage.

One afternoon when I was chatting with a typically soft-spoken co-worker about my future plans in the Pacific, she pointed out the Philippines on the map and said, “I hope the ocean swallows this country up so that China doesn’t have to destroy it.” As I picked my jaw up off the floor, she elaborated, “Since I was a little girl, these little islands have been a part of China, and I can’t accept the idea of giving them up. It would make the map look all wrong.”

It was something of a wake up call for me as this insanely nationalistic war call was coming from an individual who has been adamantly against the Communist Party in other discussions. Though I shouldn’t have been too surprised that this person who wanted the best for her country, also wanted her country to be “whole”. To her, war in the region is unavoidable; few things ruffle feathers in China the way discussions of territory do. A Chinese politician giving up historical claims is as likely as a Republican candidate proposing a one child policy.

When we started talking about what might happen if China did need to “wipe the Philippines off the map,” it became clear that there was no victory for China in that scenario (nor would it be good for the Philippines, U.S. or anyone else).

Imagine with me if you will how such a thing would unfold-

First one country, likely after provocation by fishermen, would open fire on an opposing vessel sparking the conflict. If the media is as biased against China as some of the angry youth believe, than surely China would be blamed for the increased aggression regardless of the facts. After all, what benefit would there be for any of the neighboring countries if China were absolved of blame? It would only put them at greater risk in the future. In the U.S. it would excuse a military build-up, and in an election year, who knows how much of a reaction would be needed to keep people’s votes.

As a result of the conflict, the US and neighboring countries would lend military support (or at least some gesture), there would be a call for sanctions, and many individuals would likely boycott Chinese made goods (in addition to those Americans who already do). In the long run, this military conflict would likely cost China’s economy more than the prized oil is worth, and the short-term effects of the economic punishments could seriously undermine employment and by extension, stability (although some argue that a war would give nationalism a pretty healthy boost in an already sagging economy). In the U.S. billions of dollars in investments in China would likely be lost, and the price of goods would swing sharply upward.

War would be lose-lose for all involved.

While I’m in no way an expert on the South China Sea issue, I’ve yet to see a scenario that ends with China maintaining any kind of positive image overseas.

Based on this (oversimplified) thought experiment, to me it seems that China’s best choice is to continue with the plan of waiting to exploit these resources, and encouraging their neighbors to be patient in finding a solution they can all agree on, and prevent the situation from reaching the point that the U.S. feels it needs to get involved. It gives the country the opportunity to lead, offers a second chance at building trust within the region, and keeps the U.S. away from China’s backyard.

Unfortunately, oil isn’t the only resource being considered and appearances must be maintained when it comes to issues of sovereignty (if these “islands” don’t belong to the mainland, Taiwan might start getting ideas….) It seems that Chinese fishermen have depleted their own stocks, and are now searching further afield for fish, leading to standoffs that would otherwise be avoided in Korea, Japan, and the Philippines.

It is China’s environmental issues that are pushing officials (on both sides) to puff up their chests as much as it is the massive quantities of oil that they had been willing to wait for. This makes it much more difficult to reign in, as calling on fleets to stay ashore looks weak domestically, and pushes up already high food prices. I fear that if war does come to this region, it won’t be the result of decisions made in Beijing, as Chinese leaders are aware of the risks, but rash acts by patriots, fishermen, and the forces sent in to deal with them.