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A Couple of Conversations on Rights with Chinese Youth

June 14, 2011

A mural on a wall of the Guangxi University campus directs viewers to "Love Socialism." Photo by Tim Quijano.

UPDATED: This post was updated on 20 August 2011 to improve readability for TheChinaBeat.

While teaching at Guangxi University’s Sino-Canadian International last fall, I noticed a remarkable transition between the way the students of my class acted at the beginning of the semester and the way they carried themselves toward the end. They had transformed from stereotypically timid high school students, self-segregated by gender in their seating arrangements, into students who were much more outgoing, speaking out when I asked them to… and increasingly when I didn’t. As our relationship developed through the year, they became comfortable expressing more personal topics with me. The following relates a story that reports on the difficulty of negotiating the fine line of what is and is not acceptable in contemporary Chinese society.

At the end of class one day, a student (student A)* came up to me.

“Tim, do you know who Han Han is?”**

This was student A’s way of bringing the topic of human rights to me. We touched on popular topics deemed sensitive by the Communist Party such as the 2008 Sichuan earthquake and last year’s fire in Shanghai. The human costs of these incidents are widely understood as being greatly exacerbated by mismanagement on the part of the Communist Party. Both student A and a friend, student B, expressed their irritation with the “Great Firewall,” or the firewall the Chinese government has erected to separate Chinese internet users from sensitive topics and international social media websites like Facebook, Youtube and Twitter. After expressing their annoyance with the firewall’s restrictions, the students assured me that they had capable software to “climb over,” or hack through the Great Firewall.

Student A told me that s/he had come to ask me advice. S/he wanted to use a school project to question human rights issues. “Be careful,” I said. “I’ll talk to you about these issues, but there are a lot of things that I would not suggest saying in public.”

S/he reacted in angst, and began telling me a story.

Early in the freshman orientation, the dean of the International College gave an introduction of the International College to an assembly of all of the college’s students, many of whom had not seen foreigners in person before–as an economic backwater, Guangxi Province does not witness many of the signs of a modern Chinese city. During the speech, the dean directed the student body, “if any of you students have a disagreement with a foreign teacher about a political issue, you students should return to your Chinese teacher to discuss the issue. Do not continue to discuss the political issue with your foreign teacher,” effectively instructing the students to keep their teachers at arm’s-length.

“But now I’ve realized,” student A went on, “that I feel more comfortable discussing politics with you than with my Chinese teachers. You challenge me, and don’t try to control the discussion.”***

Mao and Deng and Jiang giving the peope of nanning some words of advice

Several Generations of Chinese Communist Party leadership, from Left, Mao Zedong, Deng Xiaoping, and Jiang Zemin instruct the people of Nanning to vigorously work to revitalize the city. Photo by Tim Quijano.

Later, I received an email from student B, one of my smartest and most creative of students, obviously worried for student A’s well-being, and coming to terms with some issues of his own. I have edited the text to improve readability; the original is available here (pdf).

I think student A is now really excited about and interested in political and human rights in China. I held similar feelings when I was in middle school. When I was growing up, I discovered many many things that made me really angry.

Today, I still don’t like the government and the party, but I have realized that it shouldn’t disturb my personal life as it did before. It’s just the way it goes. I’m not able to change it. What I should do is avoid doing the same thing in the future. Now many college students here and all over the country apply to be active party members. I know that few of them actually like the party, but being party members will help them get jobs in the government or other public institutions. I will never do that–I have already decided not to work for the government. I just want to be myself. I am sick of saying things that I don’t agree with, and glorifying things that I hate. I don’t want to be so fake as to join the party.

My feelings about the government and party are complex. On the one hand, it really makes my life better. I still remember what my home was like 10 years ago very clearly. We only had a TV and a DVD player. When I compare what my life was like then with what it is now, I have to admit that it’s really a great change. We have really become richer and live a more comfortable better life. On the other hand though, the government has done so many bad things. The party has changed a lot. It’s no longer what it used to be decades before.****

These are the realities that must be confronted as these young adults are coming of age in China. Signs of change are visible, sure, but democracy is still inaccessible–too inaccessible for most Chinese youth to bother with caring, particularly outside of Beijing and Shanghai.


*The identities of my former students are obscured for their protection.

**Han Han (韩寒) is a young man from Shanghai who became well-known while working in the car-racing circuit. Today, however, he is famous for his internet personality, and relative frankness on issues considered sensitive for many to comment on publicly.

***Paraphrased from a conversation in person.

****Copied from an email message.

5 Comments leave one →
  1. July 1, 2011 10:03

    Hey, I came across your site via. your fickr page. Such a beautiful looking blog!

    And really love this post. I think it must be fascinating for you to witness what’s going through the heads of these students. I read the New Yorker profile of Han Han recently, which kind of talked about how he is the poster boy for these apolitical youth. It’s not that he doesn’t care, it’s that he doesn’t have the power to change things. So he focusses on what he can change – culture, through words, art, speech, personal individualism.

    • Tim Quijano permalink*
      July 2, 2011 18:41

      Thanks for reading Monica. Evan Osnos’s piece is great. Han Han seems to deliver a bit of truth to the otherwise disaffected youth. We’ve all created awkward situations by not refilling the right person’s drink first, or sitting in the “guest’s” chair.

      Posts on Evan Osnos’s New Yorker article here and here.

  2. August 3, 2011 16:21

    I have encountered similar things from attending a high school in Xi’an. The variety of discontent ranges so much from student to student though, and most of them do realize the virutes of the party and what it has done for them within the last few generations. It’s interesting to hear what the Chinese (particularly politics) teachers have to say about different issues as well. Thanks for sharing!

  3. Mike C permalink
    September 20, 2011 09:35

    Good article. I have had similar experiences. However, suggesting Guangxi and Nanning as some backwater where youth won’t have a chance to meet with or communicate with foreigners is a bit misleading. Guangxi is an economic backwater compared to its neighbor Guangdong, but that does not make it a backwater culturally or intellectually. Young people in Nanning, especially those attending Guangxi’s biggest, oldest and most famous university(one of the oldest in China), have no shortage of opportunities to meet foreigners. Nanning is the center for ASEAN countries’ consulates in South China and has a huge presence of NGOs and foreign businesses. In many ways it is far easier for students and young people to meet foreigners in Nanning than it would be in Beijing, Shanghai or Guangzhou because the pace of life is different, as are the people they would be meeting. How many self-labeled sophisticated, wordly local youths in 1st tier cities, who might know things from tv or books, have themselves actually ever met or communicated with foreigners? Besides, why would Chinese youth want to chat up a bunch of obnoxious tourists, office tower suits, or bar hopping businessmen in those big cities? Guangxi has a long history of opposition and a brief intro to its history would show that people there have often been the loudest voices in questioning the central government, the Communist Party and other parts of the traditional establishment. I think you would have heard no shortage of similar conversations 10 years ago or even 100 years ago, let alone now. I know of a dozen places in Nanning where people meet to discuss politics, culture and history, numerous clubs and organisations that do things outside the party. Here in Guangzhou? Not so much.


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