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After: Two steps forward for me and China

By 4 July 2009 No Comment

Class is over and I am 18 hours from Shanghai in the beach town of Qingdao.  Sitting in my hostel’s common room, surrounded by travelers, I am drawn out of my Chinese stupor by a language that at the moment seems so foreign to me—English.  A month of reporting in China has indeed changed me.  I admit that I came to this country a bit fearful.  China was so imposing, so foreign, and most of all so misunderstood.  I am leaving with an entirely new perspective.  China is an amazing country.   The people here are lovely, kind, and best of all, as curious about America as I am about China.

I can’t deny that I came to China with some preconceived notions – for most of my life China was the Big Red Threat.  Perhaps this is symptom of being a Generation-X citizen. I lived through the Cold War in which communism was the enemy, the epitome of all things anti-American.  I was an impressionable 15-year old when Chinese students stood up for democracy and were slaughtered in Tienanmen Square.  Yes, China is still a communist country.  But today’s communism is not the same as that of previous generations. In truth, only two things reminded me that I was in a communist country: occasional but certainly not panoramic internet censorship and other journalists telling me about censorship.  On the street, in the realm of the common citizen, I saw no evidence of suppression. I saw people with more freedom than ever before. They were embracing capitalism, living life and seeking out their own version of the Chinese dream.

We spoke to many Chinese people: government officials, local journalists, and average citizens. All of them said political progress in China is a matter of taking two steps forward and one step back.  Perhaps out of ignorance, some of us wondered why any society would tolerate that step back? It may have been our professor who said it is all a matter of where you get into the river.  Most of us, as a society anyhow, are fortunate and perhaps spoiled – we all jumped in the river downstream of the rapids.  We did not endure the journey through the rough waters like many Chinese alive today have, experiencing prolonged periods of turmoil such as the Cultural Revolution.  Therefore, it’s difficult for us to understand the Chinese mentality. We would never tolerate a step backwards but at the same time none of us have felt the liberation of taking two steps forward.  What must that feel like? Is it acceptable for us to think less of those who must live through the process and accept backwards motion? Not having to regress politically is something I have taken for granted throughout my life. We have ultimate freedom in our country and I have worn that badge as an entitlement rather than a blessing born out of the efforts of those in our country who jumped in the river and rode the rapids. I think we should give the Chinese time to traverse their own treacherous waters before we pass judgment on things that seem antiquated in comparison to our fortunate lives.

Undoubtedly China is a rising global power.  But they are not taking over the world, as some conservative American pundits may speculate. They are simply claiming their own destiny. This is a good thing for them and for us.  I, for one, am glad to have had the opportunity to witness it firsthand.   I will always be thankful for this opportunity to get to know China, as well as myself, a little better.  As hoped, I am better for having come here.

PS: I never got to meet Jackie Chan.

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