When I Discussed Democracy With Young Chinese
Educational levels vary greatly in China, and there are enormous gaps in the flow of information. Yet young people, who are more likely to absorb information from outside (such as by circumventing China’s censorship and blockage on the Internet), are increasingly likely to reexamine their own definition of "democracy."
When I Discussed Democracy With Young ChineseBy Looking Beyond Borders/Crossing Columnist
Three years ago, I participated in a summer session at Shanghai’s Jiao Tong University in what was my first exchange trip to China.
During that exchange, I chose an elective course called “Mass Communication and Social Problems”. I don’t know whether you have seen the documentary Under the Dome by Chinese investigative reporter Chai Jing, but the course’s lecturer, Wang Hao, used to be an investigative journalist like Chai.
While Wang has given up his investigative reporting work, he still dares to expose and criticize China’s social problems, directly diagnosing the root of these issues.
He once said: “With his economic reforms, Deng Xiaoping hoped to let some people get rich first, leading the way for others to become rich. However, what we ended up with is a small group of people who got rich while the remaining poor keep growing poorer.”
Another Chinese friend of mine also expressed an opinion on Deng’s economic reforms, saying: “The effect of the economic reform and opening policy is that people became greedy.
Before, during the era of the planned economy, everyone was poor; then suddenly there was an opportunity to strike it rich, so everyone only thought about how they could make even more money.”
A China Where the Rich Get Richer and the Poor Get Poorer
In his class, Wang showed numerous documentaries and movies to help us understand China’s social problems. One of these documentaries mentioned a family in a mountain village with a meager annual income of just 200 renminbi (about NT$900), yet the family did not meet the low-income household criteria, meaning that they were not able to apply for low-income household subsidies.
Among the causes that make the poor grow even poorer is also that people overextend themselves to pay for higher education. Many Chinese firmly believe that, if only they study at university, they will have an opportunity to land a good job as a sure path out of poverty.
However, children from poor families seldom manage to obtain the high grades in national college entrance exams that are needed to get into a good university. (Read: A 9-year-old Refugee’s Heartbreaking Letter to Hong Kong’s Leader)
Therefore, some profiteers have founded private universities that charge high tuition fees but do not care about grades, thus enticing poor families to enroll their children for studies there.
In fact, the training that these private schools provide is anything but solid, so students find it difficult to specialize in a particular field even though they’ve shouldered exorbitant tuition fees.
Moreover, just getting into university does not mean you can find a job. Even graduates from prestigious universities cannot necessarily seamlessly find a job upon graduation.
One of the documentaries featured a young person who had just graduated from Wuhan University’s Luojia College [since renamed Wuhan Qingchuan University] yet had not found a full-time position after a year of job hunting.
Another student, who was about to graduate from the Department of Pharmacology of Qinghai University, said that not a single student in his class had found a job yet.
Since too many young people remain unemployed, Chinese netizens have created the special term “intelligent ant tribe” to describe communities of university or vocational school graduates with low incomes.
In recent years, China has surely posted considerable economic growth, but the wealth gap has widened nonetheless.
In 2014, Bloomberg News quoted a report by researchers at the University of Michigan saying that the gap between China’s rich and poor is now one of the world’s highest, surpassing even that in the U.S, and that it deserved further observation as to whether the wealth gap would have other economic or even political effects in the future.
The previously mentioned professor Wang is not only a die-hard fan of Chai (this is my own observation; he did not describe himself that way), he also deeply admires Chinese economist He Qinglian, who currently lives in exile in the United States.
Top-ranked on Wang’s recommended reading list is He’s book The Pitfalls of Modernization, which analyzes the causes of China’s social and economic ills. Wang also said that, whenever he cannot grasp some of the problems that developed in China, he reads the articles He posts on her Blog heqinglian.net, from which he gains great insights.
Economist He also wrote a very interesting article on Taiwan’s presidential and general elections in 2016 entitled The Cross-strait Shackles are Broken (a clear, unambiguous, thought-provoking text).
How Young Chinese Understand the Term ‘Democracy’
Wherever you go in China, you will come across signposts touting the 24-character set of core Socialist values, which are:
prosperity, democracy, civility, harmony;
freedom, equality, justice, the rule of law;
patriotism, dedication, integrity, friendship
Before we ask whether China will be able to achieve these benchmarks, we should first ask how China defines them. Among this set of values, I am particularly curious to hear how Chinese people define and perceive “democracy.”
During my stint at Jiao Tong University, a professor named Chen from the University of Macao was invited to give a lecture. Professor Zheng, who moderated the event, introduced Professor Chen with the following words: “Professor Chen originally taught in Hong Kong, but the University of Macao poached him because he is such an outstanding academic!”
When Chen heard this, he cut Zheng off in protest saying: “No, no, no, I wasn’t poached. I fled to Macao because the Occupy Central movement in Hong Kong was simply too fierce!”
Ninety-five percent of the audience were Chinese students who hardly reacted to the content of the exchange they had just witnessed between Zheng and Chen. Yet I was overcome with conflicting emotions: Why would a student movement make a professor flee Hong Kong? What did the student movement mean to this professor? Why did the students hardly react when they heard that the professor had left because of Occupy Central?
Again, what did the student movement mean to these classmates? To put it in a nutshell, how did the Chinese people view the student movement and the democratic spirit as such?
I once interviewed a female student, asking her: “Do you think China is democratic?” She answered: “I think we are democratic!” I followed up, inquiring: “So what is democracy?” She hemmed and hawed a bit before answering: “I am not actually sure.”
Another Chinese friend shared with me the real situation in so-called “democratic” local elections: Election information is not published in the official gazette, and there are no public announcements of candidates’ political platforms, so voters are essentially unable to get to know the candidates.
“The teacher read aloud the names of the candidates and then handed out the ballot papers,” my friend said, elaborating: “We didn’t know these people at all, but we still had to vote.
After we wrote the names of the candidates on our ballots, the teacher collected them. This means the teacher can see which people we chose.” In other words, this amounts to an open “vote”. The students could infer [from the teacher’s statements] which candidates he wanted them to pick. They were also aware that the teacher could recognize their own handwriting to a certain degree. Therefore, they filled out their ballots in line with the teacher’s hints.
Actually, my friend understood perfectly well that such a “democratic” election was in fact not democratic at all.
We can observe that the knowledge of the two Chinese friends mentioned above regarding democracy differs vastly. The former has no clue what the definition and characteristics of democracy are, while the latter has his own definition of what constitutes democracy. He can make a judgment as to which behaviors are democratic and which aren’t.
Educational levels vary greatly in China, and there are enormous gaps in the flow of information, which affects the understanding of young people in contemporary China about democracy.
Yet young people, who are more likely to absorb information from outside (such as by circumventing China’s censorship and blockage on the Internet), are also increasingly likely to reexamine their own definition of “democracy.” (Read: ‘We Are Determined to Defend the Values of Taiwan’s Diverse Democracy’)
Will they want to push for change once they discover that China is not that democratic at all? “I would still swim with the stream,” said the Chinese friend I mentioned earlier, hanging his head. “That’s what the vast majority does; what could I change as just one person?”
Translated by Susanne Ganz
Edited by Sharon Tseng
Crossing features more than 200 (still increasing) Taiwanese new generation from over 110 cities around the globe. They have no fancy rhetoric and sophisticated knowledge, just genuine views and sincere narratives. They are simply our friends who happen to stay abroad, generously and naturally sharing their stories, experience and perspectives. See also CrossingNYC.