It was quiet when I finally made it to the path lab, and the tests I was getting meant the phlebotomist could guess I'd been overseas, and ask where I had been. China, I said, and explained that I had been working and living there, and then I waited for the question that is always asked, not only from strangers but from people who I feel should know better.
"Do they have free-thinkers, then?"
I'm still working on my elevator pitch, but it goes like this:
Of course they do. I have my issues with the system (I always say this, lest they disregard my opinion as biased or something, though I don't know what would be regarded as biased) but there are writers and artists and scientists and discoveries and awesome things happening every day.
People think that mainland Chinese are still living under the yoke of Mao's wooden farming equipment, wearing their Mao collars and starving, completely unfamiliar with Western media and consumed by their communism. Sure I have a list of issues with China that's longer than I care to actually write down, but there's social media and access to foreign websites and this phlebotomist so clearly thinks that the media we get in Australia tells us everything, that they're not keeping anything out or picking and choosing what stories are spun. There is reporting of a quality higher than Today Tonight in Beijing, I want to say (I rarely do).
The Chinese education system doesn't encourage a deep analysis of media (or referencing and verification, as I can elaborate on at length, with a lot of flailing and waving around of reports I've edited half a dozen times and ask me about the google citation one time), but many people I know work on the assumption that while they're not necessarily being told lies, there's a possibility they're not being told the entire truth. I have a friend who has never lived anywhere other than China, but his first holiday overseas he googled 'Tiananmen Incident' and read and watched everything he could find; and after all of that he went home again.
When I told the story about Kuai (his name is not Kuai, but let us call him that), the phlebotomist paused. "Oh, they can go on holiday?" she asked. Imagine me restraining from throwing my hands up in the air. Going on trips overseas is very encouraged. Domestic tourism is massive but international tourism is growing and growing and growing and if I wanted to change my career to tourism the first thing I would write on any cover letter would be that I speak Mandarin, that I lived in China, that I have connections in China's tourism industry.
Representations of mainland China in English-language media are all dire, post Cultural Revolution gritty stuff. Despite a wealth of Chinese fantasy, science fiction, romance, and comedy being written, the stuff that's translated from Chinese into English and held up as authentic Chinese experiences are those that look at the desolation of the Opening Up of China, or life during the Cultural Revolution. Sometimes there are stories about the materialism of modern China and how it's ruining China (and the world). And let us not forget for a moment that the critiques and summaries of life in China that are given weight are also the ones written by foreigners.
This article at NPR suggests that censorship in China is less about specific issues and more about collective action. Certainly it speaks to my experience - news about the Occupy Movement, for example, was easy to access up until the narrative started to project being about organising against one's own government.
I have a sort of recoil now, a distaste when Westerners ask why Chinese people don't get active about [insert issue here]. Well, I try to say, why don't we? Active in Australia is so specific, characterised as protests and rallies about things we can see, but what brought this up was the pollution in the air in Beijing, and how you just get used to it. She asked, why don't they get active, get something happening about the pollution? I explained that China is developing fast, and there's this idea that in order to catch up with Western, developed countries, China must be like those countries in terms of manufacturing and development, and that the preference, for the most part, was for keeping that manufacturing in-house (this blog post has been at least partially debunked but has some links about this stuff). At least China is taking responsibility for its pollution, I said. Where do you think ours goes, when we import all of our manufactured goods?
I'm currently reading Gaysia, by Mr Benjamin Law, and I have plans for an extensive review when I'm finished but what stood out for me in the section on China was the concept of self-censorship, and the idea that some censorship was needed, self or otherwise, otherwise there'd be anarchy.
The level of censorship is frustrating and sucks and is all about the national government's obsession with stability, or at least it claims to be. There are ways around it, like hosting websites overseas, getting info from overseas, pointed self-censorship or my very favourite, memes using coded words. The meme in this style that you might of heard of outside of China is the grass-mud horse, both a way of expressing a vulgarity and a political comment. Commentary about China is so obsessed with free speech but often people don't really know what that means (particularly as Australians! This article on Anita Heiss' Black enough has some really gross comments exemplifying that - yes, free speech has been curtailed when we can't 'say anything that could be deemed offensive'! Yes, that's right, miscellaneous Australian).
I self-censor. I self-censor for different reasons. I self-censored before I considered moving to China. I avoided using certain T words while I was living in China. I self-censor now.
Living in China has changed me in ways I didn't expect. I don't know if I would have had all of these attitudes or thoughts before I lived there, but I certainly have them now. When you know a thing, when you have lived a thing, and it is a thing that works, then it is a thing that works. And it frustrated me before I went, and while I lived there, and definitely now, that people can't see the connections between the things they were supposed to complain about, because China, and the things in their own daily lives.
Sometimes it surprises me that I have to explain some of these things; sometimes, it doesn't surprise me at all.