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July 2005

During one lesson in my adult class, we were discussing the mafia, and I joked how it was the IRS who finally brought down Al Capone.  I explained how the mafia was so powerful that they could intimidate witnesses, so even although everyone knew Capone was a criminal, they could not convict him without evidence.  Charlie interrupted me: “….What did you say?  They need evidence, even if they know someone is a criminal?  That’s because in your country, you have….what’s it called?  Human…. humanity… right…?”  I helped him, “You mean ‘human rights?’”   He continued, “Yes, that’s it.  Here, we don’t have those.  If the police know you are a criminal, they can even shoot you.  But in your country they need evidence first?” 

 Although I’m not sure police go around shooting suspects, what Charlie said was generally true.  My favorite story is about a man who had been charged with murdering his wife, and he even confessed to it (after being beaten by the police).  He was released from prison many years later when his wife was found very much alive and married to another man in another city.  The best part was that the blame was not laid on the police and their methods, there were no calls for reforms, only a sentiment that the woman was not supposed to be alive. The police and other senior officials seem to have little accountability.

 It is also not surprising that Charlie had some trouble conjuring up the phrase “human rights.”  It turns out that “human rights” is “forbidden speech,” according to this article published in U.S. newspapers last month:

BEIJING (AFP) – Users of Microsoft’s new China-based Internet portal were blocked from using the words “democracy”, “freedom” and “human rights” in an apparent move by the US software giant to appease Beijing. Other words that could not be used on Microsoft’s free online blog service MSN Spaces include “Taiwan independence” and “demonstration”. Bloggers who enter such words or other politically charged or pornographic content are prompted with a message that reads: “This item should not contain forbidden speech such as profanity. Please enter a different word for this item”.

 Needless to say, freedom of speech is still a bit lacking over here.  Before coming to China, I wasn’t sure how this would affect my life here.  But it turns out to be quite annoying because there are many things I would like to ask my students and discuss in my class, but I can’t.  There are certain taboo subjects, namely anything critical of the Chinese government’s policies, which I am not supposed to talk about.  Sometimes my adult students will bring up these subjects, but I have to avoid them and give vague answers to their direct questions.  Our school insists we don’t talk about them, because it would be detrimental to the school if they were accused of promoting western thought in addition to teaching the English language.

 But more than just the school’s policy, I do have a general feeling that something bad would happen if I, or anyone, said anything contrary to the government line.  For example, one time my class was telling me how in Beijing, you can view the preserved body of Chairman Mao.  In discussing him, everyone said that Chairman Mao was “70% good and 30% bad”  I’d read this same statement in a book about China written by a Peace Corps volunteer back in 1996.  The 70% good being that he is regarded as the founding father of the new China, the 30% bad being the whole cultural revolution, which punished capitalists and academics, and the “great leap forward” that plunged the country backward and contributed to the starvation of millions of people.  I couldn’t help but make a little joke: “Are you sure it’s 70/30?  What if he was 35% bad and 65% good?”  I was met with blank stares.  “No.  He’s 70% good and 30% bad.”  They were stating a fact as indisputable as the atomic weight of iron.

 At other times, they’ve tried to pin me down by making direct accusations.  Someone will bait me with something like, “I read that most Americans think Tibet should be independent.  Is that true?  Do you agree with them?”  I try to avoid answering the question without really lying.  I say something like, “Well, most Americans don’t really understand the situation, so I think most of them don’t have an opinion.  We don’t learn very much about China in school.”  They interpret this to mean that Americans are stupid, and seem satisfied.  At other times I’ve received similar questions about Taiwan, and I similarly try to avoid answering directly.  Although I truly don’t have much of an opinion on either subject, the problem is that if I did, I could not state it freely unless it was the same opinion as theirs, which is the same as the government’s.  To disagree, to hold an opinion different from the majority, would be nearly suicidal.  I think I mentioned in an earlier e-mail that once at teacher at our school said that Taiwan was a different country from China, and the statement made it into the newspaper, was a huge fiasco, and the teacher ended up losing his job.

 Sometimes I become frustrated at the lack of criticism and independent thought regarding their own country and government.  Because the media cannot be critical, they have no precedent.  And yet, I do see hope.  They complain about the Chinese Film Bureau censoring films and only allowing a select few Hollywood films to be shown in the theaters.  One student lamented, “They think we are babies and try to protect us.”  But any film censorship is easily subverted by the massive quantities of pirated DVD’s that abound in the country.  It’s ironic that the western countries complain about copyright infringement, without realizing that the violation of intellectual property rights has led to an increase in intellectual rights in China.  There is no better propaganda machine to promote western culture, capitalism, and consumerism than Hollywood movies.

 But despite the infiltration of Hollywood glamour, there is still fear lurking in the corners, leading to self-censorship.  One day, we were discussing religions such as Buddhism and Christianity, which are only slightly taboo, when someone brought up the Falun Gong cult, which was banned by the government.  They seemed more curious about it than anything, and were under the impression that Falun Gong was very popular in other countries.  I tried to explain that it wasn’t very popular, but the people were allowed to practice it if they wanted.  The discussion went on a bit, and one person nearly said some good things about Falun Gong, when suddenly he stopped himself, saying, “But I will not say anything to support Falun Gong.  Who knows what will happen to me?  No, I cannot say anything.”  We started to joke a bit, because two of my students regularly tape-record the classes, and some jested that they were spies for the government.  But behind the joking was reality, and the conversation abruptly stopped as they became aware that they had been speaking a bit too freely about a forbidden topic.

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