Yesterday was the last day of the academic Chinese writing class I was taking. Nearly all of the other students in the nine-person class had immigrated from China as teens, so they spoke Mandarin natively but still needed help writing academic papers. For our last assignment, the professor asked us to form into groups and give presentations on topics that would incite controversy and discussion. Given the date of the presentation, one group decided to present on the June 4, 1989 massacre at Tiananmen Square.
The reaction to this presentation completely floored me. When asked whether the use of force was necessary, nearly half the class said yes, citing China’s large population and the need to protect the majority, even if it meant infringing on the rights of the few. They did not believe that China was ready for democracy then, nor would it ever be ready for democracy. One young woman said that the Chinese people needed the one-party system, because they needed to be controlled. (Interestingly enough, Jackie Chan came under fire a few years ago for saying the same thing.) One point that I thought was particularly interesting was that the Chinese government could never apologize or even recognize the atrocity, because it is culturally taboo to openly discuss one’s faults.
This made me wonder: outside of situations like this one, where nearly everyone in the room is from China, where else in the United States could these students express their views about what a good society and good government should be? In the US, we drink the Kool-Aid of democracy as much as they drink the Kool-Aid of authoritarianism. Any support for one-party government would be viewed with extreme suspicion and skepticism, especially in the context of China, our emerging rival on the world stage.
I also wondered how those Chinese students in the room who did not agree with authoritarianism might have felt. They may be physically present in a foreign country, but that doesn’t mean they’ve completely left the home country social environment. They are surrounded by their home country peers and connected to home via the Internet, telephone, and other technologies. Nationalist sentiment is growing stronger in China now. Would they feel safe providing a contrary opinion?