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Guest column: Celebrating China

Visit to Asian nation shows Chinese are united, friendly and happy

POSTED: September 7, 2008 5:01 a.m.
DOUGLAS YOUNG /For The Times

Gainesville State College professor Douglas Young standing on the Great Wall of China at Badaling near Beijing. This is the part of the Great Wall toured by President Nixon in 1972 and later by Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev.

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The pimple of the Beijing Olympics was the endless China-bashing of some Western reporters. Despite the wonderful Chinese hospitality, modern facilities and superb job running the games, many journalists never missed a chance to editorialize about some political gripe.

Well, last May, this libertarian had a grand time touring the major Chinese cities of Shanghai, Suzhou, Hangzhou, Nanjing, Xi'an and Beijing. Stereotypes shattered as I reveled among the happiest, friendliest people I've ever seen.

I've never witnessed so many friends smiling and holding hands in the street. And nowhere have I encountered more helpful, cooperative citizens who are so welcoming of Westerners and appreciative of any effort to speak Chinese, use chopsticks and clean your plate of arguably the finest cuisine on Earth.

Of the 12 nations I've toured in North America, Europe and Asia, none compares to China for service (and they don't even tip!), pristine historical sites (imperial, nationalist or communist), lovely parks and lack of litter.

And I never worried about crime. Trust me, in a land where corrupt accountants get executed, you're FAR safer in China than here.

I also appreciated the warm, jovial informality of the Chinese. While posing like Chairman Mao atop Beijing's Tiananmen Gate, several excited Chinese started chanting revolutionary slogans. A farmer was delighted to let us climb a tree to pick cherries. And people, especially in the countryside, wanted to pose for pictures with the foreigner. Indeed, Westerners get special treatment everywhere, sometimes embarrassingly so.

For sheer thrills, nothing beats a Chinese cab ride. It was as if I'd been plopped in the middle of a movie's car chase. For "a police state," traffic rules appear optional at best. I saw a cabbie do a u-turn in downtown Shanghai - right in front of cops. I even saw a bus make a U-turn in Xi'an. If there's a space in front of a driver, it's his to take, and at breakneck speed.

Yes, China's a dictatorship. I saw no Western newspapers or news magazines, and the only Western news TV networks were CNN and BBC (certainly not Fox). Though Chinese reporters covered the May 12 Szechuan earthquake extensively, there was no criticism of the government.

But the regime is far from totalitarian. I freely read anything online, went wherever I wanted, and saw no fear.

And news flash: the Chinese strongly support their government. In 5,000 years of almost unbroken dictatorships, they have NEVER had it so good regarding personal freedom, education, free market opportunities, openness to the West, and undreamt-of prosperity. Though so many remain poor, more than 200 million Chinese have climbed out of poverty in the last 30 years alone, a stunning achievement and world record. Chinese say the golden age of China is TODAY.

Since Deng Xiaoping re-introduced capitalism in the late 1970s, the Chinese have radically reformed their country economically and socially, welcoming unprecedented Western cultural influence ("Grandpa" KFC and "Uncle" McDonald are everywhere). They've created their own happy medium of Confucian authoritarianism, communism and capitalism. And they are united, as evidenced by their complete solidarity in donating money for recent earthquake victims.

I don't condone one political or religious prisoner, but the ONLY way we've helped the Chinese gain far more individual autonomy and affluence is by positive engagement via trade, investment, tourism and educational and cultural exchanges. It was precisely when we boycotted China from 1949 to 1976 that Mao turned the land into a closed xenophobic garrison state -- and there's a lesson here for our Cuba policy.

Why can't we share post-Maoist China's joy at its enormous progress over the last 30 years? Today's Chinese glass is way more than half full.

So let's stop preaching to the Chinese since they're quite satisfied with a uniquely Chinese system that works well for them. Besides, as they get ever more educated, capitalist and prosperous, they will enjoy ever more personal and, ultimately, political rights.

Just as our magnificent system grew out of our unique history, culture and geography at our own pace, theirs is organic to China. It would be as unnatural for them to have a completely made-in-the-U.S.A. society as it would be for us to copy China's.

The differences are that they've embraced far more of our ways -- and they don't preach at us. Let's live (by positive example) and let live.

Douglas Young is a professor of political science and history at Gainesville State College in Oakwood.



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