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A peek beyond the great wall
Trip to China reveals a vibrant mass of contradictions
Chen Siyang and a tour guide pose in front of the monastery with Douglas Young, who is wearing a Buddhist prayer shawl. - photo by Douglas Young

Perhaps no nation has navigated such massive change in so short a time as China has since the late 1970s. My most recent trip there reconfirmed what an endlessly fascinating blend of opposites the country encompasses: East meets West, ancient meets modern, Third World meets First World, and political communism meets economic capitalism. Yet China has skillfully integrated these contradictions to create its most successful society in 5,000 years.

My strongest impression is how friendly the Chinese are. They have such an innocent charm and are always helpful. A Xining airport worker even let me use her personal cellphone to call long distance, and waitresses would offer the foreigner a fork.

Oh, how appreciative they are when a Westerner tries to speak Chinese. Indeed, almost every time I greeted a stranger in Chinese, he would grin and eagerly reply.

The farther from Beijing and Shanghai, the more Chinese ask you to pose for pictures with them since they see so few foreigners. The first time a pretty gal asked for a photograph, I cynically wondered if she was a pickpocket. But the Chinese are just a remarkably unpretentious people. A friend refers to his “brother” worker at the office, and female friends hold hands.

There’s enormous reverence for the old. In parks the elderly sing, play instruments, dance, and exercise together, and there are bus seats reserved for senior citizens who ride for free.

Chinese adore Americans. At Beijing’s national history museum, a University of North Georgia colleague was waved ahead of the line and I got exempted from a security check. A stranger on the street exclaimed to me, “America great!” And I got a guided VIP tour of a major Buddhist monastery, which included meeting the head monk, simply for being an American.

China is not politically free. On hotel computers, I was denied access to Facebook and even an obscure libertarian website. Chinese must buy illegal “over the wall” software to access such banned sites. Seeing me take a picture of a Xining housing protest, police promptly told me to put away the camera. In three trips to China since 2008, I have yet to see a Western news magazine or newspaper, and the only nonstate-controlled TV news networks at hotels have been the BBC and CNN. A Beijing buddy had to bribe a satellite company to get forbidden networks.

At the national history and art museums, there is a clear Marxist narrative with no mention of the Maoist (1949-76) Era’s repression, mass famine and violent 1966-76 Cultural Revolution. Even the painting of China’s first astronaut is dominated by an outsized President Hu Jintao in the center. There are state propaganda posters and they are not always subtle. One in a Beijing restaurant shows a government fist smashing any impurities in food. And there is no shortage of security cameras. Though, to be fair, we have a record number here, too.

But I see so many signs of recent Chinese liberalization. Last month there were far fewer propaganda posters than just before the 2008 Olympics and, on hotel computers, I accessed almost every conservative, anti-communist website I wanted.

Regarding religion, whereas in 2008 there were police vans across from Beijing’s Wangfujing Catholic Church, on this trip there was none as I witnessed the faithful pray inside openly. In Xining I saw mosques and loads of Islamic men wearing white Muslim taqiyah caps while Islamic women hid their hair with hijabs. At the big Buddhist monastery outside Xining, everyone worshipped freely, and a Chinese friend’s corporate boss is a practicing Buddhist who was still allowed to join the ruling (atheist) Communist Party.

Socially, in some areas, the Chinese enjoy more freedom than we do. Despite anti-smoking signs, people smoke most everywhere, and traffic laws are routinely ignored. On this trip I saw more flashy Western outfits, especially worn by young ladies, including some skimpy ones that would have gotten girls arrested in Mao’s time.

Chinese also don’t fear crime since nobody intimidates crooks like a communist government.

But pollution is something China’s huge cities have in abundance. On many days, Beijing is engulfed in a fog. Last month, I saw more residents donning surgical masks than in 2008 and 2010 combined. Cars are covered in dust as locals hope for a breeze or rain to bring relief. I never saw the sun or a blue sky in the capital. Now I understand why Chinese students studying in Dahlonega exclaim how bright the sunlight is here.

Despite record economic growth in this capitalist era (shhh: it’s “socialism with Chinese characteristics”), China remains a Third World country. Even off the main streets of big cities, people live in real poverty by our standards. But “market socialism” has helped enormously.

A major lesson of my travels is that a nation’s government is not synonymous with its people, especially when the regime is unelected. Rather than criticize our differences, why not be grateful for China’s great leaps forward in freedom, Westernization, and prosperity during the post-Mao/1976 era? And history reveals that the more we engage the Chinese through trade, investment, education and travel, the freer and more developed they become.

Dr. Douglas Young is a professor of political science at the University of North Georgia-Gainesville campus.