Democracy Point-Counterpoint

Posted on November 29th, by matt_schiavenza in Chinese Internal Affairs. 5 comments

Two days ago, I was having coffee with an Israeli and two Italian classmates when we discovered that all four of us had political science backgrounds. Like alcoholics falling off the wagon, we engaged in a one hour discussion about democracy and China: namely, what is democracy, and whether some form of democracy is appropriate for the People’s Republic. I won’t tell you which side I argued (that shouldn’t be necessary to careful readers of this blog) but as an exercise I’ll try my best to summarize the arguments in a point-counterpoint structure.

POINT: For cultural reasons, China can’t become a democracy. Confucianism is based on obedience to a father-figure, or leader, and emphasizes harmony over individual expression. For this reason China is best suited to an authoritarian government.

COUNTERPOINT: What about Taiwan? Most Taiwanese people, and the entire Taiwanese leadership, are Chinese who share the same Confucian cultural background as mainlanders do. Yet they were able to transition into a modern, democratic state without any apparent cultural upheaval.

POINT: Yes, but Taiwan quickly became a modern, industrial power. China contains an enormous population of peasants who have little access to education or to the market economy. Should these peasants become enfranchised, and discover just how much they’ve been left out of China’s economic boom, they could become a violent, rebellious force.

COUNTERPOINT: The peasants already do know. More than 150 million of them, it is estimated, currently migrate to the coastal cities each year in search of employment. There they live on the margins of society, disenfranchised, without any government-provided assistance to support them. If they do feel marginalized, it’s due to a lack of rights rather than a surplus of them.

POINT: China’s system of government functions just as well as any democratic one. In fact, China holds elections on the village level and within the chambers of power members of the Party do have internal arguments and debate policy. China’s decision-making isn’t just in the hands of a secret cabal.

COUNTERPOINT: True, but the central premise of any democratic system is that leaders are held accountable for their mistakes. In China, if individual citizens disagree with an edict from the central, provincial, or local government they are not allowed to organize and challenge the law. Those attempting to do so are rounded up and incarcerated, at best. In all democratic systems, even flawed ones, citizens have the right to demonstrate against their elected leaders. In China, this is not the case.

POINT: An authoritarian system of government works far more efficiently than democratic ones, such as India’s. The lack of an organized opposition allows China’s government to enact its policies free from outside interference or delay.

COUNTERPOINT: China’s government is anything but efficient. Think of how much time is wasted by mandatory political meetings, ensuring national unity through federal control of the curriculum, employing tens of thousands of “minders” to police the Internet and root out unseemly political or sexual content, and attempting to push through the maze of corruption that envelops the Communist Party at every level. A de-centralized, federal system of government would function much better in China than the current Beijing-heavy approach.

POINT: Democracy would undermine China’s unity. Individual states or ethnic groups would vote for secession, and the end result would be a weaker China embroiled in ethnic and regional conflict, just like the ex-Yugoslavia.

COUNTERPOINT: China’s efforts to “Han-ify” Tibet and Xinjiang have largely been successful, so fears of a major ethnic conflict seem overblown. In addition, a fully functioning, multi-ethnic democracy exists on China’s southern border: India. A democratic constitution would allow ethnic groups to ensure that their interests would have a platform with China’s central government, rather than their current token inclusion in the National’s People’s Congress. China can be reconstituted as a vibrant, multi-ethnic state dominated by the Han.

Not all of these points and counterpoints are fool-proof. In fact, I think it’d be easy to poke holes in just about all of them. Yet we, in our conversation, did a decent job fleshing out the major issues surrounding China’s political system.

As for the US, we all agreed that any attempt to pressure China over human rights abuses or political repression would backfire. The Chinese would interpret these maneuvers as brazen attempts to undermine their national authority. If I were conducting US policy in China, I would say that any US attempt to influence China’s political structure must respect Chinese nationalism first. For instance, rather than lecturing China that democracy and openness are morally superior, a far better alternative would be to convince Beijing that a more open system would strengthen, rather than weaken, China’s position in the world.…

Words Fail Me (And You)

Posted on November 25th, by matt_schiavenza in Language. 11 comments

My old WITT colleague John tells us one of his IELTS students asked him how many English words he’d need to know to study the language in university. John, naturally, didn’t have the answer, as if there was one at all. Professional linguists could probably cite a ballpark figure, but what use would that be? Learning a foreign language is much more than memorizing a dictionary.

John’s story is all too familiar to anyone who has taught English in China. In Fuzhou, one of my more precocious students used to spend class looking up word after word in her electronic dictionary. Several others told me that my emphasis on fluency was not particularly helpful, and what they really wanted to learn was pure vocabulary.

As a result, quite a few Chinese friends of mine have developed an expansive vocabulary in English, yet struggle to communicate effectively in the language. Ironically, this makes my own acquisition of Mandarin easier, as often in conversation I’m able to rely on the internal dictionary of my partners to fill in gaps of my own vocabulary. Yet for those Chinese wishing to use English as a marketable skill, a lack of fluency is a significant flaw.

Why is English instruction in China tailored this way? Several possible explanations spring to mind. For one, the vast majority of English teachers in China have spent little to no time abroad honing their craft. The Chinese government recognizes this problem and has thus made a major push of bringing in native speakers (like yours truly) to help the nation’s youth learn the language properly. Yet I think it’s safe to assume that many, many Chinese people have never encountered a native English speaker in person.

Secondly, in Chinese classrooms there is very little interaction between the teachers and students. In most cases, teachers prepare a lecture based on a textbook and students quietly write notes, not unlike the structure in American universities. This method works well in certain subjects, but when applied in language classes the results are disastrous. How are Chinese students expected to learn how to speak English if they’re not wanted to speak at all?

Third, the Chinese education system places a strong emphasis on rote learning, and in language class this means memorizing words and grammatical concepts rather than interacting with the spoken language. My Chinese English teaching colleagues, for instance, understood English grammar far better than I and were shocked when I was unfamiliar with various arcane grammatical details. Yet even many of them had difficulties conducting a conversation in fluent English.

In spite of these hurdles, more than a few Chinese people I know managed to become very fluent English speakers without having lived abroad. A principle factor, interestingly enough, is the wide availability of pirated English-language DVDs. Others improved with the aid of a foreign boyfriend or girlfriend, and many in the larger cities benefited from integrating into the expat community. These people to me represent the best of Chinese ingenuity.

This problem, of course, exists elsewhere. Most adult Americans remember next to nothing from their high school language classes. At my own high school, a prestigious prep school located in the cosmopolitan Bay Area, very few of the foreign language instructors were native speakers. Compared to Chinese people, Americans have a far easier time traveling and living overseas, yet the vast majority of us remain happily monolingual.

Yet I still believe that the Chinese method of teaching English ought to be reconsidered, and if there is one good thing foreign teachers can do, it is to introduce a different emphasis to the students we teach.…

Australia Turns- Toward China?

Posted on November 25th, by matt_schiavenza in World Affairs. 6 comments

At The Box, one of Kunming’s popular watering holes, the mood last night was jovial. The Australian general election results came in and Labor scored a decisive victory, booting long-tenured Prime Minister John Howard and his Liberal Party from office. Aussie expats, like their American counterparts, tend to be decidedly left-wing. As a result, many high-fives and celebratory cheers were exchanged. The Americans in attendance wistfully called for a similar result in our own election next year.

Like most people outside of Australasia, I have never paid much attention to Australian politics. Yet John Howard was a distinctly loathsome figure, perhaps the only leader outside of the United States to match President Bush’s belligerent, hawkish rhetoric. Howard was no Tony Blair- a brilliant politician felled by a monumental error in supporting Iraq. Howard was a neocon’s neocon. He marched lockstep with Bush and never questioned the White House’s prosecution of the war. For that, he paid the ultimate political price.

Howard’s fealty toward Washington was often a point of embarrassment for Australians, even among those ordinarily sympathetic to his politics. Perhaps no moment better exemplified Howard’s disregard for opponents of the Bush Administration than his appalling comment about Barack Obama, uttered earlier this year:

If I was running al-Qaeda in Iraq, I would put a circle around March 2008, and pray, as many times as possible, for a victory not only for [Barack] Obama, but also for the Democrats.

Such comments are common fare among members of the American right, but for the prime minister of a foreign country and a major US ally, they were extremely inappropriate to say the least.

So who becomes the new Australian premier? Kevin Rudd. The Labour Party head campaigned on two central issues: reversing Howard’s opposition to the Kyoto Protocol on climate change and removing Australian troops from Iraq. What interests me about Rudd, though, is his background. In the 1980s, he served in the Australian diplomatic corps in Beijing, acquiring fluent Mandarin in the process. Earlier in the year, Rudd made quite a splash in China by delivering a speech in Mandarin in front of the suitably impressed President Hu Jintao.

Does this mean Australia will tilt toward China? Probably not, and I would suspect the Australia/US alliance won’t suffer in the slightest. Yet the West needs better leadership in terms of China policy, and Rudd seems uniquely positioned to offer it. In the meantime, let me offer a hearty “good on ya mate!” to the collective voters of Australia. As one so eloquently put it last night, “Sanity has been restored to the people of my homeland”


More: Excellent analysis by Salon’s Glenn Greenwald, from which I culled the Howard quote regarding Obama.…

Where To Live in China

Posted on November 22nd, by matt_schiavenza in Daily Life. 13 comments

I’ve spent much of the past two weeks trying to convince a Beijing-based friend of mine to move to Kunming when he leaves his job in the summer. He doesn’t much care for Beijing and finds it rather unfriendly, and would like to go somewhere where he could enjoy a relaxing lifestyle for six months or so. Kunming, alas, is perfect. Nice weather, big but still closely-knit foreign community, inexpensive, cosmopolitan, conveniently and beautifully located. For my friend, for whom quality of life is more important than the possibility of making money, Kunming is ideal. For an aspiring businessman, though, Kunming’s slow pace and relative lack of opportunity might be stifling. A foreigner who wanted to live in China and not encounter another expat would also find Kunming’s large laowai community unwelcome.

Clearly, different people come to China for different reasons. Here I present a guide attempting to match the aspiring laowai to the most suitable Chinese city:

1. You’re a businessman looking to cash in on China’s rapidly growing economy. You’ve got quite a lot of cash to spare, so setting up won’t be difficult. Otherwise, you’re not particularly interested in Chinese culture or Chinese language, and you’d like to live somewhere with a large foreign community. Best best: Shenzhen, Shanghai, Guangzhou, Hong Kong

2. You’re an adventurous sort who wants to experience China: the real China. You’re keen to learn Mandarin, to make Chinese friends, and to dive into Chinese culture headlong. You’d be more than happy never to see a McDonalds once during your stay in the Middle Kingdom. Best bet: Any small or medium-sized city outside of Tibet or Xinjiang.

3. You’re a fledgling businessman who wants to experience the cutting-edge of Chinese society. While you do want to make a bit of money, you’re also interested in Chinese culture and to see how the world’s largest country is rapidly changing. Best bet: Shanghai, Beijing

4. You’re an aspiring journalist fascinated with the murky underworld of Chinese politics. You want to experience Chinese media head-on, as well as delve into the country’s past. Modernity suits you fine but you’d rather be somewhere that reminds you that you are in China. Best bet: Beijing.

5. You find China interesting and exciting but can do without the hustle and bustle of the big coastal cities. Pollution, hot and humid summers, and cold winters also put you off. You’d like to go somewhere that combines a relaxing environment with enough things to do to not get bored. Best bet: Kunming

6. You’ve come to China to learn Mandarin- properly. You don’t want to study for a year only to realize you’ve picked up some incomprehensible local dialect. Money is no object. Best bet: Beijing or the Northeast.

7. You don’t have much interest in China per se but would like to settle somewhere with beautiful scenery and a small but vibrant expat community. Your ideal China experience would be to sip coffee at an internet cafe before embarking on a bike ride through gorgeous countryside. Best bet: Dali, Yangshuo, Gulangyu (Xiamen)

8. You have an academic or personal interest in exploring China’s minority ethnic groups. Best bet: Yunnan, Guizhou, Tibet, Guangxi, Inner Mongolia and Xinjiang Provinces/Autonomous Regions

9. You love spicy food and hot summers and want to be centrally located. Best bet: Sichuan and Hunan Provinces

10. You love China’s culture, but not the mainland’s quality of life. You’d like to live in a more sophisticated, international environment with plenty of business opportunities. You have no intention to learn another language, just to work, live, and have fun. Best bet: Hong Kong

Obviously, these are bald stereotypes. I know plenty of people who are happily defying my examples, and can think of several other cities for which a case could be made. These are merely the ones I thought of off the top of my head.

Are any of these plainly wrong? Let me know in the comments or by e-mail, or if you have any other suggestions for a laowai/Chinese city match.…

Will the China Model Succeed?

Posted on November 18th, by matt_schiavenza in China and World. 1 Comment

Let me direct your attention to a fascinating article concerning some of the big questions about China. First, will the Communist Party continue to enjoy the support of the rapidly growing middle class? And second, will the Chinese system of combining relative economic liberalism with an authoritarian political structure become the dominant model for developing countries worldwide?

These are big questions, and needless to say expert opinion remains divided. Chinese Premier Wen Jiaobao recently stated that the Communist Party would remain in power for the next 100 years, prompting skepticism from many observers. Yet as the article indicates, previous predictions of the Communist Party’s imminent demise have all turned out to be incorrect.

In addition, the piece explains just how thoroughly the state involves itself in the daily affairs of ordinary Chinese people. Very few foreigners, I would say, know just how differently the government functions in China than in a liberal Western democracy.

In any case, read the whole thing.…

Who Is It?

Posted on November 18th, by matt_schiavenza in US Politics. 2 comments


In the photo above you see a middle-aged man, dressed in a suit, very much enjoying driving a bumper car. At first glance, you might guess he was an attorney, or a middle manager, or possibly a nebbish accountant. Judging by his expression, you’d assume this man had a sense of humor and was not so serious that he couldn’t enjoy an activity ordinarily reserved for children. To me, the man in the photo seems eminently likable.

In fact, this man was no attorney, accountant, or middle manager. He actually had a position of great influence in the U.S government: the chief of staff for a sitting U.S. President. At the time of this photo, the president was running for re-election, a race he would lose to a previously little-known governor of a small state.

The chief of staff, however, would remain active in politics. He would serve as a congressman from his home state, and fifteen years or so after this photo was taken he would become a cabinet member of another U.S. president, this time serving as secretary of defense. When this president lost his own bid for re-election, the man in the photo would enter the private sector, earning millions of dollars as the chairman of the board for a major international corporation. When a member of his party next became president, this man would assume a very powerful position within the new administration. So powerful, in fact, that over time many believed he was actually more powerful than the man he was supposed to be serving. To his political enemies, the man in the photo acquired a reputation as a dark, evil puppet master manipulating events from behind the scenes. He has in fact been blamed for much of the failure of his administration, and one can be certain that his historical reputation will not be kind.

Who, then, is the nice-looking man in the photo?

If you haven’t guessed by now, he is current U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney. The photo above was taken in 1976, when Cheney was campaigning for his boss, President Gerald Ford. The photo below was taken recently, and presents a striking contrast to the former:

Which image will be remembered best from the public? I don’t think you’ll have to think very hard to figure that question out.

Credit: Vanity Fair’s slideshow of images from the Ford presidency.…

Election Thoughts

Posted on November 16th, by matt_schiavenza in US Politics. No Comments

I usually don’t write about American politics in this space, yet in today’s world decisions made in Washington DC are felt everywhere else. Around the 2004 Presidential election, I read an article written half in jest suggesting that the entire world be given a vote, because like a butterfly that flaps its wings and causes a tsunami, American politics are decidedly international in scope.

The 2008 election is unique because for the first time in half a century, neither party has an anointed candidate. Ordinarily, a two-term President promotes his Vice President for office, but Dick Cheney has long said he has no intention to run. As a result, no fewer than nine Republicans and eight Democrats are vying for their respective party’s nomination.

In American politics, the executive branch (the President and his advisors) has a disproportionately strong influence on foreign policy, so for this post I initially planned to survey what each of the candidates has proposed to do once elected. Yet what I found was depressing: the leading Democrats have little to say other than vague promises to end the Iraq War, and the Republicans are mostly jockeying for the mantle of the “toughest” candidate.

In reality, Iraq will remain an albatross for the next President. Nobody seems willing to risk a catastrophe in the event of a rapid US withdrawal, so you can be certain that American troops will remain on Iraqi soil long after the election is held. Five US Presidents- Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, and Ford- tried unsuccessfully to tame Vietnam before the last US personnel were ignominiously airlifted out of Saigon in 1975. I suspect we will see history repeating itself in the deserts of Iraq.

Yet Iraq is hardly the whole picture. Nor is terrorism, China policy, oil, or any other single issue. What candidates should be discussing are the costs and limitations of the new American empire. In addition to fighting wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, American soldiers remain on Japanese, Korean, and German soil, not to mention in several smaller countries as well. Under President Bush and his foreign policy mandarins, the US has made the domestic affairs of other countries our business. The last six years (has it really been that long?) have introduced several new phrases to the American political lexicon: “rogue state rollback” and “you’re either for us or for the terrorists” being two of the most pertinent. The President himself has explicitly endorsed democratic movements worldwide, or at least when it’s convenient.

In the minds of many people around the world, the US is attempting to supersede the sovereignty of independent nations. Countries that refuse to cooperate with the US economically (through its proxies the World Bank and the IMF) are penalized, while repressive regimes willing to cater to our material needs are coddled. Several influential voices on the right have endorsed “regime change” in any country whose foreign policy seems inimical to US interests. Domestically, civil liberties have been curtailed in the name of security, and several other fascistic trappings have emerged: hyper-nationalism, indefinite detention of suspected enemies, domestic spying, and the fetishization of the military. The military-industrial complex stifles any creative thought about why a nation so superior in resources to any other needs to have such a militaristic footprint around the world. Bullying has replaced diplomacy.

Yet none of the major candidates (defined as Clinton, Edwards, Obama, McCain, Giuliani, Romney, and Thompson) have so much as touched upon these issues. The Democrats squabble over fine distinctions on Iraq policy while the Republicans bluster about bombing Iran and doubling Guantanamo. Nobody has suggested slamming the brakes on the American imperial project and thinking of new ways to project our power in the world. Nobody, that is, but Ron Paul and Dennis Kucinich.

Domestically, the two candidates could not be further apart. Paul is a libertarian conservative who rails against fiat money and supports restoring the gold standard. His notions about taxation and the size of government place him far to the right of anyone else running. Kucinich is a very progressive liberal who favors a near-socialistic posture for the federal government, expanding the American welfare state and aggressively attacking poverty.

Yet from entirely different perspectives, both men have come to similar conclusions about American foreign policy. Paul is an old-fashioned isolationist, a sort that would fit more easily in the 1930s than in the current decade. Kucinich is a dove’s dove, endorsing a Department of Peace and reflexively opposing almost every US intervention overseas. Both could be said to have views well beyond the mainstream of their respective parties. Yet both are the only ones asking the real questions about what America is doing abroad. And alas, neither has any chance of becoming the next US President.

This era should be a triumphant one for the US. With very few exceptions, governments around the world have adopted market capitalism as their primary economic doctrine. We face no enemies with the size and power of the USSR, and China is decades away from becoming anything resembling an equal competitor. America’s dynamic culture, through globalization, has spread across the world as technology has forced open several formerly closed socities. America’s university system, despite the government’s best efforts to stifle it through draconian immigration policies, still attracts the best and the brightest from around the world.

Yet never in my lifetime has America, and the idea of America, been less popular. We have squandered an opportunity to transform our nation into a dynamic, open, accessible republic that truly is a force of good in the world. It’s easy enough to pin the blame on President Bush and hope that as his term ends, our problems will too. But nobody should be that naive. I can’t imagine that a President Clinton, or President Obama, or President Edwards will ultimately change very much at all.

Apologies for the downer of the post, but it’s difficult to observe American politics these days and not be depressed.…


Posted on November 16th, by matt_schiavenza in Chinese Internal Affairs, Daily Life. 2 comments

I spent last weekend hiking and camping in the Yunnan countryside near Kunming, roughly thirty kilometers from Stone Forest. November, with its mild temperatures and clear skies, is the best season for outdoor activities in Kunming, and my friends and I were blessed with two perfect days and one starry night.

We hiked from a small country town to a cave beside a stream, passing through several rural villages along the way. On the way back, we rested in the courtyard of a farmer’s house, munching snacks and chatting with the farmer and his family. He was a slightly built man in his early 80s with a wispy beard and a perfect set of teeth: looking not unlike a stereotypical Oriental philosopher. As we sat outside and took in the scenery, my friend complimented him on the beauty of his surroundings.

“This? This isn’t pretty. It’s poor- and undeveloped,” he said, dismissing the land with a wave of his hand. For us city-dwellers who deal with ugly architecture, pollution, and traffic on a daily basis, we were taken aback. Our rural paradise was his backward and poor habitat.

Reading media coverage of China, one could imagine that the entire country is made of up glitzy skyscrapers, newly rich entrepreneurs with shiny black cars, and a Starbucks on every corner. This, of course, is the image the government wants to present. The new China is urban, sophisticated, modern, and developed, a far cry from the dark days of the Cultural Revolution.

Yet the vast majority of Chinese people- more than 700 million in all- remain rural peasants. This op-ed from The Financial Times estimates that 300 million Chinese are below the standard international poverty line, a staggering sum equaling the entire population of the United States. The booming coastal cities to the east are thousands of miles away and light years ahead economically. For farmers like the man we met, the new China hasn’t yet arrived.

There’s an old saying, most recently seen in the film Little Children, that only beautiful people say that looks don’t matter. I think a similar analogy can be made with poverty. I’ve met several foreigners in China who complain about the rampant materialism of the Chinese and the importance placed on financial success. One even wistfully mused that he would have enjoyed living here prior to the economic reform period, a naive sentiment that nonetheless captures the views of more than a few people. Only people who have never been poor can romanticize poverty.

To be sure, China’s rush to modernize- a project begun long before Mao took the reins of power- has severe environmental costs. Finding a pristine atmosphere in China can be difficult, and so those of who have lived here for quite awhile certainly appreciate it. China loses a lot when new cities are constructed, and it wouldn’t surprise me to see much of the Yunnan countryside covered in gray asphalt before long.

But economic growth brings prospects of success, and change, and improvement. Those people who haven’t tasted it yet cannot be blamed for wanting a piece of it for themselves.…

Lianyungang Revisited

Posted on November 7th, by matt_schiavenza in Reminiscence. 6 comments


I spent my first year in China living in a city called Lianyungang, in northeastern Jiangsu Province. When I tell Chinese people this, their faces light up. “It must be very beautiful there,” is the typical response I get.

Now, Lianyungang is a lot of things, but beautiful isn’t one of them. On nice days, it could be pleasantly cheerful, and some of the buildings in the city’s traditional neighborhoods were interesting, if decrepit. But in a year’s time I doubt I heard anyone other than my students describe the city as “beautiful”. So I’ve always been puzzled why Chinese people across the country believe it to be a beautiful city.

Lianyungang is actually a bizarre conglomeration of three cities: Xinpu, Xuguo, and Haizhou. None are particularly close to each other, and in fact Xuguo (the port) lies about fifty kilometers east of Xinpu (where I lived). This particular fact proved to be quite pertinent on New Years’ Eve 2004 when my friend Michael accidentally disembarked at the port train station not realizing he was still almost an hour away from his destinanion.

Even the name, Lianyungang, was troublesome. To this day I can’t pronounce it properly. It doesn’t roll off the tongue quite like Kunming, or Fuzhou. Mostly us laowai called it LYG, which sounds more like an international airport code than the name of a city. It seemed to fit.

For better or for worse, my first impressions of China were all formed in Lianyungang. I was 23, fresh out of college, and suddenly deposited in a country whose language I couldn’t speak and whose customs I didn’t understand. I had a job which I performed badly and co-workers who couldn’t stand each other. I lived in a soulless hotel suite with a 10:30 curfew amid other byzantine rules. My only media source was CCTV9, China’s inimitable English-language propaganda machine.

My lifeline was Lianyungang’s small foreign community, comprised of two dozen or so English teachers and about fifty French engineers who treated their exile as a furlough from their wives and families. Our venue, aside from the odd gathering at an apartment, was the bar. If Lianyungang had any cultural life, I missed it. My life was simple: I knew a handful of restaurants, a grocery store, a DVD shop, my school, my apartment, and the bar.

The bar was certainly more than just a place to drink (though rest assured plenty of drinking went down there). It was a sanctuary, a West Berlin, a place to avoid the reality that was China. We assiduously resisted Chinese people who attempted to “English Corner” us, that is, use our presence as an opportunity to practice their English. We complained of brain-dead students, slippery bosses, bad diarrhea-causing food, loud noise, spitting, cutting in line, and virtually anything else one could complain about in China. We were entirely oblivious to the fact that the very people we put down were out living their lives while we were tucked away in a scummy bar, self-medicating as to avoid contact with the reality we had volunteered for.

Before long my nocturnal habits came into conflict with my hotel’s curfew, and I was forced to sneak back into my room without attracting the notice of Mr Wu, my guardian at the school. The year before the school’s foreign teachers were both New Zealanders in their sixties who had no problem complying with the hotel policies. I was a curveball; a young man with a taste for nightlife and an aversion to restrictions on my freedom. All Mr Wu wanted was to ensure my safety, for if anything were to happen to me- or if I were to get into any real trouble- the school would bear the brunt of the fallout.

I didn’t mind any of this, and in fact when Mr Wu came to me with concerns about my safety I breezily told him that unlike in my country, the bad guys in China at least don’t carry guns. I took pleasure in being a rebel. To me, I was living in a repressive police state where the citizens were brainwashed into believing a false vision of socialism, all the while blindly fumbling along while Party officials capitalized on their naivete. I would make a difference, or else I wouldn’t. In any case, I’d be gone at the end of the year anyway.

Or so I thought. Now, it’s November 2007, and I’m still in China, now living in Kunming. I can speak the language now (sort of) and my views of Chinese people have changed as I’ve actually bothered to get to know a few of them. I look back at my Lianyungang self and see a different person, an embryonic version of my present self. I could perhaps curse myself for wasting time, for not understanding earlier that learning the language would be crucial, for allowing myself to fall so easily for cheap caricatures of the people I was living amongst. But what would that achieve? As distant as that year now seems, I can’t separate myself from it. The impressions I formed then still influence ones I form now.

Lianyungang, I’m sure, keeps chugging along. I know my old company still sends a couple of teachers there, and if I concentrate I can still envision some of its streets and shops and restaurants, and even the claptrap taxis my late colleague Murray labeled “piles of shit”. And I’m sure, despite the best efforts of the city’s planners and the protestations of the students, it still isn’t beautiful. But it still means something to me.…

Your Cheating Heart…

Posted on November 5th, by matt_schiavenza in Daily Life. 7 comments

Ask any foreign English teacher in China: cheating is endemic here. In my two years of teaching, I routinely caught my students copying each other’s homework, baldly plagiarizing off the Internet, surreptitiously hiding their books during an exam, attempting to bully a smarter student into sharing his work, or simply good old-fashioned leaning over his neighbor’s desk to see what the answer was.

If I were teaching a course vitally important to their future, then I could at least pinpoint a motivation for their cheating. But I wasn’t; my class was merely an extracurricular English test-preparation course that was intended to help them prepare to study overseas. The grades I gave them didn’t matter toward their bottom line. They could have failed every test (some did anyway) and not have done much worse than merely wasting their time and parents’ money. Yet they cheated, time and again, no matter how blue in the face I got telling them not to.

What to make of this cheating? I can think of a few factors, though none seem all that satisfactory as a causal explanation. One, education in China is heavily test-dependent. Getting into a good university depends almost entirely on obtaining good results on the gaokao (高考), or university entrance examinations. Less gifted students have been known to go to extreme measures to cheat on these exams, and often succeed despite the best efforts of test proctors to catch them. Perhaps, then, this culture of cheating applies even to the most casual quizzes, simply out of habit.

Secondly, education in China emphasizes rote memorization far more than creative thinking. One result is that plagiarism is rampant in Chinese universities, and in many cases not vigilantly policed. A friend of mine once taught a film studies course at a teacher’s college in Lianyungang, and she often caught her students plagiarizing what should have been the easiest of assignments: writing a film review. She was flabbergasted that her students thought she couldn’t tell the difference between a Roger Ebert essay and a second-year Chinese college students’. On a more mundane level, I often had a hard time getting my students to think up their own examples of grammatical tenets I taught them; most just copied whatever I wrote on the board and left it at that.

A third possibility is the role of “face” in Asian society. Because test results are rarely private here, students have a strong incentive to obtain a good mark as to avoid being embarrassed by a public airing of their score. This factor would suffice for even the most trivial tests, as nobody wants their classmates knowing how badly he did on the test. In addition, a reluctance to see a classmate humiliated would prompt a strong student to help a classmate in need of quick help.

Elsewhere, being caught cheating is far more of an embarrassment than simply doing badly on a test. Here, the reverse seems to be true. What truly seems strange, to, is that I regard Chinese people as being more honest on the whole than Westerners. I wonder if there’s a contradiction there or if I’m just missing something.

I hasten to add that cheating isn’t unique to Chinese culture, and my recent test experience bears this out. Two Korean classmates of mine spent the entire test (the teacher was mostly out of the room) whispering to one another, and at times I looked back at them I caught them looking over each other’s shoulders at the answers, as if they were collaborating on the test. They saw me looking but didn’t seem to care. When I asked them snidely if they were taking the test individually or separately, they shrugged their shoulders and started to talk but I left the room, disgusted.

I know very little about Korean culture, but their behavior during a trivial exam made it seem as if the Chinese example could easily qualify all over the region. …