Western media will have you believe China’s government is immoral and oppressive, and that at any minute people will revolt to produce a modern democracy. After two years in China, this is my American perspective on the prospect of revolution.
Revolution is a long shot. In Hong Kong I studied for a Master’s degree in economics. None of my classmates had strong political views. Most took up economics because their parents told them to, or because they thought it would lead to a well paying job, or just for the prestige conferred by higher education.
I once attended a seminar on China’s one-child policy, where the guest speaker was a Hong Kong-born Ivy League professor. He explained its effects and stated that he thought the policy should be repealed. Chinese students rarely speak up in class, and never to contradict someone so distinguished. Surprisingly, classmates vehemently defended the one-child policy – because the buses and trains are so crowded.
A different professor who attended the seminar asked this ridiculous question: “Could there possibly be multiple equilibrium points in regard to population?” Multiple equilibrium points? Westerners may find the policy abhorrent but Chinese do not.
I’ve seen little of the political fanaticism necessary for government upheaval. Debates common in the West don’t exist here. Yes, everyone in China knows about the Tiananmen Square incident and may even refer to it as a “massacre.” But I’ve also heard separatists in Tibet and Xinjiang described as “troublemakers.”
Once a group of Hong Kong students were complaining about how they couldn’t change their government by way of vote. There is universal suffrage in Hong Kong, but only 1/3 of the legislature is elected; the rest are appointed by Beijing. I asked if they thought things were unfair, or if they thought the government was not active enough, or what exactly they wanted changed. After all, it doesn’t get much better than Hong Kong. “We just want to vote like other countries.”
In Beijing I once thought revolution possible. Just next to my first apartment was a small shop selling instant noodles and beer. This place was inside a hutong. In the hutongs people burn charcoal for heat and you can find cages with live chickens. The most traffic my local instant noodle/beer store would see was a group of middle-aged men playing checkers outside in the evenings.
Once as I was opening the fridge I turned my head to see a string of chain-linked bullets lying on the ground next to the shopkeeper. Holy shit! “Ni shi jun dui ma?” I asked, which is undoubtedly incorrect Chinese for “Are you in the army?” He made a nervous laugh and pushed the bullets behind the counter with his foot. He then responded with something I didn’t understand, not just because my Chinese sucks, but because he spoke in thick Beijinghua. I put five kuai on the counter for the beer and didn’t inquire further.
Although my experience with weapons is limited to what I used in the army, chain-linked rounds are indicative of automatic rifles – the kind you have to periodically lay off the trigger to keep the barrel from melting. And those bullets were big, not quite 50-cal but larger than the 5.56 mm used by the M-16 – very illegal. As violent crime is rare in China, I don’t think the shopkeeper would need to deter robbers with something that could be mounted on a tripod. This was the most compelling thing to make me think revolution could happen.
Despite the display of some desire to vote and the strapped shopkeeper, a revolution is less likely than Western media leads you to believe. A Chinese friend once told me that Chinese culture is centered more on the family than on any transcendent ideology. Just as the Inuit language has more words for seal and snow due to its importance in their culture, the Chinese have 35 words for family members which do not readily translate into English – paternal grandfather, maternal grandfather, older female cousin on the mother’s side, father’s older brother, on and on. What this means is that most Chinese people probably don’t care about “freedom” or political issues so much as a train ticket home for Chinese New Year. True, there have been two revolutions here in the last century. But from what I’m seeing, I can’t imagine a third.
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