On studying in China

Later this afternoon I leave for the People’s Republic to start my first of two semesters at Peking University, close to Beijing’s beautiful Summer Palace in the northwest. While I like to kid that I look forward most of all to the food, I will also enjoy the opportunity to study and learn about China. But coming to China from Europe, where you cannot help but be exposed to all sorts of stereotypes, assumptions, and truisms, it might be healthy to reflect a bit on how exactly I will study there before I leave.

The image of China presented in Western media and popular international affairs publications certainly is not a cartoon, if you look at the coverage as a whole. However, a more shallow reading of only the main articles would in fact give you something closer to a caricature. Since most people are not hoping to be China experts, it is this reading that exerts most influence on the general view of China. On top of that, the current administration in China is bolstering its ideological opposition to the West, most clearly expressed in Document No. 9’s fear of ‘Western values’. This makes it very easy—even for those who think they are more informed than average—to slide into an antagonistic mindset and see things only in terms of freedom versus oppression.

Do not get me wrong, I do think that some important values are being challenged and I know clearly for which values I would fight. However, it would be incredibly stupid to go to China with only a black-and-white view. It would close your mind. It would go against the real complexity that exists in China. Because there is much more nuance than either Foreign Affairs or Global Times want to admit. Real progress is being made, honest officials are genuinely fighting for a better tomorrow. Moreover, dismissing all Chinese views as party propaganda ignores that in fact the academic mood in China is not just organised top-down: it consists of genuinely held believes, part of which in fact predate the founding of the PRC.

Furthermore, it is important to remember that you come to China not as  a missionary, but as a student. You come to China to learn. There is something rather colonial about the idea that there exists this huge multitude of hapless people that wait for the ‘good news’ to liberate them from their slumber. Even if the Great Firewall were to come down, you should not expect that suddenly all Chinese would convert en masse to Western-style liberal democracy. As recent episodes suggest, they might even flood Facebook to convince us of their ‘good news’. To make things easier for those people, I will visit them shortly.

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