Thursday, June 15, 2017

The University of Maryland and freedom of speech

An aerial view of the University of Maryland

Recently Chinese nationalism seems to have found a new target for its wrath: a young Chinese girl, originally from Kunming, who studies at the University of Maryland. Her talk on the clean air and free speech of the US during her graduation ceremony didn't go down well with the Chinese public. It is no exaggeration to say that if she had any ideas of going back to China to work she will have to put them aside, at least for the time being. You can find a good description of what happened here, and of the public reactions of some of Maryland's other Chinese students here.

Before I rush to defend her, I will concede that perhaps the phrase about "not being able to go out without a face-mask because she risked getting ill" is a tad over the top. Kunming is indeed one of the Chinese cities with the best air quality. But that is a bit like talking about the safest city in South Africa, or the most lively city in Norway: it is only an accolade in very relative terms. The truth is that, while nowhere near as bad as Beijing or any city up North, Kunming's air quality is by no means good by global standards. While a healthy person won't get ill in the immediate by not wearing a face-mask, I am sure the air in Kunming is noticeably more polluted than it is in Maryland.

More importantly, the girl's over the top description of the air pollution in Kunming has served to take the focus away from everything else she said, for instance the stuff about freedom of speech. While Chinese television actually went and interviewed people in the streets of Kunming to ask whether they wear face-masks (of course, none do), it would be unthinkable for them to go to the streets of any Chinese city and ask people whether they perceive a lack of freedom of speech in their country.

I am sure there are many other Chinese students in Maryland and the US who either agree with the girl, or at least are unhappy with the rather hysterical backlash to her speech (and back in China somebody wrote this sarcastic reaction to the whole drama, showing that they still have some critical thinking faculties left. Translation here at the bottom). Given all the criticism and public attacks that their peer has been subjected to back home, however, they are probably steering clear of any public pronouncements that don't toe the accepted line in China. At the same time, it is probable that the reactions against the speech by some of the university's other Chinese students were not in any way organized by the official Chinese student organizations linked to the government, but just a result of their sincere nationalism (and a certain naiveness about their home country). Of course people everywhere do tend to get defensive when their country is criticised abroad, but the strength of feeling directed against the "traitorous" girl coupled with the complete lack of genuine anger about China's dreadful air pollution and lack of freedom of speech is what leaves outsiders astounded.

Another thought strikes me: in the age before the internet, there was almost no way that a graduation talk by an anonymous Chinese student in Maryland could have become well known and attracted so much fury half way around the world. A world where any girl's graduation speech can be filmed with a mobile and then go viral across the globe produces these situations. But rather than allowing China's young people a greater freedom to express themselves, the internet seems to have backfired for them - it has now taken away their right to express themselves freely even when they are studying abroad. Any Chinese anywhere who steps out of line and publicly criticizes their country outside the bounds of acceptable public discourse within China is risking a public backlash, and even more so if they do it in front of a foreign audience.

The idea that a world where information could flow across borders in a micro-second would make people more informed, tolerant and wise is turning out to have been an illusion everywhere, and China is no exception. 

Thursday, June 1, 2017

Recite Confucius and get in for free!

I have just got back from a short break in Qufu (曲阜). Qufu is a small town in Shandong, famous for being the birthplace of Confucius. It is the reason why all of Shandong's 100 million people always introduce their province to the foreigner who has never heard of it as "the hometown of Confucius". The town has been recognized as the sage's place of origin for over 2000 years, and as you can imagine it is full of historical sites connected with Confucius. It is also now a stop on the Beijing-Shanghai high-speed railway, meaning that it can be reached from Beijing in just two hours and twenty minutes, even though the distance is actually quite huge.

The town has a small historic centre where most of the sites lie, surrounded by a (of course totally reconstructed) Ming-era city wall. The area was surprisingly un-crowded, considering that I went there during a national holiday. Outside of the historic centre Qufu seemed small and non-descript, and after 5 PM when the sites close the whole town becomes quite dead.

While in Qufu I had a funny experience. When I reached my youth hostel, I saw a notice claiming that it is possible to get into the town's main attractions for free if you can memorize five phrases by Confucius. When I asked I was given a sheet with twenty quotations from the Analects, out of which I could choose any five to memorize. The phrases all had an English translation, which was useful because the quotations are in Classical Chinese and their meaning was not necessarily obvious to me at first glance, although with the help of the translations I could make sense of the characters. Quotations by Confucius are still read and written in Classical Chinese or 文言文, the style that remained China's unchanged written standard for over 2000 years, until the early twentieth century when it was replaced with the modern standard.

I decided to memorize the following five phrases:

(clever talk and ingratiating manners are seldom found in a virtuous man)

(a gentleman is not a tool)

(the gentleman is at peace with himself, but there is no rest for the wicked)

(virtue is not left to stand alone. If you practice it you will have neighbours)

(While the parents are alive, the child must not travel afar. It they do travel, they must have a place to which they go).

As you can see classical Chinese is always very concise, which is much of the reason that these sentences are impossible to understand in Chinese unless you see the characters written down. Those who wrote in classical Chinese only cared about whether the sentences made sense when read on paper, not when spoken out loud. Due to the nature of the Chinese writing system, the two things don't necessarily go together. This problem is much less pronounced in modern Standard Chinese, but it is far from completely absent.

In any case, armed with my five phrases I went to the town's ticket office, where you can buy a single ticket for 150 Yuan that covers Qufu's three main attractions (the Confucius Temple, the Confucius Mansion and the Confucius forest). Given that this is about 20 euros, you can see that getting in for free is an attractive proposition. Once I got to the counter, I asked about getting in for free by memorizing Confucius, and without batting an eyelid the attendants said "next door".

This is where things got a bit weird. I went next door, and found a special office entirely dedicated to letting travellers prove that they have memorized five phrases by Confucius. At the reception desk I was met by two unfriendly clerks who told me that there were already a lot of people waiting to recite their five phrases, and I would have to wait in a line. Outside, in the boiling heat, behind what seemed like an organized tour group of Chinese tourists all armed with sheets like the one I had been given, memorizing their phrases so they could get in for free. What was really strange is that the whole place had the musty and slightly ramshackle feel of a Chinese government office, and people were being conducted one by one into a room in the back so they could recite their Confucius and get their free tickets.

When I asked how long I would have to wait, I was told an hour. I decided to give up and come back next morning, in case there were less people. I did indeed come back the following day, although it was actually more like noon by the time I arrived. This time there were no people. Another extremely cold and unfriendly clerk gave me a form to fill in, with my name, nationality and passport number. After a minute or two I was called into the ominous room in the back, and sat in front of a desk, where the same clerk prompted me to recite the five phrases with the tone of an oculist asking me to read the letters on the wall. The whole thing was beginning to feel like a driving licence examination. I akwardly recited the first phrase, at which she told me that I had to add 子曰 ("Confucius says" in Classical Chinese) in the beginning. I then proceeded to recite the other phrases, always prefaced with "Confucius says".

I was then given a certificate with my photo (which had just been taken), name and passport number, which would allow me free entry into the town's three main tourist sites. It looked just like a certificate of the kind they give you for passing exams in China. My long Italian surname had also been totally misspelt by the clerk. Be it as it may, I used it to get in for free and save 150 Yuan.

All in all, I think the idea of allowing people to get in for free by memorizing Confucius is actually a really good one. It certainly ensured that I memorized five quotations that I shall never forget again. Having said that, the whole experience was quite different from what I originally expected, which was that I would reach the gates of the tourist site, recite the phrases in front of smiling ticket vendors who would tell say "wow, your Chinese is amazing", and then be allowed through without paying with a pat on the back. I even imagined a few local tourists filming me on their phones during the process. Instead, I had basically had to go through a rather strange examination in the backroom of a government office. Another one of those weird and slightly wacky experiences that can make travel in China such a great source of anecdotes.

A statue of Confucius in Qufu