Tang was baffled that foreigners might imagine that people of his generation were somehow unwise to the distortions of censorship. "Because we are in such a system, we are always asking ourselves whether we are brainwashed," he said. "We are always eager to get other information from different channels…but when you are in a so-called free system you never think about whether you are brainwashed."
-Tang Jie to Evan Osnos as quoted in his 2014 book about China, "Age of Ambition"
Before Covid, before Ukraine, before Trump, I had Chinese students in my classroom at NYU. I miss their earnest effort to fit in, complete assignments in a new, challenging language, their fear of electronic surveillance on email submissions, and of one another. They always arrived in twos. No matter how much I assured them that the workshop was a safe space, they rarely felt totally comfortable. Nonetheless, I was pleased to have them in my classroom. Mostly, they were children of government officials or wealthy businessmen and women. Much as I wanted to keep track of them when they returned home, I lost track of all of them. They disappeared into that vast, fascinating country without so much as a goodbye whisper.
I believe with all my heart that we need to maintain an open communication with China and its upcoming generation. The reasons are obvious: an ancient civilization, China continues to become an economic and political world power. There isn't a corner of the world where their presence is not felt; their workers are everywhere, as is their influence. Understanding the importance of a global lingua franca, everyone in China studies English, everyone is aware of the power of the internet, of education, of buying and selling power, even of the art market, of world peace. Indeed, it is my firm hope and belief that they will be instrumental in ending the war in Ukraine. Note: the visit to China this week by the German foreign minister. I am certain it was not just about vaccines. Back channels keep the diplomats talking.
A friend from UC Berkeley, who traveled to China often before Trump to teach in Shanghai, fell in love with her students. They are not rote learners, as she had feared, but original thinkers, deep thinkers. They have learned how to survive in a system that straps them down, which takes courage, discipline and determination. The Chinese students I have known never took whatever freedoms and opportunities they had for granted. They worked hard, unsparingly hard. Evan Osnos was stunned by their ability to resist their government's efforts at control through propaganda emanating from an office building in central Beijing he dubbed "The Department." Its' propaganda brief is similar to many totalitarian regimes, past and present, and—let us not be righteous--to Madison Avenue's manipulations. We are faced now with a population that swoons at the bombardments of fake news on cable and social media. What is this if not propaganda? The resistance to this barrage seems minimal; it's like a drug to an unthinking, poorly educated mob addicted to their own ignorance. Violence and mob rule are the natural outcome of such ignorance. We should not be surprised.
And now, in this election week, as we listen—or try to shut out—the nonsense spouted by the right-wing white supremacist fascistic American politicians, repeating themselves ad nauseum, moving from one subject to another opportunistically, or according to the dictates of their spin doctors, we have to ask ourselves, do they really want to govern, or do they want to rule? And if the answer is the latter, what is next for all of us, and how shall we live happily ever after?