Our rhetoric distorts some basic truths about
everyday life for the average Chinese Joe


Last week before the lights went down in the theater and the feature film "L.A. Confidential" began, I was treated to two previews: "Seven Years in Tibet," a tale of a peaceful people and their suppression by the Chinese Army, and "Red Corner," a drama in which Richard Gere plays an American lawyer unjustly sentenced to death in China. Both movies, to put it mildly, show the darker, oppressive side of communist China.

As Chinese President Jiang Zemin and President Bill Clinton prepare for a much heralded summit in Washington at the end of this month, Americans are viewing the visit against a backdrop of vivid images of political and cultural persecution. And, with five new anti-China bills making their way through Congress, many legislators seem intent on vilifying China¡¯s leaders.

Something is wrong with this picture. I have lived and worked in Beijing, China, for the past four years, and the reality of the China I see every day couldn¡¯t be more different from what I have seen in movies and heard on the news here in the United States. In fact, the anti-China rhetoric in the media, on Capitol Hill, and on the street worries me, as it distorts some very basic truths.

While the media and certain lobbyists would have you believe that China is a monolithic communist nation-state suppressing freedoms left and right, China's average Joe -- or, should I say, Zhang -- is able to do and enjoy things that were unthinkable 20 years ago. The Chinese are snapping up televisions and cellular phones, traveling outside their hometowns and switching to challenging new jobs. These changes have led to an improved standard of living, greater exposure to fresh ideas and a declining interest in government propaganda. Truth be told, no one I know even believes in communism anymore; you are more likely to hear a Communist Party joke than the party¡¯s line.

The U.S. media and some politicians love portraying China through the image of a lone man trying to stop a tank. But showing us today¡¯s China through this prism omits large parts of the picture, such as college students reading news on the Internet and workers striking for back wages and better working conditions -- and winning. Most accounts of China also fail to convey the mood of people, like my Chinese business colleagues and the neighborhood bike repairman, who freely share with me their anger over the 1989 Tiananmen massacre, in seeming disregard of Big Brother.

When Americans ask me about China, I try to balance the conventional wisdom by steering their attention from political prisoners to the young Chinese artist who has opened a trendy bar in Beijing, where he serves up beer, candid conversation and provocative art. So as I sit in my U.S. hotel, here on business, and read about oppression in Beijing, I am struck by the contrast between this view and the freedoms my Chinese friends exercise each day.

Don¡¯t forget that the United States still has its own form of oppression, like the police abuses depicted in "L.A. Confidential." I was studying in China when the Rodney King incident occurred. When I was questioned, I found it a challenge to describe just what "reality" was in the States. Were racism, violence, and abuse prevalent throughout U.S. society and no different, or worse, than in China?

Yes, the Chinese have limited political freedoms. Not all are sharing in the economic prosperity. And the arbitrariness of government authority will always remain in the back of their minds. But is this any different from how life was, and still is, for some segments of American society?

This is not to say we shouldn't point out China's flaws. The irony is that an economically liberal China coexists with what is often a politically repressive one. I readily admit that I hold my passport very closely, and that I live in a bubble of protection because I am American.

Nevertheless, China is moving forward rapidly, and whether we like it or not, it will play a larger international role. But to portray China as an enemy without looking at the lives of the average Chinese and the underlying forces in motion in Chinese society would be a shame. China has its share of politicians and writers who would just as soon tell the United States to screw off.

During the next several months, as you watch Richard Gere tortured in a Chinese prison cell, PLA troops set fire to a Tibetan village or the TV news showing images of the Tiananmen massacre, remember that those images are only part of the whole China picture. At the same time, ask yourself how representative of the United States are images of American Indian reservations being burned or cops beating a criminal suspect.

The simple reality is that there are millions of Chinese who are thriving and who don't care about politics. Most just want a comfortable life, one in which they can learn, make some money, be happy and see their children do better than they did. Tell me if many Americans think differently.

If we can move beyond the one-sided images that shape our current discourse, we will discover that China is very complex and changing rapidly. Anyone who describes the country in a few sound bites probably doesn't know what he is talking about. I am not arguing for a specific policy, or saying that China's problems should be ignored. But in a world where people, ideas and the economy are being brought together through increased trade, travel and technology, we must start to ask how we can improve our relations with China rather than letting every discussion start -- and end -- with a litany of the country's abuses.

Let us begin by acknowledging that China is a multifaceted society, just as I tell my Chinese friends that there are many different "Americas." In doing so, we will elevate the China dialogue to a new level. Then we will start to understand the other superpower on the opposite side of the ocean, and our media, politicians and, ultimately, policy will start to reflect that wisdom.

WENDEROTH is a project manager for a U.S. company in Beijing.

Reprinted from Newsweek magazine (October 27, 1997 issue, p. 18 "My Turn" column) with permission from the author. Unauthorized reprinting of this piece is expressly forbidden without the express consent of the author or of Newsweek magazine. For comments to this piece, drop me a note.

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