Last month, Zhou Yeran, a former student of mine whom I’ve written about before, published a piece in his university’s newspaper discussing his Chinese classmates’ reaction to the Nobel Peace Prize being awarded to a Chinese citizen for the first time.
If the award had been for chemistry or physics, there would have been a surge of nationalistic pride in China. But it was the Peace Prize, and it was awarded to a Chinese citizen that the Communist Party had sentenced to 11 years in prison for 'inciting subversion of state power.' So the Party understandably saw it as a slap in the face, and enforced an awkward quiet throughout the country.
At Peking University High School, the most progressive school in Beijing (which is admittedly much like saying Vietnam has the best ski programme in South-east Asia), one student tried to organise a symposium on Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo, but was reprimanded by the school authorities. Even the student editors of the school’s daily newspaper, which published the symposium announcement, were given an angry tongue lashing.Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
You'd think that in contrast, Chinese students who have opted to study at university or college in the United States would be open-minded about discussing Liu. Yet Zhou wrote that when he mentioned Liu's name over lunch with six of his Chinese University of Illinois classmates, an until then suppressed silence turned into outright anger:
'After a long awkward silence, one of (my Chinese classmates) said, “I can’t offer much comment. I just don’t know much about him, or the Nobel Prize.” He sounded wary and defensive.
'“I don’t care about this whole thing at all,” another joined in, “I don’t think the situation in China is as bad as the Western media makes it seem!”…Others nodded and concurred.
'“The true problem is, do we really want this ‘Western-styled’ democracy?” my Chinese classmate continued, quite assertively, “Look how it has failed in India, Thailand and many other Asian countries!” There was another round of nodding.
'“I think this is just Western countries trying to mess with China again,” another classmate inserted, rubbing his glasses, “you know, like what they did in 2008.” He was referring to the boycotting of the Beijing Olympic Games.
'Eventually, a girl joined the discussion. “I don’t think Liu Xiaobo deserves the prize,” she said. “How has he made a contribution to China’s democracy? No Chinese has even heard of him! Liu is just too naïve.”
Sadly, Zhou’s classmates’ angry, almost xenophobic words are too often stock responses to any Western criticism of China, responses instilled in students by their Chinese teachers and the state media, and reinforced by the social spaces they inhabit.
Over two decades after students marched on Tiananmen Square to challenge the Communist Party, the Party, as Ian Johnson wrote in the New York Review of Books last month, has become more firmly entrenched in power than ever.
And the Party has done so, ironically enough, by co-opting the very forces that were supposed to undermine it: the free market and globalization, the Internet and the media, and above all China’s educated and internationalized youth — Zhou's classmates.
Thanks to the free market and globalization, Zhou and his classmates have only known stability and prosperity. And because they spend all their time on Renren, China’s version of Facebook (if you see a young Chinese entranced with his laptop or mobile phone he’s most probably logged on to it), their innermost thoughts and habits can be monitored and analyzed by the Party for any possibility of potentially subversive behaviour, just as Google and Amazon mine personal data for consumer preferences.
Just like Leonardo DiCaprio in Christopher Nolan’s film 'Inception,' the Communist Party’s virtual army works to extract information from, and burrow itself into, the sub-consciousness of today’s Chinese youth, to implant thoughts and opinions through repetition of message.
The Party doesn't need China’s youth to obey it, or even like it. All it needs is for China’s youth to believe there’s no alternative to the Communist Party, and that they needn’t concern themselves with politics at all.
Sadly, one of Zhou's classmates likely spoke for many Chinese students in the United States when he said: 'I didn’t come to America to learn their politics. I came here to get their diploma. Then I’ll (go home, and) get a nice job.'