Special Report: Life in China: From fusion cuisine to live snakes

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Although a communist country, laws on the books in China provide a remarkable array of individual and group freedoms, including freedom of speech, freedom of association, operation of a free press and the right to a public trial before an independent judiciary.

In practice, however, those “freedoms” quickly disappear when the state makes a broad claim of “subversion of state power” or contend an action goes against “the interests of the state,” according to the U.S. State Department.

By definition, communist and democratic systems of government are fundamentally different.  And there is also sharp difference in how citizens in China and the U.S. view theirrespective governments.

Chen Xuelian, director of the Social Survey Research Office at the China Center for Comparative Politics and Economics, said: “According to surveys, the U.S. people believe more or trust their local government more than the central government. In China, the public trusts the central government more than the local government.”

Jiang Haishan, vice president of the China Executive Leadership Academy Pudong in Shanghai, said: “In your politics, in western philosophy, government is absolutely evil. You keep w
atch on that necessary evil. In China, for over 2,000 years, government has the responsibility to take care of the people – government is good. Traditionally in China, government is like parents. Parents have the responsibility to take care of their children. But at the same time, parents have the authority to discipline them.”

In addition to a reverence for the central government, Chinese have an unshakable respect for the family, a carefully structured unit where children learn their role and are taught respect for authority and where the father’s word is final and not subject to challenge.

“China is where family-level decisions and sacrifices are made, based on the good of the family and not what is best for the individual,” explained Lynne Coleman, the American educator who spent nearly a decade in China. “The worst crime for ordinary people is bringing shame on the family.”

Children are taught at an early age that they must care for their parents when they grow old. Government officials invariably dye their hair black because of the widespread belief that people with white hair should be cared for in the sunset of their life and not do heavy work.

The government does the heavy and intrusive work of closely monitoring its citizens..

“Authorities monitored telephone conversations, fax transmissions, e-mail, text messaging, and Internet communications,” the U.S. State Department human rights report stated. “Authorities opened and censored domestic and international mail. Security services routinely monitored and entered residences and offices to gain access to computers, telephones, and fax machines.”

A.J. Liebling, the caustic press critic, is famous for saying, “Freedom of the press is guaranteed only to those who own one.”In China, all print and broadcast media is state-owned. Consequently, the State Department says, Chinese media is used “to propagate government views and [Communist Party] ideology.”

Zhu Yinghuang, former editor-in-chief of the English-language China Daily, disagrees.

“The philosophical thinking is different between Chinese and people in the U.S.,” he said. “Chinese don’t believe in absolute press freedom. All media has to be responsible. We have our boss and we listen to our boss. That doesn’t mean that the boss intervenes in the daily operation of the newspaper.”

Sometimes that’s exactly what happens.

The “boss”boldly intervened when the Southern Weekly, a newspaper in Guangzhou, the capital of Guangdong province, ran a New Year’s editorial calling for greater respect for constitutional rights in China, which was quickly rewritten by Tuo Zhen, the Communist Party’s top propaganda official in the province. The replacement editorial in the newspaper, also known as Southern Weekend, praised the party’s policies. The censorship touched off a newsroom strike and rare public protests in China.

Even foreign publications can’t escape the government’s watchful eye.

When the New York Times ran a story last October disclosing that Prime Minister Wen Jiabao’s family had amassed $2.7 billion, Internet access to the story in China was quickly blocked. Social media, including Facebook and Twitter, are blocked in China for various reasons, including the ability to be used as anti-government organizing tools.

Despite media censorship and ironclad government control, some foreigners sending email to China have been able to slip content critical of the government past the legions of censors. And despite a reluctance to speak out publicly, citizens often criticize their government in small, private settings.

Chinese are quick to note some positive aspects of their government.

“This country reserves seats for certain minorities at all levels of government,” said Alexander Tzang, former deputy president of The Hong Kong Polytechnic University and special adviser to the China-United States Exchange Foundation. “We have reserved seats for non-Communists, for females, for minorities and so on. They are guaranteed seats. They don’t come by elections. That’s not really democracy. But if you look at it from another angle, is it better to have minority voices being heard more vividly? It is much more equitable representation.”

Many are hoping that Xi Jimping, the new general secretary of the CPC Central Committee, will keep his pledge to promote a more open society, including following China’s 1982 Constitution.

Xi, who was elevated several months ago along with six new members of the Standing Committee of the Central Committee Political Bureau, said: “The CPC should be able to put up with sharp criticism, correct mistakes if it has committed them and avoid them if it has not.”

Until that becomes a reality in China, as long as citizens and foreigners stay away from the sensitive topics of Taiwan, Tibet, the Falun Gong religious sect and criticism of the Communist Party of China, they can live what is considered a normal life in China.

“What I enjoy most about China is the open-mindedness of people,” said Carl Murphy, the Atlanta native now living in Shanghai. “The ironic thing is Chinese people are portrayed as a bit robotic and not being free-thinkers. The funny thing is that after living here, I can say the same thing about Americans, which was displayed worldwide for everyone to see during the presidential election.”

Craig Trygstad said, “In cities like Shanghai, Guangzhou, Tianjin or Chongqing, there is an energy and work ethic that is hard to miss. I sometimes felt like that energy – which you see in small furniture factories, in tailor shops and felt in bustling markets – is how you define capitalism. And that is when I would forget that we were in a Communist country.”

(This 4-part series is the outgrowth of a week-long African American Media Leaders Mission to China sponsored by the China-United States Exchange Foundation, a non-profit organization whose goal is to foster a better understanding between the people of China and the United States. Neither the foundation nor government officials in China had any imput in these stories or saw them prior to publication. The 7-member U.S. media delegation was led by Cloves Campbell, Jr., publisher of the Arizona Informant and chairman of the National Newspaper Publishers Association. The trip included visits to Beijing, Xi’an and Shanghai.)

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