You go to China and think you know a little bit. You stay a while and realise you know less, then after a year realise you know nothing. This was said by Harry Liu, Associate Professor, Deputy Director General (CELAP) at at the Chinese Executive Leadership Academy Pudong. I wanted to learn about China and see for myself how much the stereotypes matched or contrasted with my observations, and came away realising how little I knew. I also realised how hard it is to develop understanding.
At the Australian consulate Jeff Turner, the trade commissioner, explained the development of Chinese aspiration over the last 50 years by describing the products that were desirable. Initially people aspired to the three circles: a bicycle, a watch, and something he’d forgotten. Next it was the three squares; white goods such as refrigerator and washing machine. Now people want a car, an apartment and travel. This level of aspiration requires significant development, infrastructure and trade. That is certainly happening. The pace of growth is massive, and the official mood is one of national pride and success. What I wondered about, and tried to explore through my questions to people at various institutions , was the level of political freedom, the status of women, support for LGBTIQ people. I didn’t get far! Indeed, at the Suicide Research and Prevention Centre when I asked about data on and programs for same-sex attracted young people, was told that there are not many gay people in Hong Kong. The implication was they were not numerous enough to matter.
As an ambassador for my university and country it was important to be polite and respectful. At the same time I could tell some of the people who were part of university meetings wanted to speak more deeply and honestly yet were constrained by time, language and circumstances. I asked questions of the tour guide and interpreter in the informal environment of the bus, and their answers and reactions were really interesting, usually expressing conservative attitudes and behaviour.
The status of our visit was high; China and Chinese universities are keen to build good relationships with us. There is status in international collaborations. At Sichuan University in Chengdu the head of the health department (mr ?) who had been in charge of the rescue and restoration efforts after the earthquake gave a presentation about how hard everyone worked to get the place going again, and thanked the communist party and different levels of government at the end. One of the speakers had been at a conference in Beijing and was told to return early to speak to us; another had travelled some distance from another university to be there, although he did not speak. The events were for show as much as information exchange. Students were encouraged to return to study in China. Most people addressed us in Chinese, and the interpreter lacked public health vocabulary so the information was limited. The support for another child for parents who had lost children in the earthquake was a project they were very proud of. My questions about the evaluation of this program’s influence on the wellbeing of the parents were probably too complex and inappropriate for a straight answer. Photos of smiling mothers with babies depicted the official line.
One public health professor was into reproductive health, and had been to Melbourne for the AIDS conference in 2014. He was keen to communicate with me, and we had a short conversation with the exchange of business cards. I asked about the provision of birth control measures after natural disasters, and sexual health policy which had condoms supplied in the hotel rooms. He said that condoms were encouraged yet the challenge was getting people to use them. After the earthquake many of the response workers were from other parts of China, and sex workers also moved in to meet their needs. HIV prevention was an important part of the work in responding to the disaster. Was sex work legal, I asked? No, he said, but it happens anyway and they needed to be responsive to it. Another important health official, a woman, was there, and I asked a question about gender equality. It is illegal to know the sex of a baby before it is born, was her vehement answer. At the time I thought she was being evasive, but in later conversation with the interpreter I realise that he had interpreted my question about gender equity into one about sex selection.
Mr ? met us the next day as well to take us through a museum dedicated to the earthquake and subsequent recovery. It was dedicated to the glorious efforts of China. I wondered how the students would see through the propaganda; I underestimated their insight. A huge sculpture at the entrance depicting a dozen men carrying something up a rocky hill had the inscription ‘Unity is strength’. One of the descriptors about the earthquake response, which I could not photograph completely, had phrases like ‘A world-moving reconstruction makes us harvest appreciation. A historic reconstruction makes us create miracles!’ ‘Strong leadership…great support from all the Chinese people…overcame all difficulties, winning the great victory…the Communist Party of China is incomparably superior, our homeland is incomparably warm…incomparably intelligent’. There was no scope for acknowledging any errors, and it doesn’t seem to be part of the culture. The photos of important leaders taking the time to visit the site and being surrounded by children reminded me of Goya’s paintings of the Spanish royal family; the royals were so impressed with the depiction of their finery they were oblivious to the criticism in the paintings that was obvious to outsiders. The strained faces of the children who had clearly been encouraged to smile for the important man were heartbreaking.
At another university in Shanghai a PhD student who had been conducting interviews with earthquake survivors was able to give a good answer about the outcomes from the baby program. One mother who still slept with the photo of her child which she kissed every day said no baby could ever replace him or make up for her loss, while another said her new baby represented a new future and was important for her hope. I liked the balance in this story, which made human sense in its diversity.
The scope and ambition of China as a world leader is clear. The China Executive Leadership Academy Pudong (CELAP) complex is designed to look strong and imposing. World leaders, political and business, attend and deliver training sessions there. They learn things like media skills, and do problem solving simulations about responding to a crisis. There is a photo of Julia Gillard giving a lecture.
Most of the pictures are of men. Associate Professor Harry Liu gave us an address. He included things such as the importance of leadership training for the future of economics, and the cultural challenge of obedience versus questioning. Over lunch, using this last point as an introduction, I asked Professor Liu about how people who want to express a critical opinion, and dissidents were treated in China, and gave Ai Weiwei as an example. He hadn’t heard of him. The assistant looked him up on her phone and explained the detail in Chinese. His interpretation was that some artists want to become rich so they do things like that to make money from westerners; it was more attention seeking than valid criticism of China.
This work at Tigjuan University seemed interesting yet language barriers hampered deeper understanding
I don’t have a slick summary of my experience in China. The study tour was a success, the students mostly seemed engaged and thoughtful, and we were treated very well. I have an impression of a country that is determined to be successful on the global stage and has resources to make this happen quickly and on a massive scale. I’m not sure where individuality comes into the collective culture, if it does. The people I met were eager to communicate and create a good impression. I’m starting to realise how little I know about China.