TRAVELING IN CHINA
China is an amazing and a quickly developing giant of capitalism. The vastness of the land mass is only surpassed by its economic potential. In previous articles, I've talked about the various problems facing this 21st century powerhouse. Problems from pollution to population will vex the Chinese leadership for much of the first half of this century. In addition, there is still another vital area that needs addressing.
When I recently took a group of university students to China and Tibet for a course on Chinese history and religion, all the students were cautioned not to mention the 3-Ts of Chinese ultra-sensitivity: Tibet, Taiwan, and Tiananmen Square. The Chinese government and many of its people seem to have a national intense phobia about criticism. The government doesn't look charitably toward foreigners discussing these topics with Chinese people.
Having traveled a great deal and having been to China before, I have had experience avoiding those troublesome topics, but I also have been the receptor of unsolicited comments about America. Whether in Europe, Africa, South America, Asia, Middle East, or the South Pacific, locals have freely told me that they love Americans, but they don't like what our government does for a long litany of reasons. Granted, it is sometimes hard to hear the criticism-especially when you know that the critiques of our government's actions are often valid.
However, when sensitivity to criticism goes beyond uneasiness, then a traveler in China is introduced a fourth T-Troublesome. Case in point, my students met at breakfast for their mini in country classroom. One small part of their course requirement was to present to the class a 15-minutes lecture on one of the places that we would be visiting that day. There we were in a lovely hotel's restaurant in Beijing. On this day, we were going to see a couple of the must-see sites-including Tiananmen Square.
The student reporting on this topic did so in one corner of the restaurant away from other foreign tourists or local Chinese. Assuming that it was okay to talk about Tiananmen Square in private, she discussed that Chinese version of the 1970 Kent State killings. What she stated in her report was common knowledge and accurate.
As I was listening to her presentation, I noticed that our Chinese tour guide came up and stood behind a pillar dividing the rest of the restaurant from where we were holding our private classroom. When my student spoke about the protester standing in front of the tank, the guide came from behind the pillar and stood in front and shot me a disapproving stare. I noted his dissatisfaction with my student's comment, but I considered this our confidential classroom and viewed her comments as permissible and forgot about the incident-until the next day.
The second breakfast classroom found me giving some overviews and comments about national perceptions and how they often cause us trouble. I drew an illustration from the Temple of Heaven, where in the midst of that 600-acre complex, the Chinese once thought it to be the actual center of the world. Historically, this national hubris caused China to view itself as superior to other nations who were further away from the center. I said that I had been in Delphi, Greece were the Greeks also viewed themselves as being at the center of the world. I used these two contradictory examples of misguided national pride as a cautionary warning to us as Americans.
While we don't claim to have an actual physical location as our geographic center, our worldview is that we are the center of the world and that what we say should be the standard for others who live father away from the truth. This national hubris has allowed us to commit genocide against Native Americans, enslave Africans, motivate our imperial outreach, and created the concept of Manifest Destiny, which provided a rationale for our invasion of Iraq. We have been divinely chosen to bring our versions of democracy to people who weren't smart enough to ask for it.
It was then that I spotted the tour guide lurking behind the same observation post that he used the day before. Again, he was visibly upset. This time, I was amazed; he was piqued by my use of China and Greece in my critique of America foreign policy. Ironically, my American students had more of a right to be uneasy than a Chinese national should had been.
It wasn't long that I again forgot about the incident until I boarded the plane to our next destination. The group was seated together, and I was by myself in the back of the plane. My wife was assigned a seat with the student that spoke about Tiananmen Square. I thought that the tour guide might have done this in retaliation for my comments, but it could also have been an innocent mix-up. However, when precisely the same seating arrangement occurred on the next two flights, it was clear to me that this was a punishment for my comments. I recalled being in Miss Broom's third grade class and being sent to the cloakroom for talking when I wasn't supposed to speak. Now, a half century later, I was sent to the back of the plane; I never seem to learn when to keep quiet.
Prior to our next flight, my wife and I spoke to the guide and told him that we would appreciate being assigned adjacent seats, because of her extreme fear of flying. He rudely dismissed our request with an indifferent attitude and walked away while we were still talking with him. He said as he turned away that he couldn't promise anything. The following flight found me still in the back of the plane and many rows away from my wife and the rest of the group.
Although I considered the tour guide's indifference to my wife's anxiety about flying abusive, I realized that I could make matters worse by again requesting the common custody of sitting with ones spouse, I dropped the matter fearing that our luggage might mysteriously disappear or worse. I don't know whether our guide was an official or a self-appointed "minder" for our tour, but I didn't want to create a situation where face-saving would exasperate the situation. Ironically, the student who had spoken about Tiananmen Square commented to my wife and me before boarding our next flight that while she enjoyed by wife's company, she wanted to know whether we might wish to switch boarding passes so that we could finally sit together. When the tour guide noticed that I was seated with my wife, he was startled and again gave me the same look that he reserved for the student's Tiananmen lecture and mine on national hubris.
Finally, our two weeks in China drew to a close in Shanghai. All that remained was flying to Beijing and then back to the States. When we got to Beijing, the tour director didn't handle the boarding passes for us-something that he had handled throughout the entire tour. While it seemed strange that he didn't, I was relieved that I could request a seat with my wife from the ticket agent, which I did. I presented our tickets, passports, and added that I'd like adjacent seats. She said that was their policy, and she would be glad to accommodate my request. It should be noted that this was the same carrier, Air China, which we flew in country.
As the ticket agent processed my passport, I noticed a concerned expression come over her face. She called over a supervisor, and they spoke in hushed tones-as if I could have understood Mandarin Chinese. The supervisor approached the desk and asked me whether I had any trouble boarding planes during my stay in China? I replied that I had not had the slightest problem. He then informed me that there was "a block" on my exiting China and couldn't board until the problem was resolved. The supervisor instructed me to speak with an inspector.
I did as I was told and asked the inspector what the trouble was. He buried his face in a computer and spent some time not only typing in my name and passport number but also migrating through several screens. After about ten minutes of keyboarding, he returned and said that someone had called the airport and notified them of some sort of unspecified issue surrounding my passport. I told the inspector what I had told the boarding supervisor that I hadn't had any trouble leaving Chicago, Los Angeles, entering China, and flying all over China for two weeks. He said that he would have to call the Department of Homeland Security to confirm that there was no problem with my passport.
Off the inspector went to make his call to Washington. It was apparent to me that the tour guide was behind this delay. Just three hours prior, I had boarded a plane from Shanghai to Beijing without incident. I had also left the States equally without any problems. If I were ever on some no-fly list whether Chinese or American, I would have been detained at over a dozen different points in my travels. However, further employing this logic with this inspector would not resolve this matter. So, I waited quietly.
As I waited, I thought about all the various scenarios that could unfold. If I were detained, how could I get my wife out of China safely? I actually thought that I could plead guilty to whatever violation for which they were detaining me if she were allowed to leave. I also wondered what Chinese gulag I would be sent to until someone unraveled this mess. Fortunately, my fearful fantasizing didn't last long. The inspector received a call from someone informing both of us that I wasn't on the US no-fly list. I was free to leave China and return home. Fortunately, we had a three hour layover before the flight from Beijing to Los Angeles, and we were able to make our flight even after this delay.
When I got back to home, I wrote a lengthy email to Mr. Mu Lin of Best China Tours located in Gurnee, IL. It was he that set-up the tour for the university. I outlined what had happened and asked him to look into this matter. I also requested that we would meet to discuss my concerns. The next day, I got an acknowledgement of my email and a promise to get back to me.
A month passed without hearing a word from Mr. Mu Lin or Best China Tours. Figuring that over four weeks was long enough to email the main office in Beijing, I called him. I left a message on his answering machine reminding him that he was going to get back to me so that we could discuss this matter. Another week passed without hearing from him. Again, I called and again left a message requesting a return call. Finally, he emailed me and told me that he had checked with the home office and found that all of my allegations were unfounded. He added, "I hope and I believe that with your tolerance and your wisdom you could move on with good experience."
I am not sure what Mr. Mu Lin meant by that comment. However, I took it that he was saying to get over this incident and move on as if this didn't occur. That isn't the customer service reply that I expected. Nevertheless, I will move on because of my tolerance and wisdom--after my readers know that China has only partially joined the community of nations. While they work on pollution and population, they need to work on things like freedom of speech as well. Actually, clean air and a stable population don't count for much if freedom of speech doesn't exist. Ask the thousands of students or workers at Tiananmen sixteen years ago.
My warning is to travelers planning a trip to China. Watch what you say both in public and in private. This isn't meant as an attack against the Chinese people and its cultural past and present. I have long been intrigued by China and its people. If you were to visit our home, you can't find a room that doesn't have pictures that I have taken in China or objects from that country. In fact, our guest bedroom is called our China Room since it is completely designed and decorated in a Chinese motif.
This essay is addressed to the Chinese government and to those sharing the government's aversion to criticism. You have made great strides in guiding China into a great economic and capitalist force in the world. However, this traveler suggests humbly that the government needs to get over their ultra-sensitivity to criticism. As an American, I have found that sometimes foreigners can bring a clearer insight to our activities. We, as a nation, have erred and as unpleasant as it is to hear a foreigner's critique, it is better to hear and correct it then to continue down that errant path.
In conclusion, I would like to quote a famous Chinese who wrote about criticism:
Conscientious practice of self-criticism is still another hallmark distinguishing our Party from all other political parties. As we say, dust will accumulate if a room is not cleaned regularly, our faces will get dirty if they are not washed regularly. Our comrades' minds and our Party's work may also collect dust, and also need sweeping and washing. The proverb "Running water in never stale and the door-hinge is never worm-eaten" means that constant motion prevents the inroads of germs and other organisms. To check up regularly on our work and in the process develop a democratic style of work, to fear neither criticism nor self-criticism, and to apply such good popular Chinese maxims as "Say all you know and say it without reserve", "Blame not the speaker but be warned by his words" and "Correct mistakes if you have committed them and guard against them if you have not"-this is the only effective way to prevent all kinds of political dust and germs from contaminating the minds of our comrades and the body of our Party.
This was a direct quote from my copy of the little red book-better known as the Quotations from Chairman Mao Tse-Tung.