Chinese Youth: A Growing Sense of Political Agency

During the jiaozi social that was organized for the Chinese and international students, I met Jacob (I’ve given him a pseudonym here).  When I later mentioned that I was planning on majoring in Anthropology, he insisted that I see the lab where he does his research.  In the lab, he introduced me to his colleagues and we all practiced our English and Chinese while talking about a pretty broad array of topics, ranging from playing ping pong to naming world-renowned Hakka politicians to teaching each other regional dialects from Jiangxi and Henan.

Among one of the major topics that came up was of course politics.  Trying to avoid anything to incendiary, I was caught a bit off guard when Jacob straightforwardly asked, “Do you feel free in America?”

I have definitely thought about this question a lot, but I never really thought about how I would respond if asked, especially if I were asked by a Chinese person.  I ended up saying that I do feel very free in America.  While this response has always been in light of the political and social difficulties that my father had to face while living in India as a Chinese-Indian minority, I think I can say that my response was candid.

I have asked myself what constitutes freedom.  Growing up in the US, I have grown to link freedom with the freedom of speech, the freedom of the press, the freedom of religion, the freedom of assembly and the freedom to petition.  When I listed these for Jacob, he asked me to further explain the freedom of assembly.  When I started describing the role of organizations and civic culture in the United States, he sighed, “Wow.  That is so great.  It must be amazing.”

He continued to explain the role of censorship in China and the way in which it has resulted in a lack of transparency in both the government and the media, but ultimately, the way in which it has affected public intervention and civic culture.  According to Jacob, the Chinese public is, for the most part, aware that its access to information and news is very limited and that their government is far from perfect (this is of course no different from any government).  But though the flaws are apparent, perhaps the most difficult truth to handle is that the space for a more civic culture and citizen intervention and participation has yet to develop in China.

While many are hoping for a change in China’s political culture, there are truths to face.  Just as Chapter Seven of The River Runs Black mentions, development will be very slow without the social space for communication.  Many former communist regimes were undermined due to increased civic culture among the public.  After seeing the effects of media and chaotic movements such as the Arab Spring and the riots in Egypt, it seems that China is of course wary of the potential threats that social media can pose to a communist government that has increasingly had a smaller role in China’s economy, and subsequently, some of its social aspects.  I’ve read a few articles on a possible “Chinese spring,” but I constantly wonder how China will respond to another revolution, if it happens…

…but is it really a revolution when the communist ideology currently has such a minimal role in Chinese economy and society?   Right now, it seems that the government is only particularly characteristically communist in that it censors the media and speech.

In the mean time, it looks like Chinese youth are eagerly waiting for certain cogs to fall into place.