“China is a peaceful country,” declares Jane, a Hmong-minority nursing student from Guizhou, China’s poorest province. “Why doesn’t the rest of the world understand that China is a peaceful force in the world?” laments another classmate. “Historical maps clearly show the South China Sea has always been a part of China. It even has China in the English name!”
These are common sentiments voiced by young adults raised on a steady diet of communist party propaganda. Such propaganda is unrelenting throughout their lives. It begins with primary school textbooks, intensifies in college with mandatory military training, and in daily life is a ubiquitous presence on billboards and buses.
The question they are really asking is a familiar refrain in America, “Why do they hate us?” The Party’s reassurances are soothing. China’s intentions are pure. We stand for mutual benefit and “win-win” economic growth. History is conclusive proof of our territorial claims. The only problem is that reality paints a different picture, but facts never get in the way of a good story.
The students mentioned above are very poor. The nursing college they attend has a tuition of about ¥ 2000 ($300) a year, and many students receive additional government subsidies. They are first generation students with illiterate parents who still till the land as they’ve done for generations. These students are emotionally invested in a system that seems to be working for them.
Xi Jinping’s jowly yet feminine grin adorns billboards all over China, garnished with the Chinese characters for national rejuvenation and “China Dream.” To these young people, the slogans are more than just bland exhortations to pursue unquestioning consumerism. They give an intellectual framework to something more tangible: an increase in opportunity and in standards of living.
While things are going well, this leads to a national confidence Americans were once familiar with, but now it manifests in China differently. Due to a highly censored media, any foreign criticism seems wholly without merit. There is no framework for viewing China’s actions abroad in a critical light. As China increases its international visibility, there will be pushback and China needs a citizenry that can handle it. Plaintive reminders that their country is misunderstood is not a long-term solution.
It is clear that China is becoming increasingly assertive on the international stage. One must look no further than the blustering language in Xi’s three-hour long peroration during the 19th Party Congress or the awkwardly named One Belt One Road Initiative.
China, no doubt, should be playing a much larger role in world affairs given its economic and demographic clout, but only with full realisation of what such involvement will entail. Otherwise, the Party’s hear-no-evil policy toward their own population will eventually backfire.
Back at school, lunch is served as we perch on our stools barely a foot from the ground. Local Hmong delicacies are passed around as the mounted television broadcasts state news and flashes with menacing red graphics informing us: “the UNCLOS decision is a farce!” (The international court ruled for The Philippines against China in the South China Sea Arbitration).
We continue to chat, assiduously ignoring the screen behind us. The conversation turns from American pop singers to Western preferences for bread over rice. Eventually, a young Chinese man sitting at the table raises the topic we had been avoiding. An amicable back-and-forth took place but finally he mentioned a 1947 map declaring all within the capacious “nine-dash line” to be part of China.
To him, this was indisputable. No alternative histories or viewpoints were valid. In reality, the provenance of this map is still murky. “The world doesn’t understand China’s conditions or Chinese history.” “Other countries are biased against China and don’t want us to succeed.” Thankfully, the others could sense the discomfort and changed the subject.
If current trends of nationalist education and censored media coverage continue, there will come a day when the people must reconcile reality with the Party line, and that day may come sooner than either would want.