Censorship and Rudeness in China

When I began teaching here, I got this advice from both my boss and from an English teacher who teaches across the road: “Do not, do NOT, ever, bring up politics in the classroom.”

I saw that this was sensible advice (later, my students brought up politics themselves) but I resented it at the time.

Before I moved here, I decided that I would not censor my words. If I did – if, every day, I was constantly putting walls between my thoughts and what I expressed, I knew I wouldn’t be happy living here.

But lately there have been cracks in my attempt to be forthright. Today, in the client lounge, I picked up a book about Ai Weiwei. I was hopeless with the Chinese text but was looking through the photo section.

The lounge manager, a nice guy, came over and asked me what I was reading. He didn’t know who Ai was.

I decided not to shy away from the basic truth of Ai Weiwei’s story.

“He’s a famous artist,” I said. “He designed the Bird’s Nest in Beijing. But in the past few years, he has been defying and criticizing the government. He was arrested recently.”

“Ah,” said my friend. “Smart Chinese people never criticize the government.”

I laughed. I’ve read that the Chinese laugh when they feel embarrassed – and so do I.

“No, I’m serious,” said my friend.

I knew he was serious. I changed the subject, but the atmosphere stayed awkward.

The reason why I felt so uncomfortable, and the reason why my policy of self-censorship might not work out, is the gradient of privilege in that conversation.

I may not be afraid to speak my mind, but that’s because I have freedoms not everyone else has. Why feel proud about that?

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