Defining Shanghai: Paris of the East or Big Brother Domain?

Oftentimes, when thinking about the current Chinese situation, I get pulled in 2 directions. Part of me feels very defensive against the tumultuous, oppressive, and dangerous picture the Western media paints of China's totalitarian dictatorship of the CCP; but when I read (or hear) fear and anger strikes me as I know that these people are in many ways being brainwashed, and the CCP cares more about staying in control than it does about making the lives of Chinese people better. Today, out of curiosity, I hopped onto the Reporters Without Borders website to check out the Press Freedom index. Of 169 countries surveyed, China finds itself ranked at 163 (interestingly, however, the US is at ultra nationalistic propaganda sincerely recited from the mouths of Chinese people, a sense of 48...) It is true that the press in China is harshly censored; furthermore, it was pointed out to me that the main reason China ranks below countries like Saudi Arabia is because China, unlike most countries, filters and censors its internet.

But when I look around my surroundings, I can't help but think: "Either the CCP did a fabulous job of creating a false image of a free country, or perhaps China isn't as bad as many people, Reporters without Borders included, believe it to be." When I imagine an authoritarian rule, it doesn't include cute girls in fashionable clothing holding hands with boys or copies of the Economist being sold on the street (including the issue with the cover article about China's atrocities). I have had public conversations on buses with students about the problems with the CCP, complaining about the censorship in textbooks. Before I left, I asked for a place where I could pick up cheap American souvenirs like American flag pins or t-shirts, and my dad (sorry, dad) asked "are they allowed to wear American flags?" I think this is a common idea, that the society is so oppressive that they are completely anti-other countries, but I have actually seen more American flags on clothing than I have Chinese flags, mostly because it is fashionable (I haven't had the courage to ask a person adorning such attire for a picture yet).

Perhaps all these things are surface level, and they only stick out in my mind because of all of the Western media attacks against Chinese society. I also have to remember the discrepencies in wealth in China, as evidenced by the top photo on the right of a sci-fi 21st century skyline compared with the crumbling ghettos in the photo below, both taken in Shanghai. But it seems to me that Chinese press and Chinese society are two very different things. While their media and flow of information is censored, their lives, especially economically, seem quite American (Haagen Daaz is a pretty popular hang out, and shopping malls with privately owned clothing stores are the number one place to be). As far as the omnipresent police force, I don't see them very often (although when I do, they always smile when I smile). Once I saw them breaking up a fight on Nanjing road, where one man had hit another. Eric, who also witnessed this event, told me it made him feel quite satisfied to know that the police was no longer only involved in suppression, but actually took part in protecting the rights of people and solving problems. Furthermore, the government has worked more towards helping out the poor in medical expenses; while medical care is much (and by much, I mean MUCH) more affordable than the states, unlike before, a hospital will not turn away someone who needs emergency care, even if they can't pay (something we often take for granted in the USA). I was also surprised at the state of the medical facilities; the picture on the right somewhat captures the state-of-the-art facilities we found in China (although, this is probably one of the best hospitals in Shanghai).

It is true that in Shanghai, I get a very different picture than say a minority Uigher village in Western China, but as one of my classmates told me, he can feel China getting freer by the day. There is still a lot of room for improvement (which my classmate also told me), but I don't think that the picture we get in the West is accurate. One of our guest lecturers at our Fulbright conference said that we should not look at Chinese foreign policy or domestic policy as a snapshot (as in, "what is wrong with this picture?") but instead as a movie. No one wants the CCP gone, but they do want more freedom, and they are getting more freedom. Only time will tell how all of this will play out.

1 comment:

  1. Well, I used to have a very bad impression of the police in China because they always seems very corrupted. But it seems that even they remain corrupt behind the back, on the surface they are doing more things and I am really happy about that.

    I read an article about an international book fair in Tianjin, which is a city one hour away from Beijing. It's supposed to be held in Beijing every year but due to the Olympics, it was moved to Tianjin this year. But the journalist wrote that it seems there is like a 10 to 20 years lack in development between the two cities which are one hour away. People spit more, train station is uglier, and roads worse than Beijing and such. On the one hand, I am really amazed by the progress made in Shanghai(and other big cities), but I do think it's like an oasis. Shanghai is really interesting even to me. There are so many things going on. It's just so dynamic. Now I feel that Hong Kong is boring in comparison. Looking at how capitalism thrives in Shanghai and seeing the much bigger contrast between the rich and poor, the street food and the posh restaurants, the tallest building in the world and the bund is just so interesting. I think you definitely picked the right place to spend your year (I am glad you are making me to learn more about China too).