In Conversation with TIME

Anthony Comeau discusses his interview with the American magazine and his views on its coverage of NYU Shanghai and China at large.

Time published a piece on Oct. 5 regarding joint educational projects in China in which NYU Shanghai was featured. Having been interviewed as part of the article and having appeared in the short accompanying video, I’d like to respond to how the piece represented both my comments and the NYU Shanghai community as a whole. To be sure, I enjoyed the interview, and Time, of course, has the creative freedom to write about topics as they see fit and ethical. Nevertheless, I think it is important to clarify several points.

First, I would like to clarify the point I was making in the article’s accompanying video about there being opportunities for Chinese citizens to express concerns and demand change from their local governments. I was referring to neighborhood xiaoqu (小区) committees, which play an important and tangible role in local Chinese politics. Many Chinese citizens trust and rely on these committees for expressing concrete grievances. I was also referring to cases of environmental activism. Though they have often received pushback from the state, these cases have indeed lead to concrete achievements that have set the stage for the nation’s environmentally conscious policy agenda.

In addition, there are thousands of disruptive protests each year in China. Most are carried out not with the intention to overthrow the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), but rather to demand specific action in response to local material shortcomings in governance. These protests are a sign that the people of China are not complacent in the face of their government.

I made the point about political life in China being more diverse than many people in the United States might expect to give scholarly nuance to the topic. This is of relevance to readers in the United States, as the more we interact on a people to people level with Chinese individuals, the more we must educate ourselves on the realities of daily life in China, as varied and complex as they are. This will help avoid unnecessary conflict and offense stemming from lack of mutual understanding. Americans would expect the same from those making sweeping statements about our own complicated and diverse nation.

Second, I feel the article regretfully did not represent the diversity of views from the Chinese student population at our school. This is likely because the article was intended for readers in the United States. Granted, Time is censored in China and most of its readers will come from the West. Politics is a hot topic with serious consequences and tensions are high. The kind of article people are looking to read is likely what they will get. Nonetheless, all of us lose out when important perspectives are forgotten. A big opportunity for exchange and nuance was lost with this piece, and I’d like to respond to the subtle claim that Chinese students aren’t really “ingesting” Western values and the assumptions that underlie it.

While many Chinese students will indeed defend the policies of the Chinese government, or even take umbrage at challenges to the CCP’s legitimacy, I have found––at least in conversations with my close Chinese friends and Chinese peers at NYU Shanghai––that Chinese students are reasonably skeptical about the intentions and scope of their government. I have seen this in a student group I helped found on campus in which we discussed and analyzed both the American and Chinese governments’ motivations in relation to their position on the International Criminal Court (ICC) and other issues of international law. I have also seen this working with American and Chinese peers to publish an academic paper in which we explored and problematized the way sexuality was regulated in post-Cultural Revolution China. From these and so many more examples over my three years at NYU Shanghai, I know many Chinese individuals understand and embrace values such as transparency, democracy, and open dialogue and will express outrage when these values are violated.

It is typical to call such values “Western.” As an American, I value them very much. But one may also find similar embrace and justification for them in ancient and contemporary Chinese texts. These ideas may not have been mainstream or widely accepted in the end, even in the era when they were formulated. Nonetheless, they’re there. For example, in Strategies of the Warring States (“战国策”) King Wei of Qi announced he would give three prizes to his people: the lowest for those who could criticize him in a public space, the middle prize for anyone who could submit a written criticism to him, and the highest for anyone who could point out his flaws to his face in the palace. Upon announcing the policy, the King’s officials filled the palace, all eager to give feedback. After a year’s time, though many wanted to comment, because there was open dialogue, there wasn’t much to criticize. In the Book of Rites (“礼记”) there is a section called “cruel government is more violent than a tiger (“苛政猛于虎也”). Confucius encounters a woman whose family has been eaten by a tiger. When asked why the woman doesn’t leave to a different state, she responds that the other state’s policies are brutal. Confucius then comments that indeed, cruel government is more violent than a tiger.

I raise these few examples not to cherry-pick or try to claim that China is destined for liberal democracy, but rather to emphasize that there is an enormous literary and philosophical lineage to draw on when considering “Chinese” values. While mostly voiced in the privacy of people’s homes or on the internet today, ideas on what constitutes an ideal society were hotly debated in public at the end of the Qing Dynasty with the framework of Chinese in substance, Western in effect (“中体西用”); during the Republic of China with the New Culture Movement (新文化运动); and even under the Communist Party with its Hundred Flowers Campaign (百花齐放)—though this was eventually crushed.

We must recognize that values are not set in stone. We must ask who determines and frames “values” and with what intent. Governments, media, and private individuals alike often comment on values, and in these comments we can identify assumptions and what they say about the state of our societies and our discourse.

Regarding “Chinese” political values, one would also do good to mention the present existing diversity of political regimes governing “Chinese civilization” or huaxia (华夏). The government of Taiwan, after all, embraces a free press, democratic elections, checks on power, and term limits. Furthermore, many elements of culture either originate or are inextricably linked to institutions and geography, which can be studied empirically.

As Zheng Yi said in the Time video, many Chinese youth realize there are problems with governance. Sadly, well-understood and trusted channels of communication, in which honest dissent can find a voice, are indeed little to none. Perhaps this shows the limits of my earlier point that political life in China is more complex than might appear. I say this, not as an empty critique of China to claim American or Western superiority, but out of genuine concern for the future of this country and its citizens.

Here I’d also like to emphasize that having a nuanced perspective on the shortcomings of one’s government doesn’t necessarily mean in-the-streets-activism. Many young Chinese professionals might, for example, go work in registered LGBTQ rights-focused NGOs, the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) to work on critical socioeconomic development, or even join the Party to work from the inside to inspire change. There is no one textbook response to seeing flaws in one’s nation and desiring to improve it. Internalization of anything learned in university will be varied, will depend on the individual, and will hopefully blossom as one moves from freshman to senior year and beyond.  

In my home, the United States, faith in our institutions is abysmally low and our democracy has been hijacked to a great extent by powerful corporate interests and the politics of fear. Staggering wealth and income inequality is a cancerous problem that both the U.S and China face. What concerned American youths do in response to these challenges will also be varied and dependent on our interests and where we choose to have impact. It will hopefully transcend political ideology as well. All American students at NYU Shanghai would do well today to reflect: have I ingested “American” values? Am I participating in our democracy? Am I reading up on the news? Am I staying informed? Am I working to bridge gaps of understanding? Notice that these were not questions the TIME article asked.

At NYU Shanghai, we must do our best to appreciate and be prepared to explain nuance and complexity. We must interact with others with tolerance while maintaining our own critical eye. Criticizing the philosophies, motivations, and decisions of our nation’s leaders is healthy—it keeps us sharp. Changing our views, maybe even not being certain about them, is not a sign of weakness, but rather of intelligence and thoughtfulness. Understanding or even embracing one side does not preclude us from understanding the merits of the other.

I am so inspired to be at a school like ours at a time when our leaders, Chinese and American, behave as apprehensive, iron-fisted strongmen—in different yet troublingly similar ways. These strongmen all tend to ignore differences of opinion. These strongmen patronize those who dissent. And these strongmen will try to obfuscate and censor truth. All of us at NYU Shanghai must seek to understand the trends that continue to prop these strongmen up. We must respect the laws of our home or host nation, China. But we at NYU Shanghai must also do and be better and learn from our leaders’ non-example. And I see this everyday at our school. While the full effects of how such a rich educational experience will influence each of our societies will not be seen for many years to come, the individual and interpersonal flowers of knowledge this school has cultivated are already visible all around us.

This article was written by Anthony Comeau. Please send an email to managing@oncenturyavenue.com to get in touch.
Photo Credit: Time magazine (link)

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