Tuesday, January 22, 2008

A Face for China

I must confess, I’ve spent my share of time worrying about China. The Red Dragon is a formidable force in the modern world, full of teeth, muscle and mystery. It’s bound to give an American pause for thought.

But this week, I am in a training class with a coworker from China. Her name is Elizabeth. She is delicate, smiling, beautiful, and intelligent. Tonight we shared a table at dinner, and I had an unexpected, golden opportunity: the chance to ask a Chinese citizen about life in her country.

When I asked, Elizabeth told me that she received her Anglo name from a teacher at her academy, where they began learning English in early grades. She is happy to be from China and eager to answer a Westerner’s questions. She is frank about both the problems and the advantages of her nation’s rapid growth. The white collar employees “do well”; the blue collar workers struggle. It sounds like a very familiar economic story. It also sounds very unlike a classless communist system.

In answer to my question, Elizabeth told me that she does “feel free”—but, when I asked specifically about political protest, she said one should never speak out against the government. That’s just not done in China, at least not by wise people. Religion is not restricted, in her opinion. People are free to worship, if they so choose. They are also free to travel abroad, for the government knows that Chinese citizens will surely come home. Remembering news stories in my childhood covering the latest Soviet defections, I found this fact of willing Chinese returns quite noteworthy.

Gun ownership in China is simply against the law, which nullifies that debate. Local mayors are appointed by higher government officials, and so on up the political chain. The higher-ups of the Chinese Communist party leaders select their own leaders.

I learned that it costs the equivalent of $7,000 (USD) to buy a license plate for an automobile in China. That would explain the plethora of bicycles in Chinese photos. But I also learned that there are many who can afford the hefty price tag—businessmen, corporate executive types, have no trouble funding the fees attendant upon their cars.

It may be restrictive, but our conversation hinted that Chinese society is most certainly not classless. Again, that would indicate that it’s not precisely communist. I suppose we in the West had already had guessed that, but the affirmation was somehow reassuring.

After spending a delightful dinner hour with Elizabeth, the image of an open and animated young lady--one about my children’s ages--will materialize whenever I think of China. It’s one Chinese export most worthy of welcome.