Monday, October 22, 2007


The idea of controversy itself may be controversial in a country such as China. The powers that be certainly don't like it, are threatened by it, do everything they can to dampen such an explosive human tendency. Perhaps that's why the Chinese, outsiders to US politics, often have a difficult time understanding the divisive nature of our national postures and policies, the myriad of opinions which swarm out of every dialogue concerning every conceivable issue.

Take gun control, a subject that often comes up in my more advanced English classes. Listening in on the class, you might often hear such opinions as: "Americans love guns", or "Americans are more violent than other [nationalities]". Iraq is another example. I always have to explain that for most controversial issues (including gun control), there tends to be a near 50/50 split in public opinion as well as the representative government. But how to really explain that to people used to keeping mum on political issues and funneling their most vituperative energies towards bargaining?

"But why would the government allow people to keep guns?" My students ask. I explain the frontier (and separationist) mentality behind the constitutional ammendments, as well as the difficulty in changing them. An ultimate crackdown on guns could theoretically lead to a crackdown on free speech, or a blow to the wall between church and state. The 'happy' middle ground between freedoms and protections can be very difficult to maintain.

It is true, however, that I actually do feel safer here in China than I did in the US. I've only witnessed one riot in the year+ that I've resided in China. Guns do make acts of violence perhaps easier to contemplate, cleaner to execute. As the refrain goes, 'guns don't kill...' but they certainly facilitate the act. But violence is a fundamental human drive, and even in a country with near-absolute gun control (organized criminals or Hei Se Hui do manage to obtain weapons from corrupt PLA connections), dispossessed peasants, minorities, and migrant workers have increasingly often managed acts of attrocity without the use of the metal cylinder--in an incident last June, an intruder walking into a primary school and throwing six children off of a balcony, killing a nine-year-old girl.

I have the suspicion that as China continues to open up, its markets irrevocably interconnect with the outside world, and the perspectives contained within it--if not its government--democratize, this country will soon be no stranger to controversy. The sharp divides in lifestyle between affluent urbanites and their rural kin are no joke, as migrant workers are encouraged by the government to flood into the cities (precursor to a massive corporate agricultural land grab?) where they eat the evening restaurant refuse, shoulder burdens for pocket change, and beg or steal. The government has done a good job of exporting electricity and satellite tv into even the most destitute and remote corners of the Chinese empire (for purposes of propaganda and the general stupifying effect that TV can have), but an unintended consequence may be that more and more people become aware of just how many material fantasies they are missing out on in the post-communist era.

I do find it annoying when Chinese like to poke fun about the diverse controversies and volatilities the American life contains, but I suspect that they are soon to learn about these problems more personally. Perhaps that future contains some lessons that Americans and Chinese alike could learn from.

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