May 23, 2019

Madison teacher visits China one year after the massacre

EDITOR’S NOTE: The information for this column comes from David O. Solmitz’ recent trip to China as a Fulbright-Hays scholar. Solmitz, who teaches social studies at Madison High School and resides in Readfield, met freely with many Chinese, most of whom could speak English.

Since last June’s turmoil there are significantly fewer tourists at Tiananmen Square. Still throngs, mostly Chinese, have come to see their nation’s capitol and the surrounding historic sights ranging from the Forbidden City to the Great Wall. In the distance a troop of soldiers jogs across the square apparently coming from the Museum of Chinese History — now closed in order to house soldiers.

Especially in Beijing people talk quite freely about last year’s uprising. They take it in stride — a temporary setback in the process toward modernization and democratization. This is nothing new to a country that has experienced authoritarian repression dating back centuries before the birth of Christ.

A Beijing taxi driver explained that he felt the government had done wrong; he favored the students. Chinese “intellectuals” suggest that the lack of student leadership, the absence of clearly defined objectives, and naivite in that the government would meet their demands led to the movement’s failure. They pointed out that an enormous bureaucracy can’t change rapidly. In fact, the decision to use drastic measures was made by a few top leaders after weeks of disagreement and indecision to curb a mounting student movement.

Although students at universities across the country did show expressions of support, confrontation with the police was rare. One student in Yunnan Province said he was not involved as he had to study for exams.

An official explanation for the release of student participants is that they were actually innocent due to naivite. The government takes the blame but passes much of it onto school teachers for failure to develop the correct attitude within their students.

One of the repercussions of Tiananmen is the increased difficulty for students to study abroad. Before they can even apply, they must have served their country, i.e. as an engineer, a teacher, for five years. Doctors, teachers, and engineers are pitifully paid — earning far less after years of education and grueling exams than the less educated taxi driver or street vendor selling produce or clothes. Living conditions for all are extremely cramped, i.e. a family of three plus two grandparents living in a two-room apartment often having to share a bathroom with other families. Jobs are still largely assigned by the government. School teachers have between 50 and 60 students to a class. No wonder young intellectuals especially want to come to America.

Modernization can only come slowly to China. Although small motors might gradually assist the people-powered tricycles heavily laden with everything from watermelons to furniture, the family bicycle and public transportation will have to remain the source of conveyance in a country of 1.1 bilion and growing. At the same time more people will try to start their own small businesses and joint ventures between government-owned and -operated factories with multi-national corporations of the west and Japan will expand. Already, the state allows factory management to determine the quantity of production, the salary of its employees, and has the right to advertise for workers to meet its needs. The government will continue to give lip service to religious freedom and to its 55 minority nationalities — 6 percent of the total population.

Government policies continue to adjust to the changing times. For example, since divorce is becoming ever more common, one child is permitted to the second marriage — providing that children from a previous marriage are not living with this “new” couple. The government is still, of course, determined to control China’s swelling population and does enforce a one-child policy. To encourage further education, which is still heavily subsidized by the government, young men and women who marry after the age of 22 (Yunnan Province) are given 20 days of vacation per year, while those married before age 22 are allotted only three vacation days annually.

Along with modernization comes greater freedom. With greater freedom a plethora of new problems evolves which include increased frustration, deterioration of quality craftsmanship, and a rapid rise in the crime rate. Pornography, prostitution, and drugs are also on the increase.

Drugs are most common in Yunnan Province which borders onto the “Golden Triangle” (Burma, Thailand, Laos), and are shipped through Yunnan to Hong Kong. Although drugs and other vices were nearly abolished during the Mao years by draconian measures, drug dealers today, I was told, just laugh off a jail sentence as soon they will be able to return to their trade. The death penalty is still enforced for those who have more than one kilo of heroin; penalties for attacking foreigners, i.e. for drug money, are severe.

Although the government is doing a noble job in reducing illiteracy throughout the country by implementing nine years of compulsory education, the incentive for young people to drop out of school to start a small business is on the rise. Hawkers commonly hustle foreigners to buy their wares at inflated prices. Chinese are now certain to lock their dwellings as burglary has become a common crime. Violent crimes ranging from muggings to rape and murder are apparently on the rise.

How China will be able to maintain steadfast national pride and identity dating back many centuries while at the same time modernizing to effectively compete in an international economy remains to be seen. However, I predict the road ahead will be tumultuous. Although Chinese families are still close-knit, young people don’t know the old traditions that were destroyed by Mae Tse-Tung. A lot of young people are confused. Furthermore, rampant materialiasm and the desire for instant gratification will take their toll on China just as they foreshadow the demise of American civilization.

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