My Take

Those who shout loudest are not always agents for change

The Western media too often portray Chinese students overseas as stooges of the communist state; in reality, their capacity for critical thought is much subtler than many expect

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 24 August, 2017, 1:22am
UPDATED : Thursday, 24 August, 2017, 1:33am

In mainstream Western media, mainland Chinese are often divided into two stereotypes. The first is the majority, who are the brainwashed “slaves”, the nationalists who go gaga over the communist state. This helps take care of the Westerners’ claim that the Chinese state is illegitimate even when poll after poll has shown the vast majority of Chinese citizens support it. The second is the tiny minority, the dissidents who stand up to the state.

Such stereotypes may find their way into supposedly sophisticated analyses by experts. An article in The New York Timesis a case in point. In the op-ed piece, Merriden Varrall, director of the East Asia programme at the Lowy Institute, a think tank based in Sydney, warned that foreign students from China were threatening academic autonomy and freedom at Australian universities. It’s a bold if somewhat odd claim.

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She wrote: “When Chinese students self-censor or monitor and report on their peers [to Chinese authorities], it is not necessarily because the Chinese state is bearing down on them. Rather, many Chinese students believe that speaking out against the officially approved view, on any topic, is inappropriate.”

To explain this behaviour, she uses the notion of “self-directed control”, which she attributes to Hong Kong-based anthropologist Erika Evasdottir. It entails “monitoring and reporting on peers who diverge from the party line ... as the right thing to do”.

Thankfully, Evasdottir wrote back to complain about this misappropriation of her idea. “This phrase is part of a longer definition of ‘obedient autonomy’ and has little to do with people monitoring themselves or others,” she wrote in a letter to the Times.

Autonomy can be won, she explains, “not by overt rebellion but rather by following (obediently) multiple sets of rules at once”. Gaps or grey areas between different sets of rules may be exploited by individuals to achieve a degree of freedom which those rules may seem to prohibit.

I believe the vast majority of Chinese know exactly what Evasdottir is talking about.

She goes on in the letter: “Although Chinese students may not use the language of critical thinking, it does not mean that they are not practising it; they may simply be practising it differently from what others may expect.”

Exactly. You don’t need to exercise your freedom by shouting at the top of your lungs and throwing bricks at police. Subtler behaviour and thinking may get you much further towards your goal.