Bridging the East-West Gap

The following is a Southern Metropolis article written by a Chinese visiting student (鐘曉慧) in England.

This is my translation:-

“Perhaps the past one-and-a-half months can be considered the most tempestuous period in the long run-up to the Olympic Games. Less than four months away from the Games, the smoke of war is already spreading all around. One obvious fact is that three big battle grounds have surfaced targeting biased reporting by the western media over the Beijing Olympics and the Tibet issue: one overseas, one within China and one on the internet. As regards the latter two, the most representative of incidents are respectively the Carrefour boycott and the anti-CNN movement. On the overseas battle ground, there is the recently organized 4.19 world-wide protest by overseas Chinese.

On April 19, thousands of overseas Chinese students in London, Birmingham, Manchester and Glasgow initiated a silent protest against the distorted and prejudiced reporting by BBC on the Olympics torch relay and Tibet issue. On the same day, Chinese students and residents in major cities like Paris, Berlin, Vienna and Los Angeles also joined in big rallies and marches. It was said that close to ten thousand Chinese in Paris participated in the rallies and marches. Being able to organize such detail-oriented and sensitive activities within such a short period of time and to coordinate such sizable protests so speedily among so many cities, the organizers can be forgiven for any imperfections that may have appeared in the process.

The most impressive aspect of the 4.19 protest movement is the fact that the overseas Chinese students are exploring and learning to use methods that are acceptable by western standards to express their anger and make their voices heard. In the example of the London protest, students uniformly wore white surgical masks and conducted their protest in silence. They purposely chose the white color as the base color, avoided using too many red flags and chose to sing “My China Heart” as their theme song. From these choices, one can see the organizers’ meticulous thoughts. On the one hand, western society has always been sensitive towards the red color and has a habit of associating it with authoritarian governments like Nazi Germany. So using red would not only fail to earn support but would arouse resentment. On the other hand, silent protest in place of loud slogan chanting would give a better impression on westerners, showing them that Chinese people are capable of exercising reason and control over their emotions and not just a bunch of “brainwashed” nationalists. As an on-the-scene spectator, I saw that the students were not only trying to express themselves, but they were actually learning how to make westerners understand them and how to use an appropriate way of conveying a correct message. Negligible as this baby step may be in the direction towards rational behavior, it is still a far better option than mere exhibition of scalding patriotism.

However, there is still a worrying aspect. In the overseas battle ground, the voices of “strong protest” seem to drown out those supporting dialogue. An English professor in Chinese Studies told me that he recently conducted a small sample survey among Chinese students asking them how they felt about the western media’s handling of the Olympics torch relay and Tibet incidents. Almost without exception, the words used by the students are invariably “shocked”, “disappointed”, “angered” and “unfair”. The professor asked me why the Chinese have such a strong reaction, when it is a widely known fact in western society that media reports are often inaccurate and biased and China is hardly the only target, as even their own government is victimized at times. I thought to myself: the western media has really touched a raw nerve in the second generation of overseas Chinese students this time. It is something that westerners never expected. Indeed, a whole generation of Chinese people has been taught to immerse themselves in the learning of the English language and to use every opportunity to expose themselves to western culture, which includes western media that always pride themselves in fair and independent news reporting like CNN and BBC. So we open our arms to welcome western society in the most friendly way possible, only to find our idolized westerners not only responding with rudeness, but actually shouting abuses at us. In such a scenario, it cannot be more natural for the students to utter those words or even go to the streets to join protest rallies and marches.

The more important thing is that it reminds us that the gap between east and west resulting from political, cultural and historical differences is far wider than we ever imagined. Even if the exchange and dialogue that took place in the last 30 years were not totally mismatched, their effect nonetheless has not been as encouraging as one would expect. At least the effect of improving mutual understanding at the citizen level has been very limited. Citizens in the east and west are still very much in a state of ignorance where each other is concerned. In the matter of correctly using mutually discernible texts, symbols and rules to convey meaningful messages to each other, we still have a long way to go.

Therefore, a more daunting task than just protesting is to develop a new space for re-learning. In comparison with the past, the new space and new learning has three prominent features. This time, the learning is not simply language learning: it should also encompass learning of the western way of thinking, their social rules and their language symbols. This time, it should not be part of the traditional educational system with government directing the form and content of learning. Rather, it should fully utilize citizens’ abundant internet resources and independent social organizations to impart more social element into the exchange channels linking the east and the west. In the new learning process, overseas students should not only start new battle grounds but should also build a sturdy bridge facilitating the exchange of eastern and western culture, leveraging their advantage of being overseas. And we have already seen our Chinese student representatives in Paris issuing a most sincere statement: “We, who understand both the Chinese and French cultures, seek to act as a bridge between the two peoples, an axis point for communication.” The aim of this new space and new learning is to seek chances for dialogue between citizens in the east and the west, striving to eliminate misunderstanding, tension and antagonism that arise as a result of differences and ignorance, thus helping to diffuse or mitigate the conflict at the higher political level.

There may be people who cannot wait to express their skepticism about the effectiveness of such efforts. Some may even say: Why should a great nation such as China stoop to trying to understand the West? Why doesn’t the West try to understand China? To the former question, I can only say: “If you don’t take the first step, you will never be able to cover a thousand-mile journey.” To the latter, my answer lies in the book which I have been reading and which I would highly recommend: “What Does China Think?” by Mark Leonard. I would also like to share this saying by a Taiwanese friend of mine: “A great nation never regards itself as great.” If people are given ample room to utilize their various lively formats and abundant resources to start an honest, independent and rational dialogue and to learn and exchange ideas with the West, then I think this would be the best outcome that can be expected from the Olympics.”