A few months ago I had coffee with a Chinese friend and his American friend who is a Catholic Priest. The Priest is teaching English at a local university but the rumor that he also performs secret masses at an underground church really made the atmosphere a bit more electric for me as we sat in the dining room of his comfortable university-provided apartment. In his apartment we talked about a little bit of everything and everything was so fine and friendly that I actually began to feel a little disappointed about what seemed to me to be a really benign conversation with a person who had great potential for great controversy. Then the conversation turned to the topics of government and religion and that’s when a little bit of everything turned into something more interesting and I discovered how I truly felt about the Chinese government and it’s power and influence in this country.
It was when the Priest commenced a 10-minute monologue on what he felt was extreme oppression and misinformation provided by the government that he also casually got up from the couch to close all the doors that provided access to the other rooms in the apartment and the outside. I’m not sure if his diatribe and the door closing were related, but to me it was a desperate attempt for privacy in this very un-private country. To me it was an imperative for us to talk without being listened to—insurance for a secret meeting amongst confidents. Maybe next we’d have to whisper or talk with the radio or TV volume high enough to drown out our voices. Maybe we’d have to leave that apartment through an alternate exit so as to avoid being photographed leaving that apartment. How exciting.
My Andy Hardy-like enthusiasm and naiveté about the whole thing is understandable, given that I’m at an age in my life where I’m looking to prove myself still capable of successfully pulling-off the stupid things I did when I was half this age. Still, there I was in Communist China, listening to the dissenting opinion of an underground religious leader. Maybe it was the caffeine that was making my heart beat a little faster.
So I listened with quiet excitement as the Priest defended and supported his argument and until it began to lose focus and direction. Then I disagreed with him. Politely. As a habit I picked up from the Chinese people, I was very indirect in my disagreement, but what I said actually surprised me because I was not repeating an opinion I had previously formulated but rather forging my opinion decisively at the moment and I was quite happy with what I said and how I said it.
As I told the Priest, my experience has revealed that the Chinese people are not the hopeless victims of Communist Party oppression. The Chinese people are not helpless in anything. On the contrary, my eyes see what is at the helm of this giant Dragon Boat of a country: the family. The longest-running uninterrupted culture in the world did not achieve this honor from any political party, religious movement, social reform or economic policy. It always was and always shall be the family that makes this country tick. Some of humanity’s worst atrocities have befallen on the Chinese people and at the center of all the turmoil and trepidation the Chinese people have experienced, through all of the horrific events and tragic decisions, the Chinese family survives. If history has its way, the recent western influence and material wealth that is racing across China like a worse case Bird Flu scenario is most likely to challenge the Chinese people and change them in new and profound ways but it won’t break the family.
Things have come and gone in China for 5000 years but the Chinese family is not going anywhere. As I told the Priest, I see China’s power and authority coming from humanity’s primary social group, and I see the Communist Party made up of people with families just like anyone else in China. The government isn’t an island; It doesn’t act as an entity of power divorced from the people it governs. No Chinese government decision or policy survives if it is ultimately disruptive to the Chinese family. Rather, the government acts on behalf of the best interests of the families to which it belongs. Some people may be Party members, but all people are family members and that’s why I don’t fear the government. As the source of the Chinese people’s endurance and their ability to survive and thrive, I see the family first and foremost.
Even though my suspicious friend the Priest clung to his doubts and feelings of mistrust, I told him I would bank on the Chinese family. As much of the world is banking on the Chinese family literally, I spoke figuratively and said that trust could not be more quickly granted from me to anyone than the Chinese family. Again, as a 5000+-year institution, this social group is doing something right and chances are good that it would be wise to trust its thinking and judgment. In fact, I would trust that the Chinese family knows exactly what is good for it and what is not good for it, and if needed it will make the changes necessary to sustain itself. Perhaps all of the political parties, religious movements, social reforms and economic policies of China have existed as a permission of the family and change to serve the family’s needs. As the people’s thinking changes, what is good for the Chinese family at one time is not good for it at another time.
Perhaps, like the Priest, what I thought and said could appear disruptive. But perhaps, unlike the Priest, I completed my thoughts with words I would have used if I were in an open and public environment or if I were talking with Communist Party officials themselves. As I spoke I applied the notion of transparency that I value in communications with all people. At the center and root of that notion is something I have long believed in: inclusion. The transparency of my communication exists to ensure everyone equal and equitable information and a collective harmony in relations. If we’re all on the same page, we are more likely to successfully work together and cohabitation becomes a little less difficult. Exclusion can cause irreparable damage to individuals or groups and the relations between them. Exclusion can snowball into monstrous trouble. It can backfire. Transparency allows me to fully reveal the principles on which I act. Transparency makes my intention clear.
I would hope to make clear that I seek harmony with the world around me. I believe in people and I want to live my life helping others to discover what it is about them that compels me to this belief. I have no fear of a government; I have respect and admiration for what I see as the true center of China’s power and authority.
After coffee, my Chinese friend, the Priest and me left through the front door and parted ways. We’ve kept in touch.