The dystopian vision that Westerners have about China is pretty backward

A Chinese woman wearing a protection mask walks near the iconic headquarters of China’s state broadcaster Central China Television (CCTV) at the Central Business District…
A Chinese woman wearing a protection mask walks near the iconic headquarters of China’s state broadcaster Central China Television (CCTV) at the Central Business District…
Image: AP Photo/Andy Wong
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Earlier this summer, a Chinese woman named Shuping Yang gave a commencement speech at the University of Maryland, comparing life in her home country to the life she had discovered in the US. In her opinion, the US came out way ahead. She criticized China’s smog and implied that it was far behind in terms of democracy and individual freedom. As a result, she was instantly attacked as a traitor by many of her Chinese peers.

As a former Chinese student at an American university who currently works as a journalist at a US publication, I watched Yang’s speech—and the fallout—closely. Personally, I share Shuping’s admiration for democracy and freedom in the US. But I also noticed that the way she narrated her experience in the US followed a typical formula. It’s the kind of “China story” that Westerners often like. In it, an emerging Chinese freedom fighter, educated in the US, rejects her homeland after the American way of life opens her eyes to the failures of the system back home.

This story confirms what an American audience already thinks about China and makes them feel comfortable. That’s not the story I want to tell—at least, not entirely.

Who’s telling China’s story?

Five years ago, I visited the US for the first time. I participated in the US government’s work and travel program, selling tickets at an aviation museum north of Seattle while I lived with an amazing host family. I loved the community’s genuine love and respect for nature, their heartfelt friendliness, and their interest in my culture. But I was shocked by how often I get questions that revealed misunderstandings about my home country: “You’ve never gotten on Facebook, right? “Have you ever heard of the Tiananmen Square incident?” “Have you ever used an iPad in China?”

To be fair, the misunderstandings between the two countries are mutual. Many of my close family members don’t see any good in a Chinese girl working for the “evil Western media.” But luckily, I’m not the only freak.

A growing community of Chinese journalists are working for non-Chinese publications. I’m part of a group on Wechat called “the China Storytellers.” It is a group made up of 168 young, passionate Chinese journalists, most of whom have studied in the US. Most of us grew up reading English articles about China, usually written by people who are not Chinese themselves.

When Shuping’s story broke, we began to debate: Did the world really need to hear another story about China’s horrible smog and lack of freedom and democracy? Aren’t we tired of the rhetoric that dominates Western narratives about China—and couldn’t we, as a community familiar with the realities of both American and Chinese values and educational systems, change the narrative?

But on the other hand, were we censoring ourselves by not telling stories about the horrible smog and lack of freedom? Maybe we were embarrassed by the truth about where we came from, like the people who had attacked Yang.

It’s a dilemma that often troubles me. As a journalist, I try very hard to not let my sentiments get in the way of telling the truth. But I have to admit it’s easiest to go to extremes when I try to narrate my home country. I can please an American audience with a “China sucks” story that confirms their stereotypes; or I can surprise them with a “China is awesome” story because I want to defend my country. I can emphasize the sexism that Chinese women still face, or I can play up China’s huge contributions to the world economy. (Luckily, I work with editors who pull me back to the complicated middle ground.)

I’m not the only one who is torn between admitting China’s problems and defending it against Western narratives. Many of the more than 300,000 Chinese students who study in the US feel the same way.

A small 2015 study from University of California at Irvine, published on the Journal of Studies in International Education, analyzed interviews and written surveys from 18 Chinese students and scholars at a public university in Hawaii. The study found that “some Chinese international students … complain that although host students want to talk with them about China, they often exhibit misinformed, prejudiced and offensive views of Chinese current events.” That can make Chinese students feel defensive. A larger survey of 960 Chinese students at Purdue University showed that 44% actually saw China more positively after studying abroad. Young Chinese people come to the US to experience life in a different culture, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they want to disown their own.

Why we need a new narrative

When people ask me about what life is like in China, what I want is to tell a new kind of story—one that offers context and nuance.

For example, here’s a story that is close to me. An economics professor from Peking University, where I went to school for undergrad, was fired a few years ago. Xia Yeliang claimed, and some media outlets reported, that he was fired because of his dissident political views.

But another side of the story—noted by The Atlantic, but widely overlooked—is that many students rated Xia as a terrible teacher. These students were disappointed by the media’s oversimplified coverage, as they shared on our school’s online forum at that time. Perhaps both stories held some truth. But it is always dangerous to avoid telling one story simply because the alternative fits in better with our own narrative.

Many Chinese people understand the flaws of their country. But they also want to feel proud of what the country has achieved.

Take the narrative of my own family. My grandparents are illiterate farmers. They had to force one of their kids to drop out of school so that they could afford to let the other continue. Years later, my parents became the only college graduates in their village. Fast-forward to the present, and my own parents made it possible for their daughter to study and work in New York City—the most exciting metropolis in the world.

This story doesn’t tell the whole truth about China, of course. No one story can. What we need are diverse voices, and more stories about ordinary Chinese people.

There’s a documentary I love called The Chinese Mayor. It’s the story of a communist mayor with a vision: He wants to transform a mining city into a cultural destination. But to achieve his goal, he would have to relocate half a million people from their homes. By the end of the movie, it’s kind of hard to judge if the mayor is evil or a hero.

Little about China is black or white. And so, going forward, I’m going to take care to choose stories that reflect the country’s complicated reality. When I talk to my colleagues about my hometown, I’ll tell them there’s a jade sculpture of a mythical animal that has no butthole in my living room. The Chinese believe that this quality (no pooping) is a symbol of preserving wealth.

Maybe they’ll think that makes China sound weird. But then I’ll tell them about how I’m pretty sure my dad will hate any boyfriend I bring home. And maybe they’ll think, Guess our countries aren’t so different after all.

An earlier version of this piece reported that over 800,000 Chinese students study in the US. That referred to the number of Chinese students studying abroad around the world; in the US, the correct number is more than 300,000.