My Students Imagine Change

My communication majors’ final assignment was to create a campaign, on something they really care about. Civil society groups are still rare in China, but growing. These kids’ big concerns: Rural children’s malnutrition. Consumer and environmental safety. Rights for migrant workers, who are illegal aliens in the cities they build. Internet censorship, which makes it difficult (to my mind, impossible) to function as a university student. Calmly, intelligently, they call for accountability, for reasonable and humane limits, in a chaotic society whiplashed by freewheeling development that often seems as out of control as a runaway train.

The other most popular imaginary campaign (three students did it), was to get international elections monitors to China. (No wonder after the Qiao Mu affair I described in Nov.)

Writes one: “We perceive ourselves as the seeds of democracy and belief in peaceful political reform.”

More snippets:

G, who’s spent the semester writing about how Party-sponsored social services could ease rural poverty, surprised with a final piece challenging corrupt local officials. His campaign demands the shut-down of a chemical plant leaking toxins in northeastern China, by mobilizing neighborhood parents: “Our children may grow up under the influence of chemicals and we shall do something.” Check out this “Question” from the campaign’s FAQ page: “I really want to join you. But I am afraid that I may be run over by tanks or be thrown into jail.”

D, who earlier wrote about his grandmother — a farmer who raised three generations of intellectuals and never had her own name — returns to the theme, campaigning for China’s 47 million rural “left-behind” women. Though farmers are 31 times richer than three decades ago, these women “suffer loneliness, a lack of self-development and self-actualization, illiteracy, and are without spiritual well-being.” He proposes “Self-study programs, access to the Internet, recreational facilities, as well as construction of libraries.” D reflects: “I felt gripped by a complex feeling. Perhaps this is my duty in the future. To do simple but meaningful work as an ordinary individual, while to witness and create history in [an] organization.”

Also safety-minded, V wants school bus safety. Just this November-December, 33 Chinese children died in school bus crashes. She calls for stronger supervision modeled after Canada and the U.S.: uniform use of yellow for buses, new laws including right-of-way, strict load standards. “Drivers should be specially trained and government should subsidize school bus companies.” Bus safety is just part of what China faces today, she reflects: “poverty, injustice and repression that need to be resolved.”

R’s economically savvy campaign wants to construct earthquake-safe buildings, plus adding local job training and locally-sourced materials to the mix. “Our aim is to make safe houses available to all who need them, develop local skills, and local demand.”

Y, a lovely young woman, wants to promote ocean health and, by extension, seafood safety. (Heavy metals are so prevalent in bodies of water here, the embassy dr. advised us not to eat fish while in China.) Y’s first aim is to make people care. “I’ll adopt a listener-oriented approach to get my message across, being expert enough to talk about the subject and interesting enough to make the audience stay until the end. I will add stories, in different voices that will resonate.” One story: a farmer who “dared not eat the rice he grew himself, since the linkage of several cancer cases and heavy metal pollution in the village was confirmed. …What will he have for meals tomorrow?”

What, indeed?

Smiling (Non-)Buddha

Lue Mnjun's enigmantic grins are everywhere.

The smiling work of leading Chinese contemporary artist Yue Minjun is everywhere–huge, grinning self-portraits, often in bubblegum colors. Taking Kenny to an all-day football (soccer) tournament yesterday, passed this. Ethan felt the smiles were genuine, goofy happiness. The Times piece linked above suggests the smiles may be the “illusion of happiness headed toward extinction.” Lue is part of what some call China’s Cynical Realism school, which meets the despair of contemporary urban China sardonically, with a sense of the absurd. Take it straight or metaphorically–Yue’s famous smiles are referencing Buddha’s smile. I don’t pretend to get Beijing life today. But I often think of a student, native of the city whose home was razed as part of the rezoning of low-rise alleys so high-rise towers could rise, who said, “I’m homesick every day.” And of an Edison, NJ dad born here and now back several years, for a hedge fund, who gets lost driving his own hometown.
My students’ latest sets of writing have wrestled the inexplicable delays in banning waste (“sewer”) oil from returning to the food stream; the wrongness of not letting a good candidate who wasn’t hand-picked run for office, and the anger on campus when hundreds of students were forced to “volunteer” for the administration, with work sometimes lasting until midnight, under penalty of disciplinary action. And there’s this. The smog (using the Embassy’s Air Quality Index, or AQI) has been above 400 this week & today, a multiple of emergency health conditions almost impossible to express. I didn’t put Ethan in his mask yesterday because our Chinese playdate didn’t have them. My friend said it was just fog, rolling in before the rain.

Forest Park, beside the Olympic stadia