“A Couple of Conversations on Rights with Chinese Youth”

Tim Quijano at China Beat has a quick piece about talking to Chinese university students about human rights:

The following relates a story that reports on the difficulty of negotiating the fine line of what is and is not acceptable in contemporary Chinese society.

At the end of class one day, a student (student A)[1] came up to me.

“Tim, do you know who Han Han is?”[2]

This was student A’s way of bringing up the topic of human rights with me. We touched on popular topics deemed sensitive by the Communist Party, such as the 2008 Sichuan earthquake and last year’s fire in Shanghai. The human costs of these incidents are widely understood as being greatly exacerbated by mismanagement on the part of the Communist Party. Both student A and a friend, student B, expressed their irritation with the “Great Firewall,” or the firewall the Chinese government has erected to separate Chinese internet users from sensitive topics and international social media websites like Facebook, Youtube and Twitter. After expressing their annoyance with the firewall’s restrictions, the students assured me that they had capable software to “climb over,” or hack through the Great Firewall.

Student A told me that s/he had come to ask me advice. S/he wanted to use a school project to question human rights issues. “Be careful,” I said. “I’ll talk to you about these issues, but there are a lot of things that I would not suggest saying in public.”

S/he reacted in angst, and began telling me a story.

Early in the freshman orientation, the dean of the International College gave an introduction of the International College to an assembly of all of the college’s students, many of whom had not seen foreigners in person before–as an economic backwater, Guangxi Province does not witness many of the signs of a modern Chinese city. During the speech, the dean directed the student body, “if any of you students have a disagreement with a foreign teacher about a political issue, you students should return to your Chinese teacher to discuss the issue. Do not continue to discuss the political issue with your foreign teacher,” effectively instructing the students to keep their teachers at arm’s-length.

He relates a few more bits after that. I’ll just say that the curiosity of Chinese students towards human rights and other ‘foreign’ political ideas, despite official claims that Chinese are uninterested in and unsuitable for such things, rings true.

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