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Talking American Democracy in China (cont’d)

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Little Fish, a shy, mustached, tiny man from an equally tiny village in the Guizhou countryside chimed in at this point. “I think the black man can win.” Little Fish was gesticulating as he spoke, as he often does to ease his nerves. He waved his hands above his head and said, “the matter is the money. If the black man has the most, he will win. If Ms. Hillary has the most, she will win. American politics is money politics, and you must be rich to win.” Everyone in the class seemed to agree with this. “This is what our politics teacher tells us: that money is at the center of American democracy.” The students looked to me to confirm or deny this assertion. I felt both a patriotic defensiveness and a strong feeling of embarrassment (or, perhaps, disappointment). My students often ask me about America’s “dollar democracy.”

I won’t record what I said, but take a moment to consider how you would respond. It’s a bit of a pickle.

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Eventually, we got into a policy discussion. The students were most interested in the candidates’ positions on Taiwan, Japan, and “free trade.” They were disappointed to hear that most Americans don’t really care about Taiwan or Japan– these are national obsessions in China– and that neither issue would make a tiny bit of difference in the election. But “free trade” was a solid twenty-minute discussion.

“Why don’t Americans want Chinese to have good jobs?” This from Zhong Fu, in response to my explanation of the idea of “fair trade”, advocated by some of the Democratic candidates, perhaps most forcefully by Dennis Kucinich. “Fair trade” supporters want to write labor, environmental, and human rights standards into international trade deals. If this occurs, the Chinese factories that we view as sweat shops might not be as competitive in the global marketplace, and might therefore close. But these factories are viewed as a boon in China. Some of my students work in sweat shops during the summer months. The work is long, to be sure (some of my students will work 12 hours a day, 6 days a week during July and August) but there is no immediate alternative. For many rural Chinese, non-sweat shop jobs are truly sweaty: farming knee deep in a rice paddy, digging through piles of garbage for scraps of recyclables, or working construction. The “sweat shops” are thus a better option, and don’t actually involve much sweating.

Don’t get me wrong: There are truly evil factory owners in China, employing children, indentured servants, and sex slaves. Anything you buy that is made in China has a definite reek of exploitation (and as recent scandals show, might be dangerous for your health). Nevertheless, what many Americans view as utterly degrading work is a welcome opportunity for some of my students to leave the drudgery of rural life behind.

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The students spent the last few minutes of our time together writing their opinions of the day’s class (as I ask them to do every week). Huang Anying, my quietest student and the only member of the class who does not use an English name, wrote the following:

I’m very interested in this topic, though I don’t know very much about it. To be frank, most people in China are not interested in politics. It seems like Americans love to talk about these sensitive issues. In China, which is peaceful, we try to avoid conflict, so we support our government. This is the Chinese way, but it is not the American way. America is much more exciting. As for the election, I truly hope Hillary wins. She is a beautiful lady. Whoever wins, it will strongly matter in China. I will watch carefully. Please choose the right person, Mike, because we cannot choose for you.

Mike Levy served as a Peace Corps volunteer in China from 2005-2007. Learn more about him at The Other Billion.

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