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A world away from FOX News and the Daily Show, from political pundits and the New York Times, from advertising and blogging – I found insight into the new Democratic Congress.
I watched the U.S. election results come in while sitting in my office at Guizhou University, the largest school in China’s poorest province. The university, like most things in China’s vast interior, is oversized and underfunded. Forty thousand students pay the equivalent of 500 dollars a year for standing-room-only access to their classes and a bunk-bed in a dilapidated dormitory (eight students per 100 square-foot room). This modest sum is far more than many Chinese families can afford; they borrow money, sell heirlooms, and somehow scrape together what is needed to get their kids through school. Gui Da, as the school is locally known, boasts a brand new Confucian Studies Center and a massive soccer stadium, both of which were funded directly by Beijing. It has a library, though students cannot check out the books. The Foreign Language Building – where I teach American literature and conversational English – has no heat, failing electricity and reeks of feces.
At Gui Da I sometimes feel like I am on another planet. But here my newfound political insight came from something I never would have expected: my students’ passionate distaste for the new House majority leader, Nancy Pelosi.
I teach sophomores, juniors, and post-graduates. For the most part, they are hard-working, thoughtful and pay close attention to news from America. As the election results came in, a group of them gathered in my office. They wanted to understand why I was glued to the Internet, updating CNN.com every few minutes as the polls closed.
“Do Americans really vote?” asked a student who goes by the English name Work Horse.
“Some do, some don’t,” I responded. “It’s about half and half.”
Work Horse is short and handsome. He sports a Harry Potter haircut. When he speaks English, his body tenses in concentration, though his face remains expressive. “We also vote in China,” he said, raising his eyebrows. “We are forced to. But the results are already decided. The voting is just a show.”
Another student, rail thin and with bangs shading her eyes, quietly added, “We never really even know who we are voting for.”
I’ve heard this, or versions of it, from many of my Chinese friends. “American-style democracy is quite a bit different,” I said with a nod of my head.
“But … ‚” Work Horse paused. “Recently your President was not chosen by the people. George Bush lost the election in 2000 but was made the leader. This seems very Chinese to me.”
“Well … ‚” Now it was my turn to pause. “That was complicated.” I often find myself in discussions with students who are halfway to being well informed. Adding the other half of the necessary information can be challenging. Before I could elaborate on my answer, however, Work Horse changed the subject.
“I am very unhappy with the American results so far.” He was looking over my shoulder at my computer screen.
“Why is that?” I asked.
“If the Democrats win, Ba Lo Sea will have too much power.”
This surprised me. My students know about the major American politicians – George Bush, the Clintons, even Condi Rice and Arnold Schwarzenegger. But Nancy Pelosi (pronounced Ba Lo Sea in its Chinese rendition) — why would a competent though hardly out-of-the-ordinary student like Work Horse know who she is?
“All of our newspapers are reporting about her. She is very against China.”
I stuttered into a response. “Umm…. why do you say that?”
Work Horse was staring out the window with a look in his eye that let me know he was reciting an article he had recently read. My students generally have a remarkable ability to memorize and recite, verbatim. “Ba Lo Sea has voted against giving China Most Favored Nation status 10 years in a row. Yet she has never been to China. How can she vote against the Chinese people, whom she does not even know?”
I blinked at Work Horse. I will never cease to be amazed at how closely my students follow American news. “I must admit I didn’t know that,” I told him. The latest results flashed on the computer screen, distracting my attention. “Come back tomorrow, Work Horse, and we can talk some more.”
The next day, my office was packed with students interested in discussing the election. The hot topic was, once again, Speaker Pelosi, and she was the object of intense criticism. Zhong Fu, a morose philosophy major, told me, “She has always hated China.” Many of the other students nodded at this. Work Horse’s girlfriend added: “The newspapers are telling us the full story. She has criticized our China for her entire career.” Adjectives like “imperialist”, “arrogant” and “hypocrite” were thrown about. At the end of the office hour, one student shrieked, “Ba Lo Sea doesn’t even want China to have the Olympics!”
Much of what my students have read in the Chinese news is true. For more than a decade, Ms. Pelosi has spoken passionately about human rights abuses in China. Her career in the House began just two years before the Tiananmen Square massacre. As the representative of California’s 8th Congressional district– a section of San Francisco with a significant Chinese-American population – she had a responsibility to speak out. Pelosi, still relatively new in Washington, fought hard against the George H.W. Bush White House, which was seeking to ignore the cold-blooded murder of more than 4,000 Chinese civilians, many of whom were students of about Work Horse’s age. Despite vigorous opposition from the Bush team, the House of Representatives voted 403 – 0 in favor of a Pelosi bill supporting Chinese students studying in America. The Senate passed the Pelosi bill by voice vote a day later. The Chinese government was infuriated, saying they would not “swallow this bitter pill.”
Pelosi’s victory was short lived; President Bush vetoed her bill (though he simultaneously signed an executive order allowing Chinese students facing repression back home to extend their visas). Nevertheless, she was galvanized by the overwhelming response she received. She became a champion for human rights in China, and a persistent thorn in the side of those who wish to ignore the more brutal sides of the Chinese regime.
In 1993, she was at it again, prodding President Clinton to sign an executive order linking trade with China to improvements in its human rights record. The order required China to make a series of changes – particularly regarding its behavior in Tibet– if it wished to continue receiving its most-favored-nation trade benefits. (When the Chinese did not make the changes, Clinton abandoned the order.)
More recently, as the exasperated student in my office well knew, she spoke against the selection of Beijing for the 2008 Olympics. “It is difficult to understand,” she said in 2000, “how China can even be considered for the Olympics.” She went on to explain, “The Chinese government continues to crush all political dissent and trample on the basic human rights of its people.”
Pelosi has even been to China, despite what Work Horse has read in the Chinese news. The omission of her visit is understandable: in 1991, she visited Tiananmen Square to honor victims of the massacre. When she arrived, she was surrounded by Chinese police who harassed and assaulted her entourage. The Chinese called the event a “premeditated farce” and have declared Ms. Pelosi persona non grata. But brazen acts like this one have earned her the praise of many democracy and human-rights activists in China. Rabiya Kadeer, nominated for this year’s Nobel Peace Prize for her work in China’s Muslim community, recently declared that “Uighurs, Tibetans, Mongolians and anyone else living in fear under China’s rule will take heart that she has risen to such deserved prominence.”
After completing this research about Ms. Pelosi’s career, I caught up with Work Horse in the school cafeteria. Over a plate of pulled noodles, we discussed the implications of her rise to power. He told me of China’s deepest fear: trade barriers. He also expressed an intense pride in the coming Beijing Olympics; he was utterly exasperated by her criticism of China’s selection.
When we weren’t talking about Ms. Pelosi, we talked about American-style democracy in general. Work Horse is typical of my students: he is unsatisfied with what his government tells him “democracy” looks like, but he is not very impressed by what he knows of the American alternative. He knows that it costs around 8 million dollars to run for Senate. He has read that the average net worth of a member of Congress is almost 10 times that of the average citizen. He knows that the last presidential election was held between two families worth hundreds of millions of dollars. He knows that the Pelosi family is worth tens of millions.
At times, Work Horse sounded Naderesque: “The election changed nothing – it’s just more rich people in control. They will never care about China, because China is poor. How can people like that understand us?”
“Look,” I told him. “Money is a part of American politics. But just because you’re rich doesn’t mean you can’t be a good representative for average people’s interests …”
With his bowl raised to his mouth, Work Horse interrupted. “Do Americans really believe this?” He looked at me with pleading eyes, noodles hanging from his lips. I said nothing, so he continued: “The Communist Party tells us it represents our interests and we don’t need to have any other kind of leaders. It sounds like your millionaires tell you the same thing. Do Americans really believe their system is much different from ours?”
“Yeah,” I said. “We do.”
Work Horse stopped eating, put down his chopsticks, and looked me right in the eyes: “Chinese-style democracy is controlled by the Communist Party. American-style democracy is controlled by the rich. Ba Lo Sea will change nothing.”
Pelosi has promised that the 110th Congress will be “the most honest, the most open and the most ethical Congress in history.” If she delivers, perhaps Work Horse will grow to respect American democracy. If not – if winning elections continues to be so obviously tied to wealth – he will remain cynical.
Talking to Work Horse and other students in China has shown me what a powerful symbol our democracy can be, but how little respect it now engenders. The last election was, potentially, a watershed. Let’s hope the Democrats can restore the world’s faith in our political system.
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