Talking politics in China, we're told, is fraught with fear and evasion.
Visiting a second-tier city in China's southwest last week and keen to test this assumption, I was attracted by my companions' openness about things Chinese. "So why", I asked, "are you reluctant to talk publicly about politics in China?"
One woman grad student giggled, "Are you reluctant to talk about your parents' sex lives in public?"
I admitted that I was.
"The reason we don't talk about politics in public is similar: it's a subject for intimate conversation with close friends and family. You see, in its 4,000 years, China has never had 'politics'. We've never had a single politician until recently when the village democracy movement was launched. Now the Carter Center oversees 600,000 village elections and we're waiting to see how that turns out".
She leaned forward, "We don't discuss quantum physics in public either, and for a similar reason: it's abstruse and it's easy to make a fool of yourself if there's anyone listening who understands it". Compared to governing China, quantum physics is a breeze.
Her fiance chimed in, "When I was doing my grad work at Rutgers I was often invited to the homes of friends and faculty. They were far more hospitable than such people would be in China. Very kind. But I noticed that there were topics that weren't dicsussed at dinners, for example, especially when older people were present. Then someone told me that it has always been a rule (not a strict one, but moe like an understanding) that you should avoid talking about two topics at formal dinners with strangers: religion and politics. The potential for unpleasantness is just too high.
My girlfriend didn't mention something else: not only have we never had politicians but we have always regarded the leaders of China as senior, respected members of our individual families. Sometimes they proved unworthy of our trust and respect so, because it's quick and cheap, we chopped their heads off or burned down their palaces – with them inside, of course! That's the Chinese way. Skip the elections. Skip the factionalism. Let them get on with governing. Then kill them if they fail".
My host now chimed in: "In the West you regard politicians as an imposition on the people. A necessary evil, even, and you're relieved when they don't wreck the country. In China we respect and trust our leaders and willingly cooperate with them to the greatest degree possible. China has hit a particularly good patch lately. Ask Chinese friends at home their feelings toward the current President. They'll almost all tell you that they're delighted with the Presudent's anti-corruption campaign. And the women will rave about a Chinese First Lady who looks glamorous on the international stage. But very few will talk policy unless there's international friction; Chinese policies are complex and no one person, no matter how exalted or expert in the field, can hope to encompass its complexities. It takes teams of experts to develop, field-test and formulate even one national policy".
Talking Politics in China? Yes you can. But why?