SHORTLY after the conclusion of the 2008 Olympics, CCTV9 ran a programme called Encounters in which a young westerner conducted impromptu interviews with foreign tourists and athletes who were in Beijing for the Games.
He approached the visitors while they were shopping, sightseeing or checking in at the airport and asked them what they thought of their stay in China.
Unsurprisingly, everyone said they enjoyed Beijing but it was a Swiss tourist who best summed up feelings shared by many other first-time visitors. He confessed that he landed in China with a certain mental image of the country, a perspective that, he said, had been honed by media coverage of the Torch Relay in London and Paris.
Yet barely 24 hours after arrival, he found his views had completely changed as the place and the people were totally unlike his earlier presumptions.
The Swiss tourist’s experience is not unique, for when it comes to China, perspectives are all too frequently plagued by a gap between perception and reality.
Once I was at the Shaolin Temple in China’s Henan province with some European friends. As we headed towards the main sanctuary, a retired engineer in our group said: “I read in a German magazine that all the old architecture is gone as there are no craftsmen left with the skills to construct traditional Chinese buildings or to repair and replace structures destroyed or damaged by the Cultural Revolution.”
To that I could only gesture to the workmen renovating the roofs of the study halls and pavilions on both sides of the processional axis, fitting Chinese dougong brackets in the traditional way without nails.
The first time my French friend B came with me to China, we went to Suzhou’s Fisherman’s Garden (Wangshiyuan), a Song dynasty manor and a Unesco World Heritage site.
We paused beside a small, tranquil lake to admire the perfect man-made scene of rock, willow and flowering shrubs while across the water, a “Suzhou beauty” clad in flowing hanfu (Chinese classical dress) sat in a pavilion plucking out a tune on her pipa lute.
Enchanted, B whispered: “I never expected to see something like this in China; I read in an article that the gardens had been destroyed in the Cultural Revolution”.
Strangely the article failed to inform that they had been restored.
I remember on an early trip to the Yellow River, B and the others seemed concerned when, after two or three days, we did not see any children.
“Where are the children?” they kept asking, apparently unconvinced even when told they were in school. Finally, we ran into hundreds of high-spirited kids in a museum; only then were my friends mollified.
Later, I realised that their anxiety stemmed from exaggerated reports on China’s population control measures, particularly the controversial one-child policy.
I salute these friends who, despite the none-too-flattering reports on China that they have read, seen or heard, kept an open mind and made the effort to see for themselves.
Conversely, a few months ago I had an exchange with someone affiliated with an advocacy group known for taking every opportunity to condemn China on a variety of real or imagined infringements.
When I mentioned the incredible transformations that have vastly improved the lives of some 400 million people in two short decades, he dismissively retorted: “That is only in material terms.”
It had been over 20 years since his first (and last) visit to the country so I ventured to suggest he go there again to see for himself, talk to the people and not form his opinions entirely on the reports fed to him.
“Not until they have gotten rid of the human rights violations, religious suppression, corruption and pollution,” he answered.
In May this year, about a month after the Beijing 2008 Torch Relay in London, a British Member of the European Parliament appeared on international TV spouting the histrionic soundbite “1.4 billion people are living in slavery (in China).”
If that were so, then perhaps slavery has been redefined to include a literacy rate of 91%, free education for nine years, exponential growth in car ownership, average life expectancy of 73 years, and a rural medical co-op scheme covering 730 million or 86% of the country’s farmers, with projected coverage increasing to 100% by end of this year (Xinhua, Jan 7, 2008).
There is also a minority whose views on China are obsessively defined by the indisputably brutal and disastrous Great Leap Forward or Cultural Revolution, and for whom historic Tiananmen can never be mentioned without the student protests of 1989. Given the speed of economic and social transformations in China, they appear stuck in a time warp.
For those who do not experience the country first-hand, preconceptions shaped by media reports, hearsay and personal biases are hard to dismiss. One can only hope that with the exposure given China during what is generally considered the best Olympics ever, more people will go there and discover it for themselves.
Ziying can be reach at firstname.lastname@example.org.