Saving face: Chinese, U.S. cultures have unique history

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I arrived last summer in Shanghai as the individualist American most of us are brought up to be: Chinese books in one hand and the Constitution in the other. I made sure to educate myself on all the current issues of the place that would be my home for the next two months. I read about censorship issues, the Communist Party’s tortures, the disappearance of Chinese civil rights lawyer Gao Zhisheng exactly one year ago from this week (Feb. 2, 2009) after documenting victims’ accounts of physical and verbal abuse. I witnessed firsthand the week-long shutdown of Google, the moment from when Facebook was no longer available, and I had to replace YouTube, also banned, with the Chinese version Youku.

“Keep your broken arm inside your sleeve.” —Chinese proverb

It is no longer only speculation that China may very well be taking center stage with extraordinary power and influence — it is merely common knowledge now. The United States has gradually been stripped of the international attention it is used to. However, hard set on the values that we feel have historically made the U.S. the “land of opportunity” it is, we have remained insistent on the spread of democracy dictated by Manifest Destiny: In other words, it’s not our fault God chose us to save the world.

Hillary Clinton sure seems to think so, as in a speech a couple of weeks ago, she listed China among the nations that engage in massive censorship of the information they make available to the public and thus pose a threat to international security. She went on to urge the Chinese government not only to conduct investigations on the recent attacks on Google, but also to make the findings available to the public. Is it not perhaps a tad pretentious of Clinton to expect the Chinese government with its centuries of history to have a spontaneous epiphany: “You know what, Hillary, I hadn’t thought of that.... Thanks for showing us the light.”

An official Chinese newspaper commented on Clinton’s speech several days later, calling it “a part of the U.S. campaign to impose its values and denigrate other cultures by exploiting their societies’ vulnerabilities....”

We all agree that everyone deserves to have access to the truth; nevertheless, could it also be possible that the Chinese government acted negatively due to feelings of public humiliation? And perhaps we’ve found the problem.

“Do not remove a fly from a friend’s forehead with a hatchet.” —Chinese proverb

Last summer in Shanghai, my teacher — native Chinese — explained to us one day in class that among the many social priorities of Chinese society, one proves as true today as it did hundreds of years ago: “saving face.” “Face” refers to the perspective you build of yourself within public opinion — it is the image we construct of ourselves before others. My teacher went on to explain that in China, there is no greater sign of disrespect than publicly humiliating another. Obama promised in his campaign to improve U.S.-China ties, but we should be careful that upon removing the fly from our friend’s forehead, we don’t strip off their face in the process.

It seems clear to me at first sight that the recent dispute was inevitable: The threat to the Chinese government’s control seems to be directly proportional to the growth of the population and the development of its society. In today’s globalizing international community, where open access to the international network and socioeconomic progress seem to go hand in hand, it’s only a matter of time before the steady development of Chinese society grows too much for the inflexible skin of communism to contain.

Like most Americans, I was brought up assuming my natural rights to free speech and the chase of my own dreams — cultivating my individuality. It never occurred to me that it might not be the case for everyone; we often fail to remember that the founding fathers didn’t tour the planet: Different countries have unique customs and laws. In the case of how each individual society develops in the specific way that it does, history does not always repeat itself.