I recently visited Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou and Chengdu. The breathtaking magnificence of the Great Wall was only more prominent in the chilling downpour. Back in my hotel, I finally managed to climb over the Great Firewall to access my Facebook and gmail accounts. I was amused by the contrast between these two walls: one built to stop Mongolian invaders from getting in, and the other to stop Chinese netizens from getting out.
Both walls were built out of fear and distrust. And both have failed. An army of software has been invented to penetrate the Great Firewall. Our tour guide, a young woman in her early 20s, said her generation only read web-based news and don’t trust any official government- sponsored news. The Great Firewall seems like a cyber monument to people’s distrust of the government.
The May Fourth Movement, launched in 1919, called for China to embrace science and democracy from the west. Since then, China’s development path has largely been defined by the notion that her future depends on ridding herself of old traditions. Fifty years ago, in 1966, Mao Zedong staged the Cultural Revolution, promoting rampant class struggle, which turned people against each other and destroyed trust as the social fabric. Many Chinese lost faith in their government..
Ill-thought-out policies devoid of trust in human values tend to fail. They often appeal to the dark side of human nature and invoke selfish thinking and behaviour. The violent extremist measures of the Cultural Revolution serve as a grave reminder.
Over the past two decades, China has risen as a global economic power, and now the government aims to upgrade China into a civilized society. Construction sites in China’s major cities display signboards promoting the ‘16 core values of a socialist society’, including democracy and civility. ‘Be A Civilized Tourist,’ reads one sign. Their contents seem noble, but the question is how to make them real at a personal level.
In June, my family went on holiday to Chengdu where a local Muslim friend drove us to a museum 200 kilometres outside the city. It was Ramadan, and although he was travelling, he decided to honour his faith by keeping his fast. He also loathed the fact that after Friday prayers at the local mosque, he was often the only one who waited at the pedestrian crossing while others ran the red light, casting him disapproving looks.
‘As I am, so is my country.’ It’s in the noble thoughts and behaviour of individuals like this friend that I see hope for China’s future. Then again, ‘Nothing is possible without people; nothing is lasting without institutions.’ Changes in both people and institutions are needed for China to become a great civilization that deserves trust and respect from her own people and other countries. If history is any guide, China would do well to spare her futile efforts to maintain the Great Firewall and invest more in building bridges of trust, starting with her own people and institutions.
Shoufeng Hsu is from Taiwan and has been associated with IofC for 22 years, mostly working on various initiatives related to youth development in Taiwan and Asia Pacific. As well as serving on the International Council of Initiatives of Change, he is on the board of IofC in Taiwan and is a member of the Asia Pacific Regional Coordination Team that serves IofC network in that region. Shoufeng believes that IofC is in a unique position to address moral and spiritual issues, with a universal message that speaks to people of all faiths and none. As a professional interpreter who works with IofC on a voluntary basis, he feels called to be a bridge of communication across cultures and generations. Shoufeng is married to Ouyang Huifang, who has worked with IofC for over 20 years and is the incumbent Secretary-general of IofC Taiwan.
NOTE: Individuals of many cultures, nationalities, religions, and beliefs are actively involved with Initiatives of Change. These commentaries represent the views of the writer and not necessarily those of Initiatives of Change as a whole.