Several months into our stay in Xian, a grimy, polluted industrial city of 6 million in China's northwest, my sixth-grade daughter, Ariel, 11, came home from school fuming: "I can't stand it! Every time we have some kind of game, whether it's a team sport or just arm wrestling, the kids turn it into `China against America,' and I'm always America."
I wasn't surprised. A major campaign is under way to instill patriotism in schools such as Ariel's. Inside the school gate, an enormous poster urges pupils to "Emulate Lei Feng," the apocryphal Cultural Revolution-era hero hailed for his selfless socialist morality. Ariel and her schoolmates often sang bloody patriotic songs as they marched to lunch or homeward at day's end.
Given the tense relations between Washington and Beijing last September, we were lucky even to find a school for Ariel, although she is fluent in Putonghua, the official Chinese national language. We had lived in China earlier, in 1991 and 1992, with no problems. At that time, however, we were in Shanghai, where the economic boom was in full swing. Going back to China last fall, we found people in Xian complaining that the interior had been bypassed by the prosperity that was so evident in Beijing, Guangzhou, and especially Shanghai. The average salary in Xian languishes at around $50 per month, less than half that in Shanghai. And goods are pricier. A quality flannel shirt costs two weeks' wages; a one-speed bicycle, a month's pay.
We returned to China so that my wife could teach a six-month term as Fulbright professor of harpsichord and piano at the Xian Conservatory of Music. As soon as we arrived, we discovered the political environment was totally different. Ariel's application to an elite primary school attached to the nearby Highway University was turned down when the principal told us rudely that he "could not have foreign students." A Chinese friend explained that the principal was afraid of "bureaucratic complications" if he allowed a Westerner to mix with his pupils.
XENOPHOBIC PHASE. At that point, we could have given up and let Ariel just do the work she'd brought along from her Hong Kong school. I thought back to our first stay in China, when a U.S. State Dept. official had warned me about local schooling. "They'll have your daughter marching around in a red Young Communist scarf, chanting Maoist slogans," he said. In fact, her experience in Shanghai had turned out to be so positive that we wanted her to have another chance to make Chinese pals and continue to learn the language.
Fortunately for Ariel, officials at the Xiaozhai district school near where we lived were willing to enroll someone who might help their sixth-graders' English pronunciation. So Ariel went to a poorly funded place with 58 students to one teacher. At least it was a school.
We soon learned that the friendliness at the second school was an anomaly and that the earlier hostile attitude was typical bureaucratic behavior. Officials at my wife's conservatory interfered with her lectures and tried to keep her from obtaining faculty housing and even a telephone. It took us nearly two months to get residency permits, which should have been routine. In the year between when she had been invited to teach and when we arrived, the climate had changed, at least in Xian.
PERFUNCTORY TIRADES. During our time away, China had lurched into one of those xenophobic phases that has characterized its history since the 16th century. Local and national newspapers carry commentaries warning about "spiritual pollution" from the West. The U.S. is accused of trying to "hold back" China's development. Bureaucrats, such as the principal at the first school, feel it's best not to be too friendly toward Americans--although they are nice enough to British, Belgian, and other foreign nationals. There's no official "be hard on Americans" policy, but in the five decades of periodic communist antiforeign campaigns, the Chinese have learned that excessive friendliness toward perceived enemies can be held against them.
There's a difference in the anti-American campaign this time, however, at least as we experienced it. Bureaucrats embrace it, but ordinary people do not. For them, ideology is dead, and many openly hold the party in contempt. In Xian, people blame the government's inept policies, not America, for China's economic, political, and social ills. The latest charge against America--that it encourages Taiwan's independence--fails to incite them. "I don't care what the people of Taiwan do," said one peasant in an outlying village. "If they want to be independent, that's their business." A worker in an electronics-components plant agreed: "What I care about is having enough money to buy food for my family, and that is getting harder and harder."
At times, even the government ignores its own anti-American campaign, another reason the flag-waving isn't catching on. While Beijing accuses the U.S. of such acts of economic sabotage as blocking China from entry into the World Trade Organization, it happily cuts deals with Americans who want to put money into everything from aircraft plants to Yangtze River dams. Said an American aerospace executive in Xian: "When we have a meeting with someone from a ministry, they start off with a speech attacking the U.S., for example, for permitting Taiwan's President to visit America, and then they smile apologetically and we get down to business. We all understand it's just something they have to do."
Only once in my months in Xian did I hear direct criticism of America. A taxi driver, a former People's Liberation Army soldier, attacked the U.S. for blocking China's modernization. "I read it in our papers," he said with a shrug. More often, workers and peasants, who seem to have become adept at reading between the lines of their media, spoke of the U.S. with affection and admiration, but criticized their own government and the Communist Party.
FAT CATS. "The leaders should be lined up against a wall and shot," said one worker who was laid off from the factory job he'd held for decades. During my earlier stay, in Shanghai, most of the criticism took the form of black humor. One popular joke: Jiang Zemin's limo driver comes to a T in the road and asks the Chinese President which way to turn. Replies Jiang: "Left and right."
These days, the humor is missing, and the anger is unalloyed. Even the prosperous resent intrusions by government officials and party hacks. "You can't imagine how many times I nearly had to close down because of harassment by government officials looking for payoffs," complained a restaurateur.
Corruption was more evident this time, which may account for much of the public's outrage. Mercedes-Benzes, BMWs, and even Rolls Royce limos, most sporting official license plates, jam parking lots at the five-star hotels and tonier restaurants. Inside, the military brass and party leaders engage in what the laobaixing, or common people, call "big eating and big drinking."
The government doesn't seem to understand the resentment. Beijing's Propaganda Dept. apparently assumes that Xian's residents--many of them unemployed, with children in crowded, unheated classrooms--take patriotic pride in the fancy new bridges and humming assembly lines of coastal cities shown frequently on TV. Xian viewers grumble not only from envy but because they would rather tune in toBaywatch.
While city leaders do what they can to modernize Xian and attract investment, their efforts are in a race against widespread anger. Historically, Xian and the surrounding impoverished Shaanxi Province have been a center of rebellion. In 1989, for instance, while Beijing's Tiananmen Square swarmed with students, Xian's streets were jammed for weeks with students and workers protesting corruption, dictatorship, and incompetence. Many people say the problems have intensified since then.
At the sixth-grade level, the effort to redirect anger and frustration by using anti-American, anti-Western propaganda has had only nominal success. The China-vs.-America games didn't affect my daughter's ability to develop close friendships among students and faculty. And the nationalistic campaign probably has helped turn the kids into 11-year-old cynics. When a local TV news crew filmed a morning flag-raising ceremony, Ariel was interviewed. Asked what she thought of China, she answered: "China is very interesting." A schoolmate winked at her knowingly and said: "That was a very clever answer."