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On worrying about Chinese people: 2018

By Brian Hennessy - posted Wednesday, 8 August 2018


I met Xiao Zhang many years ago when she was a PhD student at a Medical University. It was my job to teach her class how to write up their research in a way that would increase their chances of being published in a Western journal.

Her family was not well off, and she lived with them in straitened circumstances in a 1950s Russian style block of apartments adjacent to the campus.

Xiao Zhang was her extended family's hope for the future. It would be her responsibility to lift their social status into the middle-class. Her goal was to graduate with a PhD and then apply for a higher paid job in a good hospital. Typically, she did not see this family expectation as a burden.

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When I visited her humble digs, I noticed a disintegrating chipboard desk with a list to starboard. A length of packing-case pine nailed to its hind legs kept it upright. An old computer with an erratic internet service competed for space on the desktop with a keyboard and a scatter of tattered manila folders.

This was where Doctor Zhang wrote her paper on epilepsy which was published in a European medical journal. This was where she earned her PhD.

We had kept in touch over the years. She got that good job; did postdoctoral studies abroad; and in time, secured a leadership position in her department. A career trajectory typical of those of her generation who wanted to help Chinese people as much as they wanted to help themselves and their extended family.

We met for lunch near her hospital. Time to relax and talk about my life back in Australia and her life here in modern China.

But Chinese politics intruded. Although a sensitive matter if raised by a 'waiguoren' (foreigner), it was always a welcome topic if volunteered by a native. Within minutes Xiao Zhang was criticising President Xi Jinping who, after being appointed leader in 2012, had raised hopes for a more open society. In fact, for the first couple of years he was affectionately known as 'Xi Dada' (Big Brother), a term implying respect, trust, and duty to family.

But today, the official title and the affectionate honorific were missing. Now it is plain Xi Jinping.

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Why the loss of respect?

Here's a shortlist: Xi Jinping has quashed dissent; punished academics who dared to criticise; and denied overseas medical care to a dying dissident: Nobel laureate Liu Xiao Bo. He has cocooned Chinese citizens behind the Great China Firewall; inhibited the development of a civil society; and placed Communist Party overseers in every corporation (including hospitals and universities). Finally, he had himself declared President for Life - a political elevation cynically engineered behind the scenes without warning or discussion.

Her harshest criticism however, was reserved for corrupt companies which sold poisoned milk causing kidney damage in babies a decade ago, and which continue to take advantage of the government's lax regulation of food and drug safety today. Specifically, the pharmaceutical industry which has been caught supplying useless and dangerous vaccines for China's children. She blamed Xi Jinping for not doing enough to protect Chinese people from these criminals.

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About the Author

Brian is an Australian author, educator, and psychologist who lived in China for ten years. These days he divides his time between both countries.

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