Hopes and fears: China edition

Steve Kelman finds that Chinese students have hopes that would sound familiar, but fears that are much less so.

Beijing air pollution - photo by Alastair Thornton|@AThorntonChina

As this recent daytime photo shows, Beijing air pollution has reached extreme levels. (photo by Alastair Thornton)

During the inauguration, I blogged about the scenarios, both hopeful and pessimistic, that a number of Democratic friends attending the events had sketched for the next four years. One blog reader noted in a response that China too has new leadership -- although they are beginning a ten-year term, unmarred by any election in between -- and suggested I ask some Chinese about their hopes and worries the next time I was in China.

As luck would have it, I was about to speak to a group of Chinese university students under the auspices of the China Future Leaders program. So I did.

What did these university students say?

Generally, their answers did not surprise me. The most common two hopes the students had for China under its new leader Xi Jingping were for a reduction in inequality and a reduction in corruption. I guess I wasn't surprised because these have been two themes Xi himself has emphasized as goals for his rule -- though it is interesting that the students have basically accepted Xi's own priorities. Both are huge sources of discontent in China, and they are connected. Many senior government and party officials gain enormous wealth through corruption, and people are increasingly annoyed. Indeed, Xi, in his own version of an inaugural address, correctly noted that past Chinese dynasties have typically fallen because of corruption, and stated that if the Communist Party couldn't reduce corruption, it might fall from power as well.

The two dominant worries -- pollution and the danger of a war with Japan -- were a little more surprising. The recent pollut -- ion nightmares in Beijing -- where pollution levels were literally "off the charts," worse than the measurement system recognizes -- have finally made more Chinese realize that the disgusting, sickening pollution is not "fog." Here again, the government changed its tune and did not try to cover up the recent pollution catastrophes, going so far as to make the Beijing pollution nightmare the lead story on the evening CCTV news. (I picked up a copy of China Daily, China's quasi-official English-language newspaper, at the USAirways Club in Washington Wednesday afternoon, and the front page featured a sickening picture of the pollution in Tiananmen Square -- here's a screenshot of the story and picture -- and an editorial that called the pollution "appalling.") But this is the first time these university student groups have expressed clear concern about pollution.

The worries about war with Japan were even more surprising, because I had actually asked the student group that came last summer how many were worried about the danger of war with Japan over territorial disputes, and virtually nobody was. This time, about half the group was worried there would be a war between China and Japan over the next decade.

A few students -- but this was definitely a minority -- used the discussion to express hopes that China would become more democratic. I asked the students what their sources of information about the United States were, and one girl said she liked to read books about the U.S. constitution. Several of the students are planning to become journalists, and about three-quarters of them knew about the recent fight between journalists at the reformist Southern Weekend newspaper and the local Communist Party; one student said her hope for the next decade was elimination of censorship.

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