“If not food or water, at least we deserve respect.”

DSC00924Throughout our 2 weeks in China, I was continuously reminded that this was a land of contradictions. People used this phrase when reconciling communist ideology with the capitalism of investment-fueled megacities or when talking about the variety of responses NGOs had to government oversight. But most of all, I saw the moniker come alive in people’s attitudes, especially in the last few days I spent in Shanghai.

Since we arrived, one of the major themes I’d heard in our interviews is that stability is the most important priority of the Chinese government, and they exercise control in order to achieve this stability. Speaking with students at Shanghai Jiao Tong University, Professor Lin outlined the split between government, non-profit, and private sector jobs Ford School students take up after graduation, a nearly even split that stands in contrast to Shanghai Jiao Tong, where 88% of students work for government and nearly all of the rest go on to work in non-profits. Professor Lin also talked about the Ford MPP being a versatile degree, allowing students to switch between sectors during their career and how common such moves are for our alumni.

All of this information seemed surprising to our audience. One student asked me why we would want to switch sectors in our career; she shared the sense of security she feels in having a stable position and intends, like most of her classmates, to stay in the clear path of promotion she’s on with her current employer. She expressed a sense of condolence when I talked about the diversity of my career plans.

While I know that not everyone in the US embraces a versatile career, this exchange encouraged me to think about how stability is such a motivating human force, and how it is shaping modern China’s politics and economy. Yet while a need for security is a normal human desire, in America, I often hear stability use synonymously with stagnation. Indeed, America’s narrative embraces the risk-loving behavior of the immigrants who built our nation. We can see this entrepreneurial, “Go West!” attitude in Lewis and Clark’s adventures as well as modern American start-ups and Kickstarter campaigns. From our immigrants to our innovators, Americans generally celebrate people who resist what is stable in the quest of what is possible. In contrast, I began to see Chinese culture as focused on not trying to fix what isn’t broken, where the stability of family, the state, and current conditions were prioritized above all else.

Yet just when I thought I had learned ONE concrete mass generalization about China, I learned to unlearn it. Waiting for my airline to board in Shanghai, I witnessed a group of predominantly ChineseDSC00919 residents start a protest over our flight delay. We were never told how long the delay was to be (it ended up being 8 hours) and thus led to loud verbal confrontations, attempts to block other passengers from boarding the airline’s other flights, and various beverages being thrown at gate agents. I should clarify that this was not a one-way situation; I witnessed the airline manager try to physically restrain a passenger whose comments had upset her.

At various points, the protests called for refunds, nourishment, lodging, and a taxi service once it was known we’d be arriving in Thailand past 2 am. Despite the loud outcry, our eventual reward was a bottle of water each and a bowl of pre-packaged Ramen to be heated on our own.

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At one point in the evening, a lead protestor started asking for something that the crowd enthusiastically supported with affirmative chanting. I was told he said, “If not food or water, at least we deserve respect. We deserve an apology.”

Stability might be a priority for the Chinese people (or any people), but respect is critical for the stability of any society. For all my attempts to define something that I learned in China, I can’t say I know anything more concrete about Chinese society now than I did before I left. As the home of 1.3 billion people, it’s bound to be a land of contradictions.

— Niketa B., MPP

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