Teaching Shanghai Police Trainees a Diplomatic Coup
This was an article I wrote for the Oregonian, my home town newspaper, the first year we were in China.
Voices My Turn
Summary: Beaverton school librarian in China treads softly when exchanging views with students on Kosovo, NATO bombing
On May 7, 1999, the United States during a joint military action with NATO forces, bombed the Chinese embassy in Belgrade, Yugoslavia – they said it was an accident. State sponsored demonstrations were held all over China as the government wished the world to believe that the Chinese people were genuinely outraged. After a few days, the impact of screaming people on CNN subsided, the government pulled the plug, and all the demonstration stopped. As a fist year expat teaching at an international school, I was in a unique position to experience and observe the reaction to the bombing so I wrote an article about it for my home town newspaper in Portland, Oregon. This is an excerpt from that article.
I was approached many months ago to teach conversational English once a week at the Shanghai Public Security Bureau College. Ten years ago it would have been unheard of to find an American teacher at this college. I had no ESL experience but I was told my primary mission was to engage the cadets in conversation. I was told these young men had a high level of English proficiency — not exactly true. I was nervous, excited, and without a clue.
The Shanghai Public Security Bureau College is where young police cadets study for five years to carry out Chinese law in a city of more than 14 million. They carry no guns and do not fear being shot. They are trained to make arrests and they have the power to immediately incarcerate those who they think break the law. They are fascinated with American law and police work, and have closely studied western policing methods such as zero tolerance and community policing.
Dr. Lu, my sponsor at the college, told me the academy was looking for a native English speaker who could hold his students’ interest and engage them in conversation. My first-night jitters were calmed as soon as I walked into the college auditorium. Written on the blackboard in four foot high letters were the words “Welcome Mr. Joans.” I was presented with two bottles of water and the rapt attention of about seventy five cadets. Also in attendance was a photographer for a local Sunday supplement and the college newspaper. I had no idea what a momentous event this was.
I decided to get to know these students, find out their expectations, and test their level of English. I expected students sitting quietly, pencils sharpened, straight backs, eyes forward. I could not have been more wrong. These young me were rowdy and social and did not sit still very long. I had not expected the barrage of questions that began instantly. “What do you think about the situation in Tibet? What do you think about Taiwan? How do you feel about the tenth anniversary of Tiananmen Square and the democracy movement?” I could already hear the knock on the door in the middle of the night. Even Dr. Lu was taken aback. I told my students that I did not want to get thrown out of China my first year so I sidestepped the inflammatory questions and used them as an opportunity to get these students to talk. They told me, with great sincerity, that I had nothing to worry about in speaking my mind. It was a good thing I hesitated. They have very limited access to news outside the government-controlled media, and the government is always looking and listening.
I was almost relieved when the barrage turned to personal questions. Among my favorites was how did I romance my wife — a question from one of the five women in the room. And then to culture — my favorite movie star, rock ‘n’ roll group, what did I think about Mike Tyson? I was surprised with their focus on American culture and their insatiable appetite for information. At the end of the evening I was presented with a beautiful plaque that had the name of the college engraved under a mounted badge of the Public Security Bureau. My appreciation was obvious and when I held it up with a big smile, their applause thundered throughout the room. Had I, in one evening, helped smooth the road to Sino American detente? As I followed Mr. Liu to the parking lot, we were followed by what looked like the entire class. The parking lot on this night, and other nights that followed, became the unofficial forum for questions they thought I could not answer in a more formal setting. Mr. Liu seemed as surprised as I, and let my rock star status carry the moment — but only for a while, until his driver bulldozed a path to our car. In the weeks to come, some of the students were so serious about picking my brain, that they emailed me to set up weekend meetings at a local bar. I was thrilled to get to know more about them outside the school/government sanctioned venue.
One of the emails I received follows this article — a real wake up call for me.
The contrast and conflict between our perspectives — especially on politics — was never more unsettled than after the 1999 US bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade, Yugoslavia. I had been with these students since October when the bombs were dropped seven months later, on May 7. The Chinese government’s reaction was immediate. Images on CNN — the only western media source we had — of screaming, rampaging mobs, were so unsettling that some of the school staff packed their emergency bags. School closed and decided to let us wait it out at home. We knew the government sponsored and encouraged the riots, but with a lack of good information, we had no idea who we now were to the Chinese people. The Shanghai American School told us to keep a low profile — stay close to home, avoid public places and gatherings. School was to be closed as long as the safety of our kids was an issue. At first, the two days at home seemed like snow days in the states, but the excitement of having days off quickly turned to uncertainty and fear. In the end, the feelings were justified, but totally without merit. When we walked down our street to a neighborhood local store — and many of us ventured out much farther — we could not detect any difference in people’s reaction to us — or at any time after the incident blew over. While the government sponsored uprising, temporary as it was, might have worked its chilling effect on the rest of the world, those of us who were there quickly came to know the enormous gulf between the people’s perspective, and that of their governments.
This perspective was reinforced when David, one of the cadets who accompanied Mr. Liu, knocked on my door the night of our police class. I did not know how to contact them and I was uncertain, considering the week’s events, if I would be asked to continue. I told David I felt extremely uncomfortable in making my weekly appearance, and that I thought I best to wait a week to see how things went. David’s reaction was unexpected.
“Please Mr. Jonas, that is just the government. That is not how Chinese people feel.” I was taken aback. Still, I told him, I would prefer to wait a week. His reaction was that of a best friend, next-door neighbor kid who was told that his friend could not come out and play.
Fortunately, things blew over quickly and I returned to the security bureau college the following week. I was relieved to be met with information-starved students. We earlier had agreed to talk more about politics, and I wondered if the topic at hand — Kosovo — would be too sensitive. Dead silence! One student raised his hand and said they had been told not to talk about Kosovo. After prodding and questioning and waiting out some uncomfortable pauses, I saw some of them turn to Mr. Liu. The go ahead was given.
Yes, they did think the United States bombed the embassy on purpose. Yes, the reason we did that was to hold China down, to keep it from becoming a world power. And no, they did not get any information outside the government-sponsored newspapers and TV. And why should they not believe their sources if I believed my sources?
What was to prevent the United States from entering Tibet on the same pretext? When I asked them if they knew why the United States and NATO were in Kosovo, they spoke of our designs for world domination. One of the students spoke of our politicians’ need for a whipping boy, someone to hate and make political gain from since the Cold War was now history — finally, a point we could agree on. I did not say one negative thing about the Chinese government. Nor did they relate their beliefs with venom toward me. That a madman named Milosevic was directing the murder, rape and dislocation of thousands was news to them. I was astonished at their answer when I asked if there was any time when a country could stand up and say that something was so wrong that intervention might be warranted. Bluntly, they said no. The sovereignty of a country was always to be respected, and again they looked to the possible invasion of Tibet as their justification. I was stymied. I felt like a contestant in a debate, but every time I wanted to express my opinions I could imagine the cattle prod at my back. Incredibly, the final outcome of our discussion was positive, if not extremely frustrating. We agreed to continue our relationship of mutual respect and friendship, knowing our governments needed to continue to seek ways to interact in mutually beneficial ways.
Recently, Dr. Lu and two students came to visit me at the Shanghai American School. They were astounded at the way we are connected to the world and the friendly atmosphere in the school. They asked me to return to their school next year and looked forward to my attendance at their graduation. I was given a beautiful Chinese pen and ink set as a gesture of thanks and friendship. The following week I received my visa for next year, which probably means that I kept my mouth shut at the right time.
Letter From One of My Students
Date: Sun, 23 may 1999 17:17:38 + 0800
Hello Mr. Jonas:
Thanks for your email. I read it in Saturday in the inbox when I return home from campus. I think we will become friends from the first day that you gave our oral English lesson.
You know that it is an uneasy thing for an American to get into the socialism country law enforcement agency college. 20 years ago, this is absolutely an unexpected thing. I feel so lucky to meet such a humor, kind, energetic teacher, you bring the fresh atmosphere and interest educational styles to our college that can’t satisfies us in some degrees.
In actuality, the Shanghai public security academy is not that you imagine. Remember one important thing; never tell the true thought of yourself to someone who serves for China authority, if you don’t want to get trouble.
Ok, let’s talk about the issues on the oral English class. Maybe you found that not every one put all his heart in the lesson. The reason is that education system runs in our campus, most of the students have little interest in foreign language, because they consider that scarcely we shall use English in the police job especially in the criminal detect. But they were obliged to attend the class by the order of the chief teacher. So always there are someone who came later, there are some chat in the class, there some absent minded one or sleepy men.
I have proposed for you, may it will help and establish in the class. You can ask our teacher to let us have the choice: if we dislike we can do what we like; if we like then we are due to come. I think this way has two possibility; first, our teacher will sure to accept your acquire with reverent and respect. Second, I am sure there are remains 30 students who have high listening and spoken abilities will have the communication with you more freely and happily. We will have more time in the free talk on the world news, Chinese art and culture, economics, science, literature, and so on. All is up to you, I wish you think it over. Thank you
In your email you said you enjoyed the conversation last Wednesday night. So do I. And I think the discussion did not end. Originally, I would like to explain my opinion on the Sino-American relationship. But this theme is too large to illuminate in a short letter. My friend ding and I will be honored to shoot the bull with you and your friends in a cafe bar or some other interesting place. We will detaily introduce the all mistery Chinese thing or Shanghai affairs to you.
By the way, I am an after hours canvas painter, sometimes I visit the modern gallery, the art center, the art website online, I really like the pop art, the avant garde art which comes from USA and west Europe. In grade one I started to love the Chinese Rock Music, the youngers lives in China mostly like the 60’s American generation in the aspect for love, idea, failure, sad, dull, helplessness. Oh, the letter has been much too long, thank you for finished reading. Your friend. Fan
I just made contact with him on Facebook this last month. Not much information so far but i am hopeful