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home : opinions : op ed columnist May 3, 2016

10/17/2012 11:31:00 AM
U.S.-China cultural exchanges - why does China get a pass?

By Glenn Holcombe

I know it’s the election season, but sometimes other things are important too. In looking through the latest Lakeland Union High School District parent newsletter, I was struck by a small item announcing that “[T]he third annual Daqing, China, teacher/student exchange to Beijing will occur Oct. 23-Nov. 5.” The notice added that an LUHS administrator and spouse would escort LUHS and North Lakeland students. 

I recognize that school-sponsored trips to China pass for a non-story these days, with New York Times columnist and best-selling author Thomas Friedman leading the pack of China admirers who celebrate its futuristic airports, gleaming modern cities, top-tier student math scores, and seemingly nonpareil ability to “get things done.” Not to mention the brilliantly-produced 2008 Olympics closing ceremony.

Well, yes. Authoritarian regimes not hamstrung by the constraints of democracy and human rights (never mind environmental concerns) do sometimes have advantages in making the trains run on time. They always have. Modern Chinese construction and educational accomplishments are impressive. And no doubt there is educational value to observing first-hand the Great Wall, the Summer Palace, and the Forbidden City.

But what else will our students learn about China, the most populous nation in the world and America’s largest creditor – either during their visit or in a Lakeland classroom? 

Will they learn that since 1949 China’s uninterrupted and unelected regime has maintained an iron grip on the world’s largest totalitarian police state, denying its citizens the right to vote, to speak or travel freely, to freely exercise their religion, and to choose how many children they will have? And that the latter prohibition has put them on the road to serious demographic distortion? 

Will they learn that in a century that included the rise and fall of Nazi Germany, Stalin’s Soviet Union, and the totalitarian regimes of North Korea, North Vietnam and Cambodia, China’s rulers out-brutalized them all, killing between 77 and 90 million of its own citizens according to the generally accepted research of respected historians like Frank Dikotter and Rudolph Rummel?

Will they learn about the genocidal liquidation of up to one million Tibetans during the “Great Leap Forward,” per the account of the Office of UN High Commissioner for Refugees? The corresponding destruction of 6,000 ancient Tibetan monasteries? And that the repression continues today?

Will they learn that, given the choice in 1989 of negotiating a few basic human rights with unarmed student protesters in Tiananmen Square, or throttling dissent as they always have, this regime chose to roll tanks while the world watched, killing more than two thousand students and crushing organized human rights protests for years to come?

Will our exchange participants have the opportunity to ask their Chinese government minders where the Tiananmen Square student memorial is? Or where Wang Weilin – the “Tank Man” – stood when he faced down a column of Chinese Army tanks, as recorded in one of the most iconic photographs of the 20th century?

Some will object that the Tiananmen Massacre was more than twenty years ago, and the Cultural Revolution almost thirty years before that. Modern China is “different,” more “evolved,” they will say. And that’s the China we need to “partner” with – and teach our students about – even though the totalitarian regime in power remains the same.

So, are we doing that? Teaching them about modern China?

Are we teaching them about the ongoing brutalization of the peaceful practitioners of the religious discipline, Falun Gong? Who are estimated to comprise up to 20 percent of the population of China’s Laogai political prison camps and, per the Defense of Democracy Foundation – to comprise 65,000 of the Laogai’s gulag’s torture victims?

Are we showing them what repeated application of electric rods did to the flesh of dissident Tang Yongjie, whose photos are easily Googled but not recommended viewing after a meal?

For that matter, are we teaching them about the Laogai itself – which means “reform through labor”? The primitive, disease-infested, “thought-reforming,” and very much thriving prison labor and farm system whose walls are estimated to have seen the repression, hideous torture, rape, and abuse of more than 50 million political prisoners? Where 15 million are estimated to have been killed? And where seven million are believed by informed and unbiased observers to languish today?

Are we teaching them about China’s one-child-only, forced abortion policy that has led to millions of aborted, abandoned, and outright murdered babies – mostly girls? Which in turn has produced not only the grief and trauma of millions of affected would-be parents, but a major shortage of marriageable women for young Chinese men?

Are we teaching them about Harry Wu, the brave Chinese dissident who established the Laogai Research Foundation in the U.S. after spending nearly the entirety of the 1960s and 1970s in twelve different Laogai camps enduring torture, brutality, and forced labor? Who was confronted with human corpses on meat racks to encourage his own compliance and confession, and who routinely burrowed into rat holes for grain to avoid starvation – when he wasn’t eating the rats themselves?

If all of this still seems like old news, what about verified events from just the last five years?

Are we teaching our students about the human-organ-harvesting-for-profit practices of the Chinese government revealed by David Matas and David Kilgour in their devastatingly documented 2007 report: “Bloody Harvest – Revised Report into Allegations of Organ Harvesting of Falun Gong Practitioners in China”?

Are we teaching them about the ethnic cleansing begun in 2009 of the Muslim Uighurs following the forced annexation of Xianjiang? In which hundreds if not thousands of minority Uighurs have been ripped from their homes and “disappeared” never to be seen again, according to Amnesty International and The New York Times?

Will our students be introduced to 2010 Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo? Who hasn’t been allowed to accept his Nobel award because he was (and remains) imprisoned for political “crimes” – as was his wife? Have we had our students read Liu’s eloquent Nobel acceptance speech or his moving Nobel lecture – which had to be smuggled out of China and read by someone else?

What about Xu Chensheng? Are we teaching our students about this beautiful, healthy 47-year-old woman who practiced Falun Gong until she was arrested for unspecified reasons at 10 a.m. on May 15 of this year, and pronounced dead at 11:15 p.m., after more than 10 hours of “interrogation”? The before and after pictures of Ms. Xu are tragically instructive – though I understand it might be difficult to show our students her bruised and beaten corpse – even if the photos are not hard to find on the Internet.

And what about the CCP’s (Chinese Communist Party) attempt just this past month to bully the city of Corvallis, Oregon into ordering the removal of a private-property located, but publicly visible, mural depicting Chinese brutality in Tibet – characteristically accompanied by crude official threats of diminished economic ties between China and Oregon?


How much would be enough? How much more do we need to know before we ask ourselves why we look the other way and treat China as just another candidate (perhaps the premier candidate) for cultural exchange and learning?

LUHS isn’t alone in encouraging Chinese cultural and educational exchanges. I know that. These exchanges have become commonplace. So it’s not my intent to single out our administration or our schools as bad actors for their decision to participate – when so many others are also following the pack in doing so.  

My intent, rather, is to encourage our school boards, administrators, teachers, students, and parents to pause long enough to consider the Chinese individuals I’ve named, and ask ourselves some hard questions.

Such as: What exactly do we expect our students to take away from these exchanges, in which our students will have government-trained “minders” while Chinese students visiting the U.S. are free to explore the American cultural landscape to their heart’s content?

And if we wouldn’t consider an educational or cultural exchange with Iran, North Korea, Cuba, and other totalitarian regimes (as we wouldn’t have with pre-Apartheid South Africa), then why is China given a pass when it has out-brutalized them all?

Is it enough that China is an economic success story? That its new buildings gleam and its students-without-siblings succeed in math and science? That it holds more U.S. debt than the rest of the world combined and puts on a great fireworks show?

Most importantly – are the perceived educational benefits to our students and administrators worth the price of playing even a small part in helping to give this criminal Chinese regime the veneer of moral legitimacy it craves?

I think these questions are crying to be asked. I don’t believe we should look the other way when confronted with China’s unprecedented historical and ongoing crimes. I don’t think we should be tacitly cooperating with the largest and most influential totalitarian police state in the world by sending Lakeland students and administrators to China, with or without district taxpayer support – but especially with it, if that’s the case.

I believe that to do so dishonors (albeit, mostly unwittingly and not intentionally) the sacrifices of Harry Wu, Wang Weilin, Liu Xiaobo, Tang Yongjie, Xu Chensheng, and the millions of other brave Chinese, Tibetans and Uighurs – living and dead – who have suffered and continue to suffer in modern China and Tibet for no other reason than they wish to remove the heavy boot of a totalitarian regime from their necks.

Decades of easy ties and thoughtless engagement with China have not brought this brutal and repressive regime into the democratic fold, but have instead caused us to ignore China’s repression and pretend it doesn’t exist. Worse, our casual embrace has given China’s leaders the comfort of knowing there will be little or no price to pay for the mass murder of millions, the torture and imprisonment of millions more, and the ongoing repression of more than a billion people.

What incentive then do they have to let up – even a little – on that merciless boot?

Harry Wu, in his soul-stirring memoir, Troublemaker: One Man’s Crusade Against China’s Cruelty, has something to say about the effect of the moral equivalence with which the free world treats China:

“…[N]ineteen years in the Laogai … nineteen years of menial work…without explanation, without hope … All you have to do is multiply my experience by a million, by fifty million, to know that it still goes on, subsidized by corporations, subsidized by the World Bank, subsidized by all the governments that encourage trade with China.”

And, might he have added, by American schools that promote educational  engagement on an equivalent basis? 

If private citizens wish to visit China on their own dime and under their own names, more power to them. But I believe that school-sponsored exchanges with China are wrong-headed and ... just plain wrong. 

Instead, I think it’s time for someone beyond China’s brave and suffering dissidents themselves – perhaps some of us much closer to home – to take a stand.

Glenn Holcombe is a Minocqua attorney with an interest in history.

Reader Comments

Posted: Friday, November 2, 2012
Article comment by: Glenn Holcombe

The problem with these institutional exchanges is precisely that they do not "reveal darkness," but instead obscure it and teach our students to pretend it is not there. Free thought untethered to truth and moral clarity is not free--and it is a poor excuse for cooperating with tyranny.

In related news from Amnesty International this week: "Half a dozen villagers from a small town in a Chinese province surrounding Beijing have been rounded up, detained, and tortured by local police, after they attempted to secure the release of another villager and friend who was persecuted for his belief in the Falun Gong spiritual practice."


Posted: Tuesday, October 23, 2012
Article comment by: Jack I

I see no harm in sending students to China. Indeed, education should include experiences which reveal darkness in the world. Our students surely will not be able to understand--let alone criticize--other cultures unless they are faced with them.

To call these trips wrong is to have no faith in the ability of our youth to engage in free thought.

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