So we did a telephone call in which Jasmine asked me lots of questions about China then and China now, and I was amazed by how negative her view was, as reflected in the questions. The implicit assumptions included such chestnuts on China as no press or personal freedom, monolithic dictatorship, control, suppression, etc.
I tried to balance it off, explaining that China and the world and the United States are not so black and white. Information and the media are controlled everywhere in different ways, freedom is a relative term, and the messy vibrancy that is China today cannot be summed up in words like dictatorship. What is more, the economic and social revolution that has taken place in China in recent times is a direct and positive consequence of the blood spilled on the streets of Beijing 17 years ago.
But Jasmine's questions pointed to a significant problem – China still has a major problem in terms of its image in the West. Furthermore, there is evidence to suggest that the negative view of China is becoming more fashionable.
To date, the negative views of China in the West have been based on past events – June 4, Tibet suppression, prison labor, forced abortions, whatever. But the negative view of China that may be growing now is based on fears of what the country might become. This is much more difficult to handle than fear and loathing based on the past.
Action point for Zhongnanhai: communicate better.
The scene: a coffee shop of a five-star hotel in Shanghai. Two Buddhist monks were sitting at a table, I took a seat at the table next to them. They were soon joined by the abbot and one of the monks invited me over, saying: "The abbot would like to speak to you."
I sat at their table, and the abbot looked me deep in the eyes, and said my aura is red and healthy and I will live to 93 years of age. A few minutes of this, and the abbot started eating. The monk said: "It would be appropriate for you to show your appreciation to the abbot." I smiled at the abbot and nodded my thanks.
"No, money," said the acolyte.
"Er, how much?"
"RMB3,000 would be appropriate."
I frowned, hesitated, opened my wallet, pulled out 200 and offered it to the abbot.
"Needs to be a 3 for your own good luck," said the monk.
I handed over another 100, bowed and went back to my seat in a little puzzlement. One of the waitresses came over and scowled at me. "Why do you believe them?" she said.
"They are fakes?"
The abbot and the monks finished their breakfast and went to pay for it using the 300 I had given them. I walked quickly over and said to the abbot: "Are you real or fake?"
"Of course, real," he said.
"If so, then I propose you put the RMB300 I gave you into the Red Cross donation box here, so we can both help the unfortunate."
His turn to scowl. But he put the money into the box. I thanked him, and turned away.
Watch out for fake Buddhist monks staking out hotel coffee shops for easy marks. Such as me.