Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness: an interview on Chinese internet usage
How do we find happiness? I cannot answer that question for you, but it is relevant to everybody. The state of happiness was deemed so important by the Founding Fathers of the United States that they added it to the Declaration of Independence: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
Budai, my Laughing Buddha
The ‘search’ for happiness is ever-present in cultures worldwide. Meet Budai (or the ‘Laughing Buddha’), one of the Chinese deities that can be found in some statue-form in Chinese homes around the world. He is commonly depicted as a fat bald man with a big grin added to his face. In Chinese culture, he is therefore the symbol for happiness. As a second generation immigrant with parents originating from the People’s Republic of China, like many others my father owned a Chinese restaurant. The entrance included a huge representation of Budai, smiling at every person who walked through the doors. The statue probably justified its presence by adding to create an atmosphere of Chinese culture for visitors, but in retrospect it implies something else for me: the pursuit of happiness. It is a search that will haunt everyone on a daily basis and on different magnitudes, but for my parents it especially meant moving to the other side of the world.
In my life, I have observed a thing or two about Chinese culture, and I consider myself only partially a result of their philosophy. I was probably raised in many ways by television, but I do not want to understate my upbringing by my parents who gave me the basic values to live my life. The Chinese philosophy that my parents believed in combined Confucianism with Taoism, adding value to humanism, empathy and humility. The image of the hard working Chinese man working nearly every day of the week is persistent, and my own father was no exception. This work was often out of pure survival of the man and his family; the family always remains central in Chinese culture. But once this was taken care of, they could think of the other ways to spend their hard earned money. And most of the time, this meant acquiring property. And having property (the bigger the better) meant having status, which was the ultimate goal. This individualistic and materialistic world view was probably good for Mercedes-Benz and Louis Vuitton. What makes me wonder though is: where have the other important values gone? As a product of Dutch thought and western values taught in school and the media (yes, I don’t see being raised by television as a negative thing), I was being told to take care of others, to build up this world together, and to find my own path to happiness.
Fortunately, I saw less dollar signs in my parents eyes than in many other Chinese people I have met in the course of my life. My mother’s main pursuit of happiness was to see me do well in school. And I created my own path to happiness, free of consumerism and egoism. I could not have achieved this without the rights and freedom that the Netherlands has given me. From here, it is a small step to the degree of freedom in China and its internet restrictions. Many people look at the Chinese internet censorship with disgust, myself included. But we should take a closer look at the arguments the Communist Party of China give for enforcing this. In their regulations, they use keywords like ‘unification’, and acting against ‘destroying the order of society’ and ‘hatred or discrimination’. Obviously, the Chinese government use disproportional rules to get what they want; the freedom of speech should be there for everyone. But aside from catching people who have seen the light, I think they actually believe the people will be happier without criticism, violence or negativity.
Seeking happiness in China: an interview with Fabienne
Nearly 400 million Chinese people use the internet, which 29 percent of the population. Some key web services are web portal 163.com, microblogging site Sina Weibo and search engine Baidu, the only engine that can perhaps rival Google because of their large target audience. Nevertheless, the internet in China is probably most famous for its restrictions imposed by the Communist Party. But I am not writing about the mechanisms of censorship in China here. What interests me is how people in China view and use the internet. I wondered whether my observations of the Chinese were just coincidental and can be applied to modern-day internet use and their behavior in general. So I went out to ask. I got in contact with Fabienne, a ordinary twenty-three year old Chinese citizen and an avid internet user. I decide to use her opinions on internet usage in China as a measurement of my little hypothesis. Fabienne uses the internet mainly to check her email, recieve the latest news updates and view Chinese websites like Sina Weibo, Renre, and Douban. When asked if she uses them often, she tells me that she uses all of them very frequently and quite get what she want from these services.
In the Western world, we are familiar with the concept of internet as a life changing tool, usually soaked in technological determinism. I was curious how Fabienne looked at this aspect, as Chinese people might have completely different ideas about what human progress is. When asked about the advantages of communication through the internet, she names the convenience, the free and timely interaction and many facilitated functions such as video chat, picture or link sharing and phone calls. Most of all, she sees the contemporary internet as crucial to people’s daily life, but not as essential. “Not just because it changed the way of people communicating, but also changed our attitude toward this world, society and ourselves. However, in my opinion, internet is still a peripheral or auxiliary service to some degree for if we are not granted with this marvelous invitation, we can still live our life as well as we used to be”, she states.
I decided to stay with this ‘bigger picture’ of the web and asked Fabienne how the internet could aid China in its development. The word ‘development’ here can be interpreted as developing the nation, but also developing ourselves. It made me curious what path she would take. Fabienne seemed hesitant but positive about creating a better country through the web. She stated: “A new scientific technology always renders a revolutionary change with some necessities and contingencies. No matter where, in United States, the United Kingdom or the Netherlands, internet does make huge contribution to their development, and the same thing happened to China obviously. We shared the merits and benefits from internet but under different level.” The opportunities and concerns present in China are not just bound to the borders; according to Fabienne, they are global. “The distinctions amongst diverse regions do exist but, in general , we stay the same tune with each other. In sum, the internet help China in its development in a step-by-step way.” She then started to emphasize the personal aspects: “Internet has been quite popular in China and almost everybody has been involved in this cyberspace. Someone get entertainment from it. Some however, get addicted to the online games from it. Someone also make a fortune out of it. This really depends on the users and also the environment.”
When the conversation got to the point of search engines Google and Baidu, the issue of internet censorship is being brought up. Fabienne uses both Google and Baidu, but prefers the latter one when searching on Chinese topics. She refers to their slogan: ‘Baidu knows China much better.’ “But when I’m confronted with problems like getting the real direct information from foreign lands, I prefer Google. But I think you do hear something about the blocking for using Google in China for some political and unspoken reason. According to this, Though I know Google may be better at making inquiries, Baidu, in China, seems to be our only choice”, she argues.
No life, no liberty, but happiness?
Why aren’t we seeing new Tiananmen Square protests in the wake of the Arab Spring or a revolution through digital means? We are faced with a culture built on modesty, hard work and individual pleasures. A culture where a father works continiously to provide for the family and where a mother puts emphasize on education. It might be something the Western world should have a look at, but it might be also something that obstructs higher causes for China. Censorship has restricted internet use to certain services, but enough to keep the people happy. And we must not forget the underground market in China, where illegal games and pornography can be found at low prices. But as long as it makes people happier and keeps them away from critical thinking, I think the Chinese government will not be bothered too much by it. Obviously, I cannot judge an entire culture on two people’s opinions (including myself). But I do feel there are some aspects here that need to be looked at. In many ways, China has embraced the new abilities the internet has given us, just as the rest of the world did. In the end, as Fabienne states, China too will head towards a brighter, happier future. A future where the Communist Party of China will decide what makes you happy. And who knows, people in China might be happier than ever. We might be screaming for justice in China, but what if all they are screaming for is a decent internet connection?
Thanks to Zhang Duohuai for the translations