Mantra of Success

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Three finalists line up for CCTV's spoken English competition.
According to China's official Xinhua news agency there are roughly 300
million English learners and English speakers in China.

The national television game show Outlook English, in which Chinese youth compete to demonstrate their English language skills, has taken on an American Idol-like popularity. The show was originally conceived to raise the level of spoken English in anticipation of the 2008 Olympics. More than 20,000 teenage contestants entered this year's competition. By May 31 the field had narrowed to three finalists who went head-to-head for the championship at a China Central Television studio in Beijing.

These finalists, aged 15 to 16, were quizzed on questions of national importance. Their well-recited answers reflect a mantra that combines nationalist pride with the story of economic success. It's a kind of political messaging I've heard again and again from students here in China.

Onstage, the Outlook English contestants debated whether foreigners should stay with a host family or in a hotel during the Olympics. One of the finalists, a petite 16-year-old girl, grabbed her mic to respond. In perfect and complex sentences with no traces of an accent, she explained, “The tourist hotel represents the comprehensive strength of a nation’s level of modernization, technology and its professional services.” Later she added, “Culture is a combination of both modernization and tradition,” and then flashed a dimpled smile at the judges. She went on to win the competition.

Last night three students, all English language majors from the Beijing Sports University, took me to a 24-hour teahouse in the Wudaokou district of Beijing. For 18 yuan, about $2 U.S., we were served unlimited tea and ice cream into the wee hours.

In between chatting about pop culture, these students gave me a lesson in politics. They explained that Communist leadership is harnessing capitalist growth and, however messy the process, this is restoring China’s greatness and world stature.

“Since the economic opening of 1978, China has entered a transition period,” Cao Xiaozhen, a 23-year-old student, told me. “This means that some people and some regions will get rich first, but this will lift everyone else with them.” Cao wore stylish glasses and dresses business casual. She explained that China’s state-owned enterprises once supplied cradle-to-grave job stability, but most had to be sold to private investors because they were losing money.

But what about what happened in Jiamusi, I asked. In this city, located in China's northeastern Heilongjiang province, a privately owned textile mill laid off 14,000 workers in 2003. The move sparked massive protest, as reported at the time by The New York Times, and has grown into a national symbol of unrest provoked by privatization.

“That is really not typically Chinese,” said another student, 22-year-old Ni Tao. “People are more inclined to preserve social harmony,” he explained, using an oft-repeated government slogan. “This is an old Confucian idea resurrected to help promote the collective interest, so this is a deep-seated concept in the Chinese people.”

Referring to those who are less well-off, he said, "Perhaps they deserve this because they have not worked as hard as others. Everyone must show their worth to the country."

The students quizzed me on the upcoming U.S. elections, and I turned the tables and ask if they'd like the opportunity to elect the next general secretary of China. “We are confident that the Central Committee can pick the next leader who has proven himself through past experience," said Cao. "But we don't care, we stay aloof from politics," she added, a comment that struck an incongruent note in our very political, evening-long discussion.