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News & Stories: 2008-09

China Today for Americans now August 8, 2008

In the buildup to the Olympics, Larry Herzberg has watched with concern as the international media has collectively painted a portrait of China that he, a longtime friend of that nation, does not recognize.

“China is represented in an overly negative way by the media,” said Herzberg, a professor of Asian language and literature at Calvin College. “Most Americans have a picture of China that was much more true 30 years ago than it is today. They have a picture of a dark oppressive society that pretty much no longer exists.”

A nuanced picture

Herzberg, a professor of Asian language and literature at Calvin College, and his wife Qin, hope to change that portrait with China Today, a 60-minute documentary on modern China that they spent three years creating. “We wanted to give a more nuanced picture of China and show how the Chinese people feel about their country.”

China Today, produced by the Calvin Media Foundation, is a series of conversations with Chinese people from a range of backgrounds on some of the more troublesome issues of their culture. The Herzbergs traveled through China, interviewing educators, government officials, migrant workers and intellectuals to absorb their insights about the Chinese standard of living, the one-child policy, democracy and religious oppression.

China of the future

Herzberg and his wife believe that the film depicts a China not mired in the repressive policies of the past, but a China moving toward more openness and prosperity: “In the last 25 years, no country has made the incredible strides China has made in lifting four hundred million people out of poverty,” he said. “And along with that comes a huge increase in human rights.”

The various interviewees in China Today are much more tolerant and open-minded about their society than Americans might expect, said Herzberg: “The main priority in China has never been human rights, has never been individual freedom. This is hard for Americans and other Westerners to accept. The fact remains that the most important things for the Chinese is social harmony, social stability.”


He cited a recent Gallup Poll which found that 90 percent of Chinese citizens are happy with the way their country is going; that figure is a stark contrast, Herzberg added, to the 20 percent of Americans in the same poll who like where their country is headed. “China has never been freer or offered a better standard of living of its people than it does today,” he said.

The improvement of conditions in China is the more remarkable, he said, because the Cultural Revolution is such a recent memory. It’s a childhood memory for his wife. “Qin lived through a time when China was extremely poor and extremely oppressive,” he said. “Her parents were thrown in jail because of what they wrote.”

The Herzbergs acknowledge that China has a long way to go in the areas of economy, family policies, human rights, political reforms and pollution. However said Herzberg, Americans can’t afford to do a lot of finger-pointing in some of these areas; pollution is a good example. “Yes, China is an egregious polluter. They are responsible for one quarter of the world’s carbon emissions, and they’re trying to do something about that,” he said. “Guess who’s responsible for another quarter of the carbon emissions in the world? The U.S., with four-and-a-half times fewer people."

The couple are distributing 1107 copies of China Today, which is available for $10 at the Calvin campus store or through the Calvin Media Foundation, free to high schools throughout and outside the U.S. They hope that the schools will incorporate the film into their history classes. The documentary is also available at local libraries, including the college's Hekman Library.

A beautiful display

Mainly, Herzberg said, the couple, who have traveled and taught in China throughout their academic careers, just want the Chinese to get their due, especially during the Olympics: “We should look forward to the Olympics as a beautiful display of what human beings are capable of physically and mentally,” he said. “It’s a tribute to that. And yes, inevitably politics are mixed in on the part of the U.S. and China and every nation of the world. But this should be a celebration of the human spirit, and China has done everything they can to make this a spectacular Olympics.”

The Herzbergs’ next film will be a series of interviews of Americans about how they feel about the Chinese—and vice versa. “Americans will say, ‘Don’t trust China,’ he said. “‘And then we’ll ask the Chinese people, ‘What do you think of America?’ And they’ll say, “’We love America.’”

~by Myrna Anderson, communications and marketing

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