My Ayi on Politics

The other day as Xiao Wang (my ayi, a 32-year-old woman from the Harbin area) arrived, I was watching the news. Wen Jiabao (温家宝) was making some statement or other. Xiao Wang didn’t pay any attention. She started fixing dinner.

It suddenly occurred to me to get Xiao Wang’s take on Chinese politics, so I asked her what she thought of Hu Jintao (胡锦涛). I think it confused her a little, because Wen Jiabao was on TV, and I was talking about Hu Jintao. But her response was, “I don’t watch the news much.”

Not satisfied with that, I pressed her: “but don’t you have some opinion about the government?”

Looking up at the TV, which now showed a People’s Congress session in Beijing, she replied, “look at them… they’re all a bunch of Southerners.”

Thus ended the conversation on politics.


John Pasden

John is a Shanghai-based linguist and entrepreneur, founder of AllSet Learning.


  1. Hey John, I asked my girlfriend about this once, and she told me that women are generally not “encouraged” to learn about politics – it’s man’s business (whatever that means).

  2. John,

    You should realize that the Chinese are very private about their political opinions. It is not because they don’t have one, it is because it is very complicated. For anyone who have lived through Culture Revolution, they know anything you say or do may come back haunt you. It would be best just keep your mouth shut and opinion to yourself, or give a bogus answer to avoid answering the real question.

    There is an old Chinese saying:


    which literally means “to have less to worry about is better than more worries”.

  3. Princehahaha Says: April 14, 2006 at 4:24 pm

    She’s got a point though

  4. I believe that after 2000 range if they years of oppression it would be strange if they did actually express an opinion on politics.

  5. John,
    I for one thought your Ayi said a lot in that one statement. A perspective I hadn’t gotten before, which is quite interesting.
    Yes, they sure are private about their politlics. They also use chopsticks and and drink tea, but I am assuming you knew all three of those things after 5+ years here.

  6. I think that many Chinese don’t have oppinion on politics, they have been taught to not criticize or comment on this. And the media don’t help to cultivate a critical society.

  7. Tian, thanks for the quick lesson. This seem to also apply to production deadlines, street locations and any random question, for some reason.

  8. Your ayi’s logic is funny.

    I’m a local, and I don’t think I have much political opinion. I rarely watch TV news unless anything special happened caught my attention. When I reading newspaper, the only pages I don’t give a shoot are politics, but I do catch business, finance, culture, sports parts. I’m just not that into politics and even don’t bother to ask myself why. However I was thinking a reason mighe be that MAN are more naturally related to politics than Woman, applied both in China and around world I guess.

  9. Gne? could this reply be her opinion? it’s like when being asked of how do you like the meal? -Hmmm… look, i dont get used to public dish.

  10. Tian,

    I can realize that but still ask the questions, right? Besides, she told me all I wanted to know.


    Yep. Sometimes I leave stuff like that unsaid in my entries. My readers are a smart bunch. 🙂

  11. China doesn’t have Thomas Payne or MTV’s “Rock the Vote” – it follows that people’s involvement with the political process is going to be lower. With many people, I don’t think it’s a matter of privacy, I just don’t think politics are all that important to them.

  12. Roy said: “Tian, thanks for the quick lesson.” Yes, I can see why Tian would want to explain away the woman’s vacuousness, and indeed why Western liberals find the need to do so to. But I doubt the woman is worried that a new Cultural Revolution or Anti-Rightist Campaign is just around the corner, and I find the suggestion absurd. Quit the apologetics. The woman just hasn’t got a clue.

    Now for me, the REAL question to answer is why Chinese people, allegedly on average more intelligent than Westerners, appear so slow, at least in terms of intelligent discussion. I found an amazing passage in Laozi the other day, in chapter 3:

    “The Sage rules
    By emptying their hearts
    And filling their bellies,
    Weakening their intelligence (YES: REREAD THAT)
    And toughening their sinews
    Ever striving to make the people knowledgeless and desireless.
    Indeed he sees to it that if there be any who have knowledge, they dare not interfere.”

    This cultivation of intellectual vacuity in a supposedly high-IQ population is a tremendous waste, of course, but fits in with China’s traditional concept of “good government”.

    It is difficult to accept sometimes just how ready Chinese people are simply to spout the government line and invest no thought. I know there are intellectually more curious Chinese out there – such as the Zhongshan University professor who penned the article Modernisation and History Textbooks that led to the closure of the Bingdian weekly supplement in December, but they are just no falling from the trees. There may be brilliant thinkers in Kunming, but I have just not bumped into one yet…

  13. I got my hands on a galley proof of Peter Hessler’s upcoming new book, Oracle Bones, and in one of its chapters he talks about this same idea. In reality, it seems, China’s southern region always played a critical role in the country’s health and wealth, though it was never explicitly acknowledged because of northern political dominance. Since the fall of the Qing, though, most of China’s leaders have come from the south and at the same time China is getting healthier (materially) and wealthier. One of the conclusions you could draw from the book is that, in the coming century, with Southerners maintaining political control, the archaeological record will increasingly expose the importance of southern China to China’s past cultural and material prosperity.

  14. DJW,

    Come on, give Xiao Wang a break. She’s living hand to mouth in a society where her voice does not matter, and you want her to pay more attention to propaganda on TV? She doesn’t have the luxury to care about politics. It sure is easy to judge her, though.

    As for Kunming’s “brilliant thinkers” not impressing you, why should they? Supposing they existed, maybe they have no interest in chatting up a foreigner.

  15. And DJW, the point that the poor woman made was actually pretty astute. Were you aware that in modern Chinese politics, most of the big players come from the south, and that this fact itself is unusual in the grand course of Chinese history?

  16. Actually Wiki’s got a page about Intelligence and Nationality that talks about the issue of intelligence and nationality. Actually, PRC Chinese just have an average IQ of 100. Taiwanese, Singaporeans, and especially HKers are way above the average, though. I don’t see HKers as all in to politics either, though.

  17. The real hard truth is that the opinions of Westerners are also largely fed to them by the media, just as in China. Few people are capable of truly independent thought. Probably if she read the New York Times every day, this ayi could spout on about affirmative action and equality (in other words: could regurgitate the opinions the establishment had fed her) with the best (worst?) of them.

    Now I thought the average IQ in China was 105, but maybe it is 100. I think international tests of IQ are more likely to have been done in Taiwan and HK, and even if some have been done in the mainland, maybe they have not been done all over the mainland. Nevertheless: China as a developing country does stick out like a sore thumb in having an IQ level equivalent to that of developed countries. Which other developing country can that be said of?

    Richard Lynn, the professor who published the book on IQ referred to in the Wiki article, has written on the subject of nutrition and IQ, and it seems likely that a difference between mainland China and Hong Kong will be eliminated as nutrition improves in the countryside in China.

  18. With that statement, i think your Ayi has said a lot. What a clever comment!

    I don’t think they have no opinion or comment whatsoever on politics. It’s just that they dare not to comment it publicly. Not only because of the effect of Cultural Revolution, i think it can even be traced back to the emperors times where 文字狱 is still common.

  19. It is amazing how the tentacles of PC spread, at the expense of critical thought. It seems to have become de rigueur on this thread to praise the political insights of an ayi, whatever the merits of her comments. Clearly an NPC session is not “just a bunch of southerners” – Matt, Money and others do not realise that NPC meetings attract members from all over the country. This is retardism on stilts. Is the CCP dominated by southerners? Let us take a look at the standing committee of the politburo. This has a 9 man membership from the following provinces:

    Hu Jintao – Anhui
    Wen Jiabao – Tianjin
    Huang Ju – Zhejiang
    Jia Qinglin – Hebei
    Wu Guanzheng – Jiangxi
    Zeng Qinghong – Jiangxi
    Wu Bangguo – Anhui
    Luo Gan – Shandong
    Li Changchun – Liaoning

    Jiangxi is the furthest south we get. There are no Cantonese in the list. What is more obvious is that eastern China provided all the leaders. (In fact, HJT’s attempts to promote his supporters in the Communist Youth League are leading to the promotion of some CCP members from inland China now.)

    I don’t have an uptodate list of provincial governors and party secretaries to hand. These 62 appointments are the cradle of future leaders – China’s top leaders emerge from the provinces, not from the less important ministerial positions. But I do have a Feb 2005 list of the 62 positions, together with origins:

    Beijing Party secretary Liu Qi Jiangsu
    Mayor Wang Qishan Shandong
    Tianjin Party secretary Zhang Lichang Hebei
    Mayor Dai Xianglong Jiangsu
    Hebei Party secretary Bai Keming Hebei
    Governor Ji Yunshi Jiangsu
    Shanxi Party secretary Tiang Chengping Hebei
    Governor Zhang Baoshun Hebei
    Neimenggu Party secretary Chu Bo Anhui
    Governor Yang Jing Neimenggu
    Liaoning Party secretary Li Keqiang Anhui
    Governor Zhang Wenyue Fujian
    Jilin Party secretary Wang Yunkun Jiangsu
    Governor Wang Min Anhui
    Heilongjiang Party secretary Li Zhanshu Hebei
    Governor Zhang Zuoyi Heilongjiang
    Shanghai Party secretary Chen Liangyu Zhejiang
    Mayor Han Zheng Zhejiang
    Jiangsu Party secretary Li Yuanchao Jiangsu
    Governor Liang Baohua Jiangxi
    Zhejiang Party secretary Xi Jinping Beijing
    Governor Lu Zushan Zhejiang
    Anhui Party secretary Guo Jinlong Jiangsu
    Governor Wang Jinshan Jilin
    Fujian Party secretary Lu Zhangong Zhejiang
    Governor Huang Xiaojing Fujian
    Jiangxi Party secretary Meng Jianzhu Jiangsu
    Governor Huang Zhiquan Zhejiang
    Shandong Party secretary Zhang Gaoli Fujian
    Governor Han Yuqun Jiangsu
    Henan Party secretary Xu Guangchun Zhejiang
    Governor Li Chengyu Ningxia
    Hubei Party secretary Yu Zhengsheng Zhejiang
    Governor Luo Qingquan Hubei
    Hunan Party secretary Yang Zhengwu Hunan
    Governor Zhou Bohua Hunan
    Guangdong Party secretary Zhang Dejiang Liaoning
    Governor Huang Huahua Guangdong
    Guangxi Party secretary Liu Qibao Anhui
    Governor Lu Bing Guangxi
    Hainan Party secretary Wang Xiaofeng Hunan
    Governor Wei Liucheng Henan
    Chongqing Party secretary Huang Zhendong Jiangsu
    Mayor Wang Hongju Chongqing
    Sichuan Party secretary Zhang Xuezhong Gansu
    Governor Zhang Zhongwei Sichuan
    Guizhou Party secretary Qian Yunlu Hubei
    Governor Shi Xiushi Henan
    Yunnan Party secretary Bai Enpei Shaanxi
    Governor Xu Rongkai Chongqing
    Tibet Party secretary Yang Chuantang Shandong
    Governor Qiangba Puncog Tibet
    Shaanxi Party secretary Yuan Chunqing Hunan
    Governor Chen Deming Shanghai
    Gansu Party secretary Su Rong Jilin
    Governor Lu Hao Hebei
    Qinghai Party secretary Zhao Leji Qinghai
    Governor Song Xiuyan Tianjin
    Ningxia Party secretary Chen Jianguo Shandong
    Governor Ma Qizhi Ningxia
    Xinjiang Party secretary Wang Lequan Shandong
    Governor Simayi Tieliwaerdi Xinjiang

    If you sort the list, it is clear that Jiangsu and Zhejiang provide a disproportionate number of provincial appointees, owing to the previous dominance of the Shanghai Gang around JZM in the leadership. Hebei, Anhui and Shandong are also overrepresented. Guangdong is nowhere. There are several factions in the leadership. The Shanghai Gang is still around, the Communist Youth League people are connected to HJT, then there are the princelings, and the oil faction, etc.

    Bruce Gilley in his book about democratisation in China pointed out how certain provinces were underrepresented in the NPC, but this is not a question of Southern dominance, but one of the overrepresentation of the Shanghai Delta and other parts of the eastern seaboard.

    John, your ayi knows s**t about Chinese politics, but there is no reason why she should. It doesn’t make her a bad person…

  20. DJW,

    John, your ayi knows s**t about Chinese politics, but there is no reason why she should. It doesn’t make her a bad person…

    I won’t argue with you there. The only issue I had with your inital comment was your reference to her “vacuousness.” Her attitude towards her nation’s politics is a result of her circumstances, not of her intellect. There’s really no need to pick on Xiao Wang.

  21. Would you say that most nannies or maids or housekeepers in other countries have much of a political opinion?

    Also, who has run into the taxi drivers extremely vocal about their political opinons? I love those guys, and gals.

  22. schtickyrice Says: April 15, 2006 at 5:05 am


    If you consider Shanghainese as Northerners from your Cantonese perspective, why should it come as a surprise that Xiao Wang, from Harbin, would consider Hu Jintao (from Anhui) to be a Southerner? Ayi or not, her views are just as valid as yours. After all, she had to leave her hometown in the decaying rustbelt to work as an ayi in Shanghai has she not? Why shouldn’t she feel alienated by the governing class?

  23. I’ve never heard of this supposed corrolation between IQ and expressing an opinion or having an interest in politics — it sure is funny, though.

  24. First off, I would have to say that whether Ayi is correct in her assumption or not is a mute point, perception is key. She believes Southerners dominate the government, and that may be the general and legitimate view of someone who comes from Northeast China. In politics perception is key. I for one believe that Pres. Bush fell out of a horse’s ass. Scientists may prove me wrong in future years, could have been some sort of mule’s ass for example, but horse’s ass is my perception. But that’s neither here nor there, and I certainly don’t want to come of like some pompous political expert. I best be off now to read a newspaper to make sure that that still is indeed my opinion.

  25. You need a high IQ, or the depiction of the left wing as Communist apologists, and of the right wing as vaguely (and triumphantly) eugenicist, would just come off as a wild rant.

  26. Jack opined: “’ve never heard of this supposed corrolation between IQ and expressing an opinion or having an interest in politics”.

    How about talking to University students with high IQ who can only spout the government line on a host of issues from Taiwan to Tibet? I don’t expect an ayi to know or care more about poliitics than her counterparts in the West, but university students in the West generally do more than just spout the govt line. Maybe the solution is this: university students in the West believe they are being radical by spoutinig anti govt rhetoric, unaware that their liberal fixations have just been fed to them by the media?????

  27. DJW,

    That’s a fantastically woven conspiracy theory but unfortunately not very original or otherwise compelling. Did you hear it on Fox News?

  28. Fox News? I would never watch such liberal cr*p! The US does not have a TV channel that I would regard as genuinely conservative. I am afraid that pointing out that nearly all people just spout what they read in the media is not conspiracy theory. Even Karl Marx said that the ruling ideas in society were the ideas of the ruling class. You might think that university students would be able to think for themselves, but political correctness has severely compromised their ability to think . Read Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind. Mind you, Matt, there are some long words in that book. If you need some help reading it, let me know!

  29. hi,
    just as —> i from the Harbin(哈尔滨) area.
    中国人多 不比太在意啦….

  30. Beware! Fox News and John’s ayi are both part of the liberal media conspiracy!! What is the correlation between paranoid conspiracy theorists and IQ, I wonder? The media affects people’s views!?!?!? Yeah, thanks, Master of the Obvious. Luckily, only people with super-duper high IQs can see through the liberal conspiracy and reach the pure objectivity of Ann Coulter. Whew! What would we do without DJW?

    Then again, DJW is spouting the government line — I guess his IQ isn’t high enough to allow him to see something that stunningly obvious.

  31. DJW,

    I agree that the movement away from teaching the great books of the Western tradition is not a definitively good step for education in America. I feel great gaps in my education personally and it’s an ongoing thing I’m trying to correct. From what limited knowledge I do have, though, I know that a civil discourse underlies any hope for an increase in knowledge. I will get in touch if I need a hot-tempered dictionary.

  32. A couple of thoughts.

    1) While I’m sure my views would be extremely liberal to DJW, I completely agree that political correctness has done a frightening job of narrowing the minds of Americans. As far as I’m concerned, it’s a form of McCarthyism.

    2) If the “Ayi” (I still can’t get used to how mainlanders call them that), is from the Harbin area, couldn’t just about anybody south of Beijing be a “southerner” to her? I mean, to me, Chicago is “back east”. A New Yorker would have an entirely different opinion, though.

  33. OK…Jack seems to think I am some kind of Bushite! LOL! Actually neo-conservatism is a variety of liberalism. I think Pat Buchanan might be able to fill you in on the details. On to Matt: I didn’t say anything about great books. I was talking about Professor Bloom’s recounting of how his students arrived at university convinced of “cultural relativism”. He explains that not one of them had made a study of all the cultures of the world, and that the conviction that all cultures are equal is not an intellectual proposition, it is not based on study and is not a point that liberals would allow to be debated on its intellectual merits. It is in fact a moral proposition, based on what Bloom described as the “saccharine moral” that “we should all get along”. Even though liberals themselves do baulk at some of the world’s cultures – such as those where women are not allowed to drive and are stoned to death if they claim to have been raped and cannot produce 4 male witnesses – to this extent liberals are aware that their vision of the world is false – they are convinced that the assertion of cultural relativism is the hallmark of a Nice Person. People who query it on intellectual grounds are Nasty People. This is the essential basis of the Closing of the American Mind. On to Mark: what was wrong with Joe McCarthy? He has been proved right now that records have been opened and show that the Communist infiltration he discovered was only the tip of the pro-Soviet iceberg…

  34. Please don’t just make such statements when you obviously know nothing about islamic law.
    Giving us false examples like that only weakens your point.
    1. It’s the one who accuses that must round up 2 male or 3 female witnesses.
    This has nothing to do with culture, one must blame religion for it.
    2. Stoning has been banned in most countries that use islamic law, but these stonings happen in villages that are tottaly cut off from their government.
    While I don’t approve of such actions, they a form of ignorance. And we can’t go blaming people for being ignorant, now can we?

    Culture’s differ al over the globe, with their traditions, customs AND discrimination patterns.
    You cannot judge over cultures in a good-evil manner. Just think how they might feel about your culture.

  35. Kickee, you are misinformed (that is my charitable assumption). See That is a website of Muslims who do not approve of Shariah law. Islamic Law is Shariah Law and is not implemented in all Muslim countries, but does require a woman to produce 4 male witnesses – not 2 or 3 as you said – as proof she has been raped. Otherwise her accusation is regarded as evidence of adultery and she is stoned to death. Cultural diversity is not eating houmous and loving Chinese food – it also includes accepting stoning to death for adultery. Countries that do not permit stoning to death are not implementing Islamic Law, which is a body of law drawn up by the mullahs over the centuries.

    And – yes you can judge cultures in a good-evil manner. Try to think when I explain this. You may think of yourself as a progressive, but what is progress? If there is such a thing as human progress, then human societies must be able to be lined up along a spectrum labelled on one end “less good” and on the other end “better”. For example if Western society has progressed since the Middle Ages, when we burned people at the stake, it stands to reason that societies still practising barbaric customs have progressed relatively little by comparison. To say all cultures are equal denies progress, and denies the possibility of progress, and constitutes a self-refutation of progressive liberal sociopolitical theory. Think about it!!

  36. What is the point of having a political opinion in China? It doesn’t matter. Even in the U.S., a lot of people don’t vote because they don’t care. They worry more about their own lives. They don’t read about politics, so they’re not informed. Only when the government does something to really piss them off, like something with taxes, will they actually go out and vote. Why do you think Bush can have a very low approval rating but get re-elected? Ask someone if they “like” Bush and they say no. But do they dislike him enough to go out and vote against him? No. In China there isn’t even a reason to have an opinion, and least of all to tell anyone. You can’t change anything, and it might get you in trouble.

  37. Matt, you are right in what you say. I think this thread has passed its sell-by-date…

  38. I don’t think you can see the whole picture just based on one’s or two’s response. I am a Chinese living in Canada. All my young Canadian colleagues didn’t vote in the latest election. So I can say Canadian have no opinions on politics? Or any other issues I can infer from this?

  39. Why should Chinese people vote in Canadian elections? I am in China, but no one every asked me to take part in China’s political process. What a cheek!

  40. Why should Chinese people vote in Canadian elections? I am in China, but no one ever asked me to take part in China’s political process. What a cheek!

  41. DJW,

    You make me questioning how bad my English is. I know it is not good and it will be not good forever. But I didn’t realize it can be this terrible.

    I have to make my point clear. All my young colleagues are native Canadian no matter what color of their skin is. Chinese in Canada with no Canadian citizenship have no rights to vote.

    Even though no one asks you to take part in China’s political process, you can still do something. Great man will do what they should do.

  42. “All my young colleagues are native Canadian no matter what color of their skin is. Chinese in Canada with no Canadian citizenship have no rights to vote.”

    What on earth does that mean? Of course I realise those with citizenship can vote and those without cannot vote. But I do NOT accept that Chinese people with Canadian citizenship are “native Canadians”, and I do NOT agree that they should have Canadian citizenship. You sound like a scrounger. China does not give citizenship to foreigners. China does not have a foreign head of state. Is Hu Jintao from Haiti??? Being awarded citizenship by the government is not the same thing as being a GENUINE member of the nation at all. It just makes you a scrounger.

  43. DJW,

    Yor are mad. The word “scrounger” you are using is not nice. Kind of feeling you do really enjoy your own assumption.

    When I say native, I mean they are borned in Canada and grow up in Canada; they think Canada is their mother country. Which country you belong to depends on where you grow up, not the color of your skin.

    You think Chinese should not have Canadian citizienship because China does not give foreigners this. What a logic! All other countries have to follow what China does? In Canada, not only Chinese have the opportunity also every one from the world has that. It makes you feel better if one from Europe or from Africa or from our neighbour, Japan, or from Canada’s big friend, America turning into a Canadian?

  44. You might want to talk to the government of Canada if you think Canada should change their policies of immigration or may be just modify the part of that pertain to immigrants from China.

  45. My quick and dirty theory on Chinese politics is that your ayi, like so many Chinese ages 18-36, has little to say about politics because they’ve been force-fed political theory from high school through college, and they consequently associate politics with mind-numbing actitivities that intrude upon the things that actually make them happy, and this reaction is exactly what the Party wants and needs to retain its status as the political elites within the country.

    But hey, I could be wrong.

  46. Laosan, you admitted that China does not follow the nation-destroying policy of immigration that Canada follows. Canada is a white Christian country and should always remain so, ditto for America, Australia, New Zealand and Europe. Your argument amounts to this: “if Western countries are williing to give up their countries, then why shouldn’t we take advantage?” No, being born in a country does not give you any commonalities with the people there. Sharing their ancestry, culture, language and history does. Your English (“borned”) is dreadful, and your attitude towards Canada sucks.

  47. Laosan, international co-operation shoudl be based on the principle of MUTUAL RESPECT. Your posts show that you think the world should respect China, but that China and the Chinese do not need to return the compliment.

  48. LAOSAN Says: May 2, 2006 at 6:06 am


    You are doing very good in judging people, quick and right to the point by following your own way. Only one thing I can say. Try to protect yourself as much as you can, never be used by anyone like me.

    Enjoy your white skin in the rest of your life. Clean it, respect it, and sing a song of praise everyday when look at it in the mirror.

  49. Richard Says: May 16, 2006 at 11:11 am

    “Canada is a white Christian country and should always remain so, ditto for America, Australia, New Zealand”.

    Only because white Christians slaughtered the natives. I suppose that for Canada to accept Chinese, Chinese should slaughter the white people there.

    Oh yeah, and go back where you came from. Your ancestors are most certainly NOT from where you are now so if you want to stay, you should agree to adopt the customs & language of the First Inhabitants.

  50. Da Xiangchang Says: May 17, 2006 at 2:11 am

    I’m curious to hear what kind of job DWJ had in Canada that gives him such self-confidence in opining about IQs, immigration laws, international politics, etc. I can’t help but think he must not have been very successful to end up in Kunming. Alas, I think DJW’s one of those cliched laowais: hero in China, zero back home.

  51. hehe, its more than funny to read you foreigners’ discussions on my homeland, very interesting, keep doing!

  52. Its funny what your Ayi said.

    I was in Guilin last week(thanks john, your comments under your photos are what made me choose to go there. Great place, terrible food.) and we were talking with a taxi driver about north and south.

    My wife is from Shen Yang (not a little rustbelt town like many living in Shanghai think when they hear the words DongBei, but a hugh consummist city were you can buy whatever you want.) and thats also where im stationed, so when ever we talk about ShangHai people we always refare to them as Nan Fang Ren, but the driver was insistent that they were northeners, along with Harbin and DaLian. Thought it was funny at the time 🙂

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