Ask Mei

Why I argue with my mother

Two different views on being outspoken in China

As the youngest and sweetest of three siblings (my brother and sister may disagree on the latter adjective), I have always been my mother’s favourite. Growing up in the shadows of my confident and bossy sister, I was lucky to have a mother who encouraged me to overcome shyness and self-doubt through my childhood and adolescence.

After I grew up, the relationship between us promptly reversed. I became the caring and encouraging one who always says “yes!” to my mother’s every need and fancy. I have earned a reputation among family and friends as the “filial daughter”.

However, there is one area that I have not been living up to my reputation and that is my “unconventional” worldviews and my “outspokenness”. My mother can be so nervous about this sometimes that she’d rather I give up writing, speaking and thinking.

As someone who grew up during China’s reform and opening era in the 1980s, and having lived outside the mainland since the 1990s, I see myself as a bicultural and bilingual “citizen of the world” who holds more nuanced views on China and the West. Oftentimes I come across Chinese and Westerners who hold stereotypical and misinformed views about each other. And I find myself in the role of a person who tries to explain each side’s perspectives due to their rather different historical, cultural and social background. From a very early age, I found that acting as a bridge between China and the Western world was my calling. However, doing so makes my mother very nervous because I often argue in favour of ‘the West’ with my Chinese family and friends, just like I often argue for China in front of a Western audience.

Thanks to WeChat, we can now share news and views on all sorts of issues on a daily basis. But my mother often reminds me not to post anything that’s unconventional or provocative. As somebody who experienced the Anti-Rightist movements, the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution, she witnessed outspoken people being persecuted for what they said or believed. She says she wouldn’t want anything like that to happen to me.

I try to assuage her by saying I’m not radically critical of China and that it’s healthy and important for people to hear views different from their own. But lately she has got more worried, so much so that she almost begged me to stop posting or commenting in our friend and family WeChat groups on anything that’s remotely political.

Even when I posted a Peking professor’s talk about the poor design of Chinese streets, she got nervous as the material wasn’t 100% positive about China. On a recent call, she asked: “Why can’t you just be like everybody else and say only positive things? Why do you have to have your own, different views? Why can’t you be more complimentary of the Chinese government? Xi Jinping has done such a good job that we commoners’ lives have improved so much that we are grateful for his leadership. Why can’t you be grateful too?”

She also pointed out that a notice has been circulating on WeChat which warns against posting anything that’s “illegal” (a very broadly defined term in China) in a WeChat group. People who break the rules will have their accounts revoked. Indeed, all the members of the discussion group risk being shut out of WeChat forever.

I think that is just absurd. But for my 84 year-old mother, it seems not only possible but actually quite likely. Maybe she does know China better than me and maybe I should take her advice more seriously…


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