The value of skepticism

A reproachful silence descended on the newsroom, punctuated only by the muffled sounds of Mr. Gao’s coughing fit down the hall. Averted eyes and stone-faced expressions reflected the reluctance of those around me to break the facts of life to me, the eager newcomer.

It was a moment I never saw coming – but probably should have – when I was working for China Daily, the official English language newspaper of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). I started working for the paper after spending my junior year of high school in Beijing living with a Chinese family and attending a Chinese public high school. After returning from my year in China, I began to see New York through a Chinese perspective, wedged between my sympathies for the East and my training in the West.

At China Daily, I was part of a movement that began in Beijing, where Liu Yunshan, director of the Communist Party’s Propaganda Department, was leading an expansion of state-owned media, including China Daily’s New York bureau. I had talked my way into an internship there, becoming the lone American in a sea of Chinese nationals. Throwing myself into the role, I happily researched, translated and wrote articles as an unexpected cog in a larger mechanism I could not entirely see.

As I saw it, our mission was straightforward enough. We were there to bare our teeth at Western media giants, who exclusively ran stories on the horrifying immolations of Tibetan rebels and the flagrant corruptions of government officials, the multitude of seemingly unforgivable failures of a nascent regime and a fledgling country, and to give English speakers a Chinese sense of the truth.

I lapped up assignments that spotlighted the CCP regime’s successes, like the Chinese-American girl who named the Martian rover. I hardly flinched when my reference to the Second Sino-Japanese War was replaced during editing with the euphemistic “War of Resistance Against Japanese Aggression.” When the edited version of a story I had written on the struggling Yale-Peking University partnership ran, an entire section on the widespread culture of cheating at some competitive Chinese universities was missing.

Working in such an environment forced me to think about integrity in ways that I’d never had to before. Here, at Williams, where we each have pledged our honor countless times on every test, quiz and paper since First Days, the fine line at which our integrity becomes jeopardized is clearly laid out. Yet often, when circumstances are not as unambiguous or objectives as discernible, we rationalize through our misgivings, as I did regarding my role in and contribution to a dubious cause. Those moments of tension between community standards and personal integrity often call into question a different type of honor code, one that demands skeptical disobedience instead of strict compliance.

But unlike at Williams, at the weekly pitch meeting for China Daily I had inadvertently made myself stand out by speaking up. All it took was for me to mention a name: Chen Guangcheng.

Chen, a blind lawyer, human rights activist and political dissident in China, was jailed and placed under house arrest in 2010 after campaigning against the Chinese government’s policy of forced abortions, a grave measure taken if a woman becomes pregnant with her second child and is in danger of violating the One-Child Policy. In 2012, he fled from house arrest and constant government surveillance in Western China to the U.S. embassy in Beijing, where he was kept until the State Department decided to indefinitely grant him asylum. Since then, he had been teaching as a visiting professor at New York University (NYU), until NYU mysteriously fired him after confronting some unrelated “bureaucratic roadblocks” in establishing its satellite campus in Shanghai.

Following my pitch, the sound of Gao pouring himself a cup of tea could be heard over in the next room, as people cleared their throats and avoided eye contact at all costs.

Breaking the silence, Mr. Bo, the editor-in chief, took charge in crisp English.

“Molly,” he said, for once avoiding my Chinese name, “we don’t do stories on dissidents.”

Blockades set up by the Chinese – or any – government against transparency and the free flow of non-censored information speak to a lack of faith the government has in its own legitimacy. Restricted Internet access to foreign news and social media, altered histories in school curricula and Party-approved textbooks and closely-monitored, often completely fabricated media output are products of that underlying fear. U.S. citizens in recent years have also been made to confront the possible reality of a government and its institutions operating with an opaque agenda, when scandals such as Benghazi, NSA databases and IRS targeting have surfaced.

We thankfully live in an age and college campus that encourage skepticism. We are taught that healthily questioning the institutions and authorities to which we ascribe a great deal of trust is considered not to be rooted in pessimism or defiance, but rather in a deep appreciation of the virtues of those institutions and a faith in the idea that we can continuously refine and improve them. Challenging authority, in this sense, can be a patriotic act, and skepticism – somewhat paradoxically – rather than unraveling our solidarity can bolster our faith.

Molly Bodurtha ’17 is from Stamford, Conn. She lives in Sage.