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Society & Culture

Sharp Eyes Needed to See Truth

Mar 08, 2024

As a Stanford alumnus, I was drawn to certain discussions with-in my alumni WeChat group, which is usually free from drama. According to dozens of Chinese internet influencers on social media platforms such as TikTok, Leland Stanford, having refused to pay 15,000 Chinese workers after the completion of the Pacific Railroad, buried them alive under his farm, which Stanford University was later built upon.

As a number of alumni have shared, they were asked by Chinese netizens if they were aware of “the brutal fact” and were criticized for their lack of conscience. On TikTok, a comment calling Stanford “too bad and inhuman” received more than 5,200 likes.

Stanford and the Central Pacific Railroad hired close to 20,000 Chinese workers, who were not treated the same as workers of other ethnicities. Bearing hardships and challenges with few com-plaints, these Chinese workers earned an assiduous reputation. About 1,200 died during construction, while those who survived then experienced waves of hostile American sentiment that excluded Chinese people in the late 19th century.

But Stanford was in no way an “executioner,” as described. By the end of his life, Stanford himself was attacked by racists be-cause of the close connections he forged with Chinese people. He sheltered hundreds of them on his farmland and at his home. Most of them moved on to take part in the construction of the campus of Stanford University.

The claim that Stanford buried 15,000 Chinese workers alive has been debunked. I have shared my research findings with my fellow alumni, suggesting they can pass this information on to the netizens who have inquired.

Now, the TikTok video, which garnered 5,200 likes, has been taken down. What worries me, though, is why thousands of Chinese netizens would take such an untenable claim as fact. If we look at the other side of the Pacific, there are similar situations in-volving American media outlets, which have sometimes gone much further. From 2012 to 2023, for example, the urban per capita disposable income in Xinjiang increased from 17,921 yuan to 40,578 yuan, while the rural per capita disposable income in-creased from 6,394 yuan to 17,948 yuan. Having visited Xinjiang, I can share my own observation that ethnic minorities are enjoying freedom and dignity. However, over many recent years, American media have claimed that the people in Xinjiang have been subjected to “mass forced labor.” The view was so commonplace that it was written into law, thus raising the indignation of the American public.

I have, out of curiosity, collected and read most of America’s mainstream media coverage of the alleged forced labor issue — yet none of these outlets have offered any concrete evidence.

The United States has one of the world’s best educational systems, and the American people are among the world’s best-educated populations. The U.S. Census Bureau found that, as of 2022, 37.7 percent of the American population aged 25 and older had attained a college degree or above.

Moreover, my impression is that the American people are intrinsically passionate about seeking truth. It is hard for me to conceive that so many people from a highly educated country could choose to believe that forced labor was taking place in Xinjiang.

In fact, even among the best-educated groups in the United States, inaccurate perceptions are not uncommon. Recently, I had an unexpected encounter with a scholar from an Ivy League school. After several rounds of discussion, he began to retract his earlier comments about a “genocide” occurring in Xinjiang. But he still believed that the Uygur culture there was being eroded by actions such as the demolition of a large number of mosques. It was a sort of “cultural genocide,” in his view.

Yet, from what I know, the number of mosques in Xinjiang has in fact increased from about 3,000 in the 1980s to more than 20,000 today, far surpassing the total number of mosques in the entire United States. On average, there is one mosque for every 530 Muslim residents in Xinjiang.

Some Americans perceive the rise of China as a threat to their country’s global leadership. It must be acknowledged that differences in development models and policy priorities have led to disagreements and suspicions between experts and officials in China and the United States. However, these disagreements and suspicions should not be projected onto the public. The people of both countries should use common sense to discern whether what they hear is fact or opinion, rather than fostering unnecessary animosity. Unnecessary animosity may move on to influence government decisions and even lead to miscalculations in policies toward each other. Sharpening our critical eyes and staying smart will help prevent rumors from unnecessarily influencing our perceptions of each other.

Meanwhile, if the Stanford rumor had come to China five or 10 years earlier, I doubt it would have attracted substantial audience. The Chinese government never sought to initiate confrontation with the U.S., and the Chinese people, despite by and large taking issue with some of America’s flaws — such as hegemony and racial injustice — used to respect the U.S. as one of the world’s forerunners in technology and innovation.

The basic, core theme of traditional Chinese culture is HE (和), which means peace and cooperation. However, as the U.S. continually uses unfounded smear descriptions against China without justification, the Chinese people have become increasingly upset and are subsequently losing respect for America. This in turn has proved to be fertile ground for baseless claims on both sides

We should be wary of how such actions are harming the mutual feelings between the two peoples and impeding cooperative opportunities that the two countries might have grasped otherwise.

During parts of the 19th and 20th centuries, China underwent suffering at the hands of foreign incursions, as well as domestic chaos arising from its isolation from the rest of the world. The country and its people are fully aware of this past, and are now embracing the world more actively than ever before. The U.S. should not exclude China or push it away, especially by spreading ungrounded claims about the country. These things will only re-mind China and its people of their century-long humiliation at the hands of foreign invaders and widen the rift and distrust between China and America.

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