When I was teaching in the spring of 2008, the countdown to the Olympics was interrupted by massive protests in Tibet. Naturally, the world divided up along the usual lines: westerners hung on the Dalai Lama’s every word and fumed about the mean Chinese. The Chinese fumed about how ungrateful the Tibetans seemed for all the subsidies, investment and massive economic and quality-of-life improvements brought to the region. But most of all, my students – or at least the politically astute among them – wanted to know why Westerners loved the Dalai Lama so much.
Essentially, I learned over the years that my role as a teacher in China absolutely is not to try to educate the “benighted” Chinese and show them the light. That would be extremely racist and chauvinistic on my part. Not that this stops many Westerners in China who have somehow convinced themselves that it is their God-given mission to spread the “fruits” of Western civilization to a “backward” and “uneducated society”. One coworker said, repeatedly, that his mission was to “civilize” the Chinese. Not for me. My mission as a teacher is to teach English, to improve my students’ abilities to use the language. Whatever else they want to know – sensitive or otherwise – they can then look up for themselves.
Getting involved in the nastier debates about China’s domestic and foreign policies is a fast way not only to lose the respect of your students but also to, potentially anyway, land oneself in a lot of trouble. The fact is, contrary to popular belief, the Chinese – especially those one will encounter in universities or among those studying English at a comparatively high level – are not ignorant about the rest of the world. Nor are they automatons who whole-heartedly accept State propaganda. The modern generation in China is very skeptical of the claims and statements of their government (see some of the translated BBS feeds at http://www.chinasmack.com).
At the same time, however, the current generation is profoundly nationalistic. They love their country and are deeply proud of its long history and its recent accomplishments in reducing poverty, raising living standards and preserving its complete autonomy. Criticism of China, especially that in favor of Tibetan autonomy, is often interpreted as a direct affront to the nation and its long hard struggle to raise itself out of its centuries-long stupor.
In general, we can assume there are a few topics one should avoid discussing in your class: Tibet and Taiwan are the biggest. The matter of the Uighurs is also somewhat sensitive and probably best left alone. Other than these, really, there is no limit to what you can talk about. Even problems with the government such as corruption, illegal land seizures, and the like are relatively safe so long as you don’t pontificate. Everyone has their own stories to share in these areas.
Of course, to be safe you can also stick to topics related to your home country. Say whatever you want, for good or ill, if it is about your country, no one will really have much to say against you.
That all being said, the take home lesson is if your students want to talk about these sensitive issues, explain that the classroom is not a proper setting and perhaps arrange another time to discuss these issues. And when you share your perspective, be sure to listen more than you speak. You will learn much more that way, and we may actually get a degree of cross-cultural communication.