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There are some countries, like China, which do not take kindly to foreigners who disrespect the government. In some cases the country's hostility can become dangerous for the expat. However, some topics are acceptable to discuss.

One example is the topic of corruption. It is OK to discuss how corruption is bad and that we must have less corruption and corruption is too common, etc. However, one is less safe if they say that one particular group of people are corrupt (police, for example).

Now, we could live by the rule of "When you are a guest in another country you should keep your negative opinions to yourself" but that is not really ideal because they basically prevents having any philosophical conversations with anyone while living abroad. At the same time, as a guest, you do need to find where the line is drawn.

So, how can one discover, in China for example, what is acceptable to say without running afoul of the authorities.

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    The chances of having a philosophical conversation with someone in China is pretty slim unless you are fluent in putonghua (Mandarin), and probably more specific the dialect of where you are visiting. Even then, philosophical conversations just don't really happen. – Kevin Willock Mar 22 '14 at 4:15
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    @Kevin Willock, +1...how often do philosophical conversations happen between a local and some foreign traveller e.g. here in USA...I would say probably not very often. Another thing, as many Chinese can tell a visitor (esp. from USA), is that their country is frequently mispresented in media. So a person who comes from abroad should first make sure they have their actual facts straight. – x457812 Jan 16 '15 at 19:31
  • @KevinWillock I think" philosophical" in this context means "in-depth" or "personal", but your points are well made. – axsvl77 Jul 16 '16 at 5:21
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This is probably a more general and tangental answer than you are hoping for, but it hopefully helps with other related expat questions as well. It is based on both my experience living in Indonesia and my discussions with Chinese expats in the US.

As you say, there can be a question of disrespect. Many countries do not look kindly on foreigners coming in and trying to remake the world in the images of the countries they are used to and so there are some general things that expats are generally best off considering.

  1. It is almost always a bad idea to disrespect your host. As an expat you are a guest in a foreign country. Show some appreciation and respect in conversations. Remember, as an expat if you don't like where you are living you can always go home!

  2. Two topics which are particularly important in this regard are religion and politics. Religion may not be an issue so much in China but it is in most Islamic countries (Malaysia comes to mind).

  3. People will expect you to make mistakes. If you make a mistake you can always apologise.

  4. Chinese are becoming more liberal in this regard, but there is still a sense of the possibility of collective insult. Chinese culture in particular is very sensitive to the idea of collective insult. It's one thing to discuss something, but it is another thing for Chinese to feel that you are humiliating or shaming them. This is true not only of Chinese at home (as per my conversations with Chinese expats) but also true in my experience with the Chinese diaspora in SE Asia.

It is not our job as expats to convert the country to our own ways. It is our job to live graciously as guests. In such a spirit, I find that very few people are unwilling to discuss such issues or quickly take offence.

The way I handle this question in Indonesia is just to ask questions, ponder differences, and try to understand the differences in a sympathetic way, and there are huge differences in everything from attitudes towards police corruption to attitudes towards employment. The thing is, although it took me a while to understand it, the Indonesian views are just as functional as the American views.

As an American I can say of us that there is a tendency to assume everyone in the world wants to live like and be like us. The thing is that isn't true. Once one gets over that hurdle it becomes a lot easier.

So in the end, always frame the discussion in respectful manners and always assume that differences in attitude are legitimate. Be grateful to your host country, and generally converse in that spirit.

  • Thanks for your answer but it doesn't really answer the question. My question is how to discover what topics will cause me problems. For example, I had one colleague start a conversation with me. The conversation progressed to him telling me that the problems the people face require that the government be replaced. Clearly, this is not a topic for me to discuss. Saying "don't talk about politics or religion and everything else is OK" strikes me as a bit too general (as your opening sentence hints at). I'd like a little more guidance (or rather guidance where I can find guidance). – Traveler Mar 17 '14 at 12:00
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    You totally missed my point. It isn't "don't talk about politics or religion" but "don't disparage politics or religion." These things go to the heart of local culture and coming across as feeling superior to the locals in this way is always bad. It's fine to talk, to ask questions, to try to understand etc. how locals deal with things. It's also fine if you offend someone to apologize. At the same time, these things should be discussed with respectful deference to local culture. So my point is not what to discuss but how. – Chris Travers Mar 17 '14 at 12:07
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TL;DR

China is not a homogeneous group of Chinese, it's a nation of individuals. Don't be afraid to ask questions, but don't treat people like interview subjects - treat them like people. You'll get far more information from a friend than from asking the "right" questions.

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I often worried about this myself, before first visiting China. The answer, in my mind, is (of course), it depends.

I have spent a majority of the last decade of my life living in China - Shanghai, Anhui, Kunming, Guangzhou, Sichuan, and Fujian, primarily. I'm going to be painting the people with a fairly wide brush here, and that makes me uncomfortable, but is the best way to answer your question.

Migrant Workers

A large number of the produce sellers, construction workers, and manual laborers you'll find in urban areas are migrant workers. They typically come into the city to sell their harvest. As a whole migrant workers would be very uncomfortable speaking about anything sensitive (the 3 T's, local corruption, etc.), since their position in the city is so tenuous. At any time, the local PAP (People's Armed Police) can (and often do) make them move along, or "evict" them outright. This being their major source of income, it can (and often does) ruin them if they're not able to offload their goods, send home money, etc.

Local Residents

Most of the local residents I met were perfectly comfortable speaking about anything that we would think would be taboo (in your case, the 3 T's and corruption). The key thing is not to introduce the issue. If they want to talk about it, they'll find some way to work it into the conversation. I think you'll find that many Chinese are equally interested in things like Tiananmen square - they're interested in a foreigner's perspective on the issue as an outsider. But, again, this is painting a people who is not nearly as homogenous as they seem with a fairly wide brush. Let them lead the conversation.

That being said, there are some probing questions/comments you can ask to test the waters.

1) I'm thinking about going to (some western city, like Kunming, that doesn't receive as many int'l visitors), any idea how open they are to foreigners?

  • This question often leads into a discussion about how "open" China is.

2) What do your parents do for work? How long have they lived in XXX? Were you born in XXX?

  • These types of questions often leads into a discussion about what their parents used to do and what they now do, or where they used to live and where they live now (before and after the cultural revolution).

3) I've always wanted to take the new train to Lhasa, I've heard it's a really beautiful trip.

  • These statements can lead into a discussion re: Tibet and the introduction of native Han back into the region.

Party Officials / PAP / Local Constabularies

My work often brought me into working closely with this subset of the population. The PAP were always my least favorite to deal with (again, an uncomfortable generalization, but also the truth). They could often be fanatical about the party, far more so than actual party officials.

For the most part, many actual party officials, especially local ones, are doing it as a matter of practice. There are fewer and fewer "true believers" as the generations age out.

As a rule, I would not engage in any of the above questions with these groups. In practice, you would be fine. If they were uncomfortable, they would probably just shift you away from that line of conversation, or just outright say they didn't want to talk about it. But what you have to understand is that while you can ask a question, have a conversation, then walk away - tomorrow they need to wake up and continue working for the party. Like most things, you need to take it slow. Don't force anything.

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I'm going to come from my perspective of living in Mainland China for 3 years. If they are talking to you to begin with, nobody is going to get too offended regardless of what you say. If you do cross the line on something you can just excuse it as being a silly foreigner. It's the same as meeting anyone though really. If you're obnoxious and keep harping on obviously sensitive issues, there is more likely a chance of problems. If you're a reasonable human being, chances are (amongst the new generation anyways) there aren't a lot of topics out of scope.

The biggest thing to keep in mind is "face". You never want to make someone lose "face", or feel as though they have. So conversations are often very superficial, even amongst close friends and family. Just be yourself, is ultimately what it comes down to. Unless you're organising political movements, you're not going to find yourself in any trouble for harmless conversations.

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I like @kaishiro and @ChrisTavers answers, but I'd like to try to directly address your question:

in China for example, what is acceptable to say without running afoul of the authorities.

In summary, in China nothing in everyday conversation will cause your arrest or imprisonment.

Background

Growing up in the US, I was taught as "common knowledge" that in communist countries, there are secret police watching and listening to your every word, and lurking in a shadow, just waiting for one wrong word, then jumping to arrest you and send you to Siberia or some other awful place. I can assure you that as of 2016 in China, this is absolutely not the case. People are generally to busy to care about your attitudes. There will be no monitoring that is more invasive then that which is performed by the US authorities.

The US State department travel advisory, if I recall correctly, used to suggests refraining from conversation about Taiwan, Tibet, or the South China Sea while in China. In my experience, even these statements are overly cautious and somewhat paranoid; perhaps that's why they are not currently listed on their website.

Of course, this only applies to casual conversation. If you are involved in organizing an anti-government uprising, trying to over through the government, starting a religious movement, or some other sort of large scale organizing, there is a good chance you will have some trouble. I suggest that China is not a good place for foreigners to engage in any sort political organization. Perhaps even speaking before a large audience, some discretion is advised.

So that's how to avoid "running afoul of the authorities." A second question is, what specific political topics are sensitive to ordinary Chinese people, and how to handle them? I very much like and agree with your attitude:

Now, we could live by the rule of "When you are a guest in another country you should keep your negative opinions to yourself" but that is not really ideal because they basically prevents having any philosophical conversations with anyone while living abroad.

This is awesome; it is important to develop relationships with people, and to learn and understand their opinions about important topics. It is also important to share your own understanding of the world. It's a win-win situation. In this vein, I'll speak about my experience with some of the big topics below. If you want my to know about my experiences with any additional topics, please leave me a comment.

South China Sea

This year, I can't get on an intercity train or eat lunch with a new friend without somebody asking me my opinion about the South China Sea Issue. As a person who loves to speak about politics, I find this topic very tiresome. In the past, I have tried to bring up the Iceland Exclusive Economic Zone and the US and Canada in regulating the Georges Bank. Thus far, nobody cared about these topics at all, nor saw their relevance to China's territorial claims in the South China Sea. I have also tried to speak about historical colonial motives for the US in controlling this area, but also, thus far nobody cared to speak about this either.

It turns out, that people generally are not really interested conversing about this issue in depth, nor are they interested in international law. They tend to simply repeat in one way or another their support for the PRC's stance on the issue, and sometimes view me as a representative of US foreign policy. This makes me very uncomfortable, so lately, I try to terminate conversations about the South China Sea as quickly as possible. My favorite answer is "It is so far away from the US, I can't imagine why the US government is involved in this issue. I really don't know much about it."

Tibet

The "Free Tibet" movement is another wedge issue, but very rarely is it brought up in conversation. Most Chinese people I have met are only vaguely aware that there is a free Tibet movement, and will not have many interesting attitudes about it. For most Chinese, it is an issue as small as the Texas Secession Movement.

Sometimes younger, college aged people who are have been reading English language sites on the internet will know about the Free Tibet movement. These conversations can be fun, and I think it is fine to speak in depth. However, at some point in the conversation, make absolutely clear that as a foreigner, you really don't know the fine points of the issue.

The Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution

The Great Leap Forward was a horrible tragedy; and the Cultural Revolution was a very difficult time. Most families will know many who passed away during the GLF, and many people had major problems during the Cultural Revolution. The scars from these event for many people have not yet healed. Like speaking about the Holocaust with WWII survivors, these topics are not for light conversation. Do not speak about these topics in jest or with disrespect; in fact, it is wise not to bring these topics up until you have a strong relationship with somebody.

However, if you are lucky enough to have a strong relationship with somebody who lived through these events, there is much to be learned. Ask kind questions, and understand that generally people will only discuss issues that they are comfortable with. Be very sensitive to attempts to change the conversation away from these difficult topics. It someone is willing to talk, listen closely, and generally speaking, do not argue about the geo-political broad domestic implications; instead focus on what your friend is speaking about.

Mao Zedong, Deng Xiaoping, Zhou Enlai, and current leaders

Generally, conversations about these people can be very open and frank. Be aware that any opinions you may have about these people may be vastly different that what you hear. It is a good idea to accept that people who are Chinese understand these people and their impact on China better than you.

Communism

This also is a topic that is not very sensitive. Every CCP member I've met has been very kind, down to earth, and open minded.

The "Police State"

There are very few police in China; they generally do not have guns. If propaganda related to the "strong police state" that we've heard for years in the Western press is repeated, the most likely response will be bewilderment. However, people who lived during the cultural revolution might have a different opinion. I'd say don't bring this topic up. If someone else brings it up, speak more about the relationship between police and people in your home country.

Corruption

Since Xi Jinping recently started the anti-corruption drive, this is a somewhat popular topic. It is a good idea to mention the corruption in your own country. As a US citizen, I will generally point out that a multi-party democracy has tons of corruption.

Religion

In the US is isn't rare to meet people who try to convert you to their religion via argument. This is never appropriate in China. It is also not appropriate to speak about your religious beliefs before a large audience. It is not acceptable to found a new religious movement in China either. However, if you make a close friend, it is entirely acceptable to speak about your personal beliefs in private conversation. Be aware that for many parts of China, death is a taboo subject, so don't push to hard.

Conclusion

Nothing in normal conversation will cause your arrest; do not be afraid. Some topics require some level of special attention in normal conversation, primarily to allow your conversation partner to be comfortable.

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