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In China, Freedom Is a Luxury

PERSPECTIVES

By Xiaomeng Tong

Taking Foreign Cultures 66, "Tiananmen," gives me a very weird feeling, something like drinking poison to quench my thirst. The course, as it progresses, will be hard for me to swallow if I don't find a way to immediately get rid of my stubborn national protectionism from the Chinese sense of pride. So far the possibility of such a solution remains low.

Last year I took a freshman seminar on the rise of the Asia-Pacific Rim, so I already fully tasted what it is like to be defending a country that is commonly regarded as possessing a hellish human rights record. It seems very likely that I will have to continue fighting against popular views in sections and papers this term.

I'm not trying to argue that China is a paradise for human rights lovers. This is certainly not true. But nor should it be the major point of concern, according to my argument. Take a moment to look at the United States--a democratic country whose government is always showing off how much freedom it grants its citizens. We must not forget that America likewise leads the world in rates of crime and delinquency.

Freedom is not a panacea and sometimes the spiritual comfort it offers can be deceiving. Just last week in Seattle a 15-year-old walked into a junior high school classroom with a high-powered rifle and killed two of his classmates and his teacher. Doesn't this kind of story sound familiar? Whether the people in a country enjoy their freedom really doesn't suggest that the country necessarily excels in other aspects. Then, the question is: is freedom, above all other things, absolutely the Number One thing for the Chinese to desire at present?

It somehow seems to me that the Chinese intellectuals who have been crying out for human rights have a wrong vision at this moment. In China, the number of cultural elites is at an all-time low. They are properly educated and pretty well off, which in turn allows them ample time to ponder over things other than the basic requirements of life. When they rise to speak up for themselves, they tend to overlook the majority of the Chinese, who are leading a life completely different from their own: those who are out there struggling in the fields to make ends meet and to whom it never occurs that they should demand anything more than a steady source of the next meal.

A faithful picture of this different life is presented in the latest movie by the controversial Chinese director Zhang Yimou, To Live. It portrays a peasant who lives through the Sino-Japanese war, the civil war, the Cultural Revolutions and social reforms of the late 1970's. Time changes, but one thing remains unchanged for him: he still has to struggle to find a way "to live." In today's China, there are 800,000,000 peasants in a situation just like his or maybe worse. Although the economy is booming, the cultural elites still do not make up a substantial proportion of the population, thus failing to become the true representatives of the masses.

Freedom, democracy and human rights, in essence, belong to the upper echelon of the social structure, who could not sustain themselves without their economic base. Political democratization can be realized only if people's livelihood has been improved. An old Chinese saying goes like this, "Heaven is where we have food, clothing and a home." Note the conspicuous absence of freedom.

As Mao Zedong puts it, China's history is largely a history of its peasants. In such a peculiar setting, freedom is doomed. Those who don't treat the interests of the peasants seriously would see themselves lose everything in the end. Poor and uneducated as the peasants are, when they unite to fight for their own rights--not the human rights in the Western sense, but the basic rights to live by--they form a formidable force that is capable of dethroning any government with a military force ten times stronger.

Truth be told, the peasants' consciousness is narrow, hidebound and, from time to time, a big impediment to progress. Yet in China it still remains the dominant way of thinking. People have been used to it for thousands of years, and this phenomenon cannot easily be changed by less than 20 years of opening to the outside. To some extent, China's open-door policy even aggravates the worst part of the peasants' consciousness, for then they begin to see how unfair the reality is, and their world becomes more unbalanced.

Totally changing the minds of almost one billion peasants is not an overnight task. It is impossible to put such abstract concepts as freedom on the agenda when the majority of a huge population is still uneducated and poor. If the government tells them, "Okay, now you have your human rights and can do anything you want," they are very likely to be confused and then use their freedom in undesirable ways. What are they going to do with their freedom, when all they care about is how to earn enough to buy meat as a luxury? To them, freedom is just another luxury, which might mean even less than meat.

With the Number One necessity being "to survive," freedom barely makes any sense. Think about it: what if you are given only one choice between "to live" and "to die free"?

The task of introducing Western democracy, imperfect as it is, is going to take a long time. If you are expecting a tumultuous revolution to change it all, you are wrong again. All revolutions in China, as shown by history, have to be led by and fight for the peasants, with the top priority placed on economic aspects like equality, but never on freedom. Mao Zedong's seemingly impossible victory against the Nationalists and the U.S. is one of the many examples that quickly come to mind.

Even if the Chinese government hadn't used tanks and guns to crack down the immature movement in 1989, it still wouldn't have lasted long. As a witness myself, I'm convinced of this by what I saw and heard in those chaotic days. In late May, when the college students first began their sit-ins all across the country, the nation was greatly stirred. Reminded by the students of the bureaucratic corruption and other social evils, people from all walks of life mustered up courage to join in. At this point, the way things were going resembled in every sense the famous May 4th Movement in 1919. Ironically, that movement was organized by communists including Mao Zedong to overthrew a corrupt government; it signalled the beginning of a drastic thirty-year-long national struggle.

But one thing, notably, was different. By 1989, the standard of living, thanks to the successful economic reforms, had been on the rise, which was in sharp contrast to 1919 when people's lives were by all measures getting worse and worse.

After a century of having experienced and gotten entirely sick of living through disorder and pain, most Chinese intuitively resent the risk of undergoing another large-scale revolution. They have had enough in the past. What they are really yearning for is quick development with relatively tolerable ills, which, as they have gradually come to realize, can only be achieved in a stable society. The idea of getting freedom at the price of a traumatic revolution does not look great to a common practical mind. Just watch how the reaction of the Chinese changed after the army put down the student movement. Though the people did show great sympathy for the dead and continued for quite some time to criticize the government, even sometimes openly, society soon returned to its normal state. And later that year the Tiananmen Massacre remained no more than a hot topic, and that topic, too, seemed no longer interesting after a while. Beijing University, which once looked so much like a battle field where China's future was to be decided, today is just an ordinary school you would expect to find anywhere in China, with its students busy hunting secondary jobs for more pocket money.

If we examine closely the histories of other countries in the world, it's not hard to find out that student movements have rarely succeeded. Especially in East Asia, where the rapid economic growth has involved heavy government intervention, anything pro-democracy arising in an inappropriate time would be almost certain to fall short of its goals. By "inappropriate" I mean a time when the economic base of the social structure is not yet sufficient to afford freedom and human rights.

China is not the first, nor will it be the last, country to brutalize innocent students. Both Taiwan and South Korea, America's biggest allies in East Asia, have done it in more or less the same manner. Even America itself has done it--do we need to be reminded of the Kent State student slayings? The very reason for this bad luck lies in the lack of wide support in society. Historian Leonard Kreiger notes that "the protagonists of individual liberty are primarily intellectuals." In such a big and poor country as China where the educated class comprises only a minority, what the intellectuals demand seems far ahead of what should come first for the majority--the 800,000,000 peasants who ask nothing more than the rights to have food, clothes, and shelter. Without a practical promise to win over their support, any attempts aimed at fundamental social changes by those intellectuals will not be going anywhere.

I am not here to claim that authoritarianism is great and that we do not need freedom at all. A politically apathetic population would definitely do harm to a country's growth in the long run. However, in the case of China, there are some other things to accomplish before finally embracing it. Freedom should come from, and will usually be the natural result of, economic sufficiency. We can only wait for the emergence of a true democracy after the country accomplishes industrialization.

Finally, I feel the need to emphasize that I'm by no means against those relentless and tireless human rights activists. The Tiananmen demonstrations were an extreme act to vent people's frustration and has indeed rung the alarm. But remember, the People's Republic of China, as a newly founded republic, is a developing country, currently working its way to catch up with other developed countries. No country is born both free and rich. The process of attaining both goals took America more than 100 years. There is a trade-off here and there is a price to pay. I believe the right attitude for America and other Western countries, instead of trying to make matters worse by agitating the Chinese to rise up for freedom, should be helping to speed China's economic upgrading. Only by so doing can they expect to ultimately see a free China.

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