As someone from China who culture and politics in America, I often find myself in awkward conversations with my Chinese friends on the subject of American politics. This again happened during my recent visit to Beijing, where I was at a teahouse chatting with two friends who work for the Foreign Minister of China. They were curious about the way American democracy works. “How is it that a country with world’s highest incarceration rate manages to call itself free?” they asked, “Isn’t the American idea of minzhu (equivalence of democracy in Chinese) about letting the people be the masters of the country?” I paused, unable to come up with an immediate answer. “You don’t have to answer that!” they laughed, and subsequently dropped the topic, leaving me feeling unsettled.
Freedom is one of the few things that would rile up the average American while coming to its defense. After all, it is perhaps America’s most successful national export.
However, a crisis of freedom seems to be looming large with some of the recent shooting incidents. The current social discontent towards police officers, which has escalated to the point of violence, highlights an inherent conflict between popular sovereignty and the criminal justice system.
40 years ago, responding to Mao Zedong’s call for class struggle, groups of youth in China purged and abused authorities in all walks of life—inside government offices, schools, urban factories, villages and more. The so called Cultural Revolution ended ten years later and left that generation feeling confused and wounded. The Chinese learned their lessons: the balance between people’s demand for freedom and social order are extremely delicate, and when the power dynamics start tipping, the results are explosive—revolutions come with a cost.
The former mayor of New York City, Ruby Giuliani, who cleaned up the streets of New York by cracking down offenders, has interpreted freedom as the willingness of people to give up power to lawful authority. I am not attempting to draw any comparison between the New York crime controls in the 1990s and the lesson of Chinese Cultural Revolution. However, by linking these complex human scenarios regarding freedom and control, it is my opinion that we have yet to fully understand and manage the vexing relationship between the two.
What is freedom? Should societies be built on specific principles of freedom? Are principles subject to change, as societies evolve? Perhaps truth is always a destination afar, although we oftentimes fool ourselves into thinking we have reached it.