I’ve never grown up celebrating Christmas with lots of family, simply because I don’t have lots of family in this country. In the entire United States, my family consists of myself and my parents. My one remaining grandparent lives in Northeast China, my aunts and uncles live in Beijing, and I have a couple of cousins in New Zealand. Growing, Christmas always seemed to me arduous and my parents’ behavior unnatural, as we engaged in strange social gatherings for a holiday that we learned about through my participation in the local church choir every Sunday.
In 2019, my parents and I celebrated with my dad’s friends from high school. Some of them came to the United States in the 90s, spoke professional English, and raised their children here. Others were visiting California from China, just for the Christmas season. I’ve been to many gatherings like these during my life and rarely did the conversations at the dinner table turn political, which is why this particular Christmas is ingrained particularly well in my memory.
As I collect research for my upcoming senior thesis, 2019 seems in retrospect to not be such a bad year for U.S.-China relations. There were of course massive disagreements about the treatment of the Hong Kong protestors, outrage over the horrifying internment of Uighur Muslims, and increasingly serious talks about banning Tik Tok. However, there wasn’t a life-altering virus that made all of these topics regular ones for American households. The way that things have changed in the past eight months is still shocking to think of, and the fact that there are now elected Senators in the United States who would seriously suggest that Chinese students be restricted in their ability to study in the U.S. is something I would not have believed even during this Chinese Christmas.
At this Christmas dinner, I heard opinion exchanged first about the upcoming 2.7 billion cameras that are set to be installed throughout China. Of course, this is viewed very differently in China than it would be in the U.S.: rather than being seen as an invasion of privacy, the cameras are viewed as a further measure that will protect citizens from crime. The general conception in China now is that people are much more safe than are the people in the United States, whose lives are governed by self-imposed curfews after dark in order to avoid mugging and robbery. In China, it’s well-known that one can wander even the darkest alleys in a big city without fear of feeling threatened, since few aggressors would risk being recorded any one of the numerous street cameras that are always recording. Especially since we were still so shocked by the murder of Tessa Majors, the eighteen-year-old Barnard student, nationwide recording cameras to prevent crime did not seem like such a bad idea. Cameras, argued my dad’s friend, are what will bring to China what every developed country needs: rule of law.
When I pointed out that the CCP still holds ultimately authority over what is termed illegal, which leaves citizens even more powerless if 24-hour surveillance is implemented, my dad's friend countered that increased surveillance would actually hold the Party more accountable. Rather than being able to conjure up charges to fit their purposes, the Party would have to supply the evidence and make it apparent to those judging the case. Political prisoners who were wrongfully accused of a crime could place the burden of proof back on the government, since the government would have the means to obtain it. Increased surveillance did not mean more oppression, he said, but rather better due process for citizens.
What struck me, and what I know is rarely considered by Americans analyzing China, is the sincere belief held by dad’s friends that the Chinese Communist Party, with all of its flaws, is ultimately committed to improving the lives of Chinese people. Granted, this group of highly-educated professionals should not be taken as a representative sample of the Chinese people. Still, this realization stuck with me because they were the first people I ever heard who expressed that idea. My dad’s friend asked this of me: how do you classify any government as good or evil? Aren’t there people in the United States who believe that the government is evil, that all of its intentions are selfish and that it cannot be trusted? So why is the CCP so bad, when it has delivered upon promises to rebuild China, to lift rural communities out of abject poverty, to offer more opportunities to people such as himself who came from the countryside and now can count himself among other hardworking professionals in a big city?
None of the adults at the dinner table agreed with the protests in Hong Kong. They were unanimous in their opposition, and in their conviction that if they were there, they would make sure their own children stayed far away from these protestors. What fascinated me was the fact that most of the dinner guests were at Tiananmen Square in 1989, during the protests. They were there when the government cracked down and had the military clear the square. Some of them even saw their classmates shot or injured, though they are all fortunate to have themselves escaped harm. They remember their own experiences at the Square as being misguided and even delusional. They do not feel any sort of revolutionary kinship with the Hong Kong protestors, feeling at best pity and at worst, contempt: according to them, the best of the protestors were being manipulated by political forces they didn’t understand, and the worst of them were doing the manipulating.
All of that said, we came up against a difficult discussion about the value of human rights. In the United States, there are certain lines that we can never, at least publicly, cross. In a political discussion with any of my peers, I certainly could never come outright and ask them how much they believed human rights were worth. Of course, the fact that none of us are policymakers makes it that much easier for us to glide past any potentially awkward areas of moral compromise by condemning the actions of authority without offering any alternative solutions. However, this friend of my father’s posed this question to me. How much are human rights worth? I don’t know that I’ve ever thought of human rights as quantifiable, but I should also be advised to not be too arrogant in my own beliefs. If I grew up in a place where starvation was a norm rather than tragedy, and where I could have in place of political freedom just a filling meal, would I still want my own freedom of choice? Given the current political climate in the United States, even, I think it isn’t too much of a leap to say that we all have a line past which we would sacrifice individuals for the good of a community we think is more deserving, even many individuals for the good of the whole.
Overall, a very thought-provoking Christmas dinner, and one that left me wondering whether the U.S. and China are headed towards confrontation in the future. I think it’s a little simplistic and even condescending to apply any sort of Huntingtonian analysis to international relations (saying for example that cultural differences between the U.S. and China leave no room for peace), but everything that has transpired since this dinner has left me wary. Certainly, the perception of cultural differences is strong, and on both ends stated with pride. I believe that the issue is not so undefeatable as irreconcilable points of view, but rather that the differences in cultural values are easily molded into black and white moral extremes by those who do not wish to leave any room for dissent.
Unlike the aforementioned individuals, I welcome dissent. Please reach out and share your thoughts!