What living in China has made me appreciate about America

For my non-American readers please excuse this burst of patriotism, as it is Independence day

Today I wanted to share a few of the aspects of American life I enjoy more after living in China for four years.

Freedom to Report

In China there is a special vocabulary that has evolved out of the need to define events that have never happened before. Words like: “Gutter oil” (Used oil that has had the garbage strained from it, that is reused in restaurants), “Cancer village” (unusually high rates of cancer caused by pollutants) and Naked officials (gov’t officials who have sent their assets and family overseas so they can escape when their misdeeds surface).

These are words we don’t have in the US, and I think that is largely because of our free press. The ability to report without fear of retaliation puts government oversight ultimately into the hands of the people.

In China even foreign journalists are regularly harassed by local gov’t thugs, and contacts are often imprisoned for telling their story. By silencing these forces, China’s national gov’t is limiting how effective it can be at developing the country in a way that will lead to lasting stability.

Government Regulations

I have a feeling a few of my more conservative friends are shouting at me now, but they have no idea what life is really like without clear regulations.

While China’s National government appears very strong, at the local level it is often ignored. That is because China’s gov’t largely relies on local gov’t to enforce its programs, which is pretty ineffective because there is no free press to monitor their actions. So even though China’s gov’t employs millions of officials, regulations are often ignored.

So the next time you eat a strip of bacon without pausing to contemplate the risks of trichinosis, remember that the FDA makes that moment possible. Or if you get injured at the work place you know that your medical bills will be covered by workman’s comp. Or when you drop your child off at school, you know the teacher is not going to abuse them (physically, verbally or sexually). This is gov’t in action.

Good gov’t (not all gov’t) enables citizens to make dozens of transactions and partake in daily activities without worry. While in China we can’t even eat breakfast or brush our teeth without wondering if we’ll end up in the hospital.

Throwing the bums out

This might be the most important freedom we have. When our gov’t officials are corrupt or ineffective at meeting our needs, we know that within a few years, an effective campaign will have them removed from office.

In China some of the party officials who were responsible for monitoring food safety during the melamine tainted milk scandal, that sickened hundreds of thousands of infants, were removed from office. Later they were very quietly reinstated. While the US system of gov’t is not perfect, I can confidently say, that people who cover up the death of infants will not be re-elected.

Perhaps even more important than that, we can openly criticize the gov’t.

I remember the first time I told a co-worker that I thought President Bush was a terrible President. They were shocked. “We could never say these things,” she had said, but she said it with a grin.

I know that there are many people in China who are longing to say these kinds of things, but the gov’t fears that it will “undermine stability”. I think though that it some ways it helps. Just like the Tea-Party today might not be saying things I agree with, but their right to openly express their dissatisfaction with Obama’s policies can lead to important discussions that help us clarify where we want America to be heading.

Someday the Party will realize that these freedoms are necessary for regulating the local gov’ts that are causing them so many headaches.

20 responses to “What living in China has made me appreciate about America”

  1. Marvin Eckfeldt says:

    Tom, reading your post on the eve of July 4th Independence Day gives good pause for reflection and thanksgiving for our country. I appreciate your far-away perspective. I hope you don’t set off too many firecrackers!!! — Marvin Eckfeldt

  2. B says:

    I am a Chinese. I love YOUR country too. I love my country – I do hope it will become more like yours.

  3. Meryl Mackay aka 马美丽 says:

    I LOVE visiting China and catching up with my wonderful Chinese friends but as I walk my dog in the pollution free air of North Scotland, I understand your point Tom, of appreciating your country more. Happy 4th July to you!

  4. yaxue c. says:

    Tom, at this moment, I am sitting on the sidewalk of 8th street southeast, Washington DC, waiting for the Capitol Hill community parade to start. I have a lot of thoughts to share but I will just settle on a couple of immediate ones.

    To be able to sit here watching the Independence Day parade doesn’t seem to be something to appreciate, but for a Chineselike me it is. (They are coming, and I will continue alater.)

  5. Chopstik says:

    Happy 4th to you, Tom! I think there are many things that Americans who have never traveled outside of America take for granted (rightly or wrongly). Learning more about the world outside of your immediate surroundings can only help you to become better.

    I love China but it does not mean that I love it uncritically. I love America but it does not mean that I love it uncritically. The difference is that in one I can be more open about it.

  6. Anon. says:

    Brings to mind “freedom of speech” and “freedom to assemble” under our Constitution. Two things we enjoy but many take for granted. I thank God everyday.

  7. Yaxue C. says:

    To continue my thought earlier: In China, on the National Day (October 1st), you can’t just go out on your own to either watch the festivities (access to which is always restricted) or participate in the events (all of them organized and staged by work units, that is, the government). I heard that, in the big celebration of 2009, residents of certain areas in Beijing were not allowed to go out on the streets. So, on the 4th of July, when I see different groups of the community, like the one on Capitol Hill I just watched, marching or strolling down the street as part of the parade, smiling and waving to equally happy onlookers, I thought to myself: This is people’s day and it belongs to them and they own it, while in China, you have to ask yourself: Whose day is this anyway? Not very many Chinese can honestly tell you it is their day to celebrate. If they are celebrating at all, they do so not out of their own free will, but as a puppet of the power, and many of them simply hate it to death.

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  10. Anonymous says:

    I second everything you and “Chopstik” said! In a way, by gaining a new perspective, I have learned more about my home country while living in China than I did in 22 years of actually living in America. There are some things I prefer about China–I love the comparative lack of self-consciousness and the sense of community, especially among middle-aged and older Chinese, that I see in Beijing. I love feeling MUCH safer (the one upshot to such a repressive system?). China’s network of long-distance buses and trains are wonderful, and the banks are open on Sundays! I only wish Americans treated foreigners with imperfect language skills with the astonishing warmth and patience I have received in China (although I know my race and class has a lot to do with this).

    On the other hand, I will never take for granted being able to openly blast my government in the US and have unfettered access to the internet. I won’t take for granted simply being able to breathe, eat, and drink without worrying that all the pollution and chemicals might eventually kill me. As bad as our issues with corruption, shady corporations, our education system, and income disparity can be in the US, it could be so, so much worse. Until you leave the West, it’s hard to grasp what an absolute luxury a vast suburban supermarket, a big green lawn, or a bathtub-style shower really is. (See also: access to good coffee and Mexican food) It also breaks my heart a little every time one of my Chinese peers eagerly asks, almost as soon as we’ve met, how many brothers and sisters I have.

  11. Hua Qiao says:

    From the PRC Constitution:

    Article 34. All citizens of the People’s Republic of China who have reached the age of 18 have the right to vote and stand for election, regardless of nationality, race, sex, occupation, family background, religious belief, education, property status, or length of residence, except persons deprived of political rights according to law.

    Article 35. Citizens of the People’s Republic of China enjoy freedom of speech, of the press, of assembly, of association, of procession and of demonstration.

    Article 36. Citizens of the People’s Republic of China enjoy freedom of religious belief. No state organ, public organization or individual may compel citizens to believe in, or not to believe in, any religion; nor may they discriminate against citizens who believe in, or do not believe in, any religion. The state protects normal religious activities. No one may make use of religion to engage in activities that disrupt public order, impair the health of citizens or interfere with the educational system of the state. Religious bodies and religious affairs are not subject to any foreign domination.

    37. The freedom of person of citizens of the People’s Republic of China is inviolable. No citizen may be arrested except with the approval or by decision of a people’s procuratorate or by decision of a people’s court, and arrests must be made by a public security organ. Unlawful deprivation or restriction of citizens’ freedom of person by detention or other means is prohibited; and unlawful search of the person of citizens is prohibited.

    Article 38. The personal dignity of citizens of the People’s Republic of China is inviolable. Insult, libel, false charge or frame-up directed against citizens by any means is prohibited.
    Article 39. The home of citizens of the People’s Republic of China is inviolable. Unlawful search of, or intrusion into, a citizen’s home is prohibited.

    Article 40. The freedom and privacy of correspondence of citizens of the People’s Republic of China are protected by law. No organization or individual may, on any ground, infringe upon the freedom and privacy of citizens’ correspondence except in cases where, to meet the needs of state security or of investigation into criminal offences, public security or procuratorial organs are permitted to censor correspondence in accordance with procedures prescribed by law.

    Article 41. Citizens of the People’s Republic of China have the right to criticize and make suggestions to any state organ or functionary. Citizens have the right to make to relevant state organs complaints and charges against, or exposures of, violation of the law or dereliction of duty by any state organ or functionary; but fabrication or distortion of facts with the intention of libel or frame-up is prohibited. In case of complaints, charges or exposures made by citizens, the state organ concerned must deal with them in a responsible manner after ascertaining the facts. No one may suppress such complaints, charges and exposures, or retaliate against the citizens making them. Citizens who have suffered losses through infringement of their civil rights by any state organ or functionary have the right to compensation in accordance with the law.

    • Tom says:

      Thank you for your reminder that these rights exist, now if only Chinese people could actually enjoy them. Every single one of these rights are frequently violated in China, the following response are examples of this off the top of my head. Given more time, I could make much lengthier statements about each. Also it’s fun to note that the constitution bans smoking in schools, but that happens daily as well.

      Article 34- Recently local candidates tried to stand for elections without receiving party endorsements, and were told that they would not be allowed to participate in the election, some where arrested.

      Article 35 -The big exception is that if any of these actions are critical of the gov’t they define it as subverting state power, which is punishable by lengthy jail terms -Liu Xiaobo for instance.

      Article 36 – In some cases “Normal religious” are not allowed, such as recognizing the role of the Dalai Lama for Tibetan Buddhists. Also religious groups that fall outside of those officially recognized by the state are persecuted – Shouwang Church.

      Article 37 &38 -Extra-judicial arrests of journalists, activists, and petitioners are numerous, and have been widely reported on. These arrests that are not in accordance with the law are an insult to the dignity of these individuals.

      Article 39 – The homes of people are not only subject to unreasonable searches, but are often even subjected to demolition. There have been hundreds of cases related to forced evictions in the past few years.

      Article 40 – There is freedom of privacy, unless the gov’t wants to know what you are doing. This is so loosely defined that anyone could be subjected to observation or electronic monitoring without court approval. Journalists in China frequently report that they have been followed, and contacts regularly switch mobile phones to avoid the constant invasion of privacy.

      Article 41 – See article 35. Local gov’ts are infamous for silencing petitioners, read “Will the Boat Sink the Water.

  12. Hua Qiao says:

    Interestingly, other than the preamble of the Constitution, which is a glorious recounting of history, the CCP is not mentioned. That’s right, not one of the articles mentions the CCP.

  13. NiubiCowboy says:

    Tom, if you haven’t seen these two documentaries I highly recommend them:
    They’re both about the naturalization process, what people have to go through in order to become American, and the people who choose to go through the process and become American citizens.

    After having lived in China, I have to say that I appreciate coming from a place where people from all over the world can, through naturalization, become American citizens with all the same rights and guarantees that native-born Americans have enjoyed their entire lives. They’re as American as the person whose family arrived in New Amsterdam nearly 400 years ago, and I love that.

    Anyway, great comments everyone! Happy belated 4th!

  14. N. G. T. says:

    This series of blogs centered around the 4th of July are fascinating! I was in China on the 4th with a group of community college students and faculty. After three wonderful trips to China I wanted to make sure I shared my discoveries about China with some of my colleagues and especially with students who were highly discouraged from traveling to China.

    As we moved from Beijing and o each of five cities, i had the chance to speak with a number of Chinese. Silent and vocal, comments are rising slowly from young Chinese professionals and students. I have to be careful in how i write about stories I heard.. In other words, I am censuring myself. I can truthfully say there are “conversations” among Chinese citizens about their government officials and their own plade in China. Some conversations sounded as familiar as conversations I hear in my hometown.in the U.S.

    The Celebration of the 90th year of the Communist Party took place on July 1. Some went to the festive activities and some stayed home. Some officials went to Xi’an for a day off. Others continued their daily work. How can we be sure that the Chinese are not discussing who they are and what the future will be? How silent are they?

    N.G.T, friend of many Chinese students and faculty

  15. M. says:

    China has made me really, REALLY appreciate the common law torts. I’m not so sure that it’s regulation that keeps people safe so much as common law negligence and class-action lawsuits. After all, that’s really criminal law for corporations.

  16. Anonymous says:

    Thanks for the comment about “tort.” I will be working with some local businesses who want to sell their products in China. This is an idea they should know about beforehand. Although they are getting help from Asian connections and from State International Biusiness corsortia, I want to make sure that the idea has been presented to them.

    Your posts and all comments are very helpful to me! Keep them comng.


  17. […] indulge in jubilant patriotism once a year on this blog, and the 4th of July is that occasion (last year’s entry). This afternoon I’m bringing pulled pork sandwiches in to the office, where I plan on […]

  18. Todd says:

    If the american press is so free then why is Julian Assange criminalized?

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