The two men have little in common. One is a hotheaded cop who liked to whip out his pistol and was an inspiration for the Chinese television series “Iron-Blooded Police Spirits.” The other is a soft-spoken blind activist who advocated for women and the disabled, and who irked the authorities enough to suffer their iron-blooded spirits firsthand.
But the apparatchik and the dissident, the insider and the outsider, were of similar mind on one count. When each man fell into danger, he rushed to the sovereign diplomatic territory of the United States.
For Americans, whose national confidence is sagging, the flights of these men to U.S. outposts could be read as a “We’ve still got it” moment. There was a Cold War timbre to the stories of these men seeking shelter.
But, scratching below the surface, there is another way to read these stories: as evidence of a humbler, chastened America – indebted, overextended, feeling less exceptional than before – that sees itself more and more as one nation among many.
In each case, the earliest facts fit that long-running narrative of America-as-beacon: Men with nowhere else to turn still chose the country whose founding declaration presumed to speak on behalf of “all men,” not merely its own.
But in both instances, ensuing developments clouded that simple story line. Wang Lijun, the former police chief of the megalopolis of Chongqing, ended up back in Chinese custody. And Chen Guangcheng, the activist, surprised U.S. diplomats by declaring that he didn’t want asylum but rather their help in bargaining for a safer future in his own country. Eventually, Chen concluded that such safety couldn’t be guaranteed and sought permission to move to America – but, in a distinction that was symbolically important to the Chinese, as a university fellow and not a political refugee.
To some, the American posture during the episode involving Chen was tepid. President Barack Obama was criticized for his long silence, and his administration for the absence of proclamations about Chen’s self-evident, Creator-endowed rights.
“This is dark day for freedom, and it’s a day of shame for the Obama administration,” Mitt Romney, the Republican presidential candidate, said last week. “We are a place of freedom, here and around the world, and we should stand up and defend freedom wherever it is under attack.”
But America doesn’t seem to be in much of a freedom-defending place right now. It’s partly the lowered expectations of an age of austerity; partly the lessons of Afghanistan and Iraq, where freedom turned out to be complicated; and partly the result of the Arab Spring, where new freedoms have brought chaos and the possibility of new repression.
All of which may help to explain why there was a hint of China’s approach to the world – its policy of nonintervention in the internal affairs of other places – in the United States’ approach to China during this recent pair of episodes.
A less missionary treatment of China will strike some, like Romney, as a disappointment and others as a belated recognition of reality. But it could be a useful corrective to an earlier way of seeing China that was often simplistic about its massive challenges, amnesiac about the halting way in which Western societies became free, and blind to the fact that China is, in its own way, opening up.
The lack of empathy had to do with failing to appreciate the anxiety behind China’s resistance of democracy. In the West, the perception is often that China doesn’t want to be like us. But, in speaking to Chinese of many backgrounds, it grows plain that the real fear is not becoming the United States or Britain, but rather a Nigeria or India or Iraq: ostensibly free societies whose chaos and violence can limit the practical usefulness of that freedom. That anxiety is more reasonable than it sometimes gets credit for being.
And Westerners tend to overlook that their own societies were substantially less free when they were doing what China is today: building new cities, moving millions from agriculture to industry, eliminating deep poverty. Much of America’s own nation-building was done with little regard for rights and without having to secure a majority’s consent.
After all, nearly 150 years passed between the writing of “all men are created equal” and the extension of the vote to women and 40 further years before African-Americans gained suffrage in earnest.
Could the West, with all its wonders, have been built by the universally voting, constantly tweeting societies of today? The other day, standing on a broad avenue in Manhattan, staring incredulously left and right at the smooth canyons of aligned buildings, I found myself asking whether this island – with all the strong-arming that its creation required – could have been made in 2012 America, where so many more people have a vote, a voice, property rights and ways of contesting power.
Which is not an excuse for what China does in the name of development, but a humbling reminder that there has been a little bit of China in every country’s hunt for the future.
Today, China is freeing up in a hundred ways that don’t involve voting. It is pursuing, above all, freedom from want for its people and the freedom to make one’s destiny in professional and personal life. Those liberties are slowly leading to more political ones: With the implicit approval of the authorities, the country is developing a vigorous, irreverent, often critical discourse on the Internet. In those forums, a new culture of questioning official truths, demanding accountability and airing abuses is forming. The abuses in China remain grave and numerous; and yet, increasingly, there is a way of talking back.
China is, gradually, becoming a freer society. Perhaps Washington figures that letting it work that out in some measure of geopolitical privacy – talking just amongst its billion-plus selves – is the shortest path to a China it would like to see.
Anand Giridharadas writes the “Currents” column for The New York Times and its global edition, the International Herald Tribune. He is the author of “India Calling: An Intimate Portrait of a Nation’s Remaking.”
Originally appeared on The International Herald Tribune. Reprinted by permission.