On Saturday night, I returned home from a business trip in China, on a flight made extraordinary by the presence of another traveler, who was leaving his country for mine: Chen Guangcheng.
I sat in the row directly behind the family of Chen, the blind human rights activist who had been admitted to the United States to study law at New York University, and their American handlers. I wondered what I would say to Chen if I had the chance. (There was no such opportunity; I suspected that his handlers – who unlike Chen’s two well-behaved children bounced out of their seats with unusual frequency, alerting anyone nearby that something unusual was afoot – would have intercepted any attempt at conversation.) I imagine other passengers wondered the same thing; as the Chen family exited the plane, the cabin of United Airlines Flight 88 filled with spontaneous applause.
The first thing I would tell Chen would be to take his time before making any public observations on America and China. In China, he was a leading human rights lawyer and dissident, and his insights will no doubt be of great interest and value to us all. But in the United States, he is perhaps not so different from my late father, Kai Lai Chung, who came here in 1944 on a scholarship and received a Ph.D. in math from Princeton – and who later in life became blind, as Chen is. Even with TV and the Internet, he is unlikely to understand or know our country and society very well at first.
Why such advice? Because I am worried that Chen and his family will be used as political fodder, by the Obama administration or by politicians of either party trying to advance the “how great we are versus how bad China is” theme we hear so often as America works through its cooperation/competition with China on commercial, environmental, strategic and countless other issues.
Having traveled frequently to China for business and pleasure for over three decades, I have seen the remarkable transformation that has lifted hundreds of millions of Chinese out of poverty. I have seen my own relatives move from rough village housing – cooking and heating by coal, no telephone, and questionable running water – to modern (if simple, by American standards) apartments.
In my first visit, as a teenager in 1975, I saw my father lead some of the first mathematical discussions between Chinese and American scholars after Richard M. Nixon and Henry A. Kissinger began to normalize Chinese-American relations. In the 1980s, as my father’s eyesight failed (but not his will to educate Chinese students), I accompanied him as he saw old friends who had survived the Cultural Revolution. On my own, after a clerkship for the U.S. Supreme Court, I visited Tiananmen Square, a few months before the crackdown on the democracy protests.
Despite smog, urban blight, the persistent poverty of migrant workers and other challenges, my impression is that the Chinese seem happier over all. They increasingly recognize, and sometimes regret, the social price of economic transformation, but feel that the benefits outweigh the costs. When Chen does speak out, I hope it will have great impact. It is in his role as observer and critic, whether his stay in the United States ends up being long or short, that Chen can make the most of the spotlight that has been placed on him (a spotlight that will surely fade over time, as it has for other notable dissidents).
Chen has articulated serious criticisms of China’s politics and government. But he might do well to think about, and perhaps educate us on, the similar obstacles we Americans face. We have our own dynastic “princelings,” whether in electoral politics or corporate boardrooms. Our air may be less polluted, but we seem unable to do our part to pay for efforts to slow global warming. Though independent, our press, particularly the broadcast media, focuses on distractions like the John Edwards trial more than on the corrupting influence of money in campaign finance and the legislative process.
While the American system of government may be less subject to bribery and overt nepotism than China’s, in many ways our capitalist economy and democratic politics are dominated by “too big to fail” corporations and public-sector bureaucracies – institutions far less monolithic than the Chinese Communist Party, but similarly influential and unaccountable. China’s government is indeed authoritarian, but it has achieved much in a short time as a result of its ability to analyze, debate and then act to address problems from poverty reduction to infrastructure creation. All of this has been achieved without relying on debt. Our diverse society is a source of greatness, but the dysfunction of our politics – the vanishing of the political center, the inability of elected representatives to find common ground on urgent problems, the triumph of bluster over reason – is a growing source of weakness.
Chen’s coming to America is a great thing. His reflections on China could become a prism for Americans to better understand our own future. It would be an odd but welcome triumph if an awkward diplomatic incident became a path to greater discussion and understanding. The relationship between the United States and China will be, for better or worse, the most important influence on world affairs for decades to come. Much of our strength in the past has come from the assimilation of immigrants into the United States and our nation’s openness to change. Today, we need to summon that strength and openness again to help America assimilate in an increasingly multipolar world – perhaps, with a little help from Chen.
Daniel C. Chung is the chief executive officer and chief investment officer at Fred Alger Management, an investment management company.
Original Source: The New York Times. Reprinted with Permission