In the wake of the NSA scandal and the ongoing revelations about the extent of government surveillance of our online activity, I’ve been feeling awkward, if not ashamed, about what some agencies of the U.S. government are up to. Finding out about the extent and pervasiveness of government surveillance of our electronic communications, and that the U.S. bugged the embassies of our European allies, has made the U.S. look hypocritical and given countries the U.S. routinely impugns for human rights abuses (e.g., Russia, China) reason to smirk.
Chinese artist Ai Weiwei has even compared the U.S. to his own country, which last year detained him incommunicado for 81 days in a 4 meter by 4 meter windowless cell with two soldiers staring at him 24 hours a day .
I’m especially attuned to China-U.S. comparisons as my grandparents on both sides emigrated from rural southern China about a hundred years ago. I visited the villages my father’s parents left in Toisan County in the 1990s. Only the village store had electricity. There was a village outhouse, and the little kids to whom we gave candy simply dropped the wrappers in the street since there were no garbage receptacles anywhere. I have not journeyed back, but other relatives have and noted that things have indeed changed, with many no longer living in the traditional, heated-by-fire houses we visited.
With Fourth of July celebrations this Thursday, we will be hearing a lot about liberty, freedom and the ideals the U.S. stands for. The ongoing leaks about NSA surveillance have been putting the U.S. government’s respect for these values under question.
But there are still quite a few reasons glad I was born in this country and that I’m American:
1. As a girl from a village in the Guangdong province in southern China, I would have had few educational opportunities. A publication from Stanford University (pdf) notes that only 1.3 percent of students from poor rural areas attend first, second or third tier universities. Here in the U.S., I’ve attended college and graduate school, in the subjects I chose to pursue.
2. State censorship of the media and the publishing industry is far-reaching in China, and internet use is heavily restricted. Twitter is banned in the country, and while China has similar services including Weibo, government authorities routinely comb these to remove posts on sensitive topics, such as “Tiananmen Square” or “Ai Weiwei.”
3. If my grandparents had not emigrated, instead of college, I would have worked in agriculture or in a factory, sewing garments or assembling electronic and other products in the sorts of questionable and unsafe conditions that have dogged Apple supplier Foxconn. As things are, I’m a professor of Classical Greek and Latin, a position that would have been unfathomable to my ancestors.
4. Along with freedom of speech, human rights are severely limited in China. Activists in China are routinely subjected to police harassment, short- and long-term detainment, house arrest, “reeducation through labor” and other limitations on their freedom — all instances of the country’s ”arbitary curbs” on freedom of expression, labor unions, religion and much more. Nobel Peace Prize laureate Liu Xiaobo has been imprisoned on charges of “subverting state power,” and his wife, Liu Xia, has been missing since 2010. A number of long-standing democracy activists have also been given prison sentences after the Arab Spring.
5. As of July 1, China’s “Exit-Entry Administration Law” will start allowing foreign same-sex couples to apply for dependent residence permits in Beijing, but same-sex marriage and other LGBT rights remain out of the question. A 2013 Pew poll found that 57 percent of China’s population is against the acceptance of homosexuality; only 21 percent were in favor. Nonetheless, LGBT citizens are making slow gains in China, which only ended the crime of “hooliganism,” a practice of criminalizing homosexuality and other “undesirable” behaviors, in 1997.
6. The report of a newborn found in a sewer pipe shocked the world in May. The baby’s mother was unmarried and unable to afford an abortion. Her plight, and that of single mothers in the city of Wuhan in central China having to pay huge fines, are just some signs of how women’s reproductive rights are severely restricted in China due to the government’s family planning regulations and one child policy.
7. China’s food scandals are not only numerous, but quite capable of making one lose one’s appetite. This year has seen reports of meat from rats, foxes and minks found packaged as mutton and of more than 3,000 dead pigs floating in the Huangpu River near Shanghai in March. Some of China’s food scandals (such as the melamine in baby formula scandal in 2008) simply leave me wondering what people were thinking when they did that?
8. Along with reports about food that is clearly unsafe to eat, horrific stories about animal abuse in China are too common, whether about bans on “large dogs” in Beijing and the police seizure of unregistered pets, the holding of a dog meat festival and the eating of cats, and the abuse of bears to collect their bile.
9. Air quality in China’s cities is notoriously poor. My parents visited Shanghai and other cities in 2012, and the one thing I noticed in all of their photos was the absence of any sunlight or blue sky due to the smog. China’s environmental problems are, by its own admission, “grim,” with many rivers and waterways polluted and acres of land contaminated as a result of mining and other industries.
10. Democracy does not exist in China. China remains under the authoritarian one-party rule of the Communist Party. Citizens have no say in the choice of their leaders, and ethnic minorities in Tibet, the province of Xinjiang and elsewhere have been brutally repressed. Earlier this week, Hong Kong residents held a huge demonstration to demand that China stick to its promise to hold fully democratic elections by 2017. Currently, they can only elect some seats on a Legislative Council. The current chief executive, CY Leung, is widely believe to be “Beijing’s man,” and many have called for him to step down.
11. In my Chinese American family, family ties and a sense of obligations run deep. Based on recent reports, they are far stronger than in contemporary China. A sign of this is the Chinese government recently passing a law requiring children to visit and care for elderly parents. Having grown up in a Chinese American community in which family was always first, I was shocked to read about this new mandate, a sign that centuries of societal customs about caring for family are dissolving amid China’s rapid economic expansion and urbanization, with thousands leaving rural areas for its (pollution-clogged) cities.
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