Thursday, August 14, 2014

Chinese Food for Thought

This past week a colleague of Mr. Spherical Model was in town from China. He is a Chinese native, but an employee of the same US-based company Mr. Spherical Model works for. Whenever he comes to town, we try to go to dinner. Usually we go to a Chinese restaurant, but this time we went Texan and had steak. (He had lobster, which we also had last time at an Asian restaurant.)
Chinese dragon medallion;
our Chinese friends always bring a gift
Much of the conversation was work related, which was necessary. But we also had enough time to learn quite a lot about China.
Many of the Chinese who come here adopt an American name, to make pronunciation easier for the rest of us, so for our purposes here, we’ll call our friend Lee. He is forty-ish, married, I’m unaware of any child. Unlike most Chinese, he is Christian. Or at least his wife is Christian. She works for an international Christian non-profit. One of the things she works to accomplish is the rescue of children with relatively small deformities, such as cleft palate, who would otherwise be disposed of (put to death). I don’t know how that works, but there must be some secretly working with hospital nurses to smuggle such children out. They send them to the US or elsewhere, where they get the surgery they need. And he didn’t spell it out, but I think they are then put up for adoption—although I suppose it’s possible their parents want them and wanted the disallowed surgery for them, and somehow arrange to get them back.
He told us about religion in China. And here I’m not certain whether all of it applies to Buddhism and Confucianism, or just to Christianity and other non-standard religions or philosophies. Anyway, most churches are public churches. The government does the hiring of clergy. The government determines much of the doctrine. Mainly, the order of priorities is loyalty first to the government, and then to God and family and community. In other words, it is dogma that government is the greatest force in the universe, but as long as you acknowledge that, then you can be allowed to believe in God if you want to.
This is an improvement, certainly, over Mao’s cultural revolution, which did away with religion entirely. And it is also a huge improvement over just a couple of decades ago when bringing a Bible into the country was illegal.
The non-public option is the family church. Technically they’re not legal. There’s no freedom of assembly, so if you have more than, say, seven people gathered, you have to report all the names and the purpose of the meeting. You might be able to call it a training meeting, but then, after not too long, the government will start interrogating all the attendees, asking why they need so much training. So it’s better to limit to just a few friends. If too many show up, you might get away with separating into two groups in separate rooms, if you’re lucky.
The difficulty with these family churches is that you can’t determine truth, or doctrine. It’s just the opinions of whoever happens to show up a specific week. It will be someone different, putting forth different opinions, the next time. Lee went with this option for a while but got frustrated with it.
He mentioned one man, a Christian, who had a practice every Friday of inviting a friend in (not someone he worked with) to come to his office and study scriptures—from 11:00 till 2:00. If you’re a good Christian, that’s not the way to show devotion; you have promised those hours to your employer, and if you do something other than work during work hours, you’re not meeting your commitment to your employer. That is clearly wrong; you should do your study on your own time, Lee said.
We talked a bit about the one-child policy. It is very real. I asked how that would affect a Chinese person who lives in the US. Lee would very much like to have that opportunity. And it doesn’t seem out of the realm of possibility. It also seems quite possible for Chinese workers at American countries, who come to work in the US, to become US citizens. For those of us who lived through the Cold War with the USSR and the stricter communist years of China past, this still seems surprising.
Lee mentioned one famous actor (not by name), who made his fame in movies in the US and in China. While in the US he had a long-time live-in girlfriend whom he eventually married, and they had three children together. But he decided not to renounce his Chinese citizenship, and to move back—Lee was still surprised by this, the only person in such a position that he knew of who chose to stay Chinese rather than choose the freedom of the US. But once he and family got back to China, he became subject to the one-child law. He was forced to pay about a million dollars per child for breaking the law. Only because he was a famous actor could he have that option.
At one point, Lee was talking about the differences between government over-control—which is frustrating but often manageable if you don’t fight it—and the chaos of lack of government control. I can’t remember the examples now, of where they were even allowed to have chaos. Maybe it was just the threat of chaos if there wasn’t enough control. Mr. Spherical Model tried suggesting that I write about such things, but I didn’t see a way to suddenly explain the northern hemisphere of freedom without taking over the conversation, so I didn't introduce him to the Spherical Model.
After dinner we brought Lee back to our house, to visit a bit longer. He said, “I love American houses!” And he said a house like ours would cost $2 million in China. For perspective, the median home price in Houston, as of a year ago, was about $185,000. Our home value is well below that. It’s the nicest house I’ve ever lived in, but there are plenty that are bigger and nicer. He was also amazed at the size of our back yard—which, we were shocked to learn when moving here, is measured in square feet, rather than portions of an acre. I think it’s around an 8th of an acre—so, a postage stamp-sized lot. But we have a few trees, a shed, and a garden.
Chinese knot,
a gift from another Chinese friend
Mr. Spherical Model pointed out that a house like this would cost nearly a couple million in downtown San Francisco as well, so location matters. But here in the US, generally a relatively successful middle-class worker can live in a comfortable house like this. In China (or the people’s republic of San Francisco) a two-bedroom apartment is about all you have to look forward to.
A couple of days after the dinner, I was flipping through channels while fixing dinner and watched a portion of the 1982 movie Night Crossing [with John Hurt and Beau Bridges], about a family that escapes from East Germany in a homemade hot air balloon. The wife of the escaping family has a conversation with her mother, whom they have not informed of their plans. She asks, “Have you ever thought about applying to emigrate?” The mother’s answer was no, not unless things got a lot worse than they were then.
There was no freedom to move about the country, nor to travel elsewhere. There was little choice about where to work, and a lot of explaining about any use of free time, or use of resources. Things we take for granted, still, were significant difficulties for the East Germans. But there was enough food to avoid starvation, there was shelter, there was work. It was hard on the human spirit, but not impossible to live through.
Most of the people in the world through history have lived in such times—dependent on the limited tyranny of the potentate.
Last week we also talked with our son stationed in South Korea, and he talked a bit about North Korea. The people there are the most isolated in the world. They are told their country is the best in the world, and no evidence to the contrary is allowed in. But people are starving and struggling in significant ways. Occasionally someone tries to escape. But if they escape into China, they get picked up and returned. If they escape to South Korea, they will probably be assumed to be a spy and summarily shot. They’re on a peninsula; there aren’t a lot of escape options. So they continue trapped by their tyrannical government.
Eventually world pressure (such as Reagan’s “Tear down this wall” speech) caused the German wall to crumble. Korea’s “wall” has held firm for almost sixty years, and the people get very little opportunity to even dream of better. I don’t know what will happen in China's future. For the sake of its economy—because no socialist state can continue economically after it uses up the capital built up during freer markets—China has allowed more free trade, better education, and therefore more exposure to the amazing (by comparison) wealth of the free world. And their people want it.
I think it is true that human nature yearns for freedom, and wants to pursue personal dreams and work of our choosing. I hope China is able to peacefully gain more and more freedom—in a violence-free revolution against tyranny. The people themselves are not our enemies; they want much of what we want, as they become familiar with what we have.
I also hope that we do not let our freedoms further erode, just because too many of us tolerate sinking into the southern tyranny sphere just because things aren’t impossible to tolerate yet.

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