A Freedom Seeker's First Impressions of China


Last week I had the chance to see China for the first time, and from a very unusual perspective. I traveled to Shanghai as the sole artist in a small class of business executives from the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University. Given Kellogg's strong international reputation and the strength of the multi-national corporations that my fellow classmates represented, we were treated by the various Chinese delegations we met, with utmost respect. That said, after a few of the meetings I began to feel like that "respect" was more of a sales pitch to do a joint venture with a Chinese state owned entity than much else.

Prof. Laurence C. Franklin, who was our first lecturer at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, gave us this piece of advice: don't make the mistake of thinking that China's widely advertised policy of reform is in any way designed to bring it closer to becoming a western democracy (which is exactly what I had thought). It is merely a method of ridding the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) the one and only political party in China, of corruption. Their policy of reform is not designed to bring the government in line with western democracies, but simply to strengthen its dominancy. After trying for an entire morning without success to get on Facebook or Google, it struck me that I was in a country that was struggling to reframe its narrative. It wanted to be seen as successful and progressive, while remaining at its core, a very insular place; a country that seeks to limit rather than promote self-expression.

Economic growth and social stability are the oft stated "twin pillars" of China's future development. To maintain this social stability, the CCP places ever-increasing limits on how people may congregate; limits on where they may do so, how many people can do so, and what ideas can be submitted. No wonder Facebook represents a threat. It's a virtual meeting hall with unlimited seating capacity. No wonder organized religion, provocative art, or any idea that competes with the ambitions of the State represent a threat. As a songwriter and an Observant Jew I soon got a sense of just how alienated I would feel in a country that puts such a premium on what it calls -- social stability.

On April 3rd, 2011 the renowned Chinese artist, Ai Weiwei was arrested at the Beijing Capital International Airport and held for 81 days without official charges being filed. This was just one of many arrests, fines and lawsuits imposed by the CCP on Wei. While his work has won several international awards including the Václav Havel Prize for Creative Dissent, an Honorary Degree from Pratt Institute, and an honorary fellowship from the Royal Institute of British Architects, the Chinese government largely views Wei as an impediment to their idea of social stability.

In my observation social stability in China means: do exceptionally well in school, get a good job with a good wage, have only one child (or two if you're wealthy and can afford the fine for the second one), don't make waves, live long and then, eventually die - all within the good graces of the Party.

But what about people like Wei, for whom a life of compliance to the CCP isn't enough? What of the poet or spiritual seeker who for better or worse, sees beyond the status quo? What of the social critic who craves a forum for her views? Whereas, we in the West have great regard for the iconoclast, the rebel and the visionary, in China these people are generally looked upon as suspicious from both a cultural and a political perspective.

China claims it wants greater innovation, greater creativity and greater opportunity from and for its people. My classmates from Kellogg and I heard this expressed in each of the many meetings we had with delegations from various Chinese governmental, educational, and corporate agencies. To reach for these goals however, China is going to have to lower the walls they've built. They will need to allow far more open communication. Granted, with a population of 1.357 billion in comparison to the U.S. population of just 316 million, China's challenges are far more complex. Nonetheless, when you're striving for something as elusive as creativity, it doesn't matter if you're an individual, an organization or a country of a billion and a half people; the need for communication remains the same.

Becoming more open, more free, is always a risk to a democracy. And by democracy, I don't mean simply giving residents of a fascist regime some voting mechanisms as we've seen in the Middle East and elsewhere, I mean creating the open pathways of expression that are the hallmarks of a truly free society. How China, a country that while not exactly communist these days, but clearly not even remotely interested in democracy, will meet this challenge, remains to be seen.