The American Beacon in Beijing: Why Chinese Look to the U.S. for Freedom

Chen Guangcheng's decision to take shelter in the U.S. embassy extends a modern tradition in China of seeing America as an idealized alternative to their own system.

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Chinese activist Chen Guangcheng poses in front of the U.S. embassy in Beijing with senior American officials. /Reuters

When a Chinese police chief and anti-mafia hero, having fallen out with his municipal party boss, dashed out of his home in the megacity of Chongqing; and when a blind lawyer persecuted for fighting cases for women suffering forced sterilization escaped from a 18-month extralegal house arrest in rural Shandong, they both headed to the same destination: the closest American diplomatic residence.

The two most recent real-life thrillers coming out of China, though they involve characters from opposite ends of the power spectrum, both began with a man's frantic attempt to seek refuge from the Chinese system in the embraces of American power. This, more than a coincidence, sheds light on a truth deeply rooted in current Chinese society, but often muddled by the constant bickering between the two nations: the popular Chinese conviction of the United States' unrivaled international clout, and a widely shared perception of the U.S. as the ultimate embodiment of justice, democracy, and the rule of law.

None of these ideas are unfamiliar to the Chinese public. China labels itself as a socialist democracy, and the government has vowed for years to push for legal reforms. Last month's televised announcement that the government would investigate Chongqing's former party chief Bo Xilai -- as a result of Wang Lijun's visit to the U.S. Consulate, where he reported his boss's abuses -- closed with the official affirmation that "our nation is a country of socialist rule of law, and dignity and authority of the law cannot be trampled." Still fresh in the memory of many Chinese, however, are the bloody ethnic protests in Tibet in 2008 and in Xinjiang in 2009, the scandal of tainted milk powder that led to six infant deaths and 300,000 cases of illness, the jailing of Nobel Prize laureate Liu Xiaobo, and the large-scale arrests of dissidents after the Jasmine protests last year. The reality of China's human rights record has seeped into public knowledge, despite the state's efforts to censor media and the Internet. The government's mistreatment of Chen Guangcheng, long a symbolic case championed by domestic and international rights activists, and now even more broadly publicized by his audacious escape, is a reminder of the tension in China between the state and the people pushing for positive social change. That the episode culminated inside the walls of the U.S. embassy is also a reminder that many Chinese, when they believe their country has failed them, look to America.

In his moment of crisis, though he insisted that he wanted to remain in China, Chen found this plot of American ground to be the "only truly safe place" for himself, echoing similar episodes in Chinese history. At the height of the Second World War, panicked Chinese residents in Tianjin and Shanghai flocked to European and U.S. legation quarters, seeking shelter from raining Japanese bombs. Decades later, when the government turned against its people in the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests, leagues of Chinese scholars and activists, fearing persecution, fled to the United States on political asylum and special visas. In recent years, Chinese policies have forced religious, ethnic, and intellectual groups into exile, often to the United States. Yu Jie, a Chinese writer persecuted for publishing scathing criticisms of party officials, told me as part of an interview I helped translate for a TV news network early this year in his new home in a tranquil Northern Virginia suburb, that having his personal safety guaranteed in America finally allows him peace of mind. "I won't have to worry about people breaking into my house any moment to take away my computer and books," Yu said. "I can finally focus on my writing."

While Chinese activists, motivated by political ideals, often view the United States as a synonym of freedom and democracy, the majority of Chinese citizens see it as something simpler and more concrete: a society with clean food, safe roads, and government officials that truly serve the people. Last summer, when newly appointed U.S. Ambassador Gary Locke arrived at his post, he found that he was already a bit of a star. A Chinese traveler had taken a photo of Locke, which he posted online, buying coffee with his six-year-old daughter and carrying a backpack at the Seattle airport. The seemingly banal scene's impact in China bewildered many westerners, but for Chinese citizens, who are used to seeing their own officials flashing their wealth and status and tended by a retinue of underlings, the humble image of Locke, who shares their skin color and ethnicity, defies belief. His popularity among Chinese people soared so quickly that Chinese censors restricted coverage on the story, apparently worried that Locke would make Chinese leaders look bad.

Chinese citizens, especially when it comes to scandals within their country, often hold up the United States as a shining contrast against the darker Chinese reality. Last winter, after a nine-seat school van crammed with 62 children crashed into a coal truck in northwest China, killing 21 children and two adults, heartbroken Chinese citizens rushed to Internet forums and Weibo, a twitter-style service, and, knowing accusations toward the government would be red-carded by censors, started posting pictures of American school buses. One picture showed a collision in Indianapolis with a Hummer, which was totaled, whereas the school bus was only slightly dented. The Weibo message simply reads, "There is a big difference." "The Americans are truly devoted to raising their next generation," another Weibo user laments. "In rural China, children's lives don't worth much."

At times, Chinese admiration for what they see as the transparency and smooth functioning of American society can be complicated by the other, sometimes-contradictory image of America as a meddling, condescending power. An instinctive hostility, triggered when they suspect any U.S. action toward China as driven by ill will, can resurface the sense of victimhood that came with China's "century of humiliation" at the hands of Western powers. When two Chinese students at the University of Southern California turned up murdered, and some U.S. media erroneously reported that one of the victim's second-hand BMW was worth $60,000 (it was worth much less, and the error seemed to suggest the students were involved in something illicit), many Chinese saw the mistake as part of the American media's effort to smear the Chinese victims and divert the focus of the story. Hundreds gathered in protest at the USC campus, where one third of the school's 7,200 international students are Chinese.

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Helen Gao is a freelance writer based in Beijing.

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