We Ask, ‘Can One Eat Liberty?’

Ying Ma is a member of the Leap August Society, a group of Chinese-born American residents. She is a research associate of the Council on Foreign Relations in New York

I am part of a group of Chinese immigrants who left our native land with minds still young and open to the world. We left with great pride in our civilization, with painful understanding of China’s humiliations and failures in the 20th century, but without the intense bitterness toward the Chinese government held by many political dissidents.

Living in the U.S., we have recognized, albeit reluctantly, China’s economic backwardness and political oppression. Nevertheless, we hold the deepest and the most sincere concern for the land of our origin.

In the midst of the first official summit between President Clinton and China’s President Jiang Zemin, a wave of China bashing has flooded the American media as journalists, elected officials, special interest groups and Hollywood celebrities condemned the Chinese regime by demanding better treatment for Christians, Tibetans, political dissidents and for the Chinese people in general.

Few Americans would greet improvements in China’s political system more happily than we, but we find much of the recent China bashing repugnant and counterproductive, and we consider it crucial to point out important differences in Chinese perceptions.

We find it repugnant that many who know little about China rave and rant about human rights and Tibet but ignore the tremendous progress made in China’s living conditions in the last 15 years. Unimaginable to most Americans are the levels of poverty, filth, crime and pollution that still plague China today. Many Chinese live without simple things such as heat, modern toilet facilities, running water, new clothing and abundant food.


As politicians, opportunists and Hollywood celebrities make themselves sound noble by speaking on behalf of Wei Jingsheng, Tibet, Christians or liberty in general, we ask very simply, “Can one eat liberty?” Can actor Richard Gere’s ideals of human rights guarantee that children in the Chinese countryside have a full stomach and that those in the cities grow up free from diseases caused by contaminated water? No.

While China bashers suggest that all pro-human rights voices are quelled in China, many Chinese in fact spend little time thinking about Tibet or Wei Jingsheng. Much like us before we left China, they look admiringly at the U.S., not because of its Declaration of Independence or revered Constitution, but because of its designer jeans, hamburgers and fancy discos.

Though China faces many problems besides human rights abuse, it should not postpone all progress until it reaches some specified stage in economic development. After all, America did not emerge as a great world power before it formed a government for the people and by the people. However, as Americans cloud the China-U.S. dialogue with nothing but political rights demands, the Chinese government, in the name of standing up to foreigners, has successfully found an excuse for postponing further reforms in its political system.

American demands have elicited a claim of “interference” in Chineser internal affairs from the government and people. Resentment against American rhetoric has escalated among the Chinese people who refuse to swallow the insult of Uncle Sam dictating from Washington what ought to be done in the streets of Shanghai. After a century of chaos, humiliating defeat and self-inflicted backwardness, the Chinese have had very little else but their backbone in the 20th century.

While America can help China move toward democracy by offering advice on building a sound legal system or promoting human rights awareness in Chinese civil society, blanket American condemnations only trigger Chinese nationalist desires to rally around their undemocratic government and tell the U.S. to butt out.

As beneficiaries of America’s democratic system of governance, we hope that the Chinese can one day be sufficiently fed and clothed to not automatically consider political rights as a distant goal. We hope also that one day the Chinese, too, can move beyond their century of humiliation, defeat, shame and pain to get rid of the big chip on their shoulders and not balk instinctively at foreign political criticisms. But until that day, Americans will fail to move China with sanctimonious and ill-thought out rhetoric.