Dissing Dissent

Liu Baifang, who emigrated from China in 1977, lives in Berkeley.

Lately, I find myself worrying about my adopted country, the United States. I’m alarmed that dissent is increasingly less tolerated, and that those in power seem unable to resist trying to intimidate those who speak their minds. I grew up in the People’s Republic of China, so I know how it is to live in a place where voicing opinions that differ from official orthodoxy can be dangerous, and I fear that model.

Like so many others, I arrived in the U.S. enormously relieved to have left my “socialist” homeland. During Mao Tse-tung’s “Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution,” intellectuals were persecuted, physically intimidated, imprisoned and, all too frequently, killed. Educated people, known as “the stinking ninth category,” were terrified into political silence after witnessing the dire consequences of voicing any suggestion of dissenting views. My parents were engineers, educated people, and so my family was separated and then “sent down” to labor among peasants in the countryside. We were punished merely for being educated.

During this time, there was a dizzying succession of “correct political lines” and an endlessly changing kaleidoscope of labels used by the Communist Party and the state to isolate anyone who disagreed with official thinking. People who criticized the government were dubbed “counterrevolutionaries,” or “capitalist roaders” or “running dogs of American imperialism.” They were “bourgeois liberals” or “wholesale Westernizers.” People tarred with such labels lost friends, jobs and reputations -- even spouses. Families were destroyed. When it came to politics, no room was left for ambiguity, doubt or disagreement. We had to pretend to believe that our leaders always knew best, and to toe the political line. With all criticism stifled, China lost the ability to examine and correct even its most abjectly self-defeating policies.


As students, we had to endlessly study the works of Marx, Lenin, Engels, Stalin and Mao. One of the main tenets of this totalitarian system was what Lenin called “democratic centralism,” which prescribed “full freedom in discussion, complete unity in action.” The Party hierarchy embraced the “unity in action” portion of the message, but true free discussion was out of the question. As Mao said: “The minority is subordinate to the majority, the lower level to the higher level, the part to the whole, and the entire membership to the Central Committee ....We must combat individualism and sectarianism so as to enable our whole party to march in step and fight for one common goal.”

Those courageous or foolish enough to dissent were marked and then ruthlessly hounded into submission. The suffocation of discussion and debate -- never mind the suicides and killings -- crippled every realm of life, from science and literature to politics, economics and even the most basic human interactions. Noted astrophysicist Fang Lizhi told me that he had been unable to teach the big-bang theory of cosmology during the Cultural Revolution because the notion of an expanding universe was a manifestation of “bourgeois idealism” that did not fit with Engels’ idea that the universe must be infinite in space and time. There were myriad other examples everywhere around us of the ways in which the nation’s ability to find the truth were affected by this savage intolerance.

So why are these 40-year-old stories of political rigidity in a faraway land relevant in America today? I’m certainly not suggesting an equivalence between the political climate in America now and China then. But I am getting a whiff of the Leninism with which I grew up in the air of today’s America, and it makes me feel increasingly uneasy.

I could not help but think about China recently during the flap over former State Department envoy Joseph C. Wilson IV, who angered the White House with his finding that documents suggesting Iraq had tried to acquire nuclear material from Niger were in all likelihood forged. The administration went ahead anyway in citing the documents as part of its justification for invading Iraq. After Wilson wrote an article for the New York Times calling attention to the deception, someone in the administration allegedly leaked information to the press that Wilson’s wife was an undercover CIA agent. In China, it was not just one official like Wilson who was targeted for retribution but countless individuals, many of whom spoke unwelcome truths about their country, only to be rewarded with public shaming or prison sentences.

When I hear our president, in this time of soaring deficits, continue to insist that tax cuts are the key to national prosperity, even though countless economists have warned against them, I cannot help but remember how Mao used to say that China didn’t really need “experts,” only people who were Red. Mao’s inner circle attacked anyone who questioned whether “class struggle” would ultimately solve all China’s problems.

I also worry about what I see happening to our media and freedom of the press. The Bush administration has repeatedly made clear that it does not welcome skeptical, penetrating questions. White House spokesmen have made it clear that they view the Washington press corps as a corrupting “filter” on the news. Reporters and publications seen as unsympathetic to the administration’s goals find it harder to get access to officials. Recently, Bush made an end run around the entire White House press corps by going directly to regional television outlets in the hopes of being better able to spin the news at the local level.

Indeed, Bush press conferences, which I enjoy watching, seem to me to have become more and more like those held by the Chinese Communist Party: Nothing but the official line is given, and probing questions from reporters, which are crucial to advancing the public’s understanding of the government’s actions, are often evaded or ignored. Moreover, as Hearst Newspapers columnist Helen Thomas, dean of the White House correspondents, recently learned, too-persistent questioning on sensitive issues means that the next time you are ignored, even relegated to the back row of the briefing.

Open inquiry, freedom of expression and debate are essential parts of a well-functioning democracy. When leaders disdain debate, ignore expert advice, deride the news media as unpatriotic and try to suppress opposing opinions, they are likely to lead their country into dangerous waters. Even China now seems to have learned how dangerous it is to completely control the press -- witness the attempted cover-up of the SARS epidemic -- and to be loosening up a bit.

Thus, it makes me all the more discouraged to find the U.S. moving backward. When honest government officials and outspoken citizens are ignored or, worse, marked for intimidation, it begins to seem that the Bush administration is acting more in keeping with Lenin’s notion of democratic centralism than with the founding fathers’ notion of the necessity for a sometimes inquisitive citizenry and a free press.

I am grateful to have become an American and to now belong to a country that has had an inspiring and enduring and true commitment to letting “a hundred flowers bloom,” as Mao, hypocritically, once said. What has made the U.S. such a beacon to people like me is that it has always been principled, confident and strong enough to let its people debate and criticize government policies without suggesting that the critics are somehow less than patriotic.

When our government loses its tolerance for a full range of views on national and world affairs, it is veering toward the authoritarian world that speaks in one voice, the very political model it has so often stood against -- even fought against. I hope I will never again have to live in such a world.