Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Liberty - a human right?

Recently I visited Philadelphia, a beautiful city with enormous historical significance: here the first ideas of an independent United States were voiced, which led to the declaration of independence, the revolutionary war and the first constitution of the United States. The leaders in this period were enlightened for their time - and would probably be so still in our age - they believed in the power of the people and liberty. Liberty, such a simple word, so many interpretations. US History can be proud of its independence and its constitution, but what does it mean to live in the land of the free? What does freedom mean to the Americans? And is it so different to what freedom means to others? How about China?

There are many monuments to Liberty in the Eastern US. The Statue of Lady Liberty and the Liberty Bell in Philadelphia are probably the most famous.

There is a famous poem on the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty by Emma Lazarus, called The New Colossus, which inspired me to think about this topic:

Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame
With conquering limbs astride from land to land
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates she shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
"Keep ancient lands, your storied pomp!" cries she
With silent lips, "Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse from your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!"

Philadelphia's famous father of the city, Benjamin Franklin, said They who can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety. I learned a lot about Benjamin Franklin and some of his famous colleagues from the revolution, such as Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, Richard Stockton and so on, and it opened my eyes to some fundamental US values, that are universal, but were voiced out and acted upon in the US before anywhere else in what I would like to call our modern age (I guess starting in the 1600s until now).

So what does it mean to live in the land of the free? For many years, it was a haven to immigrants, people starting anew, building their own fortune, this we came to know as the American Dream. However, not all achieved the dream. Nowadays, especially in the large cities, I see a lot of poverty and bad health. I also see charity, but is it freedom to be homeless?

What about China? Up to the 19th Century China was ruled by Imperial Dynasties. Most Chinese were farmers or merchants, few were officials or civil servants. Liberty in this period is hard to judge for me. In the later Ming Dynasty (16th Century) the first Westerners came to China, leading to trade without trust and understanding and to two Opium Wars that left China defeated and humiliated. In 1912 the Chinese Republic was announced under leadership of Sun Yat-Sen and later Chiang Kai-shek. This was a turbulent time, with a growing communist revolution, a Japanese invasion and a civil war that ended in the so-called Liberation by Mao Zedong. What the Chinese people had to live through since the late 19th Century was nothing compared to the hardship under the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution. In 1976 with the death of Chairman Mao an era ended in which the people had been at the whim of Emperors, War Lords, Presidents, Invaders, and Tyrants.

The Great Reforms of 1978 allowed farmers to sell above quota produce at local markets, allowed farmers and workers to conduct economic activities and start businesses and allowed foreign parties to trade in Special Economic Zones. A beginning was made in what we now have come to know as the Chinese Miracle. To become rich was more important than sharing poverty. Wealth has brought freedom to many Chinese people, although those who have built the economy - the farmers - are again the poorest and least free in China.

The differences between the rich and the poor are enormous in modern China, most urban Chinese who have a medium-high level education and a job will say that they are free - free to spend their money, to travel, to eat well, to be healthy. Freedom means that they are less at the whim of their rulers, who have outsmarted their people with a successful sunshine policy. Nationalism is on the rise, the Olympic Games took away many basic rights from the people in Beijing - such as driving a car three days a week and a crackdown on civil activities and journalism, however, on the surface no Chinese complained. Those who did either had to move out of China, send secret copy to blogs and foreign newspapers and were labeled dissidents. For most farmers, this was of no interest, they combated drought, flood or illness and their voices are not heard.

But what to do about it? The rich are the powerful, they all accept the status quo, they call themselves free, because they have a better life than their parents, they close their eyes to the poor and the ill and share in the nationalist pride of the Olympic Games, the Asian Games, the Shanghai Expo. I do believe that for many Chinese this is really all the freedom they need, but... it fair, that if you want something else? If you want to write about atrocities, about crackdowns on minorities, about civil sorrows, health care, and above all corruption, that you will not be able to do so without consequences? The US are the foremost fighter for the free in the world (even though this has meant invading sovereign countries in the past...let history judge their actions) and they are being ignored by an ever growing China, a China that wants to keep the power in the hand of the communist party above all.

And is that bad? Do we want a China that loses control? Do we dare to risk world stability to that? I fear that we are close to a US - China stand off. This stand off is not wanted by the American people, it is not wanted by the Chinese people, it is not wanted by the people of the world.

So maybe we should accept our interpretations of liberty for the time being. Let us foremost be free of worries and strive and whims of our leaders. That is true liberty.

1 comment:

  1. Just in the NY Times:
    "Sweeping aside a century-old understanding and overruling two important precedents, a bitterly divided Supreme Court on Thursday ruled that the government may not ban political spending by corporations in candidate elections."

    The full article