Opinion: Chinese immigrant’s story displays generational and political gaps, challenges of public trust facing China

Chris Juergens November 4, 2017 0

May 1988. Tiananmen Square, Beijing, China. • Photo by Derzsi Elekes Andor

On a recent meeting at Starbucks, Hua Zhang, an immigrant from China to the United States, said he is grateful for the rule of law and individual rights guaranteed to him as a naturalized U.S. citizen. While not an overtly political person, he was detained arbitrarily for being a passive spectator at a pre-Tiananmen democracy rally in the 1980s. Coming to the United States in the early 1990s, he lived for a brief time in China after the Tiananmen Square massacre of 1989. Witnessing the government’s authoritarian approach in maintaining control after the massacre left him reluctant to live in China again, though he’d been planning to leave China before the massacre.

In the late 1990s, he considered moving back to China given the increasing economic opportunity there. The freedom and protection of individual rights in the United States, however, was a major pull to stay in the United States.

Zhang, a graduate of a prestigious Chinese university and a working professional in the Northwest, said it’s possible he could have made more money in China. In the early 1990s, China’s economy began to take off and economic opportunities abounded. And while he is a strong English speaker, Zhang believes that not being able to speak his native tongue at work has held him back. When Zhang meets friends from university who stayed in China, almost all are economically better off than him, and serving in high positions in Chinese industry and government.

However, Zhang would not trade his middle-class American life for his friends’ lives because “to get to high positions in government or industry in China, one most likely would have to be bribed and even possibly ‘kill’ to get there,” he said. He pities his friends because “it must weigh on their consciences what they have done to get where they are.” Moreover, his friends are undoubtedly “beholden to the government” for their positions. According to Zhang, the Chinese government can literally take away the wealth and power of anyone who does not bend to their will. In the United States, his modest house and wealth are his and no government can take them away from him.

Zhang’s view on his friends’ predicament is confirmed by the exodus of Chinese money from China to the United States. The reasons for Chinese capital flight range from fears about the future of the Chinese economy to a desire by wealthy Chinese to live in less polluted nations. However, a less discussed reason is that those in powerful positions in Chinese government and industry fear that their assets may be confiscated if the political situation changed. As Tyler Durden of zerohedge.com discusses, Luo Yu, the son of a former chief of staff of China’s military, said China’s most politically powerful families have been transferring money out of the country for some time. “They don’t believe they will hold on to power long enough—sooner or later they would collapse,” said Mr. Luo, a former colonel in the Chinese Army. “So they transfer their money.”

Chen Jiang, a Chinese citizen and former researcher for an American media outlet in China, confirmed that many wealthy Chinese believe their positions in China are precarious. “Chinese people remember the upheavals of the Mao years and more recently how the government can move against enemies without restraint,” Jiang said. “The government is an arbitrary force in China that is not constrained by laws and is often used by individuals to take out their enemies.”

Despite this, Zhang said his father is not willing to listen to criticism about the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). Zhang’s father’s uncritical acceptance of the CCP is a testament to China’s closed political system, and an unwillingness to confront the contradictions in a political system he helped create. A veteran of the Korean War who went to military school and worked for the Chinese government, Zhang’s father’s education and career left no room for dissent.

Seeing the United States as a powerful enemy, Zhang’s father does not believe China should have freedom of speech or democracy. He sees the lack of democratic freedom in China as a worthy price for maintaining national unity and stability. The unity and stability are necessary, according to Zhang’s father, because China is under threat from the United States, which is trying to subvert China’s rise as a major world power.

Zhang said he “feels sorry for his father,” who was “thoroughly brainwashed.” Zhang has struggled to have conversations with his father that hint at challenging official CCP dogma.

An emigrant with U.S. citizenship, Zhang feels no need to argue for the righteousness of the CCP. He has access to critical information that is censored and suppressed in China, allowing him space to create his own opinions.

Zhang was extremely reluctant to agree to an interview at first. He was worried about how his views on the Chinese government might prevent him from getting a Chinese visa in the future. He asked that the International Examiner use a pseudonym, and did not want the interview to be recorded. The extent to which Zhang’s children’s generation—both in China and the United States—continue to follow the corrupt ways to rise to wealth and power, leave China completely for safety, and speak out openly without fear of reprisal will play a major role in the future of China’s politics.

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