Back in the late 1980s and early ’90s, when I was living in China during the period described in my Blue Ear Books title Live at the Forbidden City: Musical Encounters in China and Taiwan, I found that my status as a visiting musician granted me a level of intimacy with ordinary Chinese people that was rarely conferred on foreign travelers, diplomats, students, or businesspeople. I felt touched and honored that so many Chinese acquaintances – especially young people – trusted me enough to open up about their aspirations, doubts, and worldviews, away from the prying eyes of suspicious peers or the state.
One theme that emerged time and again during these conversations was their admiration for the American way of life and governance, and their hope that China would follow our example. Most of my university students aspired to study in the States; others, such as the two young scholars who adopted the English names Reagan and Dukakis (!), held up American public figures as role models. The enthusiasm many showed for all things American was particularly surprising given China’s relentless demonization of the U.S. during the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution and the Cold War, then still in its dying throes. Evidently, a lot of rank-and-file Chinese citizens weren’t buying the Party line and instead yearned for the liberties and opportunities seemingly embodied by the U.S.
Young Chinese like these envied us our freedoms and prosperity and strongly felt that a rapidly changing China should model itself on our example. While their idealism was commendable, it was strikingly naïve, though forgivably so given a lack of direct experience with the ‘real’ U.S. While I didn’t want to puncture their dreams, I sometimes felt compelled to gently warn them against making the same mistakes my country had, in terms of, say, environmental degradation, overdependence on the automobile, concentration of wealth, or the neoliberal agenda. Sadly, China went on to willfully ignore America’s failures and embrace many of the same destructive practices, to the lasting detriment of its populace. Still, what I remember most vividly is my Chinese friends’ genuine belief in the United States as a beacon of fairness for people from all walks of life. As then U.S. Ambassador to China James Lilley once flatly declared in my presence in the aftermath of the Tiananmen debacle, “We are winning the battle for the hearts and minds of the Chinese.”
Was he ever wrong.
From where we now stand amid the sordid hog-wallow of the 2016 U.S. Presidential carnival, and regardless of its outcome, it is clear that the vision of the United States as a paragon to emulate – a vision that once gave hope to millions of aspirants in China and across the globe – appears well and truly eclipsed by resurgent racism, sexism, selfishness, and ignorance; that both the U.S. political establishment and its opposition, and the dark interests behind them, have squandered the legacy of Jefferson, Roosevelt, and King that so inspired multitudes around the world. In this morally toxic autumn of 2016, these same multitudes now view us through a lens of shame, embarrassment, and disbelief, but take no joy in the collapse of our once-sturdy principles.
In 1989, Chinese demonstrators risked grievous harm by erecting a makeshift “Goddess of Democracy,” clearly modeled on our Statue of Liberty, in Tiananmen Square. What would they raise in its place today?
(Of closely related interest: “Ugly US election race a poor ad for democracy in China” (BBC News))