Why I Am Not Terrified to Live in China

I laugh when people ask if I am fearful of living in China. Truthfully, despite complaining about the bans on Netflix and YouTube, the idea that I ought to feel uneasy as a citizen under an authoritarian government never struck me until I came abroad to Hotchkiss. The country depicted in the words of my peers seems nothing like the country in which I was born and raised. They speak of a government that silences and kills – one that I cannot recognize when safely and freely roaming Shanghai’s streets.
The prevailing Western narrative paints countries like China as havens for human rights abuse in order to perpetuate a single-minded glorification of democratic ideals. “American” values, such as the individual rights of speech, choice, and access to political capital, contradict the basis of a centralized, authoritative government. Pride in these American principles encourages continued imperialistic approaches to spreading these ideologies.
This glorified narrative is even perpetuated in Eastern countries; I vividly remember picturing the fulfillment of my own “American Dream” in a flawless country epitomizing freedom and equality when I thought about going abroad. Furthermore, Western media often demonizes countries like China by evaluating its policies against the Western paradigm of “good” government. For example, when criticizing Chinese President Xi Jinping’s removal of presidential term limits on the assumption that democracy is invariably beneficial, an outsider can easily overlook the crucial advantages this stability in government has brought to the economic growth of a developing country.
The disparity between Western perspectives and those of Chinese citizens on governmental regulations is vast. For instance, American news sources overwhelmingly responded with shock and criticism to the implementation of the social credit score system in China, claiming that my country is progressing towards a “dystopian dictatorship.”
Reasonably, if a system can result in so much distress from foreigners, one would expect Chinese citizens to fear it as well. However, the overwhelming acceptance and support for the system in China, as shown in countless interviews with citizens, demonstrates fundamental differences in their expectations for government.
Like the Chinese idiom, “you should only be fearful as a thief,” Chinese citizens largely believe that the government will only punish the guilty and protect law-abiding citizens. Accustomed to the extent of the government’s presence in our daily lives, many believe the system encourages better behavior without negative consequences. This almost unconditional trust for policymakers is unique to a country like China.
The basis for this trust is rooted in the Chinese people’s understanding of government as an exchange of freedom for security. The social contract between Chinese citizens and our government entails the forfeiture of certain freedoms for the government’s protection of others. Often, the sacrifice of individual autonomy is proportional to the benefit of security under the government.
An obvious example is the rigorous law enforcement and gun control in China. I feel safe roaming its city streets at midnight, given the strict surveillance of misdemeanors as small as jaywalking (through governmental surveillance and face recognition). On the contrary, walking the New York streets alone late at night is inadvisable. In China, one might give up one’s privacy and personal location for the freedom of walking the streets without fear. In turn, there is a lesser awareness of and value for “fundamental” rights such as privacy, speech, and self-protection.
I implore you to pay a visit to China or have a conversation with Chinese students. I am certain that it will offer a new perspective.