Freedom was, is and (most likely) always will be a loaded term. What is it? And who deserves it? Is it even something that needs to be deserved?
Let’s brush these dissertation-worthy questions aside and address something I know for sure. Freedom as an ideal has been reduced to a mere buzzword in America. Politicians have taken something beautiful and dressed it up as a not-too-expensive prostitute on the Vegas strip that’s still nice-enough-looking to pimp out reliably every election cycle to a widely ignorant electorate.
It’s no longer freedom as basic human rights, but FREEEDOMMMM! (Bald Eagle screeches in the background.) God forbid you have complete jurisdiction over your body or whom you want to marry. No, freedom isn’t that. It’s having a big ass gun with no practical purpose other than killing people because… Freedom.
So, unsurprisingly, people are indeed very surprised and, more often than not, offended when I mention that sometimes I at least feel freer in China. This always comes about in the vehicle of some uninformed question like, “How could you live there?” or comments like, “I couldn’t do it, man.”
All of this dialogue dances around the real question likely on their minds, “How could you, an American, live in an evil, Commie police state?” Or, “WHY DO YOU HATE FREEDOM?!”
China is a police state
That brings us back to the irksome topic of definitions. What’s a “police state” in our modern world? It certainly sounds scary, and for all intents and purposes, China is one. Citizens and expats alike are supposed to register with the Orwellian “Public Security Bureau” upon traveling to a different city. The government instills its narrative in everything, from propaganda billboards along highways to its “Patriotic Education Campaign” that essentially rewrites history in favor of the CPC throughout public schools. And the one everyone knows, the heavily censored Internet that is barely usable without a Virtual Private Network service, or VPN.
I really hate all of this stuff and believe that the Chinese people deserve a hell of a lot better. However, almost none of this affects me personally as a foreigner. The first time I tried to register at a PSB, they wondered why I even bothered. I have a VPN. I wasn’t brainwashed by the Party’s lies from childhood and can easily debunk them with access to the rest of the world via said VPN. I’m just kind of watching it all happen around me, unmolested and unperturbed.
Surely there must be a lot of police in a police state, and it at least seems that way on the surface in China. I always see them driving by, the red and blue lights perpetually on to announce their presence. They’re walking down the street, eating at the noodle shop downstairs and occasionally setting fire to my favorite bar due to mismanagement of flaming vodka shots. As far as actual policing goes, they don’t really do shit.
“They’re worse than gangsters.”
I’m talking to my friend and bartender of the aforementioned bar about the flaming shot fiasco.
As a foreigner, you are okay. They will help you because they are afraid of bad press if they don’t. But the average person is fucked, unless they know them or bribe them.”
In fact, that bar is blatantly unlicensed. Illegal. Because of the police. If you have a licensed bar or restaurant in China, the police are entitled to inspect it once a month. They expect a greased palm. If not, they will shake you down and find the most minuscule code violation and fine you anyway. This sort of stuff is a dying breed in Beijing, Shanghai, etc., but is alive and well in Daqing. So it’s basically cheaper to operate unlicensed, not paying off the cops and pay a fine if you happen to be caught.
That is a shitty situation for the average Chinese citizen, but again, does not affect me whatsoever. Well, unless my bar is eventually closed.
America is a police state, too
I mentioned that it seems like there’s a huge police presence in China. Seems like. There are actually only 120 police officers for every 100,000 people while the UN’s recommended median is 222, a 45 percent deficit in policing power. America’s all over it, though, with 373 police for every 100,000 civilians, which is nearly twice as many as what the UN recommends. So, if a lot of police somehow equals police state, wouldn’t America fit that definition even more than China?
We’ve not even broached the subject of guns. Like several developed countries in the world (although China could still be considered developing in many ways), the common police officer in China is unarmed. For situations in which firearms are advised, the People’s Armed Police are called in as backup. I do understand the necessity for American police to be armed because any American citizen could potentially have a gun, but this difference already makes me feel more uncomfortable around cops back home.
Especially considering the current situation. The New York Times has an excellent article detailing 73 different accounts of unarmed death by cop (mostly, non-white, of course) since Michael Brown’s death in Ferguson. Combine these stats with the 1033 Program, which allows the Department of Defense to transfer excess military equipment to law enforcement agencies, and you’ve got a place I’m not really interested in living. If a feeling of safety and security can be considered an aspect of human freedom, then using armored personnel carriers and automatic weapons (literally) straight outta Fallujah against peaceful protesters is not really conducive to that.
Wait a second; didn’t big bad China do something similar in 1989?
Petty freedoms that make life more awesome
That’s the serious stuff. There are a lot of other little things here that are going to make it hard to leave when the time comes. You can’t tell me that riding in the back of a taxi, smoking cigars and passing around a bottle of Jim isn’t a good time. If you want, you can take that bottle to the street. It’s a marriage of three petty freedoms: 1) awesome access to transportation for usually less than a buck; 2) no pissy open container laws; and, 3) you can pretty much smoke wherever the hell you want in China. The last one may not be such a good thing, but you can do it nonetheless.
Then there’s the financial freedom of being able to have a healthy, filling, delicious lunch for a buck fifty. My employer pays for my apartment, and I only work about 25 hours/week. That leaves more time for drunken taxi rides. I don’t think I could be doing any of that if I had stayed in the States. Luckily for me, there are well-paying jobs all over Asia where the only requirements are to look foreign and speak English.
I’m not saying that I hate America; quite the opposite is true. Part of being truly patriotic is realizing when your country is doing things horribly wrong and being able to admit it like a mature adult. China also has a lot of shit to work on, but because a lot of the bad doesn’t affect non-citizens, I’m left in this limbo state of pretty much doing whatever the hell I want (within reason) and also avoiding a lot of the bad in the States.
I’ll probably return at some point, but I have to say, I’m enjoying the freedom for now.