Friday, March 11, 2016

China Meets the Liberty Bell (True Story)

[An event in San Francisco tonight celebrates the first anniversary of the merger of the Bill of Rights Defense Committee and the Defending Dissent Foundation. It seemed like a good time to dust off a short essay I wrote nearly twenty years ago. On the eve of a visit by President Jiang Zemin of China prepared to Philadelphia during his visit to the US in 1997, I reflected on how ideas about freedom get spread. I've resisted the temptation to edit the piece in light of how my thinking and attitude has changed in the course of two decades. I'll let it speak for itself . . . . ]

Waves of Chinese visitors over the years have visited our country, including visits to the monuments that symbolize our democratic values. What they learn from seeing "business-as-usual" in the course of these visits teaches more about democracy than any special demonstrations or speeches that we concoct for their benefit

Independence National Historical Park - lots to talk about!

I worked and lived in Center City Philadelphia for about ten years during the '80s and '90s. It was a great place to act as host to visitors from China. Being with people who are seeing with completely fresh eyes landmarks like Independence Hall, the Liberty Bell, Carpenter's Hall, and others -- it provided wonderful opportunities for conversation and observation. I learned a lot.

One of the first things I learned was that Chinese visitors pay close attention to everything going on around them during their visits to the US. I first became alerted to this fact the very first time I escorted a visiting delegation -- a group from the city of Tianjin I took to see the Liberty Bell. As the guide from the National Park Service told how the Bell had actually stood for three different types of liberty in the course of its history  -- religious liberty, liberty from colonialism, and liberty from enslavement -- my guests started to whisper to each other in an animated way and stare at her with a somewhat confused expression. Finally, the leader of the delegation interrupted the guide and said, "Excuse me, but we think we saw you yesterday in Washington, DC, at the Washington Monument!" The guide smiled beneath her Smokey the Bear hat and said, "Oh, that must have been my identical twin sister. She's a Park Service guide, too, but she works down in DC."

Not bad. I wonder how many US visitors could have caught that one. And it's not just the little details that catch their attention. When I took a group from Chengdu to visit Washington, they were amazed at the openness of the Capitol. The first thing they commented on was the fact that the doors were open and anyone could just walk in -- and not just to see the main public galleries, but also to get a "behind-the-scenes" tour, as well. But what made them really sit up and take notice was when the guide said that, even when Congress is in session, anyone can enter the gallery to the House Chamber by going to their representative's office and getting a pass. "What about foreigners?" my guests asked. "Since foreigners have no representatives in Congress," came the reply, "they need only show their passport to the Sergeant-at-Arms to be allowed to enter." My guests appeared lost in thought for a long time after that.

National Park Service ranger providing interpretation to visitors at the
Liberty Bell (with Independence Hall visible in the background).

Their perceptiveness can cut both ways, of course. I took another Chinese group to the Liberty Bell in the early '90s, after the events at Tiananmen -- intending, I admit, to suggest a contrast between the oh-so-free US and their own government. Standing in front of the Bell, I started to explain its significance to my guests (in Chinese).  "Excuse me," said the guard, "but no one is allowed to discuss the Bell here; you are only allowed to listen to the Park Ranger's comments." This dampened my message about American freedom, to put it mildly. It turned out that there was some sort of regulation. I questioned a second ranger and was told that rangers are the only ones allowed to present information in the Bell area. [The term of art is "interpreting the Bell."] We could look at a brochure. We could listen to a tape. We were not at liberty to talk. Besides, the ranger wanted to know, "What do you want to say, anyway?" My Chinese guest saw my embarrassment, and later consoled me, "Don't worry about it. We have a lot of this kind of thing in China, too."

The last encounter was one I couldn't seem to let go of, by the way, until I had had my say with the Superintendent of the Park. "I want to thank you for bringing this incident to our attention," she wrote. "It gave us an opportunity to clarify park policy to the staff on an issue that can be confusing . . . . I hope your next visit to Independence National Historical Park is an entirely satisfactory one. Our apologies for the confusion."

"Proclaim liberty throughout all the land"
13¢ Liberty Bell stamp from c. 1975
I was annoyed at having to exchange letters with bureaucrats, but I was eventually able to see it in a larger context. The Chinese watch what we do, not what we say, and they don't miss a trick. Thus, we have maximum credibility with the Chinese when we just do what is really right; they are paying attention and they get the message loud and clear. In contrast, no amount of posturing can cover up our real moral failures, big or small, intentional or unintentional; and those are also completely transparent to the Chinese (though they are usually too polite to bring them up).

So . . . what can you do to contribute to the progress of liberty in China? Perhaps the best place to start is in your everyday life: with who you let in your front door, with your participation in your community . . . or just with a private conversation in front of the Liberty Bell. I'm glad President Jiang will have that opportunity on Thursday.

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