(This essay abridged was originally published in the Wall Street Journal on October 30, 2012, as “Seeds of Chinese Liberalization, Made in America.”)
Right here in our cozy, conservative boarding school, we are unconsciously and with no malicious intent sowing the seeds of future revolution in China. Chinese students, coming to the United States for secondary and undergraduate education are learning through their formal education in American classrooms and through osmosis at corner coffee shops, liberal political ideas and critical thinking skills which will in the long run help to destabilize the Chinese political system. These students who will soon be part of the next generation of adults in China will prove in the long run a much more insidious force to the Chinese Communist Party and the People’s Liberation Army than the U.S. Seventh Fleet.
The Chinese discovered our New England boarding school only recently. Five years ago we had three Chinese students; four years ago we had eleven; then nineteen; then 26. This year we have 32. Our experience reflects a national phenomenon. According to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, only 65 Chinese students attended U.S. private high schools in academic year 2005-2006. In 2010-2011 the number had grown to 6,725. Chinese attendance at U.S. colleges is also booming. In 2011, 157,588 Chinese students attended college here, a 23% from the prior year.
The Chinese students at our school are not only among our best students, they are also among our best citizens. They run and are elected to class office, they apply for the Model United Nations Club, and–thank heavens—they play musical instruments and sing. Our choir and orchestra would be seriously weakened without their presence. Sometimes they stun us with their knowledge of American culture, knowing things that our American students do not. One Chinese student was the only student in the class able to identify “The Duke” from Huckleberry Finn; another was the only student to know the final line in the movie “Gone with the Wind.”
Since the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, one of the preeminent existential questions facing China has been: Can the Chinese accomplish what the Soviets could not—liberalize economically while maintaining an illiberal political system? The Chinese Communist Party reigns over 1.4 billion people with power concentrated in its 25-member Politburo. There are no genuinely free elections, no legal parties beside the Communist Party, and few guarantees of political rights. Whereas soldiers in Western armies swear to defend such things as the nation and the country’s constitution, Chinese soldiers swear first to loyalty to the Communist Party. The flag of the People’s Republic of China bears a larger star with four smaller stars; the larger star represents the guiding light of the Communist Party.
My Chinese professor friend has told me that the Chinese people are used to following an emperor or strong man—till 1911 it was an emperor/empress, from1949-1976 it was Mao Tse-tung. But that was the old China. Because of the tremendous double-digit growth China has realized during the past two decades, China’s middle class has grown from under 100 million two decades ago to over 300 million today. It is a good bet that these masses will shift their focus from rudimentary physical and security needs to self-expression values such as freedom of speech and assembly, representative government, and free and fair elections, those values of the Western Enlightenment which destabilized so many Western countries which had been governed with power concentrated in a monarchy or aristocracy.
History gives us numerous examples of the inexorable spread of a powerful idea or art form. From meager beginnings, nothing could stop the spread of Christianity, beginning as a small insignificant religion and becoming four centuries later the official religion of the Roman Empire. Islam and Buddhism had similar relentless force. It was the idea of the “nation in arms” and the idea of equality during the French revolutionary and Napoleonic periods two hundred years ago which inspired other European peoples to rise up and conquer an expansionist France, the very country which spawned these ideas. No wall, censorship system, or totalitarian regime in the world could stop the spread of American jazz or rock ‘n roll.
I asked some of our Chinese students after graduation what they believe they had obtained at our boarding school that their friends in China had not. More practical knowledge, said one. “Here we have a lot of chances to apply the knowledge we have learned to see if we really understand them. Such as essays and labs. These are very good ways to develop independent thinking as well.” Another emphasized the confidence in herself that she developed. If she had not come to our school, she “wouldn’t have become this strong person.” These students have tasted freedom of thought and have been educated to think independently and critically. As adults they will not easily be made to kowtow to anyone or to any political system that suppresses their freedoms.
Not Mycenaean warriors hiding in a wooden horse but Han students speaking native Mandarin—and excellent English—will return to China after their sojourns in America, carrying not weapons but liberal political ideas and critical thinking skills. These students combined with the masses of the new middle class will prove to be a revolutionary cocktail for Chinese society, roiling the descendants of Maoist revolutionaries, who now hold power. Call it the Han Spring.