COVID-19 is revealing deep truths about the state of the world and specifically two powerful nations–the United States and China. I lived in both during the pandemic. In both countries I was afraid.
In 1949 the Chinese government made a bargain with the male, Han Chinese: individual liberties for collective security. In 1776 the American government made the inverse deal with White men: collective security for individual liberties. In both countries, people have been sacrificed. Women and racial minorities have been laid at the feet of security or liberty and then beaten back when they attempt to claim equality.
Americans on both sides of the aisle love to paint China in one shade of authoritarian red, blaming the victims for their subjection. When we do so, it allows our government to be colored in one shade of immutable liberty.
Benjamin Franklin’s widely cited quotation is used to support said freedom. “Those who would give up essential Liberty, to purchase a little temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety,” Franklin said.
These words encapsulate a treasured American ethos: give me liberty or give me death. However, this quote is misunderstood and, even in its misunderstanding, is not a reflection of reality for many Americans.
The quotation comes from a letter written to the Pennsylvania General Assembly. The letter referred to the Penn Family, the proprietary family of Pennsylvania, that was avoiding paying taxes for the French and Indian War. The Penns were attempting to buy out the General Assembly. Franklin was writing to combat this affront to legislative independence.
“It is a quotation that defends the authority of a legislature to govern in the interests of collective security,” Benjamin Wittes, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, said on NPR’s All Things Considered. Essentially, Franklin was writing for the liberty of the government to rule in the pursuit of communal safety.
This is our burden, and the burden of all governments—how much liberty should we give up in the name of security?When I first heard of the virus, I was in a small city in China, staying with a friend’s family for the upcoming holiday. I saw a few masks on the train to her hometown; the virus was barely more than a rumor. Everyone knew it to be real, but few knew its full gravity. Under the authoritarian control of the Chinese Communist Party, or CCP, that is still true today. The world does not know the true number of deaths in China. Americans hold the numbers provided to be false, and so do many Chinese.
Data mining shows that, in the early days of the outbreak, many Chinese social posts showed disappointment with the Wuhan Red Cross. The Chinese are a people who largely know the hand they were dealt and are attempting to make the best of it. They are not the blind fools that some Americans make them out to be.
In the days before I left on a hurried flight, I wandered around the small town in Sichuan province. Within a few days everyone, every single soul, wore a mask. The only time we removed them was during the Lunar New Year feast. Social distancing was respected when we walked around the local park after dinner, save for the occasional romping child. The market shelves were still full of food, soap and even toilet paper.
A few hours after the fireworks ended, I returned to my apartment and packed. I chose to leave because I could not trust the CCP. And yet, it was not an easy decision. I loved my time in China. I would explore ancient temples and well-funded, albeit biased, museums. At night, unbelievably inexpensive and delicious restaurants were aplenty. After dinner, I would wander the university campus where I taught English, public speaking and debate. It was largely a peaceful existence, built on the security for which the Chinese people have exchanged many personal liberties.
Such security is not afforded to all Chinese citizens. My Tibetan and Uyghur students would never speak about the annexation of their homelands nor the imprisonment of their people. My friend would refer to herself as, “not really Chinese,” because her father was of one of China’s 55 minority groups. She also told me of the time a cab driver pulled out his penis while giving her a ride.
I told her of when I worked as a Resident Advisor at the University of Colorado and found a young woman in the Cheyenne-Arapaho dorm lobby, stripped bare from the waist down, unable to speak or walk. I spoke with my students about the Native American tribes that the dorm was named after, tribes that were massacred. I told them of the black and brown men disproportionately imprisoned and shot in the street like rabid dogs.
We may never know the exact number of Chinese deaths, but we do know that China is opening up due to the use of Orwellian measures. Chinese citizens have sacrificed their freedoms in the name of collective security. Phones are being tracked and travel is being severely restricted, all in the name of safety. When the famous Dr. Li Wenliang’s whistleblowing was silenced at a risk to public health, Chinese citizens flocked to Weibo, the Chinese equivalent of Twitter, to protest. Embarrassing attempts by the party to fabricate national unity and deflect anger were equally torn apart. When the party broke its deal—the exchange of liberties for public safety—the people spoke out.
This is comparable to outrage in the U.S. Protesters have marched on the lawn of the Denver statehouse with signs demanding haircuts. Picketers have carried signs stating “land of the free” at Montana’s capital. Armed men have entered the Michigan statehouse. This is an act that points to the astounding liberties that white men are still afforded. They have been granted the freedom to purchase and carry assault rifles, just as they also hold the freedom to not wear facemasks. But what about the other freedoms? What about the freedom from being killed in the street? What about freedom from fear?
Ibram X. Kendi, the director of American University’s Anti Racist Research and Policy Center, discusses this differentiation in his recent article in The Atlantic. Kendi argues that while white Americans bellow for the freedom to carry assault rifles, black American’s are denied the freedom from fear. Kendi compares this to the liberties that were an expectation of white men during Franklin’s time: the freedom to own slaves, which seemed to trump the freedom from slavery. In his article titled “What the Racial Data Show,” Kendi speaks of the 14.1% of Michigan’s population that is black, and yet comprises 40% of the COVID-19 patients in the state. Does white protesters’ freedom to not wear masks outweigh black Michiganders’ freedom from undue risk?The American and Chinese protests—analogs in spite of distinct motivations—can be seen as both populations checking their respective government when the promise of security or liberty is betrayed. Yet, in the case of COVID-19, all Chinese were temporarily stripped of even more liberties while specific groups of Americans have lost necessary security.
In the months following the outbreak protests of another kind are taking place in both countries. Protesters have returned to the streets of Hong Kong in rejection of mainland China’s attempt to solidify control over the island. After the death of George Floyd, an unarmed man, at the hands of the Minneapolis police, protests have spread throughout the United States.
The 8th day of protests following the death of George Floyd falls on June 4th, the anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre. In 1989 another group of Chinese protesters filled the center of Beijing while the CCP sent troops and tanks into the city. The total number of deaths is still not known.
The most widely shared image of those dark days is now referred to as “Tank Man.” One man, who has since disappeared, on his way back from the grocery store stepped in front of a tank. This image has long been used in American high schools to demonstrate the dangerous nature of authoritarian regimes, while promising students that their country would never sink to such levels.
When white protesters entered the Michigan statehouse with assault rifles President Trump dubbed them “very good people.” When people of every race took to the streets to oppose centuries of the murder of black Americans he threatened to shoot and call in the military.
White Americans have feared to acknowledge our country’s long and continuing history of manipulation and control. We blindly nurse contempt for places like China in order to avoid the reality within our own borders. In doing so we abandon the dream of a truly free nation that has yet to come to fruition in “the land of the free and the home of the brave.”
Franklin said those who give up “essential” liberty for “temporary” safety deserve neither. Being unmasked is not an essential liberty, just as carrying an assault rifle is not an essential liberty. Killing an unarmed man is not a liberty. Being able to sleep in your bed, run down your street, go to the grocery store without additional fear, or simply breathe is essential. In the current state of America, we have made a deal to exchange essential safety for temporary liberty.
Editor’s Note: This story was updated to include parallels between recent events in the United States and China.