Rod MacKenzie
Rod MacKenzie

Why ‘freedom’ sells

Having lived in China for seven years I have my own kind of sorrow, mixed with the tenderness of memory when I see a small Christian community deep inside China harassed for their faith. The leader, pastor Zhang, was imprisoned for 12 years and his family was in danger of losing their lives before making it to the country of havens and golden promise, the US.

Yes, the last sentence was overblown. For, while my heart goes out to Zhang and his family and to the entire community, this story of “ruthless oppression” is only the presenting narrative.

I have had the privilege of joining Chinese people in their places of worship in relatively isolated cities like Shaoxing and Hangzhou. Of course, their faith is a shelter from the cold. Which the media latch onto and weave into their “ruthless oppression” storyline. But from what cold? I all too often saw people who were happy and content in China, though they had little – and because, I believe, they had little.

This is not to say there is no oppression. But seven years is a long time to go teach in schools in poorer areas of China and sometimes never seeing a fellow Westerner for months on end. But I did see a lot of smiley-faced, perfectly content people. People who were freed from materialism because they had so little, and the happier for it. It sounds like I am presenting China as Walden. No, I am just saying it is not as simple as the US is Hobbiton and China equals Mordor.

In all the many Chinese cities I went to, you will see large red crosses prominent on rooftops. These are Christian church buildings. Christians do freely worship in their churches. Oh, they are monitored. China is a nation of spies; you are your brother’s keeper. There are Muslim men wearing their kufi caps unimpeded, selling food in streets and running halaal restaurants. I befriended some. So stories like this – for those of us who have experienced China as more than highly selected footage (America good, China bad) – we view rather cynically.

Dig a little deeper into the story, and, apparently, it is about a land dispute, which sounds a lot more familiar to this writer. A land dispute and a vicious, personal vendetta is a lot closer to the truth, not the oppression of religion. This pattern can be seen in recent historical books about China like Wild Swans and Bend, Not Break. I am not saying there is not oppression in China; it is the degree of it which is distorted in the media, giving the illusion everyone there lives in fear. They do not. I have taught literally thousands of children in “poor” areas of China. Children’s faces cannot lie. My students were mostly full of beans and laughter.

Media footage like this creates dangerous and false metonyms about countries. When do you see fairytale good news about any country in the world? The Netherlands, for example, is hardly ever in the news. But what will bring the Netherlands to world attention? The senior citizens in Amsterdam enjoying their regular game of bowls and their chit-chat over tea afterwards? Or a massive bomb explosion in the busy downtown area? The latter, of course, will be on your smartphone within the hour. Just as, while I write this, the Malaysia Airlines plane allegedly shot down over the Ukraine. Bad news sells. Freedom – and perceptions of freedom – also sell.

For when we sit in our cosy homes in far-flung cities like Auckland and Washington, we can watch news like this about China over coffee and mutter, “there but for the grace of God go us”. But how important is the story of one pastor and his family – as bitterly sad as it is – that out of the sheer congestion of news available for televised, global leading news, this story of one family and their community gets selected?

Because we need to be reminded of our “freedom”. If freedom it is – that intangible commodity we apparently have. And we need to be reminded that things are so terrible in China. US good, China bad. Our perception of what freedom is, or what our freedom is, is contingent on our perceptions of the constraints on that “freedom” in other places.

Ask yourself, what is your image of China, for people who live there, and knowing you have never lived there? Write it down. Is your resume of China negative or positive?

I am not saying that China does not have a poor track record on human rights. It does. So does South Africa. So do minorities, oppressed groups and many of the unemployable all over the world. So do Kiwis in Australia, unlike Australians living in New Zealand. But all these “free” people can look at their news screens and drone: “Well, there but for the grace of God … ” It is easy to be duped into believing we have such freedom when we see, or think we see, how awful it apparently is in that massive, emerging economy. The meaning of freedom depends so much on context. And context – for example the freedom to own possessions which actually possess us – obscures freedom.

Imagine Athena recently brought out a smart little introduction to the question of freedom, called “Why Freedom Matters”. These brief, simple essays dwell less on contexts in which struggles for one freedom or another occurs, and more on trying to create awareness in the reader of what a vulnerable phenomenon freedom is, and how precious and ephemeral notions of freedom are. Check it out.

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    • John Yates

      Years ago whilst still in high school I won a speech competition on, “The price of freedom is eternal vigilance.” Basically I understood and still do so that possibly the most deeply ingrained human response is survival. If we cannot remain, alive here on the planet, we will be of little impact in the scheme of things BIGGER. Why are we here, what is my purpose, why did I come ?? etc questions that mankind has spent eons seeking answers of.

      Yet for all the above so much of what we as humans focus on are actions of violence man against man adnauseum. So I hear what Rod is saying and partially agree. Things are not all good or bad. They are what we choose to label them as. So our response to a media presented set of circumstances is entirely ours. We are FREE to make that call and I believe are all the better for that ability.

      The trick is, to actually be aware that we all possess that capability and to exercise that in in a “response able” manner.

    • Jon Quirk

      Excellent article and underlines what the core problem in South Africa is.

      Far too few people have travelled; and travelling is not two weeks lying on a beach in Thailand or Mauritius, it is journeying to understand and get to know different cultures.

      And the sad reality is that one of the most blinkered sub-sets of South Africans is the leadership cabal of the ANC who have travelled, read and explored in very narrow circles – and no Thabo a few trips to VI does NOT mean you have been to Nigeria.

    • Rick

      Definitions of ‘freedom’ are many! People will fight to the death for freedom from political oppression and dictatorship on the one hand while on the other hand they are quite prepared to subjugate themselves completely to some imaginary dictator in the sky! Their gods apparently are all powerful, all knowing and have the ability to send their followers to heaven or hell depending on whether the followers are suitably loyal. People are born as sinners and live in fear of their gods for life! The clever politicians utilise this fear to manipulate their citizens into giving up even more freedoms.
      I submit that the only way to be truly FREE in this one life that we have is to live a life free from the mumbo jumbo of religion. Only then will you take full responsibility for your own life and not rely on some frightening imaginary father figure to whom you have to pray endlessly for forgiveness for something that you did not do!

    • Garg Unzola

      Chinese Muslims are perhaps the most fascinating aspect of the place for me. Going there is like going to another planet.

      I can’t help but think that when religion is supposedly oppressed in China, there is frequently a different motive for the oppression than the religious beliefs of those involved.

    • Another place

      First and fleeting impressions. When I went there I was struck so forcefully by the insulation of the people, and the absolute paralysis in taking the initiative and being free and proactive in their thinking. Hellishly frustrating after a while. There was always someone whose permission had to be sought. Everyone toes the party line and it clearly a “policed” country, which, coming from the old apartheid era, I experienced as overtly hierarchical, “militaristic” and disconcerting. The people were so friendly and almost desperate to share their culture but sadly for the time I was there, all they could offer was Chinese language lessons, which I engaged in with much pleasure and cameraderie. I was not impressed with the reverence with the politicians are treated. Despite protestations to the contrary, they are clearly treated as a priveleged elite. Language is a huge barrier and Rod, you will know far better than me, but I suspect that there are quite high levels of illiteracy. Coming from this side of the equator, I would not travel that distance again nor stay for long unless it was to walk a part of the Great Wall. Pity, because the people were so friendly. But free? not a chance in hell. There is an Afrikaans saying : “Hulle is gelukkig in hulle onskuld.” which I suppose suggests that they appear happy because they know no better. I cannot really decide if that is a good or a bad thing.

    • Momma Cyndi

      Freedom is a fairy tale. There is no such thing. With every right you get, you also get a responsibility.

      So soon do we forget Tienanmen Square. Equating happy children with freedom is a bit misleading. The natural state of children is having fun. Go to any squatter camp in South Africa and see the happy, laughing children playing in the streets. Even during the worst times of oppression, they found joy. We have much to learn from children.

      The entire ‘orient’ is a strangely alien place. Their very way of thinking is so very different to ours. It is like they think in ancient Shakespearean.

    • Rod MacKenzie

      Hi Momma Cyndi – “Equating happy children with freedom is a bit misleading. The natural state of children is having fun. Go to any squatter camp in South Africa and see the happy, laughing children playing in the streets. Even during the worst times of oppression, they found joy. We have much to learn from children.”

      I have been to some of those squatter camps and taught in townships. What you are saying is only 50% true, from my experiences. You have a potential contradiction in what you are saying – “happy children misleading” as a pose to “having a lot to learn from children.” So their happiness is misleading and we learn a lot from that falsity? Their happiness is predicated on a “freedom”, I think, we adults can only yearn for. I am dialoguing with you.

    • Momma Cyndi

      Hi Rod,

      No contradiction. Children don’t need a reason to be happy, they simply live in the moment. They have this startling ability to go from crying to laughing in a matter of moments because they live in the now. Adults hold too tightly to what has happened or what may happen.

      Poverty is not fun. Oppression isn’t fun. Life is, however, what you make of it