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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