Commentary

Cornering Freedom in China

What to do about China? That question is troubling U.S. policymakers, as they grapple with the implications of the Middle Kingdom’s rapid economic growth. Liberals worry about China’s effect on manufacturing jobs, and conservatives suspect her ambitions. Is it necessary for Americans to regard China’s economic success and growing influence as a threat?

I thought about that question a lot during a recent trip to China. An impromptu encounter on the campus of Renmin University in Beijing, where I had the pleasure of interacting with some of the young people who will become China’s business managers and government officials in the coming decades, helped shape my own answer.

Renmin University, also known as the People’s University of China, has an enrollment of almost 19,000 and is one of China’s most respected schools. It was founded in 1950 by the Communist party. The children of many Chinese officials were educated there, and three generations of Chinese leaders, Mao Zedong, Deng Xiaoping, and Jiang Zemin, have paid special attention to the school’s development. So I was especially surprised by what I learned.

It was about 8 P.M. on a Friday when I ventured onto Renmin’s campus. In a courtyard near the school’s east gate, I discovered some 200 students who were exchanging views about history, economics, politics, and culture. It was U.S. history, economics, politics, and culture that they were discussing — and they were speaking English.

I moved through the crowd, sampling the various conversations and marveling at the students’ knowledge of American politics and history. As the only Westerner on the scene, I stood out.

Some students smiled and began to ask me questions. One asked where I was from and I said, “The United States, Washington, D.C.” Immediately, he flashed two thumbs up and said “Very good. America is very good. America is our model.”

He ushered me to an area of the courtyard that was drawing the largest crowds and asked me to evaluate his performance before climbing atop a soapbox. He smiled and began:

“Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal…”

From memory, the student recited the Gettysburg Address. The audience joined in enthusiastically for the final verse:

“… that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”

A few students then took turns delivering Lincoln’s speech from the soapbox. Each time, the crowd shouted the final lines. Several students spoke about other subjects — whatever was on their minds. The audience smiled, cheered and was so obviously engaged, that it moved me deeply.

I had stumbled upon “English Corner,” Renmin’s version of Speakers’ Corner, that eminent temple of free speech in London’s Hyde Park. English Corner is a Renmin fixture every Friday night. Students from all over Beijing come to practice their English, to air their views and to learn more about the American experiment. I was thrilled and impressed and, yes, proud.

Then someone suggested that I give Lincoln’s address. The crowd roared in agreement. Embarrassed, I admitted that I hadn’t committed it to memory. “No problem,” said a student, as he handed me a printed version. “We would really like to hear a famous American address given by a native English speaker.”

I ignored the possibility that I could be arrested for subversion, and climbed the soapbox. Again, the crowd joined me in reciting Lincoln’s final line.

Afterwards, several students approached me with questions about the United States. The questions were sophisticated and diverse. One asked about the conflicting visions of American government proffered by Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton. Another asked about U.S. foreign assistance to Europe following the First World War. A young lady asked whether Hillary Clinton would be the next U.S. president.

The students also wanted to know about U.S. protectionism and the growing animus in Congress toward China. And some were curious about what U.S. students think about their country.

I didn’t have answers, just my own opinions. The dialogue lasted well over three hours. Before parting company with the remaining 15 or 20 students, we exchanged e-mail addresses and I promised to tell my colleagues and friends about Renmin University, its engaging students, and its commendable institution, English Corner.

China has a long way to go to become and open and free society. The government remains in firm control. But China is changing, and there may be no better symbol of that change than Renmin University — the alma mater of China’s Communist party where, today, students quote Lincoln and contemplate Jefferson.

While thinking through U.S. policy toward China, the Congress and the administration should know that a surprising number of Chinese people embrace U.S. ideals and are fond of American culture. At a time when U.S. policies are reviled around the world, that is something to celebrate and promote. It strikes me as an investment in government of the people, by the people, for the people in China.

Daniel Ikenson is a trade-policy analyst at the Cato Institute.