Guest Commentary: Has China’s stance on freedom changed in 26 years?

Associated PressRiot police gather outside the Yuen Long MTR station during a protest in Hong Kong, on Wednesday, Aug. 21.

I had spent a great deal of time living and teaching in India and the USA, the world’s two largest democracies. However, I had always wished to see the communist republics of USSR and China.

A wonderful opportunity arose in 1993, when I was accepted as a member of the Citizen Ambassador Program to spend two weeks in each of these countries.

Our first stop was the USSR, the Union of Soviet and Socialist Republics. It had just freed itself from the stronghold of communist ideology by breaking up into a number of independent republics. Since Russia still remained the dominating country in the region, we planned to spend two weeks visiting scholars at the universities in Moscow and St. Petersburg.

Our delegation from the U.S. met with professors and students who treated us with courtesy and smiles. The members of these educational communities told us they were celebrating the taste of freedom that had opened up the floodgates of artistic, religious and philosophical creativity never seen before. Now they could read books on any subject from diverse countries and publish their own works without fear of repercussion from the government.

Our group was delighted to see this enthusiastic hopefulness with which the Russian scholarly community entertained this change from slavery to freedom.

Buoyed up by this joyful embrace of the Russian scholarly community, my next stop was China where we were to visit Beijing, Wuhan and Shanghai.

While in Beijing, after we enjoyed visiting the Great Wall and Forbidden City, we had an opportunity to conduct a dialogue with scholars from the university.

Interestingly, while more than a dozen Chinese delegates sat on chairs around a table, our group stood around introducing ourselves as representing diverse global philosophy.

This was a golden opportunity to meet with so many Chinese thinkers. The spokesperson for the Chinese group had a very good command of English. He welcomed us to their beautiful country, food and culture. 

Those opening remarks were welcomed by us because here we could conduct a face-to-face dialogue with Chinese scholars by asking questions on any issue.

After we presented summaries of how philosophy was taught in various parts of the world, our Chinese host asked us to direct questions to any member of their delegation.

Since my specialization was comparative philosophy, our group leader assigned me the task of asking a couple of questions. My first question was directed to a Chinese scholar sitting across from me: “Do you have a tradition of comparative philosophy and how do you carry it out at present?”

The gentleman understood the question, however, he conveyed in Chinese to the scholar sitting next to him, who in turn said something in Chinese to the next one and this was repeated till it stopped at the ninth person. Everyone from the Chinese delegation looked up to this person, who replied in Chinese and conveyed his answer to the eighth, then to the seventh, and all the way to the scholar to whom I had directed my question.

With pride in his voice, the scholar replied to my query : “We have a great tradition of comparative philosophy. Our major scholars have done and do a thorough comparison of Marxism and Maoism and its implications for the uplifting of people in the society. We do not need anything more.”

Though I was tempted to pursue that answer further, I was told to ask only one more question.

Since our group was interested in the impression of the Chinese scholars regarding the break up of USSR, I directed my question to a different Chinese scholar by asking: “The Soviet Union has broken up into many independent countries and they are happy to enjoy the freedom to decide their own fate and destiny. How do the Chinese see themselves under the present government in contrast to the freedom experienced by the Russians?”

After listening to my question, the Chinese scholar directed it to the gentleman sitting next to him and then to the next reaching the ninth one. He in turn replied with a chuckle and conveyed his answer in Chinese through the line of command to the one to whom I had asked the question.

The Chinese scholar looked at me and replied in very good English: “The Russians might be enjoying their freedom but have no food, however the Chinese have food with restricted freedom.”

On hearing this the entire Chinese delegation burst out laughing. Immediately after the laughter, the Chinese speaker gave a second chuckle and said to our group: “You decide which one is better?”

While reading about the recent events in Hong Kong, my mind went back to the chuckle of the Chinese scholar from our 1993 encounter.

I asked myself: “Has the situation changed in China during the past 26 years? When will there be a crackdown on the Hong Kong demonstrators who want freedom from the stronghold of Mainland China? Does China have a plan to arrest these fighters of freedom by declaring them as terrorists? The Chinese government will decide sooner rather than later to take an action when in its opinion the time is ripe to put its foot down.”

Dr. Ashok Kumar Malhotra has been a Nobel Peace Prize nominee. He is Emeritus SUNY Distinguished Teaching Professor of Philosophy and founder of the Yoga and Meditation Society at SUNY Oneonta. His program on “Yoga for Relaxation” is available on YouTube under “Ashok K Malhotra Yoga Institute Interviews.” His books are available through www.amazon.com.

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