Study Abroad Convinced Me the U.S. Is Turning Into China

Spring semester 2018, I spent nearly four months living in Suzhou, China (in the Southeast part of the country near Shanghai) as part of a study abroad program offered through my University. I climbed the Great Wall, learned how to use chopsticks, drank legally and discovered myself — as you do when you study abroad.

Proof that I was in China

In addition to discovering myself, I also gained an understanding of Chinese culture and thus a better understanding of my home culture. Much to my surprise, I noticed a number of striking similarities between the two, most importantly the one that inspired this blog — that I believe the U.S. is gradually turning into China. Confusedly, I also found that China is gradually turning into the U.S.

Yes, I’m aware that doesn’ t make any sense, so let me elucidate.

For starters, let me explain what China is, or rather, what it isn’t. China is not North Korea. When I told people I would be studying abroad in China, a frequent reaction was something along the lines of, “Aren’t you afraid the Chinese government will arrest and imprison you?”

While I was concerned other people in my cohort would be arrested by the Chinese government for public intoxication, I wasn’t seriously worried that scary-looking soldiers would storm my apartment complex and lock me up in Liu Xiaobo’s old prison cell.

This is North Korea. North Korea is not China.

Quite the contrary, China often felt like America, except everyone spoke a Mandarin dialect.

Despite being a Communist country, China arguably is more capitalistic than America. Malls there look like museums. For example, there was an entire floor of the Nanjing mall dedicated to children. And I don’t mean like toys and stuff, there were stores such as Burberry and Gucci that just sold children’s clothes.

Ralph Lauren Kid’s Store at Nanjing Mall

In addition, the Chinese take smartphone usage to a whole new level. An anecdote that succinctly illustrates this point is when my friend tried to pay in cash at a Subway and nearly “broke” the fast food restaurant because the employees were used to mobile payment. Each employee abandoned their post to try and figure out how the register worked.

The subway that my friend nearly broke. Don’t worry, the staff figured it out.

These personal experiences of mine exemplify Deng Xiaoping’s “Socialism with Chinese characteristics.” Deng was a Chinese leader in the latter half of the 20th century who, in divergence from Communist Chinese founder Mao Zedong, adopted aspects of capitalism into the Chinese economy.

These phenomena, along with the fact that it’s not terribly uncommon for Chinese youth to spend two hours per day taking selfies, are examples of how China is turning into the U.S.

However, China, in many ways, still remains Communist China.

2018 is becoming the year of the authoritarian leader. North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un received international validation both at the PyeoChang 2018 Winter Olympic Games and June nuclear summit with President Donald Trump. Russian president Vladimir Putin was reelected in March, meaning he’s been the Russian leader for almost my entire lifetime.

Also in March, and in the middle of my semester abroad, Chinese President Xi Jinping was granted the power to rule indefinitely.

A poster of Putin and Xi in Sanya, a resort town popular among Chinese and Russian tourists that I went to for Spring Break.

In the moment, the greatest effect the power grab had on me was the internet worked more poorly than usual for a couple days, even though I had a VPN to access banned U.S. websites.

More concerningly, a lifetime rule by Xi Jinping shows China is heading deeper into authoritarianism.

While I was in China, the government banned the online sale of Bibles (though it is still fairly easy to buy one in a bookstore). Additionally, the Chinese government has forced foreign corporations to acquiese to its demands, or else risk losing access to a market of nearly 1.4 billion people. And there are reports the government is committing a genocide of the country’s Muslims, but for whatever reason no one is talking about that.

An obvious response to this is: why aren’t the Chinese people doing anything about it? An obvious answer is: they don’t know it’s happening.

While the Great Firewall of China is an effective way for the government to regulate news and the internet, I met plenty of individuals who manage to still find out censored information, sometimes without even having to bypass the extant regulation. For instance, I think more Chinese people actually know what happened at Tiananmen Square in 1989 than we give them credit for.

Tiananmen Square

A better answer is Chinese people are historically and culturally used to living under an authoritarian regime; Chinese dynastic rule didn’t end until the 20th century.

This is the reason my Chinese friends would give as to why the country was pretty chill with the news that Xi Jinping would be ruler for the foreseeable future. In contrast, the U.S. was founded on the principle that rule by a single unelected person is stupid.

Nonetheless, I believe authoritarianism is persisting in China because the people are comfortable. The country’s economy is booming; the middle-class is growing; China’s status in the world is increasing.

Unless they’re a marginalized group, what need is there to protest the government?

When I was in China, I read George Orwell’s “1984.” In my opinion, Orwell’s greatest misconception in the novel was his notion that living under a despotic regime would be inherently miserable for the people in it.

Likewise, Americans have a tendency to assume individuals living under authoritarianism have an innate desire to free themselves and become democratic, as if they’re flying monkeys celebrating the death of the Wicked Witch of the West.

China disproves this point. Unless you’re a Chinese Muslim getting tortured, there’s little reason to not be happy with current governance.

After China, I was in London for six weeks and unintentionally found where George Orwell used to live.

Another concept in “1984” that connects with my China experience is Big Brother’s ability to remain in power by misinforming the public and changing historical fact.

This leads into why I believe the U.S. is turning into China.

An individual who had been in China when the Panama Papers were leaked noted the Chinese government went to great lengths to protect implicated individuals from public scrutiny. In other words, they misinformed the public and changed historical fact.

However, my thought when hearing this story was, “How many Americans actually know what the Panama Papers are?” (By the way, the Panama Papers refer to a huge leak in 2015 that showed many individuals around the world were hiding wealth.)

Despite having access to multiple legitimate news sources available at any time through various methods, Americans seem to be increasingly removing themselves from important issues. In other words, we’re becoming comfortable.

When horrific human rights abuses were committed at Standing Rock by the U.S. government, the country, for the most part, turned a metaphorical blind eye. Flint, MI attracted headlines, but it was mostly missed that lead in public water pipes is a national problem affecting multiple communities. (Now’s an opportune time to note it’s heavily advised to not drink the tap water in China.)

Yes, in the age of Trump, civic activism is making a comeback. But, from my perspective, mostly along partisan lines. This is problematic in its own right, as Americans are beginning to live in different political realities with completely different sets of facts.

Living in a democracy requires citizen action. As opposed to being forced or coerced into poor political leadership, we’re presently passively permitting it to occur.

Me and Mao — an authoritarian ruler who killed 45 million of his own people

Despite the title, I do wonder, though, if China is turning into the U.S. more quickly than the reverse.

I’ve implied throughout this article that despots gain, solidify and expand their power by not giving their people a reason to overthrow them. That being said, I believe there are signs of trouble in China.

Even someone who was half asleep during AP U.S. History could recognize that contemporary China and 1929 America share similarities.

In both cases, the national economy had grown very large very quickly. The cost of labor is increasing in China, as Chinese jobs are being outsourced to Southeastern Asian countries, such as Vietnam and Cambodia. And this trade war with the U.S. could have unforeseen consequences.

Essentially, I’m claiming it’s possible, maybe even likely, that China could experience a recession in the next decade (which also would be drastically horrible for the U.S. economy). And if people start to get uncomfortable, I’m curious to see how strong Xi Jinping’s claim of presidency for life actually is.

Because there’s nothing like not being able to afford the latest iPhone to get people throwing bricks in windows.

Leslie Knope but sassier. I watch a lot of C-SPAN.