Least Free???

This past week I was browsing my MSN homepage when I came across an article entitled, The 15 Least Free Countries in the World. (Is that proper grammar?) It was written by Business Insider based on a study by an organization called Freedom House.

Included were many countries one would expect, including Somalia, Equatorial Guinea, South Sudan, and Chad; a few of the “STANS” that wouldn’t have come to mind, including Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan; and a country I have never heard of and have no interest in visiting called Eritrea.

And there it was, just above North Korea on the list – China, number two of the least free.

To be honest, my first reaction was one of astonishment. When it comes to feeling free, I feel a stronger sense of freedom here than I have anywhere else I’ve lived or visited, including the United States.

I can drive my car as fast as I want and no one will pull me over and give me a ticket. I can even ignore traffic lights and stop signs. (Try that in the U.S.) I can pretty much park my car wherever I want and if my neighbor falls on the ice in my driveway I don’t have to worry about getting sued.

What’s not free about any of that?

There are no restrictions on where I travel. No policeman has ever asked to see my identification.   Airport security exists but is far less intrusive than in the U.S. And very few policemen carry guns so the chances of an unarmed man getting shot are next to nothing.

Curiously, the article began with this perplexing paragraph:

“China’s President Xi Jingping launched an aggressive anti-graft campaign in 2013, promising to crack down on corrupt officials and business leaders both at home and abroad.”

Huh? What am I missing? How does that get you on the list of “Least Free” countries? I say, “Good for him!”

So I looked at this Freedom House report the article was based on and it was quickly obvious that when they say ‘freedom’, they mean ‘political freedom,’ or, more to the point, the freedom to diss the government in any way you want at any time. Now I understood.

The report noted that 190 ‘activists’ were detained in 2014 ‘alone.’ That’s out of a population of 1.4 billion, of course, and there was no indication of what these 190 people were doing. The word ‘activist’ is meant to suggest they were doing something noble but I suspect there are 190 people arrested per day in the ‘free’ countries for doing something they felt they should be allowed to do.

I’m sure that if I went into the streets of Beijing and tried to organize a march on the Great Hall of the People I would get into some hot water. Depending on how successful I was perhaps a lot of hot water. (Having said that, the students of Hong Kong pulled it off. I seriously doubt the mayors of Paris or London or New York would have allowed the disruption to go on that long.)

But I see people protesting on the streets of Beijing all the time. Usually they are farmers from the countryside who are dissatisfied with the amount of money the local government has given them for their land or otherwise dissatisfied with the local solution to some relatively minor dispute. They wear poster boards articulating their complaints and the police eventually lead them away but from what I have witnessed – in person – the protesters are treated very cordially, if not downright respectfully.

And I don’t want to march on the Great Hall anyway. Why would I? I’m not an anarchist. I like a little civil order and the government to protect me from the many people who want to tell me exactly what to do all the time.

I’m totally free of that here. I don’t have to worry about some lawyer hauling me into court and taking all my money because he’s clever with words and makes it sound – with the judge’s help – that I did something I didn’t really do.

I don’t have to worry about somebody from the homeowner’s association coming to my door and telling me I can’t hang my laundry out to soak up some fresh spring sunshine or that I have to close my garage door or pick up the old rusty bicycle in my front yard that pleasantly reminds me of Neil Young’s music.

And talking about freedom, did you ever get into a dispute with the Internal Revenue Service? I have. And it’s no fun. And it’s certainly not fair. I didn’t mind when they asked me a few questions. I provided them with everything they asked for and there is no doubt in any professional tax accountant’s mind that my position is the correct one. But I finally had to go to Tax Court to get it resolved. Not because I was wrong. But because no one wanted to take the time to review the case. It was easier just to keep sending letters asking for money I didn’t owe. (I honestly believe the government has spent hundreds of times more money pursuing this case than it was ever worth to them.)

I’ve never had an issue with the Chinese Tax Authorities. And my tax return is one page! That’s right. One page! Anybody can fill it out in minutes and there is no favoritism shown to any group of people just because they’re rich enough to hire lobbyists to get them special tax incentives.

Shouldn’t freedom be about things that really matter? It’s true that I don’t have the freedom to own a gun in China. But neither does the kook down the street who looks a little shady to me.

I’m liable if I cause a car accident, but the law specifically encourages me to work out a settlement with the other driver right then and there. Whatever we both accept is fine with the police. That’s freedom, right there.

What is freedom, anyway? Doesn’t fairness play a role? Isn’t the freedom to create a better life for your family the freedom that really matters the most?

I’ve never said that China is perfect. President Xi Jinping has never said that China is perfect. No Chinese person I’ve ever met has ever said that China is perfect.

But I’ve yet to see a government that is more self-aware of its problems than this one. And they’re working through them, including the corruption. And that’s not easy in a country of 1.4 billion people, most of who grew up in poverty and went to bed hungry.

Is it really fair to put this government in the same boat as the governments of North Korea and South Sudan, where the elite live like kings and the rest have nothing, including hope? I don’t think so. And I don’t believe any Chinese person – with the possible exception of 190 people who did who knows what – thinks so either.

It makes me want to get in my car and go run a red light. Because you can do that in China, you know. There isn’t anybody that’s going to stop you, except maybe that car coming the other way that didn’t see you in time.

If you think China is an oppressive country you've probably never been here.  And if you have and still believe it you probably lead a pretty comfortable life.  Shouldn't freedom, in part, be about your ability to make a better life for your children?
If you think China is an oppressive country you’ve probably never been here. And if you have and still believe it you probably lead a pretty comfortable life. Shouldn’t freedom, in part, be about your ability to make a better life for your children?

Note: The author also writes novels under the pen name of Avam Hale. You can find them in the Amazon Kindle store and they can be read on any mobile device loaded with the free Kindle App, available for all operating systems.

Copyright © 2015 Glassmaker in China

Notice:  The views expressed in this post are strictly those of the writer acting in a personal capacity.  They are not in any way endorsed or sanctioned by his employer or any other individual with which he may be personally or professionally affiliated.