When Jin Qian was growing up in China in the 1980s, his father, an engineer, visited the United States and brought back a Walkman, the first popular portable audio player. It was a sensation in their neighborhood, where money was so scarce that owning a bicycle, Jin said, might be a family’s dream. The gift from his father instilled in Jin a vision of America as a land of progress and wealth.
Now Jin is China’s deputy consul general in New York, and his own son has a different view after the family’s move here from Beijing: American streets are rough and dirty, the boy says, its subways slow, the digital devices in stores less advanced than what he could buy at home. China is the land of opportunity, he says, not the United States.
The conversation with Jin, a charming and proud advocate for his homeland, has echoed in my head amid scenes of the angry demonstrations in Hong Kong over steps by the Chinese government to curtail the rights that residents of that city have traditionally enjoyed. Both the Hong Kong that I last saw a quarter-century ago and the America that I have known for decades seem to be at crossroads.
What’s at stake in Hong Kong speaks to more than just how China is changing the bustling city that Prince Charles handed over to Chinese control in 1997 after 156 years of British colonial rule. The battle over Hong Kong’s future — and the fate of the democratic freedoms its residents have enjoyed — really speaks to the question of what we think matters in a society, and what may be essential for a government to deliver to its citizens.
China, where the ideology of Maoist communism once dictated the state’s actions, has become in the 21st century the ultimate pragmatic player, laying aside all that political philosophy. A conversation with Jin suggests that the nation marks its progress not by adherence to any principles other than economic growth.
Some 800 million Chinese people have been lifted out of poverty in the past four decades, making China the world’s second-largest economic power. Still, great inequity remains: While the total gross domestic product is now about two-thirds that of the U.S., the per capita GDP is less than one-fifth of America’s — meaning a lot of people don’t have much, but a few have a lot.
Increasingly, that’s the profile of the United States, too. The gap between the very wealthy and the rest of us has been widening since about the time Jin got his Walkman, and it is growing under an American president who, like his Chinese counterpart, sees money as the bottom line of any interaction.
What has made America exceptional throughout its history has been the fundamental egalitarianism of our society — the notion that there’s a chance for anybody to get ahead, and that everybody stands together in the push for progress. That wasn’t the case in the historically stratified societies of Europe that produced the authors of the American Revolution. But that old American ideology is crumbling in the face of a toxic Darwinism that favors the few who start with more (notably a racial heritage lacking slavery or annihilation on the frontier) over the many whose work is needed to propel progress.
The protesters in Hong Kong share with America’s Founding Fathers a sense that government exists not just to increase wealth, but also to assure that the people’s needs are met in a way that is consistent with the society’s values and goals. In that view, freedom of expression may be just as important as family income, and society’s progress may be measured by such factors as life expectancy, civic involvement, job satisfaction and citizens’ sense of well-being.
Social scientists rank 128 countries by a social progress index looking at these factors. In the past few years, the U.S. has been “flatlining” compared to other nations, mainly due to falling scores on measures of tolerance and inclusion, but also because of homicide rates, terrorism and traffic deaths. Last year the U.S. ranked No. 25 (down from 17 in 2017), behind nations including Slovenia, Portugal and Iceland.
The U.S. remains a prosperous land, though hardly prepared for the recession that’s surely on the horizon. But it’s worth remembering that our well-being, and the hope of our future, isn’t all wrapped up in the economy.
That’s partly the message of the demonstrators who shut down Hong Kong’s airport. Their insistence on self-government and free speech risks a brutal crackdown by China, which can’t tolerate anything but rigid adherence to its economic plan. That approach, after all, has been working for the mainland. But we would all do well to remember that GDP is not destiny.