China always seems like such a beautiful and mystical land to me.
The innate beauty of this huge, yet sort of remote country, a homogenous people who have a raw brilliance yet type of innocence about them, and the ancient practices of natural medicine and martial arts, and a meditative demonstration of inner tranquility.
In contrast to this image, I have read about forced labor and tough punishment on people in various Asian countries, with a poignant focus on the North Korean camps with untold horrors. But recently, there seems to be more information being shared about forced labor camps in China as well.
First, I read about the notion by China’s ruling elite that the individual is nothing, and the State is everything. Therefore, the sacrifice of one or tens of millions of individuals for the sake of the greater country and those in power is acceptable, perhaps even desirable. This aligns with an extreme of utilitarianism–the greatest good for the greatest number, but irregardless of the effects on the individual.
This is very different than Western Countries, which have a tremendous value that is put on each individual–their voices and opinions, their rights and freedoms, and the protection and safeguarding of each person’s life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness. There is emphasis on the individual and the social contract that exists between them and their government. In this system, the whole (State) is greater because of the sum of it’s parts (of individuals), not in spite of it.
Last Friday, I read about the consequences of these differences in political philosophy in an article in the Washington Post about the grim conditions in Chinese labor and reeducation camps.
What struck me the most was the opening of the article that described one of the Chinese reeducation camps.
“For the first weeks, Shen Yongmei was told to sit on a rough plastic stool from 6 a.m. to 8. p.m., her back absolutely straight, her hands on her knees, and stare in silence at three sentences painted on a wall.
– What is this place?
– Why are you here?
– What attitude are you going to employee in order to comply with the police?”
The 55-year old women was told to contemplate on these and any slackening could result in a beating.
After this, the women went through months of “reeducation through labor”–screwing on the plastic plugs on ballpoint pens–a quota of 12,000 a day.
All this to wash clean her “disobedient thoughts”!
In Judaism, there is a teaching that we don’t really get punished for thoughts, but for actions. A person can’t fully control where their thoughts stray, although we can take steps to control our wondering eyes, mischievous speech, gluttonous eating, and so on.
Similarly, in America, we are not punished for having a bad thought, but for committing a criminal act.
Yet, in China just being suspected of harboring disobedient thoughts can get you (and your family) into a whole lot of trouble and necessitate your rehabilitation through coercion.
For the last week, I have not been able to stop thinking about the image of the lady on the stool for 14-hours a day starting at those three questions in order to reform her.
Treating people like misbehaving children who are put in a quiet corner of the classroom for a short time and told to think about what they did and when they are ready, they can come back and join the rest of the class.
But these are not misbehaving, they are not children, they are not in a classroom, and it is not contemplative for a short time, but punitive and threatening of much worse to come if they don’t comply.
There are so many horrors out there that can be inflicted on human beings–not even for doing something wrong and violent, but for simply not agreeing with those in power.
Of course the state is important. But perhaps it is not a state, but a prison, if the people are forced to consent both in body and mind?
I would suggest that we can learn from the Chinese that a hedonistic, near-constant focus on the “I” and immediate gratification does not achieve long-term, well being for the “us”. And that there is an important place for individual self-sacrifice for the greater good.
This reminds me of the Jewish saying from Ethics of Our Fathers, where Hillel says that “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? And if I am only for myself what am I?”
Perhaps, a balance of looking after oneself and giving generously to others and the Nation can provide for both personal growth and satisfaction as well as a higher, long-term, purpose for the survival and advancement of the collective.
My belief: Education and not reeducation is the answer. Good jobs with fair pay and benefits and not labor camps is the answer. Self-determination and sacrifice and not State protectionism is the answer.
(Source Photo: Andy Blumenthal)