Since returning from China, I’ve had an opportunity to share publicly the conversations we had with Chinese parents, and the response has been generally positive. One question I am frequently asked is how Chinese parents made sense of their own openness to faith discussions in light of the obvious repressive policies of their government in matters related to religion. Can you truly be open to discussions of faith-related issues in a society that represses many people who truly believe in God? I discussed this issue directly with the parents of our students.
Our discussion revolved around differing cultural perceptions of the concept of “freedom.” In America, at least from their perspective, people believe that each person should be free to express his or her own thoughts disconnected from any broader cultural norm. Our culture essentially holds as one of its highest values individual expression about cultural norms. Their argument seemed to me to be true. As a historian, I admit that the Bill of Rights has framed our attitudes toward individual expression, and the rights of individuals has clearly expanded in our culture over time. Thus, when we look at a country like China, we have a tendency to see restrictions even when some freedom is present.
In contrast, our Chinese parents grew up in a culture created by Mao Zedong and the Communist party. Their government restricted individual freedom in an effort to develop a new national culture. In the early 1980s, that culture began to change under a new leader, Deng Xiaoping. Under his leadership, China slowly began to allow freedom in many areas of everyday life. The economic system opened to the West and aspects of capitalism began to emerge. The Chinese government allowed freedom of religious expression under certain conditions. Our Chinese parents clearly understood that freedom of religious expression in China is limited, but their focus is more on the emerging freedom in their country rather than the restrictions of the government.
Is China a perfect society? No, but neither is the United States. Our Chinese friends are quick to note that the current value of individualism in American culture seems to be eroding the more important commitment to community. When you live in a society of more than 1 billion people, individual expression can never trump the commitment to the well being of the entire nation.
Listening to others’ perspectives is beneficial because it helps us examine our own presuppositions with fresh eyes. I pray that, as believers, whether we are Americans or Chinese, we will allow Christ to shape our perspectives above all.