It has been an interesting experience when I try to explain to my family what exactly I will be doing next year in DC (working for a large corporation’s PAC). I have observed that most Chinese Americans, especially first generation ones, really do not understand the concept of civil society.
To Chinese people of my parents’ and grandparents’ generation, the idea of a non-governmental voluntary association pursuing its interests through the political process seems very strange, and in some ways, I can understand, because civil society organizations have not thrived in contemporary Chinese society. In fact, the Chinese experience seems to be framed in terms of the binary opposition between the government and what might be called private individuals.
Individuals might resist the government, but I think the notion of a non-governmental organization that advocates on behalf of individuals through the political process is something that is alien to Chinese people of an older generation. But can you blame them? After all, my grandparents and parents went through the Sino-Japanese War, the Great Leap Forward, the Cultural Revolution, and Tiananmen Square, so their political experiences are founded on experiences of authoritarian oppression.
In some ways I find this all very fascinating, because my family’s political backgrounds are formed on totally different experiences than my own. In some sense, I have become almost completely westernized, for lack of a better word.
Case in point: the recent protests regarding the Olympic Torch. As usual, I’ve been running my mouth, since that is what I do. But to my grandparents, both of whom have lived through the paranoia that was the Cultural Revolution, my running my mouth seem to them to be dangerous. They call me to tell me not to say too much, because they say that I don’t know who’s listening.
Of course this possibility never occurred to me, because I have been taking the First Amendment for granted. It never occurred to me that there will be real repercussions to my saying anything about the protests. To me, I was just stating my opinion, and it never crossed my mind that I can get in trouble for this. But then I started thinking, and I came to understand why grandparents warned me thus.
They would warn me because they lived through the Cultural Revolution, a situation in which the government deliberately implanted the seeds of paranoia, so that neighbors and friends have an incentive to report anything “unorthodox” to the authorities. I mean, my grandfather was detained in a labor camp precisely for this reason, and it occurred to me that my grandparents’ warning was a reflection of their political experiences.
This whole incident has taught me that generational differences might account for differences in understanding politics. Certainly, my understanding of politics is almost entirely a reflection of my American experiences: growing up here, and having my intellectual formative years in an American university. I am not going to say that I will ever understand the political conceptions and understandings of my parents and my grandparents, because the chances of my living through situations like the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution are very low. But this has taught me to appreciate the role of the formative political experiences in shaping one’s understanding of politics.