The Cost of Losing the American Dream

The Cost of Losing the American DreamtcbrPDF normal

A view from China.

By E.J. Heresniak

The Cost of Losing the American Dream

E.J. Herensiak spent four years in Shanghai as vice dean of Shanghai Guanghua College and is currently working on U.S.-China cooperative ventures in the education business. His last article was Down With Cultural Sensitivity, in the Fall 2010 issue.

Whenever I go to the U.S. Consulate in Shanghai, I see a lot of Chinese in long lines hoping to get visas to America. There are a lot of Chinese anyway, but for many, America is a dream destination—sometimes as visitors, often as prospective citizens. You get a fresh view of what America means to people when you live someplace else for a long time. On a wall of the small room that houses the U.S. Citizens Services section are posters with short civics lessons about how Congress works, how laws are passed, and the Bill of Rights—the first ten amendments to the Constitution.

To Chinese entrepreneurs and students, the words on those posters are more than just words, especially since China has a low tolerance for its citizens behaving like citizens. A lot of people here see the United States as a place where people are free to open a business and get educated and get rich and associate with whomever they want to, away from government scrutiny. That perception is a big part of what keeps bright young people crossing the oceans and keeping the American economy energized.

But recently, it seems that there has developed in America a public/private partnership messing with things that make my country so attractive to others, particularly to Chinese young people all too familiar with how their own country manages and controls their personal freedoms. The private part of the partnership is composed of the relatively new businesses spawned by the Web, powerful and famous publicly held companies such as Google, Facebook, Yahoo, Skype, and the rest. The public part began with the creation of the Orwellian-sounding Department of Homeland Security and more recently with the mother of all spy agencies, the NSA.

As whistleblowers and press reports slowly reveal the extent of the infringement of freedoms, Americans are increasingly uncomfortable. In August, two small companies that specialized in keeping email private, Lavabit and Silent Circle, shut down rather than be in a position where at the behest of the government, they'd have to share confidential information without telling their customers. The guy who ran Lavabit said the Feds prohibited him from saying why he shut down, notwithstanding the First Amendment displayed prominently on the Shanghai Consulate wall. The guys who ran Silent Circle quit in anticipation of what could happen to their service. Also shutting down in August was Gorklaw, an award-winning legal-analysis site that relied on secure email exchanges from readers and anonymous sources to report on court cases and legal decisions. They quit because they couldn't assure confidentiality.

I don't know whether America will stay an accepting and assimilating country, in either perception or reality. If we lose that, we'll lose a lot.

This was not the plan fought for by the boys at Bunker Hill, Bloody Angle, Belleau Wood, Bastogne, or even Benghazi. The Fourth Amendment to the Constitution: “The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.”

That's pretty clear. I'm supposed to be safe from government snooping unless the authorities can convince a judge that I'm a likely criminal.

This assumption of safety and privacy and freedom is key to why the United States has for so long been a prime destination for ambitious citizens of China and other countries. But that perception is in real jeopardy, and no one knows the potential consequences.

And as the Edward Snowden revelations have shown, the U.S. government has had plenty of private-sector partners aiding its crackdown. Consider that nearly all of us use electronic means to communicate and have long assumed that email is as private as snail mail. But we've learned recently that Google reads your Gmail and mine and uses the content to blitz us with advertising based on what we've written—and then uses other parts of its spying network to follow our activity around the Web. In August, word got out from a filing in a right-to-privacy lawsuit in which Google lawyers assert that nobody has the right to expect privacy in email and that Google may read and process all the content they want to. God only knows what else they may be doing with what they read of my mail.

Google and social-networking sites such as Facebook and LinkedIn have proven wildly popular, not a little dangerous, and frighteningly invasive. I don't like Google or anyone else reading my mail to ferret out advertising leads and then following me around the Web posting ads on places I go. And as we've learned, Google (and the others) have cooperated with my government to snoop on me and everyone else. Because of laws enacted presumably to protect us from a wild bunch of Islamist militants, nobody who uses the Internet, makes phone calls, or uses email is “secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches.”

I don't give a damn what the Patriot Act says—until somebody changes the Fourth Amendment, no amount of Al Qaeda “chatter” trumps the Bill of Rights . . . right? Did I miss something during my time in China?

Distinguishing Bad From Bad

When I came to China six years ago, they were the bad guys: the hackers, copiers, snoops, and even the ones who proposed that special chips allowing Beijing oversight of computer activity be put into everything sold in this country. For a few months in 2009, China was almost serious about requiring the “Green Dam-Youth Escort” software on every computer so Web-surfing could be free from pornography and other illicit content. The proposal for embedded content screeners got dropped (supposedly), when most computer makers objected.

I use a VPN over here not only to protect myself but also because a VPN remains the only way to get to sites like Facebook and YouTube, blocked within China though curiously advertised on government-controlled English-language CCTV. Chinese friends and students regularly joke about snooping and the Great Firewall.herensniak3

When Chinese kids go abroad to study, the first thing most of them do is to get on Facebook. They can say anything they want on there, presumably free of the risk they run on Chinese sites. They hate it when they go home on holidays and can't share stories, photos, and experiences with their friends without inconvenient workarounds. Their perception is that, because the government reads everything and shuts down stuff to which it objects, China isn't free.

The Western press made a big deal when Mandiant, a security company based not far from my place in Virginia, traced Chinese hacking attacks to a secret unit of the Chinese army not far from my place here in Shanghai. Google, of all companies, represented the good guys: It stood up to Chinese government censorship and snooping, going so far as to relocate its business to Hong Kong. Google led the pack in independence and anti-censorship in China, seeming more protective of the rights of Chinese than of the rights of citizens in the United States.

I never dreamed I'd be looking for ways to duck Chinese-style intrusions to fend off entities such as Google, Facebook, and the NSA. XKeyscore, no longer secret because of a leak by either a traitor or a patriot—take your pick—is a keystroke-capturing mechanism that captures and saves “nearly everything a typical user does on the Internet,” according to slides used in an NSA training class. I've worked in enough big bureaucracies to know that any NSA analyst can indeed look at my stuff (or yours), blithely ignoring the protections of the Bill of Rights. It didn't take long for word to leak that some NSA staffers were snooping on ex-girlfriends. Maybe all the ex-girlfriends were emailing guys in Yemen.

Let Freedom Ring

America has been a mecca for a long time. It's not the food, TV commercials, or amoral, tone-deaf politicians. It's not Purple Mountain Majesties, Fruited Plains, or even Mom and Apple Pie. It sounds corny, but what makes America a beacon for so many, and for Chinese in particular, is the American Dream of equality, freedom, and opportunity, until recently the perception of which was unparalleled certainly in China and in most other parts of the world.

Perceptions are important. The new leadership in China made a big deal about having a Chinese Dream; they stole that idea from us. Is there a British Dream? Pakistani? I know there isn't a North Korean Dream.

I had the chance to show a Chinese colleague a little of the States this summer. After being in America for a month, she told me she felt like she fit right in and wasn't treated as a foreigner. She said that people were interested that she was from China, but it wasn't their main focus. She called her experience life-changing and can't wait to go again. What a great perception for a country to have—and maintain. Wherever I go in China, I hear, see, and feel foreign. Laowai (pronounced like “lou” in loud and “Y”) is the Chinese word for foreigner; I've gotten so I can lip-read it.

I don't know whether America will stay an accepting and assimilating country, in either perception or reality. If we lose that, we'll lose a lot.

A former student now at the University of Arizona wrote this on his Facebook page: “I met a guy from China at my dorm and when he knew that I came from the same country, said: ˜We are Chinese, we shouldn't speak English.' That reminded me that since I was in elementary school, I'd been taught that there are only two people in the world—Chinese and foreigners; it's like a solid wall between us. But I was thinking about what makes a difference between Americans and foreigners? Are Americans all the same in each aspect? The answer should be no. Americans are more likely people who come from each part of world regardless of ethnicity, race, country of origin, and talk in English while retaining their own culture and identity . . . at least this is how I think American should be defined. Different race, native language should not be an excuse for a barricade between people, should it?”

Well, probably not, and it shouldn't take a laowai in America to remind us.

According to China's Ministry of Education, more than 400,000 Chinese students studied abroad last year, nearly half of them in the United States. The ones I know picked American schools because of ranking first and the freedom to learn what they want from people who say what they think. Just about every U.S. school is after Chinese students because they pay full price, seldom qualify for aid, and in 2011 contributed $22.7 billion to the U.S. economy. Chinese students account for almost 30 percent of all foreign students enrolled in U.S. higher-education institutions.

Now, every Chinese parent who shells out thousands for their child's American education hopes the kid will bring home a degree from Harvard or U.C. Berkeley, naturally. But not everyone gets into top colleges and programs, of course. Of the alternatives, some are bogus; others bend rules to keep the money flowing. A series of articles in the Chronicle of Higher Education and Inside Higher Ed have documented how, because of the money, many American institutions are cheating as much as the Chinese applicants cheat in the admissions process.

This waters down the real value of an American college degree, although it's going to take a while before perceptions in China catch up. Most Chinese I know judge books by their covers and often never look inside. Nevertheless, perception, like reputation, is a funny thing: Once it gets settled, it's really hard to change—for good or for bad. Swelling enrollment of foreign students, along with rising tuition, have kept many American schools afloat. Australia lost a lot of Chinese students when four bogus schools went bankrupt; for many Chinese, that besmirched the reputation of every school in Australia.

Losing Liberty

What if they stop coming? Not just students, but everybody else who is trying so hard to get in? What if people just stop coming because they discover we've lost our mojo and are as perversely sneaky, invasive, and controlling as the places they're leaving? What happens if the ideas incorporated by the smart people who started this place get replaced by the ideas of zealots who think all that late eighteenth-century stuff just doesn't fit in the twenty-first?

It's not going to happen overnight, no more than Rome lost its mojo overnight, or Spain, or the British Empire, or the Soviet Union. But it could happen here; maybe it's already happening here.

And I think it's different for us. We're the place people are dying to get into because of hope. Those other places never represented that. People never dug tunnels or floated on rafts or cooked up other schemes so they could experience the Inquisition or sneak into Russia. The Berlin Wall was a barrier for one-way traffic.

It's not a good thing that I'm more afraid at a U.S. airport security checkpoint than I am at any Chinese airport, including ones in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region where terrorists actually strike from time to time. China is a controlled society. I've seen Chinese cops roust street vendors and hustle away would-be protestors. They can act like thugs and use a lot of physical violence, but Chinese cops often look like kids playing cops in ill-fitting uniforms, caps askew, wearing counterfeit Reeboks or Nikes. Rarely do you see a cop with a gun. The armed cops I've seen were in westernized Hong Kong and at border checkpoints near real borders, like with Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan. During major holidays or political events, the military will be around, some with guns, at major intersections and transportation centers. Occasionally I see cops with a drug-sniffing dog in the People's Square metro, but they hold leashes and radios, not guns. There is no Chinese version of the TSA running around setting up checkpoints at train and bus stations questioning and interfering with passengers after they've reached their destination, like I've seen happen in the Land of the Free.herensniak4

I'm physically afraid when I go to a U.S. airport now. It's not the terrorists I'm afraid of—it's the people in the expensive uniforms who think they're all-powerful because they're following some asinine procedure. It's the worst of the maitre d' syndrome, where some clueless guy in a fancy suit gets off by making people trying to have dinner feel small.

The last time I was in Xinjiang, in a town that rarely sees foreigners, the hotel had to call the local police to handle the passport inspection when I checked in. After twenty minutes, two cops showed up all serious-looking, but a smile and an outstretched hand fixed that, and after the paperwork, they asked for photos together. A lot of the Chinese cop business is a front—not all, God knows, but a lot of it.

America, by contrast, has militarized its police to the point where pseudo-SWAT teams playing dress up in Kevlar and plastic and armed to the teeth look more like they're trying to be Iron Man than public employees who serve and protect. In the wake of any major incident, law enforcement turns public areas into armed camps, securing barn doors after the horse has gone. It looks even worse in TV clips overseas. A lot of America acts like the China I anticipated I'd be living in when my perception of China came from Lou Dobbs and CNN.

Preserving Practices

China is not going to win this thing and put us out to pasture as has-beens. We're going to lose this thing on our own.

China is and will be all bollixed up by the more stupefying aspects of their culture for generations to come. Confucianism, the underlying system of ethical conduct that since the fifth century B.C.E. has guided Chinese society, has been co-opted by the Party and by leaders everywhere in China. They use it to sustain their power. It ain't changing anytime soon.

We're going to lose this thing because we forget where we came from, what made things work, and why we gave hope to the world. That's why.

A couple of years ago, I wrote a piece for The Global Times in Shanghai after a Chinese commentator tried to explain why it's so difficult for a foreigner to get a direct answer from a Chinese. He explained away Chinese cultural characteristics that can be infuriating for a Westerner and self-defeating for a people working hard to measure up. I thought he'd captured the country's backward-looking culture, in which obfuscation is cherished. I wrote that clear, candid, even contentious communication is a hallmark of effective management and good business practice. Evasiveness, reticence, misinformation, and silence are counterproductive—and they are all communications techniques inherent in Chinese culture. Having to ask someone an important question multiple times in multiple ways over a period of time may be part of Chinese culture, as the commentator suggested, but it's anathema to effective management. There's a reason why B-schools don't use examples from China to teach good management.

A lot of Chinese culture deserves keeping: importance of family, caring for parents, focusing on education, sacrificing for one's country. But too much of China is focused on the past. Almost any book about Chinese writing uses ancient fables to explain the meaning of Chinese character strokes. Looking backward to find the way forward is unlikely to lead to much risk-taking, innovation, or initiative, characteristics often lacking in Chinese management practice and in Chinese schools—and one of the major reasons Chinese kids go abroad for study.

Nobody has to extol the value to America of being a beacon that attracts the tired, poor or huddled masses yearning to be free. Except for American Indians and most African-Americans, everybody else or their ancestors came to America because it was a better place than the one they left. The amalgamation of so many people from so many places turned out as nowhere else. I think that's because of the ideas put together in the late eighteenth century by Jefferson, Adams, Franklin, Washington, and the rest.herensniak5

Chinese people fear their government in a very palpable way. I've been alone with Chinese who whisper when saying something suspect and then look around to see if anyone noticed. Until not long ago, Americans were the antithesis of this, and it's that freedom from surveillance—by government agencies or corporate information-aggregators—that has made the United States a desirable destination for those in China and elsewhere yearning to look forward, not backward. It's not only that people want to start businesses and get rich—that's a by-product.

When people get fat or grow old, it's a gradual process, and the day-by-day changes are hardly noticed. You wake up, look in the mirror and you look the same to you as you did yesterday. It's when you meet a friend you haven't seen in ten years who can't recognize you or look at photos taken a decade or more before that you realize what happened. Often you don't like it, but you accept the inevitable.

Nobody woke up one day to discover their mail wasn't private, their phones were tapped, or that all-powerful TSA goons were free to grope in exchange for a “privilege” that used to be everyone's right—to travel freely. And hundreds of opinions by Americans who happen to wear judicial robes and others who sit in legislatures have since put words in the mouths of the Founding Fathers that they never said or wrote. That happened gradually too. There's some grumbling, but by and large, we've accepted the inevitable and moved on. That's a terrible mistake.

We've let people change America and dull our beacon. Some may argue that the larger impact of the country's changes will be not philosophical but very practical and that thousands of would-be scholars and entrepreneurs may reconsider whether America is the place to be. That's certainly true, and no one can overestimate the enormous contributions of the multitudes who have brought their brains, brawn, and brilliance to America and made it a better place in every dimension. But ours was a “great experiment” that provided an environment beyond a fertile field—a petri dish for thought, creativity, and the pursuit of happiness without intrusion by government. Chicken or egg, we give that up at our peril.

Sometimes it's terribly hard explaining America to Chinese friends and students. What I usually say, and it's the only thing that makes me optimistic about America these days, is the observation by a Frenchman, Alexis de Tocqueville, who came to America in the first half of the nineteenth century to see what made it tick. “The greatness of America lies not in being more enlightened than any other nation,” he wrote, “but rather in her ability to repair her faults.” I tell my colleagues and students about that and still can point to examples where it was true—just not recent ones. I'm not sure it's still true, which, as they like to say in China, is a pity.