by Bedrosian Center Research Assistant
New to America, one of the things that simultaneously fascinates me as much as it puzzles me, is the student protests. When I see students marching in the street, burning flags, and criticizing the government, I am shocked. Why are there so many protests? Why do so many students participate in protests?
Even more surprising is when one of my American friends revealed to me that he would teach his children how to protest when they are two years old. He also mentioned that, “My grandparents have taken part in lots of protests. They marched in different movements so that hopefully their grand-kids wouldn’t have to march.” From his words, I felt that the spirit of protest lies in his blood and this kind of innate passion would pass down from generation to generation.
According to a Gallup survey, U.S. college students are highly confident about the security that the five First Amendment rights grant them in comparison to their adult counterparts. Looking at the data, these students particularly feel that freedom of the press (81%) is granted to them. Additionally, 76 percent believe in freedom to petition the government and 73 percent believe they are granted the freedom of speech. With these rights in mind, students have been the pioneers of social movements, calling for social justice, equality and freedom. I am touched when American students are so politically active–– brave enough to stand up for causes they support, bold enough to act on the values they behold. They stand at the vanguard of the battle for justice, and they believe in their ability to bring about the change.
However, I continue to wonder: Will these protests really have an impact? Many protests may be futile since they are not protesting something you can change. In my view, regarding anti-Trump protests, Americans cannot change who was elected president, which was done through a fair, democratic process. So why do so many people continue to take part in it?
Maybe sometimes rallying for a clear outcome is beside the point. The point may be sending a message to the government. There is impact in voicing dissent; that is, showing a united front against the hatred that protesters view Trump as symbolizing. No one can underestimate the possibilities for real change in the future. Protesters of the 1848 Women’s Rights Movement kicked off the beginning of women’s suffrage; the Civil Rights Movement in 1960s made unfair treatment of African Americans visible and worked toward desegregation; students marching in the free speech movement in 1964 paved the way for a more open and free environment for differing opinions.
Looking back on my own country, China, protesting is rare for students. It is not a part of Chinese culture to fight against authority.
Students are taught to be “obedient citizens” rather than “good citizens.” Our education trains us to listen to teachers, listen to authority, behave ourselves, and be good students. Protesting is not a word in our vocabulary. Chinese people have a clear understanding about what a citizen is NOT to do, but little understanding about what a citizen CAN do. Most of the time, we yield to the government’s decision because we are afraid of standing up or speaking out.
People who engage in protest against the government are likely to face serious punishment. One of the most significant protests in our history is the Tiananmen Square Protest that happened on June 4th, 1989. To date, this protest continues to be psychologically traumatic for many Chinese citizens. During this period, people gathered on Tiananmen Square, advocating for a more transparent and democratic government. However, the government mobilized the People’s Liberation Army and disperse the crowds. Most protesters were either sent to prison or forced into exile. With stains on their personal profiles, it became impossible for those who stayed to lead a good life in China. The ripple effect of this event has been enormous. Today, this event is a forbidden topic in the public dialogue in the mainland, and the people are instilled with a deep fear of protesting.
This highlights a difference between protest in China and the U.S. – the tension between the police and the public. In the Tiananmen event, the involvement of the army worsened the situation. To an extent, the army is a symbol of authoritarianism; the suppression of disagreement, revolution, or unrest. In some ways, the tension between the police and the public is similar in the U.S. Many Americans still think that police use excessive force and groups, like Black Lives Matter, protest against this use of force. However, there is also an effort within police departments to limit use of force. For example, anti-Trump protests halted the freeway in Los Angeles and the police cleared the protesters peacefully. In the U.S., it seems that people are arrested only when they don’t comply with the police orders.
Similar to the U.S. Constitution, the Constitution of the People’s Republic of China asserts that citizens enjoy freedom of speech, of assembly, and of demonstration. However, these rights are often tightly proscribed in practice in order to maintain “social stability.” The Chinese government wants to reach a consensus among all citizens and therefore, forces out disharmonious voices. When we Chinese citizens are dissatisfied with a certain policy, we tend to voice dissatisfaction only in private conversation and never in public.
Protesting shows the attitude of citizens. The way government treats those protesting demonstrates the government’s relationship with its citizens.
I observe that stability is usually the priority for the Chinese government, while the U.S. government is more open to the vitality of free speech. I also observe that protesting is a necessary ingredient for the cultivation of the vitality of free speech and thus a vital component of democracy. Protesting shows the attitude of citizens. The way government treats those protesting demonstrates the government’s relationship with its citizens. Governing bodies should recognize that thinking differently does not mean thinking wrong; disagreements symbolize the robustness of a country’s vitality. People participate in protests because they love their country and they want to help make it better. It’s an advanced form of patriotism. It’s about love and hope, rather than rebellion and hatred. The beating heart of a democracy lies in the behavior of its citizens; people protest in order to protect the democracy that they, and generations before them, have fought hard to create and preserve.
Whether in China or the U.S., every citizen should have the right to express their ideas. This right ensures dignity. The government should provide more channels to support people’s freedom to articulate their various visions for society. Democracy is fragile, and the fight for freedom is never finished.