American Democracy in the Eyes of a New Immigrant from China


by Xiaoyan Zhang, Ph.D.




I witnessed the violence of China’s “Cultural Revolution” as a young man. This social revolution taught me to divide the world into friends and enemies. I was led to believe that the only way to advance a society was through class struggle and violent revolution. My life changed when my parents were branded as enemies for their “bourgeoisie” orientation. They were sent to the countryside to be reformed, leaving me alone in the city to fend for myself as a child of the “Black Five” — a designation for children of the persecuted. I suffered many forms of political discrimination and separated myself from the Cultural Revolution as a result of my personal experiences. I wanted nothing to do with the so-called “revolutionary behaviors”.


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I came to the United States for higher education in the early 1980s. I received my PhD in 1989 and began my career in America. Over the next three decades I would interact with people from all walks of life in diverse professions. My interactions taught me a great deal about the American experience. I realized how much of the way I viewed the world was influenced by my childhood experiences in the Cultural Revolution. America was my new home. I now had to change my old ways of thinking in order to understand American democracy and values. This was my first step to becoming an American. I have evolved in many ways since that first day I stepped onto American soil as a young student. I’ve had the opportunity to reflect over these past few decades and I would like to share some of them with the Chinese American community.


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Majority Rules vs. Minority Representation


Peaceful evolution is the model of societal advancement in America. Applying the “violent revolution” way of thinking to understand American society would be misleading. America is the only country in the world that was established through dialog among different parties (13 colonies) after the Revolutionary War (or we can call it The War for Independence). The genius of the founding fathers was their creation of a political system with separation of powers (三权分立) which provides the foundation for peaceful evolution through civilized dialog in a democratic process.


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Growing up as a young man in China, I used to think of democracy in terms of “majority rules”. Today, I realized that the essence of American democracy is protecting the minority voice and interests. A major debate as the constitution was being drafted was about the rights of small states. If one strictly follows “majority rules” then mathematically the smaller states would always be in a disadvantaged position. Therefore, allocation of Congressional House seats was based on the population count of the individual states and allocation of Congressional Senate seats was two for each state. Since new legislation must be approved by both the House and the Senate, the check and balance of power was achieved.


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A widely shared political wisdom says: “Power corrupts, absolute power corrupts absolutely”. America’s democracy protects its people from dictatorships and allows opposition to the majority to always have a say. This is a distinct contrast to Chinese politics of my youth which said, “Losers are always in the wrong” (成王败寇). In America we have significant political disagreements, but we ought to be grateful that we are able to speak freely.


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Legal System vs. Rule of Law


In Chinese, the word “legal system (法制)” is pronounced the same as the word “Rule of Law (法治)”. It can be confusing when used in a conversation because they mean different concepts. Han Feizi (韩非子) developed the concept of Rule of Law during the Warring States Period of China’s history roughly two thousand years ago. He believed that the law was a tool used by the ruler to manage and control his subjects. The government created the law and the people followed it. The ideal is “everyone is treated equal in front of the law”.


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I did not know the concept of “legal system (法制)” until I came to the United States. The American legal system is formed not under one ruler but by a document — the Constitution. Congress enacts laws and the government must operate within the limits set by these laws. The government does not control the people, but rather the people oversee the government. For example, the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) provides rights for citizens to obtain all non-sensitive governmental data and information.




The Declaration of Independence states “that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” It also defines the relationship between people and government: “Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed” Therefore, “that whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government…” (Declaration of Independence, July 4, 1776) Citizens have rights that the government must protect and respect. Human rights are the cornerstone of American democracy and a reason for its continued prosperity.




The legal system does not guarantee the fairness of the laws passed by the Congress. It only provides a democratic process for establishing, enhancing, and changing the laws. Therefore, it is counterproductive to simply complain from the sidelines about the fairness of a law. Citizens must participate in the political process to change an unfair law. In addition, party affiliation does not prevent one from voting for the opposite party. A citizen votes for specific issues based on his/her belief and conscience and can change parties at will. In American politics, there is no forever enemy or friend. There is always shared interest.




Reserving vs. Protecting Differences


Chinese politics cherish the concept of “achieving common ground while reserving differences (求同存异).” American politics believe in the concept of “protecting differences while seeking common interests (护异寻同).” The key difference is that the Chinese concept allows for differing opinions that work toward an agreeable truth. They assume that there is one solution that everyone can agree on in the end. The American concept does not assume there is a solution that all will agree on. Individual differences are natural and must be protected. It allows for continued disagreement and there can only be commonality when there is a shared interest among the people.


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The Chinese concept believes common identity and beliefs are the goal and deviant opinions are to merely be tolerated. The collective interests are placed above individual rights and interests. The American concept places an emphasis on individual rights. Common ground is the place where collective and individual interests intersect. When “commonality” is the primary goal as in China then individual rights can be violated. Individual rights in the United States are protected when “commonality” is temporary and genuine differences are not only recognized but embraced.


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The subtle difference is often profound. For example, in China we address envelopes with the country, province, city, street address, and then the persons’ name. In America we reverse the order. The address begins with the person’s name. This simple difference illustrates two distinct social orientations. The former is collective and the latter individual.


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People vs. Citizens


The Cultural Revolution taught me that the “people’s interests are above everything else.” The highest honor is to serve the people and that the “people” are the masters of history. “People” is an abstract concept. “People” can refer to “grassroots people (草民)”, “hungry people (饥民)”, “manageable people (顺民)”, “unruly people (刁民)”, and mobs (暴民). The officials rule and the people are ruled. The concept of “citizenship” did not exist. The most sympathetic officials were called “parent officials” (父母官) who were supposed to be just and honest. The widely appraised analogy of the relationship between the emperor and the average people is “people are the water and emperor is the boat” and “water can carry a boat and can also overturn the boat.”


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I was exposed to the concept of “citizen” and “citizenship” when I came to the United States. Citizens have political, economic, and social rights protected by the Constitution. Citizens vote to elect their own representatives to exercise government power. Citizens must abide by the law and can influence their legislators by expressing their will through associations, publications, demonstrations, etc. Therefore, when citizens are dissatisfied with the government they can take action. Citizens can effect social change through active civic engagement and participation in elections. A racial or ethnic minority group can fight for and protect its rights and interests by voicing its concerns through the democratic process. Participation is the key; “If you are not at the table, you will be on the table.” America gives citizens the right to push the “peaceful evolution” of the nation. It is an arduous and lengthy process, but it is a better alternative to violent revolution.


Multi-Ethnic Democracy in a Pluralistic Society


American’s modern challenge is the integration of people of different races, ethnicities, and cultures without war or revolution. Human history is littered with cultural strife, brutal war, ethnic cleansing, military rule, and violent revolution. The victors enjoy the fruits of victory and the victims wallow in defeat for generations. It is a tragic thread common to all people and groups in all places and periods of history whether the Roman Empire, Qin Dynasty, Nazi Germany, or the Rwandan genocide.


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America stands as the best hope for a harmonious pluralistic society. It is a nation of immigrants that protects the political and religious freedoms of all citizens. The American way of life allows people of all races and ethnicities to pursue the “American Dream” while preserving their own cultural values and heritage. The earliest immigrants were European, but now immigrants come from all different continents and are of all different colors. To be an American is not to become white. It is to become part of a nation that shares common values and ideals. Chinese immigrants are a part of American history. We have made and are making unique contributions. We transform and evolve from Chinese to Chinese-Americans and to just Americans. We must advocate for the interests of Chinese Americans in a multi-ethnic democracy, but we must also preserve the unity of all Americans. We must recognize that everyone is equal in America whether we agree or disagree. We are to be judged on the content of our character and the contributions we make to our community and society, not skin color or ethnic origin. This is the American ideal. This is the nation that became my home over thirty years ago. As Chinese Americans we have a powerful opportunity to shape the future of America and add our unique strand to the tapestry of our nation.


Achieving a multi-ethnic democracy in a pluralist society is not only the best interest of Chinese Americans, it is also a triumph of all Americans and a milestone of humanity.


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