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A tale of two systems

| January 13, 2021 1:00 AM

From the cluttered old attic that is my memory I remember that “Stability is possible without freedom, but freedom is not possible without stability.” It is a truism, I think, and I was reminded of it in a recent discussion with a group of Chinese graduate students studying to become officials in China’s government.

This was the fourth time I had spoken to this university group over the years. Careers are determined in China on the basis of testing and since managing government is a particularly high priority in the government-centered system of China, these students are high achievers. I didn’t have to ask to know that membership in the Chinese Communist Party is a requisite to the career path these young scholars have been selected for.

I was at the Mansfield Center at the University of Montana when I first addressed this group on the subject of culture and politics in the United States. They have all had 12 years of English so, this time, even over Zoom, no interpreter was necessary.

What surfaced more prominently in the Q and A sessions with this year’s class was the deeply fundamental difference in our two systems of government, probably triggered by the political combat surrounding the recent U.S. election and its rough and tumble aftermath. The Chinese see this as the beginning of the inevitable smash up of a democracy. The Chinese believe that the ideal goal for humanity is a Communist utopia made possible by a classless society. Since they believe they have discovered the right track, they see no need for destabilizing elections.

Democracy, with its reliance on elections, they argue, is an inherently unstable system. The U.S. has already outlived most of history’s democracies. They see their totalitarian system as stable, and therefore so is their government.

In our back and forth I asked them how they know their system is stable. The people in the U.S. and the world know every detail of our mass shootings, racial unrest and government dysfunction. Nobody knows what’s going on in China that the government doesn’t want known, and most notably that includes the Chinese themselves.

My Chinese students avoided discussing that the track China is on is taking them further away from a classless society. But since imposed stability doesn’t permit change, the priority of stability must continue to deny freedom of opportunity for the poor. For reasons of economic stability, the Chinese system won’t interfere with the concentration of wealth among the rich.

As before, I very much liked these bright and very gracious Chinese young people, but it was clear that our debate about stability and freedom wasn’t going to be settled in our philosophical discussion. I can’t understand the value of stability without freedom and the Chinese believe freedom always destroys the stability necessary for it to survive.

Good faith discussions, on any level, are always useful in furthering understanding and often lead to the solving of problems. Kind of makes me wish such dialogue could take place in the upcoming Montana legislature and the new session of Congress.

Bob Brown, Whitefish, is a former Montana Secretary of State and State Senate President.