I spent most of my summer in Harbin and Urumqi – cities in the northeast and northwest corners of China. While I was there, I felt pretty smug about freedoms that I had enjoyed back in the United States: the freedom to vote, the freedom to read controversial news, general freedom of expression, and so on. In other words, I mostly associated freedom with political rights.
When Chinese from those cities spoke to me about U.S. freedoms they admired, however, I got a different picture. In China, where political conversations are often censored and the state media makes the tone of politics positive and boring, many Chinese instead focus on lifestyle freedoms, like the liberty to travel far from home. There’s a telling saying from the seminal Confucian text, the Analects: “While your parents are alive, do not travel far away. If you have to travel, then you need to have a goal.”
To my surprise, some also mentioned the right to buy and own guns as an American lifestyle freedom. I saw more guns during two months in China than I have during twenty years in the U.S. because so many Chinese police officers prominently display their firearms. Civilian gun ownership, however, is a different story. According to China’s 1996 Firearms Control Law, private gun ownership is forbidden, with very few exceptions.
Many Chinese, from men on trains who had never met a foreigner before to students at the Harbin Institute of Technology, a top ten university in China, assumed that all American families own guns. “How many guns does your father own?” was right up there with “Is your hair really naturally that curly?” for popular topics of conversation during my visit. A father from Urumqi was driving his wife, daughter, and me to see the new Terminator movie when he mentioned how it would be nice to be able to buy a gun to protect his family.
It’s no wonder that many Chinese think all Americans have guns, though, given the seemingly endless supply in movies like The Terminator as well as the slate of recent shootings, which are often highlighted by Chinese news outlets. Wednesday’s shooting in San Bernardino, for example, was described by Xinhua, the official newswire of the Chinese Communist Party, as unsurprising given the many similar tragedies in the U.S. this year alone.
The Chinese government has, in fact, used our problem with gun violence to diffuse the U.S.’s accusations of human rights abuses in China. In an official report entitled “Human Rights Record of the United States in 2014,” China’s State Council Information Office writes, “The U.S. was haunted by spreading guns, frequent occurrence of violent crimes, which threatened citizens’ civil rights.” Gun violence is the first alleged U.S. human rights violation that the report discusses, even before mentioning CIA torture, racial and gender discrimination, and police brutality.
The CCP condemns American gun violence as a human rights violation, while many Chinese citizens respect American civilian gun ownership. It’s a contradiction that strangely reflects the domestic debate about gun laws – a debate that has made its way to to the forefront of national dialogue over the past few months and likely won’t be going away anytime soon.