Education, Equality and Solidarity: American and Chinese Commonalities

In an increasingly transnational world, global connections only become ever clearer. A close examination of American and Chinese societies reveals common themes at the core of popular movements and social struggles. Long before the establishment of formal diplomatic relations between the People’s Republic of China and the United States of America in 1972, the people in both places have been fighting for equal access to work and educational opportunities across lines of race, gender, and class. In particular, everyday citizens in the two countries - in spite of the Pacific Ocean that separates them - share the values of education, equality and solidarity. These important connections, drawn out, allow us to develop a more grounded understanding of the unique socio-political situation of each nation.

The three pillars of freedom written into the U.S. Constitution in 1783 - life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness - have been challenged, denied, and secured again through popular and political struggle time and again. Now in 2014, the U.S. looks back on a historical legacy of contention and war. At the core of U.S. politics however, are the values of education, equality, and solidarity. These principles empower longstanding efforts from both the grassroots and Capitol Hill to ensure the guarantees of the Constitution. They have spurred and grounded social movements for civil rights and social justice and continue to do so today.

Public education had always been a foundational tenet of U.S. society and culture. Ideally, public education acts as the great equalizer and allows a pathway for social mobility. The mythical concept of the “American Dream”, which has rendered the U.S. such a popular destination for immigrants for centuries, has depended upon education. During the pioneer era of the 1800s, each settlement or town, regardless of how short-term the residents expected to stay in the place, had a one-room schoolhouse. In the early 1900s, the famed “Horatio Alger” story revolved around individual initiative; young men in poor neighborhoods were encouraged to pursue education and innovation as ways out of poverty.

It is important to note however, that such a categorically positive appraisal of the role of education in U.S. public life must be qualified. Even though education has been a longstanding value of various disparate groups, it has also been used to maintain social divide along the lines of race and class. It was not until 1954 that the court case Brown v. Board of Education legally ended race-based school segregation. But even today, due to the inadequate resources and community disinvestment confronted by many rural and inner-city school districts, the quality of public education offered in the U.S. can vary widely. The truth remains that a black student from the South Side of Chicago is going to public schools that do not prepare him for the rigors of higher education the way that public schools can do for a white student in Manhattan.

U.S. history has been defined by sustained efforts by minority groups to attain social equality. At the nation’s founding, “universal suffrage” applied to only white, land-owning men. Most egregiously, In the Constitution, black slaves were counted as only three-fifths of a person. It was through years of political and social struggle that the definition of “citizen” and “rights” have been critically expanded. The abolitionist movement in the early 1800s, a coalition of freed blacks and white sympathizers, ultimately helped bring about the end of slavery in the Civil War. Contemporaneously, the suffragist movement over decades finally secured the vote for women with the passing of the Nineteenth Amendment in 1920. It is significant to note however, that the ratification of legislation itself - while always landmark accomplishments - have never ensured the granting of rights at the grassroots, concrete level. For example, even though the Fifteenth Amendment bestowed upon black men the right to vote, formal and informal local laws in the Jim Crow south prevented African Americans from casting their votes for decades thereafter. The Civil Rights Movement has been a continuous effort to secure the economic and political liberties of people of color in the U.S. The struggle is still not over today. Activists continue to fight for environmental and social justice, living wages, equal opportunity for education, and an end to needless war and mass incarceration.

These campaigns to bring about equality have been rendered possible by a remarkable amount of cross-racial, cross-cultural solidarity. The abolitionist movement to end slavery had been led by not only freed blacks but sympathetic whites in both the north and the south. William Lloyd Garrison, for instance, edited one of the most prolific anti-slavery newspapers. Sarah and Angelina Grimke, daughters of a slave-owner, traveled around the country speaking on behalf of the abolitionist cause. Meanwhile, Frederick Douglass, a key leader of the anti-slavery cause, also supported the campaigns for women’s suffrage and corresponded closely with Susan B. Anthony. These nineteenth-century examples of solidarity have also never been anomalies. Civil rights movements for minorities, queers, and women involved allies from across different interest groups. In a poignant demonstrations of cross-racial solidarity, film star Marlon Brando publicly refused to accept a 1973 Oscar award to protest Hollywood’s depiction of Native Americans on the screen and to iterate his support for the American Indian Movement. U.S. history is littered with countless less famous, but no less significant instances of collaboration and solidarity.

In terms of economic equity in the U.S., solidarity has been an essential component of ongoing efforts to leverage popular power and secure labor justice. Because the minimum wage has often failed to rise at a level to keep up with inflation, it has become difficult for many service and industrial workers to maintain their standard of living. Furthermore, the outsourcing of manufacturing jobs - once the ticket to the middle class - to developing countries further reduces the opportunities for class mobility. But U.S. workers are organizing to protect their rights to a living wage. In fact, the past few months have seen repeated strikes by fast food workers in major U.S. cities demanding a $15 per hour minimum wage. Led by the Service Employees International Union, fast food workers have organized a series of strikes throughout the country to protest the low pay in the industry. These workers, with the support of many college students and other progressive organizations, have been making their voice heard in popular society, loud and clear. Especially as trade unions in the U.S. diversify to draw a more representative membership from an increasingly immigrant, female, and service-oriented labor pool, solidarity-building has become a defining feature of the labor movement.

These features of U.S. social movements find their counterpart in Chinese struggles for equity, both past and present. Albeit inconspicuous at first glance, these similarities provide key insight into both American and Chinese society. The image of China in Western’s eye often falls into the trap of mystical Orientalism, ideological propaganda and fragmentized outsiders’ reports. Actually, from the vast territory to the broad spiritual world, this country on the other side of ocean shares more in common with United State than you can imagine. Through 4000 years old splendid civilization and turbulent modern history, the respect to education, the pursuit for equality and solidarity, they are likewise among the values in the center of Chinese society people concern about and fight for.

China was the first country to promote upward social mobility and select intellectuals for public service though nationwide merit-based examination system in the human history. Compared to the caste system and feudal aristocracy emphasizing family backgrounds and wealth in other civilizations, the Chinese civil-service examination found in AD607 and the establishment of public schools provided an open and fair channel to folks for attaining social-economic status. Historians find that during AD1371-1904, official-commoner became the main social divide, but 40% new officials who passed the national exams came from commoner family. As a tradition, “The man who has knowledge deserves the most respect”, lasts into contemporary China, though interrupted by the Cultural Revolution. June 7th-9th is a destination for 7 million high school graduates every year after their more than 12 years exam-oriented studies and peer competition. During these days, the girl of a poor farmer in Gansu Province has a precious chance to close the gap in the life with the boy of a rich entrepreneur in Zhejiang Province. For ordinary people, the performance of their children in the College Entrance Examination still matters for the rise or fall of the whole family.

However, compared to the American education system, Chinese education focuses more on cultural transmission and less on individual development or training. Because the examination in Chinese traditional education is a method to select loyal bureaucrats for the dominant class, the dreary learning content and singular standard constrains its utility in selecting diverse and innovative intellectuals for modern times. Although many universities have been affordable for the most expensive scientific equipment, the contemporary Chinese high education have not cultivated any Nobel Prize winner in Physics, Chemistry and Medicine, while there have been several Chinese scientists who received western education won this honor. Thus for the rising middle class, studying aboard becomes another choice for better education, even a better choice for class reproduction. The multi-culture environment, scientific spirit and international vision in American universities attract more than 230,000 Chinese students to study in the U.S. in 2012 academic year. Some of them are from cadre and burgeoning manager families can party in a new Porsche, but others are from very humble backgrounds and have to work on three part-time jobs. All of them however, have the unequivocal support of their parents. The emphasis on critical role of education in inheriting culture and changing fate in Chinese society is persistent and far-reaching.

The pursuit for equality could also be seen as another core topic of Chinese history. From the first large-scale peasant uprising in BC206 to the Communist revolution in AD1949, as the land is the essential property for farmers as the majority of the population in this homogeneous agricultural society, the dynasty circle grounded on the land annexation and redistribution in the pre-modern China. In 20 century, for instance, The Chinese Communist Party first came to power by promising land redistribution to the farmers, but soon the people community movement collectivized the land ownership back to the state in the name of egalitarianism. After suffering the low efficiency and low standard of living, the reputable reform policies issued in 1980s contracting land to household and letting farmers keep the gains from self-organized farming activities contributed to China’s economic boom. Until today, the urbanization grabbing land from farmers without reasonable compensation is still a cause of social inequality between the state and the people. In contemporary China, inequality has more dimensions than in history. National statistics shows that in 2012, top 10% of earners in United State hold 50.4% of total income, while top 10% in China holds 56.9% of total disposable income in 2011; top 1% of earners in USA hold 40% of total wealth including 50% stocks, bonds and mutual funds, while top 10% of earners in China hold 84.6% of social wealth including 61% financial wealth. USA and China both have the same serious inequality problem. However, China’s Gini coefficient increased from 0.24 to 0.47 in only 35 years. The rapidly developing economic inequality has structural origins in unfair legislation, biased resource allocation and weak supervision under the immature market economy in transition.

As mentioned, the word “equality” in Chinese context usually means its economic dimension, uneven land distribution in ancient time and nowadays income inequality, rather than political implication in the U.S. context. For China, with its long history of imperial power and small-scale peasant economy, human rights and social campaign are totally new conceptions in the early 20th century. The communist leadership had propagandized equalitarianism and class struggle as a part of its ideology and the mass mobilization just followed the Party’s guide. As a result, Chinese society never fostered wholly spontaneous social campaigns to pursue gender equality or the rights of other disadvantaged group. This kind of campaign beyond the Communist party’s ideological framework and political control hardly avoids being oppressed and lacks the public participation. Without the effective civil resistance to unfair legislation and political inequality, social inequality still exists in many aspects.  For example, Hukou system founded in 1958 which categories individuals as “rural” or “urban” residents and provides different treatments causes systematic social inequality in terms of education, social welfare and employment. In the communist era, urban hukou status means significant advantage in attaining education, party membership and “iron bowl” in the state-owned enterprises. After the reform, although the geographic mobility is allowed, the migrant workers who work in the urban area with rural hukou still cannot get pension and medical care in the cities. The children of this 2 hundred million “floating” population cannot study in the urban public schools and have to take the college entrance examination in their home provinces. The disadvantage in education attainment caused by Hukou system reversely obstacles the rural residents’ up-ward mobility and weakens their discourse power. Overall, the second-class citizenship directly simulates a series of social problems from migrant workers strikes to unbalanced urban-rural development that drags the improvement of efficiency in economic and social development.

Solidarity could be regarded as a more abstract and comprehensive indicator for describing a society and it has more subjective and positive implications than unification which focuses on the objective political results. When the social groups different in the ethnic, religion, region, etc, holding various cultures and political opinions, could regard themselves as the citizens in the same country and get along with each other peacefully. The power of solidarity is a part of a country’s treasure and potential in domestic development and international competition. The tradition of pursuing solidarity in China could be traced to the first unification in BC221 when the First Emperor Qin defeated the other six countries and sent his bureaucrats to govern the broad territory. The standardized currency, writing character, weights and measures, and Confucian ideology spread through the systematized transportation in the later centralized Han dynasty. After 250 years divided situation influenced by the Northern nomadic people, since AD600, a highly centralized secular feudal system had formed in Han society in the area of Yangtze and Yellow rivers. The unification became a so strong idea that even for farmer insurgents and external ethnics, dominating a piece of land paralleling to another regime had been insufficient to satisfy their ambition. From the mid-imperial China, there was always a central government in charge of maintaining the unification by suppressing rebellion and consolidating the relationship between different social groups and allies on the frontier. Under the political unification, people in various regions bonded with each other through trade, marriage and cultural communication. The same sense of belonging spreads so deep that nowadays 1.3 billion people speaking different dialogues living on different production modes call themselves Chinese on this vast territory.

Nevertheless, solidarity may have different implications in China and America. After the economic reform, Chinese government requires more ideological agreement or political obedience from its citizens regardless of the difference in ethnics and wealth, while the American government mainly promotes the solidarity across the various ethnic groups and party affiliations (the solidarity between the rich and poor seems like the hardest to achieve). Besides the central-local relation, take “ethnic solidarity” as an example, in order to attaining ethnic solidarity, education, economic and social inequality, region integration, all critical factors, need to be taken into consideration,  which is a systematic giant project for any country. When people attribute Uyghur-Han conflicts to ideological or religious contradictions, social scientists find that there are more fundamental social and economic causes threatening the solidarity. In a 2005 regional survey, more than 43% Uyghur in Xinjiang only hold primary or below degree, while less than 13% Han residents cannot graduate from the junior high school. Also when age, education etc, being equal, Uyghur earned 2.6% less in public institutions, 28.3% less in private enterprises and 33% less in self-employment than Han locals. In contrast to the U.S. where the struggle for racial justice has developed, at least qualifiedly, into a popular movement with the endorsement of a sympathetic public, ethnic-based campaigns for basic rights in China has been misunderstood as separatism and unfairly stigmatized. The parities in education attainment, cultural recognition, and employment do not garner the attention that they merit from Han society. The dialogue is deficient. The violence, substance abuse, child labor and concentrated poverty become the unavoidable ending for many ethnic communities. Thus it can be seen that the solidarity in China which is always propagandized as evidence supporting its legitimacy by the Chinese government actually is hindered by the authoritarianism and lacks the down to top participation of a civil society.

The historic and contemporary experience of the U.S. and China highlight educational opportunity, equal right and solidarity as three indispensable, universal goals of modern civilization. To attain these lofty goals under different socio-political conditions, our two countries inevitably differ in the nuances of their popular movements. We may excessively emphasize the distinctions and regard each other as exotic or a troublesome opponent. However, when globalization brings us together and intimately binds our nations, we need to look through the difference and learn from the difference. The former helps us to understand and cooperate with each other, and the latter helps us to reflect on ourselves and overcome our shortcomings. That would definitely contribute to the progress of the human civilization as a whole.

Author 1: Siyun Jiang, Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, China

Author 2: Ruodi Duan, Amherst College, USA

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Tags: #Connected2014

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Comment by Valentine Olushola Oyedipe on May 8, 2014 at 4:00pm

Expository article Siyun and Ruodi, one could easily locate the commonality and divergence between U.S. and China within the purview of Putnam's study on civic society and of course the applicability of social  capital theory in our contemporary societies.However, top-bottom and bottom-top approaches constitute the big divide given the divergent ideology and and values as relates to the distribution of national wealth of both countries

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