The XX Factor

A Promise To Honor China. Check.

In September of 2008 I wrote a letter to the Chinese government. In it, I promised to always honor the Chinese culture and to raise any child it chose to put into my care to honor it as well. Two days after we arrived in Beijing to adopt our daughter, Chinese authorities appeared outside our hotel room at midnight. Within a few hours my other kids, my mother, and I were securely behind armed guards in a quarantine hotel, and my husband was locked in a hospital room being treated for an H1N1 flu so mild he hadn’t even realized he was sick. If by “honor,” we mean “show deference to power,” I now had it covered. If we intended to use any of the more common senses of the word, I had a problem, because for what I felt toward China, at that moment and since, has little to do with the kind of honor I’d like to feel toward my daughter’s home country.

China has spent millions of dollars over the past years improving its “soft power.” That effort has been very successful. It’s now very easy, with all we’ve heard about the efficient subways, the expansive mobile networks, the stable population, and the high-speed trains carrying new workers to new destinations, to forget that behind the “One World One Dream” Olympic façade, China is run by a regime that believes its power still lies in its willingness to oppress when necessary. China’s fury over the Nobel committee’s choice to honor Liu Xiaobo stems from its fear that in distinguishing Liu for his criticism of Beijing, the world will look behind the curtain at the real costs of the unilateral power that has led to so many gains.

In China, every citizen knows that you’re never more than an official decree away from a total change in fortune. Today, you cannot use this subway entrance. Tomorrow, you must submit to sterilization in order to keep your job. Next week, your home may lie in the path of a planned high-speed rail spur or mobile tower. It’s all for the greater good, but if it should not be good for you in particular, your choices are few. Protest might be successful. It might lead to yet further destruction. You never know what you’re going to get.

Among the many things Liu protests about China’s government is its similarity to Forrest Gump’s box of chocolates. This, particularly by comparison with the past fates of Chinese protesters, may seem as trivial as the reference. China is so much more open than it once was. Many people lead fuller, richer lives in every sense of those words. But they still have no recourse against the capricious actions of their government, and their government is in no way accountable to its people. China’s citizens are no more free than Liu Xiaobo himself.

China has always been a tough sell for the honoring adoptive parent. If China afforded its own people the simplest of human rights-the right to keep and raise their own children under any circumstances-it’s likely that most adoptive parents would travel there only to see the Great Wall. (There may be more to my particular daughter’s story, but the issue remains.) I have long struggled to figure out how to honor China’s past without being willfully blind to its present. In Liu Xiaobo, I’ve found one answer. In awarding the Nobel to Liu, the international community may shame China for its failure to allow dissent, but it honors China as well, for producing a citizen willing to speak boldly in support of what’s right for his country and countrymen, knowing that he’s likely to be called upon to accept and endure the worst of what he protests. It’s a contradiction worthy of China itself. China should accept the honor and the challenge, and use its considerable powers to find a way to continue improving the lives of its people without the need to trample their rights at the same time. I have the luxury of raising my daughter in a country where she’ll never have to fear a knock on the door. I promise, now, to raise her to honor those of her heritage who refuse to fear that knock.

Photograph of Liv Ullman in front of poster of Liu Xiaobo by Odd Andersen for Getty Images.