David Firestein, EastWest Institute’s Perot fellow and vice president for the Strategic Trust-Building Initiative, was interviewed in Chinese by Voice of America (VOA) Mandarin Service as a panelist on Pro and Con, a weekly news and commentary program broadcast on the VOA Mandarin Service satellite television channel to Mandarin-speaking audiences worldwide.
Appearing with Firestein on the panel were Robert Daly, director of the Kissinger Institute on China and the United States at the Wilson Center, and Charles Laughlin, chair of Asian Studies at the University of Virginia. In the first part of the discussion, the panelists offered reflections on their careers and experiences working with and on China, and the second part focused on the latitude for free expression and openness to different ideas in China and Chinese culture. Firestein’s comments on the program are summarized below.
All links below are for Mandarin-language videos only.
Part 1: Personal history and interest in China
Firestein visited China for the first time in 1984 as a tourist. He later studied international relations and Mandarin before being posted to China as a U.S. diplomat. In his personal experience, today’s China is vastly different from the China of 30 years ago. He noted two of the most evident changes: first, the greatly increased pace of life and its attendant toll on the quality of interpersonal bonds; and second—and more fundamentally—the increasing space for choice in the individual lives of Chinese. Firestein also noted that the Chinese Ministry of Education’s recent decision to curb the flow of Western ideas and values into Chinese academic institutions was unfortunate. In his view, innovation and new ideas are at the heart of China’s continued economic development, and this decision represents a step backwards on that path.
Part 2: Expression and openness in China
Firestein noted that the main difference between American and Chinese culture is the emphasis placed on people’s right to free choice. According to Firestein, free choice in the United States is considered a sacred right and an integral aspect of being a human being; this derives from the country’s Judeo-Christian roots. China is also developing in this regard; for example, relative to the 1980s, Chinese people now have greater freedom to make choices in their own lives on matters such as their education, employment and foreign travel. However, Firestein noted that some recent trends in China toward greater restrictions on expression in artistic and intellectual fields are concerning, and expressed hope that China will continue to work to build an open and innovative society.