MANOUSH ZOMORODI, HOST:
It's the TED Radio Hour from NPR. I'm Manoush Zomorodi. And today on the show, ideas that helped us make sense of 2020, which also included some big debates over what we're willing to do to protect ourselves and our neighbors.
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ZOMORODI: Here in the U.S., there's been a lot of tension over measures to curb the virus, like wearing masks. But in places like China, government-enforced mandates went a lot further, like separating family members for quarantine and tracking citizens' every move through QR code scans.
HUANG HUNG: I told that to my American friends. They're like, oh, my God, how can you live with that? That so infringes on everything that we believe in - in individual rights and so on and so forth.
ZOMORODI: This is Huang Hung. She's been called the Oprah Winfrey of China.
HUNG: I'm a writer. I'm a columnist in China. I - most of my writing are in Chinese. However, I am actually a U.S. citizen. And I've been living in China since 1991, so for quite some time. So, you know, I walk into a shopping mall, and I have to say I'm glad I feel safer that there is a scanning system. It is for the greater good. The Chinese kind of realize in time of crisis, it is necessary to bound together. And whatever inconvenience happens, you need to be able to tolerate it. You need to be patient. You need to work with other people. You need to support the collective rather than just think for yourself.
ZOMORODI: I mean, I guess I'm wondering whether this idea of collectivism to benefit the population as a whole is even possible without infringing too much on people's civil liberties. Like, can it be done in a place like the U.S.? Or are the U.S. and China just too different?
HUNG: I think one of the things I do want to point out is that the Chinese have always had a ruler, an emperor. So for the Chinese, it's not strange to have a one-party rule. It's not strange not to have elections because, for 5,000 years, they have never had an election. But it is ironic for me that you take China, where the government is not elected, but during the pandemic, everybody will do what the government wants them to do, be it lockdown, be it testing temperatures. Whereby in the West, you have elected governments. These governments are actually voted in by the people. But anything that the governments say the people will not listen to. And I find that to be something very ironic, and...
ZOMORODI: It's fascinating.
HUNG: It's fascinating. Yes. It is fascinating. You know, what does this say about how a authoritarian government, when it carries on for 5,000 years, can shape a certain culture of conformity?
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HUNG: And is that conformity necessarily bad?
ZOMORODI: There are those who say that despite this concept of collective good, that the Chinese government did not act enough - quickly enough to contain the virus, and that deaths were unreported or undercounted, that there was an attempt to protect the government from outside eyes, from seeing that they did not act quickly enough. It sounds like there's a tension between what the people trust their government to do and what the Chinese government actually does to protect its leaders.
HUNG: I think there's a strange misunderstanding that the Chinese government does not communicate to its people, and it does not bend to the will of its people. So this, I have to say, is not quite true because the Chinese government is actually quite aware of public opinion. So when confronted with massive amount of complain and protest on social media, the government has the ability to change its decision. And we've seen that during the pandemic, when the government changed its verdict on Dr. Li.
ZOMORODI: So you're referring to this Dr. Li Wenliang, who first sounded the alarm about coronavirus in China.
ZOMORODI: And the government initially condemned him as a whistleblower and tried to censor the news of the outbreak. But they later changed their narrative and celebrated him as a hero after he died of COVID-19.
HUNG: Yes. And this the Chinese government does not because it wants to change its mind but because it realized on the night of the death of Dr. Li that it had to do it. So the government actually does react to public opinion.
ZOMORODI: Yeah, but doesn't it seem like there's this really thin line between whether the government is simply listening to the people, or if it's actually trying to save face in light of a major blunder after overreaching and censoring too much?
HUNG: It's the same thing. But in either way, what it is is the government reacting to public opinion.
ZOMORODI: Huh. You know, I guess what I'm also thinking of are the instances where people tried to express dissent and were silenced and punished. For example, our own Emily Feng, NPR's Emily Feng, has reported on how Wuhan residents were threatened by the police and silenced after they tried to sue the Chinese government for the way things were handled there. Lawyers were told to stop their pro bono work on these cases. And so when people are silenced and fear-stricken in this way, you can't really make a generalization that the Chinese population is happy with the government's course of action, right?
HUNG: I agree. I agree. I agree that these incidences are very worrisome, and there are huge holes in the Chinese justice system in the way that the Chinese local police actually carry out justice and enforces justice. And these are problems that exist in Chinese society. There is no way to deny that.
ZOMORODI: And yet I think it comes back to this idea that you have talked about, which has no translation into the English language. So I wonder if you can explain it to us and if you think that is the reason why people are willing to accept some changes. This - the word is guai. Did I...
ZOMORODI: ...Say it correctly?
HUNG: Yes. Yes. I think the Chinese are taught to think for greater goods ever since we were born. You need to get good grades, not necessarily for your own benefit but because you don't want to lose face for your parents, for your family. And so the collective thinking is very - buried deep down. You really are facing a different creature in terms of a nation and in terms of a race and a people. First of all, China has been homogenized. I mean, it's - like, 90% of the population is Han. So all I'm saying is that the Chinese government is terribly lucky that they get to rule a people which actually has a culture of collective thinking. They have an easier job than Western politicians. Let's put it that way.
ZOMORODI: Yeah, but do you think there could be a middle ground to be found between that collectivist sentiment that you described but without the extreme measures to enforce it?
HUNG: I think there has to be a middle ground. And I think this is why U.S.-China relationship is so important that it's not a breakdown because that middle ground is somewhere between the Western world and the Chinese world. We're all together in the same problem. So it's about the human race either moving on to a higher platform where we recognize our collective good as a human race, or we actually die fighting whose system is better. So from that point of view, I do think that the West has a lesson to learn in terms of collective thinking.
ZOMORODI: That's Huang Hung. She's an author, television host and media mogul. I spoke to her in May of this year. You can hear more of her thoughts from this year's virtual TED conference at ted.com.
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