I was over at Patrick and Dean’s place the other night and we had a really interesting conversation concerning personal freedom and the differences thereof living in China compared to living in the West.  As the Western media never lets us forget, the Chinese government is one of the most overbearingly oppressive governments in the world when it comes to free speech.  Here’s a little of what Amnesty International has to say about China.

Amnesty International has documented widespread human rights violations in China. An estimated 500,000 people are currently enduring punitive detention without charge or trial, and millions are unable to access the legal system to seek redress for their grievances. Harassment, surveillance, house arrest, and imprisonment of human rights defenders are on the rise, and censorship of the Internet and other media has grown.

China cloaks these violations of human rights as a way to ensure the safety of the masses by discouraging dissent and possible upheaval (Ironic in my opinion, considering that their national hero, Mao Zedong, was one of the best revolutionary leaders the world has ever seen, but also one of the worst leaders of an established nation the world has ever seen.).  Western society, largely based on the principles contained within the Bill of Rights of the United States, stands for the opposite of what China is trying to achieve by suppressing dissent.  The constitution of the United States is specifically designed to provide the minority with power.  I won’t be the first person to say that it doesn’t always work out that way, but that the freedom of speech, the freedom to speak out against your authority figure, the freedom to dissent, is perhaps the single-most dearly held belief of the American public.  In China, if you speak out against your government in a public fashion, you will be arrested.  Plain and simple.

But let’s face it, we’re not perfect either.  While Western first world nations pride themselves on their human rights records, we do in fact face battle our own form of tyranny on a day to day basis.  A form of tyranny that masquerades in much the same way that the Chinese government says they do what they do in order to ensure the safety of their population, a form of tyranny that is perhaps more pervasive than that of China’s strong armed attempts at suppressing free speech.  I am of course speaking of the tyranny of the insurance industry.

Insurance companies have made life in the United States harder than one can imagine, in many ways that might not be perceivable to people who have never lived in a country like China, where insurance is basically a non-factor a government safety organizations (like the FDA for instance) have a far less wide reaching grasp.  What you begin to notice is that all these institutions put in place to ensure our safety end up hindering the growth of our economy, not to mention all of the fun.

I did a service project last Fall with my school in Hazard, Kentucky, helping to build low incomes houses.  We worked along side a team of nail pounding, fast walking, slow talking, ass-kickers who knew they’re way around a construction site.  These guys could smoke a cigarette, crack a dirty joke, and hammer in a nail all while balancing on rafters ten feet up in the air in a heavy breeze.  In five days the team was able to fully construct the exterior structure of a home, but an entire day was spent installing “safety platforms” around the edge of the building before we were able to begin work on the roof.  In China, the thought of having to do such a thing is laughable simply because it wastes time, time that the entire country doesn’t have.

A man in Beijing stands three stories high on scaffolding with no harness or railings.

You’ll find this phenomenon of a general lack of safety precautions in anydeveloping country, but China presents two attributing factors that make it stand out from all the others, its massive population and its simultaneous identities as both a third world and industrialized modern nation.  Population creates an incredibly competitive economic atmosphere where businesses seem to appear and disappear at the flick of a light switch, leaving little time for the luxury of safety precautions.  Its double status means a disparity of enforcement levels depending where you are, what kind of project you’re undertaking, and who’s watching.  Add in the culture of what Westerners might sometimes define as corruption or bribery, and you’ve got a system put in place that is nearly impossible to monitor and control.  They can’t check every restaurant to see if it’s clean.  They can’t enforce that everyone wear bike helmets.  They can’t waste time installing safety railings when the building has to be finished in a week.