Op-ed: Taking civic duty from the textbook to the real world

I stood in the crowd, witnessing citizens of different ages, all yelling and hoisting signs above their heads. I could feel my heart beating fast. The impressive scenario made me weirdly excited. It was my first time around a protest. I went to interview the attendees of the Jeff Flake protest as a freshman journalism major. When I asked two protesters why they attended, I did not expect their unanimous answer—it was their “civic duty.”

In China, I seldom see or hear the phrase “civic duty.” However, it seems like civic responsibility is indispensable in the United States. My American friends told me civic duty is a concept taught to them in childhood, and that it is their mutual responsibility to help make their nation better. At the Kavanaugh protest, both college students and adults worked together to meet their common wish to help the nation.

In Chinese moral education classes—courses designed to shape values and ethics—we learned the definition of civic duty. According to the textbooks, it is something that, once fulfilled, leads to freedom and civil rights. For me and many other Chinese students, we did not understand what rights we had. In some cases, citizens were not granted their rights. We were given nothing more than these fancy big words in textbooks, and they only appeared on tests. We never thought about it in terms of discussion or the political climate.

When my moral education teacher mentioned civic duty in classes, she said that the most specific embodiment of it is patriotism. But what does it truly mean to love our country?  No one ever taught me that. And this unclear definition leads to irrational behavior.

Many Chinese citizens, especially young ones, would turn civic duty into radical patriotism. During the 2013 Senkaku Island territorial dispute between China and Japan, some angry Chinese citizens smashed Japanese-made vehicles, boycotted Japanese products, and cursed those who traveled to Japan. They would often label themselves as responsible citizens prompted by civic duty.

Out of the Chinese population—1.4 billion—only small amounts of citizens participate in civic engagement and political movements. In June 2017, the government withdrew the rights of citizens living in commercial and residential houses to legally reside under the housing contracts. Around 120 people marched into East Nanjing Road in Shanghai to earn their houses back. On the evening the protest occurred, several videos and pictures were posted on Chinese social media. The next morning, they were all deleted. In this case, some citizens protested in terms of civic duty, but unfortunately, they did not get their granted civil rights to protest, albeit allowed under the Chinese Constitution.

Two weeks ago, a helicopter hovering over a street distracted me. A strike transpired near Emerson as Marriott Hotel workers protested contract negotiations. Several policemen stood in the proximity, blocking streets and diverting vehicles away. They were present to ensure the protesters’ safety, a civil right in America.

Things are entirely different in China. At the start of this year, many Chinese people, including myself, participated in the Chinese #MeToo movement. We shared our own experiences with sexual assault, some of which dealt with a wide range of government officials. As a result, many posts got deleted. Some girls were even threatened by authorities.

As Americans fight for social improvement through civic duty, the country’s founding documents protect their human right to do so. Americans can fulfill their responsibilities as citizens without the worry of losing their rights. They can debate the nomination of a Supreme Court candidate accused of sexual assault, and can even protest their president’s administration.

However, for Chinese citizens, civic duty and civil rights seem to only make sense in textbooks. Only when we know that our right to protest is protected can more people stand up and contribute to their communities. This is what I hope for in China—that civic duty can become as indispensable there as it is in America, and this requires all the nation to realize the importance of civic participation and take action when needed.

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