Chapter Seven – Passage Two
Xi’an, it turns out, had been deliberately designed as a city that all Chinese citizens were expected to live in after graduating high school and (if they went) attending college. Upon turning 18, all Chinese citizens were required to show up for two years of military service and training. One of those two years are spent in Xi’an. To be clear, there hasn’t been a major land war engagement in the world in nearly two centuries. But all Chinese citizens, men and women, are expected to learn how to shoot a rifle, address a field wound, cook in the wilderness, and other basic training you’d find in a typical ROTC-type program.
Mandatory National Service is a concept that had long since vanished in western societies but in China the idea is still very much alive. Alan explains to us succinctly, “In order to make communism work, you need people to share a communal feeling. A single, cohesive sense of national character. In any given society, you’re going to have tribalism and so integral to the CCP’s desire to maintain a single, unified China, we need to stamp out these seeds of prejudice to the best of our ability.”
“But China doesn’t officially sanction religion here,” says Deepak. “So surely that helps with minimizing regional conflict and difference.”
“Yeah,” adds Coleman. “And you guys don’t even have black people here! How can you be racist when everyone’s the same race?” You can tell the incident at Seven-Eleven from a few days ago is still on his mind.
“Here in China we may not have racism and freedom of/divisions over religion the same way you guys have it in America,” Alan explains patiently, “but bigotries are manifold and you don’t need religion or race to divide people. Believe me, China’s been around since before America was even a twinkle in someone’s eye. We have plenty of factionalism existent to keep our politburo members up at night.”
“China’s got the same problem that Australia does,” Kristen says, nodding slowly. “It was one of the chief problems I’d worked on when I was in Darwin. How to stamp out prejudices based on regionalism.”
“Exactly,” Alan nods. “Chinese history is like everyone else’s. You occupy a large enough space for long enough and before you know it, you’ve got the descendants of the Qing dynasty hating on the descendants of the Han dynasty and vice versa. Many of whom somehow harboring a mutual deep-seated hatred for the other despite never even having met. You’ve also got a strong northern/southern divide that goes far beyond preference for noodles vs rice.” Alan gives Coleman some side-eye. “And while I know all Chinese people may look the same to you, there really are differences between our aboriginal, Manchurian, and mixed-ethnicity populations.”
Coleman holds up his hands. “Okay, okay, I get it. Jeez, accuse the one black guy in the whole group of being racist.”
“Anyway,” Alan continues. “The current policy that the CCP’s settled on, which solves some problems but introduces others, is this idea of forced collective national service. The hope is that by mandating all Chinese citizens from all walks– rich and poor, educated and not, eastern and western, Qing and Han– share a single collective experience over the course of a year during training in Xi’an, while being almost completely disconnected from the outside world, will foster some kinda comradery and empathy.”
“Sounds idealistic,” I say, feeling libertarian strains in me stirring. “A one-year of hell that instead further breeds disdain and resentment. Despite your lofty goals, you could in fact just be planting seeds of contempt.”
“Maybe,” admits Alan. “But being someone who myself endured the ordeal, it’s definitely not glamorous. But I’ll also add–” he gives me a look– “this is not some kinda didactic or pedantic, pretentious summer camp excursion in the woods. It’s hard. Maybe not on the level of SEAL camp training or whatever you have in America, but this is a program expected of everyone. And this is China– 18-year old trainees die every year during these two years of training. Remember, no human rights here– the CCP doesn’t care if a few hundred 18-year-olds perish in tragic accidents or off themselves because they’re too depressed, out-of-shape, or whatever. Hell, Xi probably thinks it’s pruning the gene pool someway of all the weaklings.
“Mandatory national service in China is not child-safe and babyproofed. 18-year-olds are put into situations where they must cooperate or they’ll be severely injured physically or even killed.” Alan rolls up his shirt sleeve to show us a long scar that stretches on his forearm from his elbow to wrist. “It’s the real deal.”
“So the idea,” Kristen concludes, “is that once you’ve been put through the ringer, in the trenches crawling over broken glass and barbwire, shoulder-to-shoulder with your fellow citizen to ensure mutual survival, that you’ll be much less likely to emerge on the other end making broad-stroked generalizations about entire population subsets.”
“Oh, people still generalize,” says Alan, shaking his head. “No way to get around that. But the CCP wants the Chinese people to give each other the benefit of the doubt. Even if you’re a princeling from an aristocratic family, it’s much harder to hate a poor working-class kid if the guy’s once saved your life from live gunfire in some training exercise. Stuff like that.”
By the time we reach the front gates of Jack Bao’s estate, we’ve all gotten the entire spiel on mandatory National Service from Alan. And while I remain unconvinced that such a program would work in America, I understand Alan’s points. They do make sense: China’s a collectivist culture that dates back centuries and is well-suited for a national service program.
But in America, we’re a different breed.
We’re born free men! Don’t tread on me! Live free or die! And in America we aren’t socialist the way the Chinese and many other European countries are. In America, it’s a meritocracy! The cream rises to the top! And the chaff is separated and let go, the lowest of the low shunted aside into cardboard boxes living on the side of streets. This is why in our shining American land of hope and prosperity that we have tent cities brimming with chronically homeless which stretch as far as the eye can see. Living in abject poverty and chewing shoe leather under the 280 while super-rich techie urbanites blithely drive overhead in their Teslas and Benzes. If everyone were equal, true: There’d be no poor people and no starvation. But there’d also be no rich people either. And there’s nothing more American than the American Dream of becoming obscenely, filthy rich based on your own hard work, will, and dedication. Anything else simply wouldn’t be red, white, and blue.