Fighting Pharaohs in Beijing
As Jews around the world recount Passover’s story of liberation, ongoing political repression in China casts a shadow over every Seder table
A sandstorm was howling as I hosted a Seder last year in my home not far from Beijing’s Tiananmen Square. Spring winds from the Gobi Desert to the north had darkened the sky like a plague, and snarls of dust followed my guests through the door. They brought bottles of wine and Passover dishes: homemade charoset whipped up in a diplomatic compound, potato kugel baked after a Mandarin class, boxes of imported matzo from the local Chabad house.
China lures all kinds of expats. If the gentiles tend to be corporate, the yidden I know often fill the role of foreign correspondent, academic, or entrepreneur—brainiacs addicted to deciphering China’s political intrigue and mastering its capitalist dialect. Since I moved to Beijing in 2008, the Jewish-American quotient in Beijing has swelled with refugees from the U.S. recession. Some stick around just long enough to learn Mandarin and apply to grad school, while others marry locals and settle down. China is where global citizen meets wandering Jew, and my Seder guest list reflected that zeitgeist.
For most of the year, our Jewishness hovers in the background; our primary identity here is “foreigner.” But Passover forces us to confront our shared religious heritage—and how it resonates in a Chinese context. The Haggadah features tales of villains and heroes, tyranny and dissent, and when we distill the Seder’s morality play through the dark realities of China, it reads as subversive political commentary. After all, we are celebrating freedom in a country that is not free.
China is hardly the only country whose people are struggling for political and personal freedom, but at Passover, it looms far larger than other countries with poor human-rights records because Jews, like everyone else, profit from and pay for those abuses. Just check your stocks. It would be easy for Jews to boycott Zimbabwe or Iran or North Korea as a protest. But China? Impossible. It is inextricably bound to the daily lives of American Jews. It’s the United States’ largest trading partner, and nearly everything American Jews buy is made by Chinese workers, from cell phones and laptops to the pans we use to cook our Seder meals and the tables around which we recline. China’s lack of freedom casts a shadow across every Seder.
To be clear, Chinese are not the Israelites. They are not slaves bent under the lash. But the power of Passover is that its allegories resound in our modern world, which is increasingly connected to China and the way its people see the world. We eat bitter herbs to remind us of our ancestors’ suffering. When Chinese people verbalize their hard lives, they say chi ku—“to eat bitterness.”
At my Seder in Beijing, I don’t have to reach back thousands of years to understand what the bitter herbs symbolize. Ordinary people I’ve interviewed here—peasants, migrants, the middle class, those lacking critical connections to power—endure the worst side effects of their leaders’ omnipotence. When corrupt officials steal their land and then throw them into mental hospitals for airing their grievances, they eat bitterness. Most of the women who have been forcibly sterilized do not speak out because their mouths are too full of bitter suffering. When you nibble the horseradish in your Hillel sandwich at this year’s Seder, think of them before you reach for your water glass.
Live here long enough and the story in the Haggadah seems ripped from the headlines. Last year, as the Arab Spring was felling dictators, Chinese censors blocked the word “Egypt” from the country’s biggest micro-blog, used by over 300 million people. Imagine tweeting the Haggadah and having it appear online as “when we were slaves in the land of [---].”
Even the Ten Plagues seem like current news rather than ancient history here. In December, a river in central China turned blood red after a chemical plant dumped crimson dye into the city’s storm-pipe network. Only when I moved to Beijing did I fully grasp the Torah’s description of the ninth plague as “darkness that can be felt”: Pollution in China is a toxic blend of coal dust, factory fumes, and car exhaust. On days when the air quality in Beijing is “crazy bad” (as the American Embassy’s meter reading on Twitter termed it, before the Chinese government’s outrage prompted a more diplomatic description of “beyond index”), the sun is censored and the smog stings your throat. Chinese newscasters call it “fog.” Like the Talmudic queries included in the Haggadah, the lesson here is that it’s all a matter of interpretation.
This year, the Chinese government will undergo a rare transfer of power to the Communist Party’s next generation of supreme leaders, this country’s modern-day Pharaohs. How they rule will dictate whether China replaces the United States as the world’s leading economy, which the International Monetary Fund predicts will occur in 2016. This dynastic succession will also decide whether the Chinese people see greater freedom—of speech, assembly, and belief. Though recent developments do not inspire confidence.
Gluten-free matzo seems to offer deliverance for people with celiac disease and similar ailments. But this unleavened bread isn’t kosher for Seders.