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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

Dan Levin
April 05, 2012
Frederic J. Brown/AFP/Getty Images
A lone protester displays his forehead after taking off a cap to reveal 'oppose the dictators' in support of China's dissident Liu Xiaobo on Dec. 9, 2009, in Beijing.)Frederic J. Brown/AFP/Getty Images
Frederic J. Brown/AFP/Getty Images
A lone protester displays his forehead after taking off a cap to reveal 'oppose the dictators' in support of China's dissident Liu Xiaobo on Dec. 9, 2009, in Beijing.)Frederic J. Brown/AFP/Getty Images

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.

Despite the darkness, however, there is hope. Just as Moses rose up and led his people to freedom, so have activists in China risen up to battle their government’s injustices. I’ve seen Moses in the faces of men and women whose fight for justice echoes his cry of “Let my people go.” What distinguishes them from Moses is that they’ve challenged tyranny without any fiery deity to back them up. Passover gives us the chance to honor their courage.

Two weeks before Passover last year, activist artist Ai Weiwei was taken away by police at the Beijing airport. The winds of change raging through the Middle East had rolled into China, and dissidents were being “disappeared” en masse. Ai’s provocations—publicizing government corruption and abuse—had reached a tipping point. His fate hung over our Seder, as it would for two and a half more months until he was released. While in detention, Ai was under 24-hour watch: Pairs of guards silently hovered over him as he slept and stood next to him as he showered. Now charged with tax evasion, he is forbidden to leave Beijing. Bondage, it seems, requires no bricks or mortar.

Ai is not the only one who challenged Pharaoh because he could no longer abide the chafing of China’s political shackles. Nobel Peace Prize-winner Liu Xiaobo was sentenced to 11 years in prison for “subversion” in 2010. His crime? Signing his name to Charter 08, an open letter demanding freedom and democracy. Blind lawyer Chen Guangcheng is under years-long house-arrest for defending women whose babies were forcibly aborted. When we filled a cup for Elijah last Passover and opened the door to an empty threshold, my thoughts were of these jailed men. This year, the doorway will again be empty, a symbol of their quest for justice still unfulfilled.

It’s easier for most Chinese to avert their eyes and find contentment in the fact that life is not as bleak as it once was. Few would sacrifice the bounty of China’s progress for a Western concept of freedom they have been taught to fear. Theirs is a cynical, if, realistic, take on the Seder song “Dayenu”: We’ve survived decades of famine and political violence, and now we have washing machines and graduate degrees. Though we don’t have democracy, it is enough.

A Jewish friend who had brought his Chinese wife to my Seder reported later that she was disappointed with the evening. “All they did was spend an hour talking about suffering and making everyone feel guilty,” she’d told him after they had departed. Chinese holidays, in contrast, are giddy celebrations of conspicuous consumption. Earlier this week, China observed Tomb Sweeping Day, an ancient festival when people pray to their ancestors for wealth and fortune with burnt offerings of paper money and paper Louis Vuitton handbags for use in the afterlife. These two springtime rituals reveal a stark difference between how Chinese and Jews see their place in the world. In their tradition, generosity is a family affair and redemption is transactional. For us, salvation is communal and based on action. Only by confronting our shared history do we transform our lives in the present. Spiritual bribery doesn’t work.

For me, that is the essence of Passover. These eight days are a catharsis, a cleansing of house and mind. We sing of slavery to revel in freedom. In China where these rituals are foreign and even subversive, this holiday gives me the opportunity to take stock of what we have accomplished as a people and what we still have yet to achieve as human beings. “Next year in Jerusalem,” we say, symbolizing a place where our best selves dwell. Hopefully one day we will be able to say, “Next year in Beijing.”

Dan Levin is a writer based in Beijing.