A friend of mine recently relayed a conversation she had with a mutual friend of ours. This mutual friend grew up in China but emigrated to the United States to pursue higher education, and is now happily married, raising a family of her own, and living the American dream.

When asked about the coronavirus, its connections to China, and the reported sickness and mortality rates, this Chinese woman laughed gleefully. “Are you kidding?” was her paraphrased response. “Those numbers aren’t right! You can’t believe anything that comes out of China!”

We laughed at her comments, even though it confirmed our uneasy sense that Chinese suppression and deceit is alive and well. Her view from the inside also underscored the message of Bob Fu, a man whom The Wall Street Journal labeled “The Pastor of China’s Underground Railroad.”

Fu, a Chinese Christian, tells the story of his life in communist China in his book God’s Double Agent. Before discovering Christianity, Fu was an ambitious young man, attending university, and he was determined to become a leader in communist China. Disturbed by the corruption he saw in politics, Fu became a political activist.

His timing was remarkable. Fu’s personal discontent with Chinese government just happened to coincide with the infamous Tiananmen Square protests of 1989. Being a natural leader, Fu organized a group of students and set off for Beijing.

Before leaving, however, Fu and his cohorts noticed a change in the atmosphere: freedom was in the air.

“This was the only time in the eighty years of Communist Party history when there was real freedom of speech and press,” Fu writes. “Giddy with our newfound freedom, we began to believe one day we could be free from hatred, violence, corruption, and fear.”

What’s more remarkable, however, is the effect freedom had on the population. It changed attitudes overnight:

“The joy spilled out into everyday life. Shop owners, construction workers, and other citizens greeted the protesters warmly and sent food out to us when we marched. An owner of an ice cream shop sent ice cream treats free of charge. In Beijing, even a group of thieves decided not to steal anything for a time to show support of the protestors. The police were busy with Tiananmen Square, so ordinary citizens stepped up to direct traffic. Miraculously, drivers slowed down, yielded the right of way, and did all they could to preserve the peace. Bicyclists who got in wrecks didn’t curse each other, as was customary. Even the newspapers reported that these accidents resulted in friendly exchanges in which people greeted each other and left without argument or blame.”

In other words, freedom wasn’t an occasion for a chaotic free-for-all. Instead, in the few short weeks in which the Chinese people breathed free, they stepped up, exercised responsibility, and cared for others.

Such a spirit is reminiscent of comments made by George Washington in a draft of his First Inaugural Address. He rejoiced that “freedom of enquiry will produce liberality of conduct” – a spirit of generosity and consideration for others instead of self.

Fu tries to explain the change this spirit wrought:

“It was like someone who’d held on to our arms so tightly suddenly let go, and we were lighter with the newfound freedom. We walked more confidently, we smiled, we debated issues with intellectual honesty. In record numbers, people spoke out against the Communist Party. Others expressed support for it. Some even advocated for anarchy. Everyone’s opinion was fully respected and discussed.”

We’ve lived in a society where freedom has long been taken for granted. But today, not so much. Will we feel the same as many of these Chinese citizens who broke free from communist rule for a few short weeks once we’re released from quarantine? It’s quite likely.

Perhaps this little experiment in losing freedom will be good for us. We may come out the other side more grateful, more ready to take responsibility, and more willing to discuss, debate, and engage with others in a civil and friendly matter.

But then, doing so all depends on one condition: regaining that freedom in the first place. Let’s hope that happens sooner rather than later.

[Image Credit: VOA, Public Domain]