Why We Need Empathy Under Authoritarianism

After living in China, I returned home to Donald Trump. Now, I think about America differently.

The Forbidden City in Beijing, China. (Photo: Janet Eom)

Last July, when I moved back to Washington from Beijing, I experienced reverse culture shock. On Independence Day, fireworks went off above memorials to American presidents, not in the smog while a state-sponsored program ran on TV. I drank IPAs on rooftops, not Tsingtaos in hutongs, Beijing’s alleyways. A real estate mogul turned reality TV star was running for president.

Gradually, I readjusted. I ran outdoors without a mask. I enjoyed Facebook without the inconvenience of the Great Firewall. But the possibility that I might live aside an actual wall meant to keep out Mexican immigrants persisted. As presidential debates became more ridiculous than their Saturday Night Live skits, I grew astonished with the America I had returned to.

A year later, Donald Trump is still an authoritarian flourishing in a democracy. At the Republican convention last month, he called himself “the Law and Order candidate.” He has threatened to change laws to make it easier to sue media outlets that write “negative and horrible and false articles.” He has responded to critics with crude ad hominem attacks. For Trump, intimidation is diplomacy.

As I watched this unfold, I thought of Chinese President Xi Jinping. Since 2013, he has increased media censorship, reminding editors to “protect the Party” while growing the list of banned websites. He has passed a law to control foreign NGOs under the state’s security apparatus. Some controversially call Xi, who purges his government of corruption, and opposition, the new Mao Zedong.

To adjust back into America, I had to adjust out of China. But the line between the two powers had grown blurry. Under Trumpism, a “muscular hand,” not a small one, will Make America Great Again. Under Xiism, “muscular leadership” will pave the way for the Chinese Dream.

In Beijing, I spoke Mandarin. I befriended Chinese artists, journalists, and entrepreneurs. I celebrated traditional weddings and national holidays. But as a foreigner, I overlooked the nuanced frustrations of Chinese citizens from different walks of life — rural migrants unable to get into Beijing’s top schools, women pressured to marry before turning 30 as well as men urged to become their desirable suitors, and even the nouveau riche facing criticism for their lavish lifestyles.

When abroad, I may plead ignorance of the unfamiliar. But back in Washington, I was still an acutely unaware citizen. Shielded in an upper-middle-class bubble, I was shocked by Trump’s climb to the White House. I didn’t immediately realize that a populist group of so many working-class Americans, threatened by immigrants and a loss of jobs, was seeking a strong leader to preserve the status quo; that is, until I found him steps away from the Oval Office.

Today, more Americans, even those that don’t go overseas, are estranged in their own country. Trump opposers are alienated from Trump supporters. New immigrants are alienated from former immigrants. Ignorance turns into misunderstanding. Discontent evolves into violence around race, income inequality, and the good old American Dream. When everyone comes face-to-face, they experience in-country culture shock.

As I observe alienation in America, I remember a practice of empathy that helped me understand China. When I first landed in Beijing, there was a lot I couldn’t fathom. (Were my classmates really required to take a Marxist ideology course lest they not graduate college?) But as I stepped into the lives of local Chinese, I experienced firsthand what it had been like to grow restless over years of government corruption, until Xi came along and promised to end it. When I considered the daily priorities of my local neighbors, I understood why Xi had acquired the endearing nickname, Xi Dada (Big Uncle Xi).

Our nation faces a tenuous future, and empathy is becoming an American survival skill. Even if I’m politically active, if I don’t understand the appeal of the candidate I oppose, not just the one I support, I’m not informed. If I were to vote for Trump, why would I? We celebrate America’s diversity. But if we ignore the demands of the frustrated, our diversity may become our biggest threat.

We criticize leaders for not empathizing with constituents. But we also need to encourage ordinary citizens to empathize with each other. Trump’s rise testifies to the power that a massive group of discontented citizens, not just a member of the government, wields in a democracy. Donald Trump ignores and knows little to nothing about the Constitution. If he became president, he would pose a serious threat to a separation of powers in place since the Founding Fathers. If we don’t empathize with the mosaic of concerns in America, we won’t know how to fix a crumbling society. We may lose the democracy that we cherish.

Recently, I was dissecting Trump’s popularity with an American who had lived in China for two years. “What if you had to take a test?” he asked. “Only if you really knew the makeup of the country, you would earn the right to vote.” This was a provocative violation of the principle of democracy, but he was serious. I realized what he meant: a true citizen doesn’t just analyze the issues; he or she understands their victims. Civic engagement isn’t just cerebral; it’s deeply emotional.

Early on in my time in Beijing, I tried to order a drink with my broken Mandarin. As I sputtered grammatical faux pas and cringeworthy tones, my Chinese friend who grew up a few blocks away told me not to “feel bad” — just like me, she had no idea what the waitress, who was from a faraway province, was saying to us. In China, 1.3 billion people speak over 200 different dialects. Barriers to communication are high, and government restrictions add to the disengagement. Chinese citizens must work extra hard to understand the lives of others.

In contrast, in America, we enjoy relative media freedom, a more robust civil society, and usually, a single language. For now, we have the means to get to know each other better. We can put a stop to the festering of a “us vs. them” mentality between the privileged and the marginalized. Donald Trump’s leadership style has drawn comparisons to that of other dictators. If the world is indeed becoming more authoritarian, there is no better time to exercise empathy.