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Patrick Maillet: Is ignorance really bliss?

By Patrick Maillet, Columnist
Published September 16, 2012

Sam looked to his left, then to his right, making sure none of his fellow party members were around to hear what he was about to say. He knew, just as well as I did, that if anyone heard him, the consequences would be dire not only for himself, but also for his wife and his newborn daughter. “I just wish we had real elections like you,” he said, in perfect pronunciation, almost like he had practiced the phrase in front of a mirror, “I am tired of not having a voice.”

The conversation took place approximately three and a half months ago while I was living in China for the summer. For the first month of my stay, I lived in the southern city of Hangzhou teaching English to high school students throughout the Zhejiang Province. Part of my job was traveling to various schools with English-speaking Chinese teachers who would help translate certain parts of my presentation. Sam was one of my bilingual coworkers. Sam and I would travel throughout the province, practicing Chinese and English along the way. His English was phenomenally better than my Chinese, along with his understanding of American culture. In particular, Sam was fascinated by American politics. No matter what the topic, he would always somehow steer back to talking about President Obama or the 2012 election.

When he told me his desperation for a “voice,” I understood what he was referencing. China is having an election this year. This election will take place at the end of October and will mark the end of President Hu Jintao’s ten-year-term. China’s election is very different compared to what we're used to in the United States. Only members of the Chinese Communist Party are able to vote, a group that is more than 80 million people strong. While that may seem like a lot, remember that China’s population is close to 1.4 billion people, so only about .06 percent of the population can vote. Also, the term “vote” is used very loosely. Their “choice” is whether or not they support the single candidate, Xi Jinping, to be the next leader. If they choose “no,” their party membership will almost immediately be revoked and there's a decent chance that they and their family could lose their jobs or even be detained.

Sam has been a party member for five years. He said he applied to be a member because it offered his family more opportunity. So when he said those fateful words about his desperation for the right to free and fair elections, I could do nothing but sit back, shocked and speechless. I hadn’t asked him for his opinion on our elections, nor had I even asked him what the election process in China was like. Sam was just desperate to get these radical feelings off of his chest, and a 20-year-old American kid who obviously didn't know enough of the Chinese language to rat him out was the perfect person to express them to.

Like China, the U.S. is in an election year, but ours isn't clouded by repression or a lack of choice. Regardless of how flawed one may think our political system is, I promise you that it could be much worse. Unlike hundreds of millions of people around the world, we Americans have an inalienable right to make our voices heard and to single-handedly affect the way our lives are governed. All too often I hear my friends say that they are not going to vote this year because they don’t know enough about the election, don’t think that their vote will actually make a difference, or my personal favorite, they believe no matter who wins, everything in D.C. will stay relatively the same. Some of the people who tell me this are extremely involved citizens who are passionate about social issues, yet for some reason believe that their interests are unconnected to the presidential race. Our presidential race is between two agendas that are more polarized than any election in recent decades. Unlike past elections, Americans throughout the country will be able to decide between two radically different men with two radically different approaches to solving our nation’s problems. From women’s reproductive rights to national security, virtually every element of American life is subject to change as a result of November’s election.

Regardless of who you support, I implore you to take an interest in this upcoming election, especially those of us voting in Michigan, a toss-up state that will undoubtedly help shape this election. Invest the three minutes that it takes to register to vote with any one of the countless volunteers who will be scattered throughout campus. Remember that unlike so many of your fellow global citizens, you have a voice.

Sam’s daughter will be turning two this spring. Perhaps by the time she turns 18, she will have the same extraordinary power we Americans possess, but odds are she won’t. Remember that come Nov. 6.

Patrick Maillet can be reached at maillet@umich.edu.


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