If you are standing in the orderly and rapidly advancing lines at passport control in Shanghai airport, wondering why our American airports cannot be more efficient, and if you don’t read Chinese, you might be curious about a video of a Chinese boy in a library that plays repeatedly on the flat screens all around you.

The youth, smartly if incongruously dressed with a red bow tie, stands before a shelf of pristine volumes. He takes down a book with a red cover, and opens to the title page, which contains just two Chinese characters: Xian Fa.

The book is the Chinese Constitution.

After gazing reverently at the book cradled in his hands, but without reading it or even turning its pages, the boy carefully restores it to its resting place.

I am transfixed by this video each time I see it, and upset and provoked by the ironies and contradictions it arouses in my mind.

The video coincides with supreme leader Xi Jinping’s successful campaign this year to amend the Chinese Constitution to eliminate term limits for his own office of president, and to insert a clause praising “Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for the New Era.”

So as far as Chinese propaganda officials are concerned, now that Xi Jinping Thought has been written into the Constitution, why not imbue this red book with inviolable sanctity?

On another level, the video is a private message to Chinese readers — some of whom are waiting in line to journey to America (in Chinese called, with reason, mei guo, “the beautiful country”). The message is: “Don’t fall for that American bragging about their constitutional system, as if it were unique to America. We in China have a constitution too.”

The ironies are rich here, because only a few years ago, just as Chairman Xi was ascending to the highest seat of power in China, writers in a number of Chinese journals were engaged in a remarkable debate on “constitutionalism” in China. Those debates referred to the American founders, and the arguments of Madison and Hamilton, and held out some hope for real constitutional protections of personal liberty in China.

Those writers and the journals that published them have now been suppressed by the Xi government. The official party line is that discussion of “constitutionalism,” as a way of constraining the power of the “people’s dictatorship” led by the Communist Party, is “western” and therefore suspect. Political education classes imposed on Chinese college students are dismissive of such “western” concepts.

No Chinese court today would dare to enforce against the Xi government the promise in Article 35 of the Chinese Constitution that all Chinese citizens “enjoy freedom of speech, of the press, of association.”

And yet, the critical American should also remember that in China only a generation ago that same boy could have been in a video with thousands of other youths ecstatically waving the “little red book” of sayings of Chairman Mao, while participating in a mob persecution of some “enemy of the people” that had dared to think differently from the political crowd.

Life in China now is more civilized and humane (and in many daily matters more subject to law) than in Chairman Mao’s time. The words in Article 35 about freedom of conscience are not entirely a dead letter. They are at least there, in writing, within the covers of that red book on the shelf, for the next generation of Chinese to read, and perhaps to act on.

And the worried American now shuffling toward passport control might reflect that our own constitutional system is under great strain, and the phrase “enemy of the people” has been uttered recently in American political life, and our own president does not give the impression that he reveres the American constitutional system that he has sworn an oath to preserve, protect and defend.

My own response to the current politics in my own country is to spend the summer going through a casebook on the history of American constitutional law. Like many law books, it has a red cover. Let me summarize my emotion in reading that book page by page: our American constitutional tradition is indeed worth preserving, protecting and defending.

Looking at China and America with the double vision caused by long years in each country, and lifting my eyes from the pages of my own red book on the American constitution, I am minded to rephrase the famous aphorism of Senator Patrick Moynihan, as follows:

“The central conservative truth is that it is culture, not politics or law, that primarily determines the success of a society. The central liberal truth is that politics and law can change a culture — and save it from itself.”