Wednesday, April 12, 2006

The Paradise You Can Never Leave

The Miami Herald has a brief and boilerplate-laden editorial on an incident that happened last week in Cuban territorial waters. A boat with people-smugglers from Florida (with anti-Castro sympathies, presumably) was fired on by Cuban military boats, killing one and leading to the capture of the other two. There is apparently a whole cottage industry of Floridians who go down to Cuba to smuggle people back to the U.S. The whole incident is a less dramatic version of a far more notorious one that happened in 1994, when a Cuban military boat rammed a tugboat, causing 41 to drown, including ten children.

Upon a moment’s reflection, the most striking thing about the incident is that in Cuba it is against the law to leave in the first place. Most people in most societies take it for granted that if they have the money and can get permission from the country they are going to they can leave their country as they please. But Cuba, like other totalitarian states before it, forbids this most basic right. The reason is that ultimately the people are the property of the state in general and of the Maximum Leader in particular. They are not independent agents with their own lives, goals, hopes and dreams. They are instead simply raw material for the latest five-year plan, indistinguishable from fertilizer or steel in that they are told how they will be used, where to work, where they will get medical treatment, where they will live and, critically, that they can never leave. This is the totalitarian mentality in a nutshell – people as nothing more than the property of the Party to be manipulated as the Party sees fit – and emigration controls are its most blatant example. That a society such as Cuba draws admiration from certain segments of the Western Left despite the fact that people are killed for trying to leave it says a lot about the cognitive dissonance that infests so much of progressive thought.

Such controls were the rule in Communist countries throughout the Cold War, but as far as I know they remain now only in Cuba and North Korea. I am unsure about Laos, which is still nominally communist, but have read that at least one non-Communist dictatorship, Portugal before 1974, also imposed such restrictions. But in China and Vietnam people routinely travel abroad for education or business. Sometimes they come back, sometimes they do not, but the governments of these countries have long since decided that the gains to letting their citizens come and go as they please far exceed the costs.

And the fact that China is a country of more or less free emigration is a strong sign that it is in fact irreversibly liberalizing. There has been much talk of whether China will combine greater economic freedom with continued harsh political repression, but when people are free to leave (and the costs of forcing them to stay home are now far too high) the die is cast. There is a flowering of civil society and rapidly increasing resort to (still far from independent) courts to hold government officials accountable, and freedom to leave is both companion and spur to these efforts. China is a rising nation, and rising nations can be aggressive and dangerous ones even without totalitarianism (one need think only of the U.S. from the 1830s through the Spanish-American war), but the trend toward greater personal autonomy and, therefore, more accountable government is probably irreversible.


Anonymous China Law Blog said...

Very nice post, to which I completely agree. China is on the path to liberalization and though the path is somewhat slow, I too view it as inexorable.

China Law

2:04 PM  

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