Tuesday, June 05, 2007

Free China

Nicholas Kristof has a blog entry referencing a recent column of his in The New York Times. In it, he describes the ways in which Chinese nationals take great risks to save desperate refugees from North Korea:

I was enormously impressed with the Chinese who, at great personal risk, help the North Koreans in the border area. Almost all are ethnic Koreans, and most are Christians (South Korea has a large Christian population, and partly as a result the Koreans in China have disproportionately become Christian as well). I kept asking them why they would take these risks, and overwhelmingly they said it was because of sympathy for fellow Koreans, coupled with their faith.

After the communist takeover Washington was consumed with the question of “Who Lost China?” The most important question in the world today, more important than CO2, more important than the future of the jihad, is what kind of China it is going to be.

The late Milton Friedman once argued, in Capitalism and Freedom, that economic freedom was necessary but not sufficient for political freedom. In this lecture, he modified that view and argued that a third freedom, human freedom, which he defined as “freedom of people to make their own decisions so long as they do not prevent anybody else from doing the same thing” and which amounts to the ability to control one’s own life, was worthy of equal attention, and that while political freedom might or might not develop from economic freedom, economic freedom was essential for human freedom.

And China, for all its problems, has a much greater measure of economic and human freedom – the power of individual Chinese to direct their own destinies – than it has ever had. People miss this because they focus on the almost complete lack of political freedom, and suppose that “freedom” means the power to choose your governors. But the proper comparison for China in 2007 is not Switzerland in 2007 but China in 1967, or 1067, or 1067 B.C. In 1067 every Chinese person was nothing more than the personal property of the emperor, who sent monitors into every village to make certain that no one was stiffing the emperor by refusing to work. In 1967 one madman – Mao Zedong – could turn a nation of almost a billion people on a dime on a whim, could whip up mass hysteria, could destroy millions of lives.

But because of economic reform since 1979 the average Chinese has much more self-ownership now than he once did. Economic reform has given the freedom to buy and sell, to expand his opportunities, to form consensual networks with his fellow nationals. This is why those Chinese on the Korean border will take such risks for their North Korean brethren, something unthinkable during Mao’s day. They take great risks precisely because they have learned to define broader self-interests beyond what the government whips into them. There is no way to defy the government without first possessing some sense that the government can be wrong.

Don’t get me wrong; China is far from an Eden of human freedom. Increased self-ownership is largely a function of the cities; the abuses of the government in the countryside, e.g. by stealing land from peasants to be converted into residential or industrial use, is well-documented. And China may yet prove to be a geopolitically dangerous nation, as other rising powers (including the U.S.) have been. This depends on part on whether China becomes more politically free, if you believe in the theory of the democratic peace. But the transition from central, governmental organization to individual self-organization of economic decisions means that China (or, more accurately, the people who constitute it) is not turning back. The degree of their future nationalist anger is still a short-term question, but the liberalization of the last thirty years has opened far too many possibilities – for rescuers of refugees every bit as much as for toy manufacturers or farmers – to turn back.


Post a Comment

<< Home