Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Toward Freedom in China

China has executed the head of its equivalent of the FDA for corruption. The most interesting aspect of the story is not the execution per se, as capital punishment is as workaday as mowing the lawn in the People’s Republic. The story is what the scandal that led to his death says about changes in China, changes in the direction of freedom.

Some months ago the media and government in the U.S. ascertained that the deaths of pets in the U.S. could be attributed to a mislabeled ingredient that originated in China that was placed in pet food. The Chinese government initially did what they do best, played hardball and contemptuously stonewalled. Chinese diplomats were told to argue that American food products exported to China also had safety issues, and could be subject to retaliation. It was a small problem affecting a few companies, not an overall indictment of the Made in China brand.

But then globalization, which has done so much for China, bit back. Consumers and governments worldwide began to express concern about a whole array of Chinese products, including tires, toys and food. And, most strikingly, the Chinese media itself propelled public outrage forward by reporting on shoddy construction. According to the Globe and Mail, a Chinese paper broke the story of China’s trophy high-speed railway from Beijing to Shanghai being endangered by bogus materials used in its construction.

Even the portion of the Live Earth concerts held in Shanghai is illustrative in its way. Culture is for totalitarians the most important industry – control the culture and you control power. But the message of the greenies – restrain economic growth for the earth’s sake – is, while false, one that cuts directly against the view the Chinese government seeks to promote. As Charles Paul Freund noted in 2002, pop culture has a profoundly corrosive effect on totalitarian regimes because of its emphasis on individualism. By agreeing to the concert, which appeases the young of Shanghai eager to network with the world, the Chinese government concedes that its monopoly on hearts and minds is no more.

Milton Friedman argued that economic freedom is not sufficient for political freedom, but it is necessary. (If true, bad news for ever-more regulated and centralized Europe.) In China, we are seeing that – people ever more in charge of their own destiny, demanding ever more of what someone once called consent of the governed. The journey has many miles to go, as a quick perusal of the State Department human rights report on China demonstrates. (That the agency head described at the beginning was executed so perfunctorily is also informative in this regard.) But going back now seems inconceivable, and more prosperity is leading Chinese toward more freedom.



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