China Bashers: Freedom is Not Bimodal

This evening, while watching the Olympics opening ceremonies, Jeff Jarvis unleashed a string a Twitter comments railing against China and NBC’s non-coverage of their human rights violations and oppression in general:

We are watching perhaps the most dangerous and amoral substantiation of capitalism in its history. Matt: Why wouldya go away? Huh? Why?

China poisons its people’s air and minds, poisons our people and pets, and allows no freedom. NBC’s caveats on its hype are unconvincing.

It seems every day another Western intellectual denounces China in terms too simple and broad. Sometimes these denouncements are couched in national security or U.S. competitiveness, but actually, in my view, take root in the quicksand of xenophobia. Other times the criticisms rely upon the human rights issues and censorship that Jeff mentions — these are substantive and serious and worth discussing / fighting for.

But it’s also worth putting China’s lack of certain freedoms in context. In many ways, China’s recent economic progress — fueled by that "dangerous and amoral capitalism" that Jeff detests — has provided new, tangible freedoms to hundreds of millions of Chinese. This ought to be celebrated. As Kishore Mahbubani describes in The New Asian Hemisphere, it’s hard for us Westerners, as we enjoy our flush toilets and clean water and edible food, to appreciate how a material increase in living can result in freedoms (and, as Benjamin Friedman argues, other positive moral consequences) far more important than our favorite d-word, Democracy, or even luxuries such as a free press:

Many in the West do not understand the realities of China. A profound revival of China’s civilization is occurring. Many in the West cannot even conceive of this because in their mind an "unfree" society like China cannot possibly be progressing. The Western mind has a rigid, one-dimensional, and ideological understanding of the term "freedom."

In the eyes of the West, freedom (a word often written with a capital F) is seen as an absolute virtue. It has to be complete for it to be effective; to speak of any people being "half free" is as ludicrous as saying someone is "half pregnant." The idea that freedom can be relative and can indeed take many forms is alien. But for the Chinese, in real terms — if they compare their lives today with their lives a few decades ago — they have achieved much greater freedom.

The notion of "human freedom" can have many layers. The fundamental layer of human freedom is freedom from want. A human being who cannot feed himself or his family cannot possibly be free. Famine is more damaging to human freedom than a politically closed society. To tell people who are struggling to stay alive that they are "Free" because a distant despotic ruler has been removed will appear meaningless to them. In terms of their daily lives, "freedom" will come with liberation from the fight for survival. In this sense, the Chinese people have never enjoyed greater human freedom….As a result of China’s rapid growth over the last three decades, the number of people living in absolute poverty has fallen from 600 million people to slightly more than 200 million people.

Then follows freedom of security. The only way to enjoy freedom is to stay alive. This is why many people of Iraq find it hard to believe that they are now enjoying greater freedom than they did under Saddam. Now they can’t feel safe walking the streets of Baghdad; under Saddam’s oppressive regime, they still felt safe. By contrast, citizens of Beijing have never enjoyed as much personal security as they do now. Beijing people don’t want to go to Baghdad. Where is there greater human freedom?

Then freedom to choose employment. Millions have migrated to cities in China and found new, higher paying work. Yet Western media portrays these new workers as terrible conditions. Nike factories, for example, were vilified as paying extremely low wages to produce their shoes. Yet for these young girls the "miserly low wages" were higher than what they earned in villages, and working in air-conditioned rooms was more comfortable than tilling soil in the sun.

This doesn’t mean that the we shouldn’t push China to open up even more. But it does mean that their recent progress and current situation is more complicated than many make it out to be. Freedom does not have a capital "f". Freedom is not bimodal. Capitalism, even in its strange, quasi-authoritarian version, has helped more than hurt the Chinese people.


James Fallows notes that George Bush gave…a good speech! In Bangkok. On China. Appropriate nuance. Worth reading Fallows’ excerpts.

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