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.

13 comments on “China Bashers: Freedom is Not Bimodal
  • Great post – this is a different perspective on China which is difficult to find.

    Years ago when I’d often listen to senior citizens in India (reluctantly) admiring Singapore authorities for enforcing rule of law, safety, cleanliness in their city state. They’d often say Indians need such an authoritarian state to whip them upto shape.

    Singapore by no means is a bastion of free speech but they have come a long way. Hopefully China will too.

  • Funny you should mention a canned speech by Lord Gitmo in a post about freedom, Ben.

    If anyone rhetorically capitalizes the word, it’s him.

    I can imagine the incredulity that the average (as if there really were such a thing– they’re not all of Han ethnicity) Chinese must feel when he hears the obtuse One, he who thinks he has the mandate of Heaven, lecture him about moral values.

    Freedom of the press is a luxury?

    Too bad Joe Beijing Han doesn’t have the luxury of freely expressing his amazement in a public venue, under the watchful eye of all those surveillance cameras supplied by Western (including US) companies.

    Strange words from a US citizen.

    I mean– freedom of the press might be a luxury to the Chinese citizen who doesn’t necessarily feel deprived by the lack of it, but to hear you say it is strange indeed.

    Stranger yet to see the approving reference to one who has so vigorously assaulted our own constitution and the freedoms guaranteed by it.

  • Yes, Vince, freedom of the press means less than the freedom to live — to have clean water and food and a roof over your head. Not all freedoms are alike in importance.

    I don’t approve of some of Bush’s tactics, either, but that doesn’t mean I close my mind to anything and everything he says. Did you even read the speech I linked to?

  • It was a good speech. I had only skimmed it earlier, so I just went back and read it closely. Of course, he didn’t write it– few politicians write their own speeches– but I don’t believe he’s capable of articulating those ideas. He may have ideas, he just has no principles, except hypocritical ones.

    I was incensed when I read the words, “We’re also working to counter the hateful ideology of the extremists by promoting a more hopeful alternative, one based upon freedom and liberty.”

    I find those words very ironic coming out of the mouth of a ‘man’ who approves extraordinary renditions and torture– I would say laughably so, if not for the death and destruction he has wreaked in Iraq and upon our own military. All the more so because it was instigated under false premises.

    I quote,”The United States believes the people of China deserve the fundamental liberty that is the natural right of all human beings.” Tell that to those particular so-called “enemy combatants” in Guantanamo who had been turned over to coalition forces (with little or no evidence against them) by tribal bandits collecting a bounty. Over four hundred detainees have been released without charge, and only one, David Hicks, has been convicted of a crime.

    According to the International Herald Tribune, “The military trainers who came to Guantánamo Bay in December 2002 based an entire interrogation class on a chart showing the effects of “coercive management techniques” for possible use on prisoners, including “sleep deprivation,” “prolonged constraint,” and “exposure.”

    And how’s this for irony– “…their chart had been copied verbatim from a 1957 Air Force study of Chinese Communist techniques used during the Korean War to obtain confessions, many of them false, from American prisoners.”

    Bush may have been speaking in Bangkok, but the monstrously inappropriate words quoted by Fallows were spoken about the Chinese people.

  • In some ways it seems China, from a practical standpoint, has more freedom than the US. Even after being reabsorbed by the mainland Hong Kong ranks higher in economic freedom than the US.

    Economic freedoms are the foundation for personal freedoms. It was not until after China loosened its economic control that it started to see real gains in personal freedoms. No country has successfully created a government that allows personal freedoms and disallows capitalism. While it is true that many capitalist countries lack all of the freedoms the US enjoys there are few if any control economies with anywhere near the freedom enjoyed even in the largely mixed economy of China.

    The disturbing thing is the opposing trends of economic freedom in the US in China. As America rolls back its economic freedoms and responsibilities the Chinese increase theirs. Potentially China in 50 years could switch places with the US in both personal and economic freedoms.

  • My wife is from China. I have in-laws there, including one who is a member of the CCP and works in the finance ministry.

    There is not doubt that they are more free now than they were even 10 years ago, not to speak of 30 years ago.

    Yes, China has a long way to go, but its current situation is not so different from South Korea in 1988. I’m confident things will get better there over the next 20 years.

    I have doubts that Tibet will get the autonomy it wants (though they’ll likely still be better off than the Cherokee here). I believe reunification with Tiawan will happen in the next 20 years, and that its integration will provide the seeds for democracy on the mainland.

  • By the way, Ben, you linked to Fallow’s excerpts, not the full speech, which he linked to.

    I clicked on all your links except the pointers to Amazon.

    Derek’s got it right about the Cherokee. What the US government did to them is worse than what China is doing in Tibet.

    My ancestors were driven from their homesteads by Andrew Jackson’s troops– the whites took their land and moved into their very houses.

  • You make a lot of good points, but I think they need to balanced with attention to some of the very positive things about the Mao years that have been lost. Economic “freedom” is indeed flourishing in China right now, but freedom for those with capital is nothing more than the freedom to exploit those they hire. Working conditions in China’s factories are far worse than they were under Mao (and they weren’t even that good then).

    Loss of access to basic human needs for many has also accompanied the rise of the market. Under Mao, everyone had access to rudimentary health care, education, and housing, and China did a far better job providing for its citizens than other countries suffering from similar poverty. Friedman’s explanation of why people are willing to work under the inhuman factory conditions in China is simplistic, covering the pull factor but not the push. One of the key forces driving migrants to the factories is the need to cover large school and medical fees, which forces parents to leave their children behind and make money in the cities. Keep in mind that even tho per capita income may be higher, the massive destruction of social goods has left a not insignificant group of people worse off.

    Finally, equality and clean governance have been completely sacrificed. The Party under Mao had a mixed record on these, but now inequality and corruption are far worse. And that takes a real toll in terms of social trust, personal satisfaction, and empowerment. The market reforms have been incredibly ambiguous in their effects, which comes thru just talking to Chinese people. One moment they might talk about the extraordinary material improvement, and the next think back wistfully to a time when social solidarity was a tangible reality.


  • Here, here, Ben. China bashing is easy and at it’s core is not only xenophobia, but a good deal of it is downright fear of losing American’s hegemony (and, perhaps, a little jealousy thrown in). The sweeping and massive changes happening there, the vast and fast modernization, the huge movement of people out of poverty and the spreading realization that economics and not the Little Red Book is what will bring the huge civilization forward is deeply ingrained in the thinking of the country’s leaders. This will only amount to a positive future for the country and for the world.

    Sure, there will be a few hiccups along the way – fast change always has a house of cards effect that needs to be repaired as it changes, but the forward progress will not stop. This includes improvements in basic freedoms for the Chinese people. It has to work that way or the country’s growth will stall.

    It’ll take time, of course, but I’m certain that we can help make it happen faster by working *with* the Chinese than standing on the sidelines poking them with a stick – the growing American way, I’m afraid.

  • Let there be no question, however, that I think Mao was a brutal man responsible for the deaths of millions of Chinese. Jake, saying, “Finally, equality and clean governance have been completely sacrificed. The Party under Mao had a mixed record on these” is awfully generous.

  • Ben, an excellent post.

    It seems that no coverage of the Beijing Olympics is complete nowadays without yet another reference to the environmental and social costs. But people forget that the industrialisation of the West was accompanied by conditions far worse: child labour in mines and dirty factories, squalid living standards where cholera and typhoid were common – and the entire structure underscored by an exceptionally limited franchise (with gender, religious and land holding restrictions) and the widespread acceptance of slavery.

    There’s no doubt that today we should have higher standards – but people should not be surprised that some of those in China feel indignant that those in the West would seek to dictate the terms of their industrialisation when their own countries’ development have left such deep scars.

  • “Mao was a brutal man responsible for the deaths of millions of Chinese.”

    That is true, but it’s a far more complicated kind of responsibility than we might cast on Hitler or Stalin or even Nixon. After all, most of those deaths were a result of the Great Leap Forward, which was a kind of optimism run amok combined with false information on the amount of grain being produced (a result of the authoritarian Leninist structure the Party constructed). While there’s more than enough blame to be heaped on Mao, the deaths were certainly not intentional.

    The disasters of the Mao years also don’t seem related to the issue of equality or clean governance. By all accounts, China under Mao had one of the most equal distributions of income in world history. (Equality of perks is a different story – but the reform period is worse on this as well.) And if you ask anyone in China old enough to remember, you will find that they truly miss the probity of the Mao era.

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