Monday, June 25, 2007

Edward Friedman: "Living Without Freedom in China"

A Communist Hero?
(Image from Wikipedia)

I'm on the e-list for the Foreign Policy Research Institute (FPRI) -- partly because one of my former Berkeley professors, Walter McDougall, heads the place -- so I regularly get interesting poli-sci documents dealing with themes relevant to U.S. foreign policy. The FPRI is a conservative institute, but less of a neoconservative sort and more of the paleoconservative type, McDougall being one of the latter.

Yesterday, an informative article on China arrived: "Living Without Freedom in China," Edward Friedman, The Newsletter of FPRI’s Marvin Wachman Fund for International Education, June 2007, Vol. 12, No. 20.

The Marvin Wachman Fund for International Education was set up by the FPRI in 1990 and aims at developing international and civic literacy among Americans, but all of my non-American readers are free to read and learn as well. Of course, only we Americans are so ignorant as to need such a newsletter...

Anyway, Friedman's article is interesting because it begins by acknowledging a problem -- or, rather, a couple of problems -- confronting us in our attempt to understand China.

First, as the article says, "[i]t’s not easy for American students to know what it means to live without freedom." I think that this point is entirely correct, and it's true not only of American students but of students in any free society, and that would probably include younger Korean students, who recall only a democratic Korea.

Second, and more to the point of the article:
The hardest place to understand what the lack of freedom means is China, which is nothing like the Stalin model or Cuba or North Korea. It’s by no stretch of the imagination a totalitarian society. In post-Mao China, Chinese travel abroad in huge numbers. The country has the fifth largest tourist population in the world, on its way to being number one. Hundreds of thousands of Chinese students are abroad; in internet use, China is about to overtake the U.S. as number one in the world. It’s a market society, brutally competitive; the economy is less state-owned than France or Austria's, for example. Life is not dominated by communist block units; you can buy your own house or car, there's no forced labor. [Well ... none aside from the occasional slave forced to work in a brick kiln.] You can choose your physician freely; most young Chinese would say they live in a free, democratic society.
For those of us expats living here in South Korea and looking north at Kim Jong Il-Land, North Korea's conditions can indeed make the enormous Chinese empire to our east look like the model of a free society. Given this contrast, Friedman asks:
So what does it mean to say that Chinese people live without freedom? First, it is a brilliant system at making people complicit with the unfreedom. For days after the June 4, 1989, massacre in Beijing of democracy supporters headquartered in Tiananmen Square, there was great tension in the city between people who live there and the occupying army. How did the party respond? Teachers were ordered to teach their students a new song: "The Army loves the people, the people love the Army." Parents couldn't say the song was untrue lest their children repeat this back at school. You can't bring up your children the way you want to.
Okay, we understand that this was bad, but Tiananmen was nearly twenty years ago, and China is certainly freer now, some two decades later. Yes, says Friedman, but the Party remains in power, and despite China's remarkable economic development into a capitalist society, it remains politically unfree, and this has consequences that the Chinese live with daily and that have even begun to affect the world outside of China:
China is not the worst stable authoritarian regime in the world: a North Korean might consider it free. Even foreigners who go to North Korea and then come back to China feel they are returning to a free country. But you get faced every day with decisions that bring it home to you that you're not. If your child is ill, should you go to the pharmacy and buy some medicine? Of course, but medicines are often frauds in China. There have been cases where baby formula is bogus and children have died from receiving no nutrition. China has a ruthless free market, no regulation, no safety standards, no FDA, no CDC, no NIH. It's also the world leader for people dying in industrial accidents, and about 400,000 each year die from drinking the water, which is unpotable. A Chinese journalist recently went to 10 Chinese hospitals wanting to get his blood tested. So he complained of certain aches and pains that he knew would cause them to test his blood. But he didn't give them his blood, he carried in a thermos with tea and poured that into the cups. Eight of the ten reported to him that he had the most serious blood disease and that it would cost them endless money for treatment.
This poses a problem for China, and one might expect it to put pressure on the Communist Party. Doubtless, it does. How, then, is the Party responding? By resurrecting a very authoritarian Confucianism:
[I]t's pushing essentially its own state religion, a combination of Han chauvinism, in which Chinese worship the yellow emperor [sic.: Yellow Emperor, or Huang Di (黃帝)], and an authoritarian Confucianism. The state is building Confucian temples. The vision is that China is going to explain its extraordinary rise to its own people and to the world as the result of its unique ethical religion, its Confucianism. It's going to spread Confucian societies all around the world, it's going to teach everybody that China produces a better quality of people because it has this moral authority and all others are inferior. Confucianism is the only way to raise people, and the world is properly hierarchically ordered with Confucian Chinese at the center of it.
Confucianism as an ethical system has some merit and can produce virtuous individuals, but Friedman is speaking of Confucianism in the service of an authoritarian state, and this poses problems because it is means that Confucianism is being used to mold Chinese nationalism with the aim of suppressing dissent and encouraging suspicion of freedom:
The Chinese regime has fostered a nationalism to trump democracy. People are taught that they are threatened by democracy, that democracy would make people weak. Party propaganda has it, "How did Rwanda occur? Because they tried to build a democracy. If the Hutus had simply imposed their will, they never would have had that problem. If it moves in a democratic direction, China is going to fall apart; it will be like what happened to Russia, to Yugoslavia. Do you want to end up like Chechnya and Bosnia? That's what the Americans really want. You are fortunate to be a Chinese living in an ethical, authoritarian system." The TV will show pictures of say the Los Angeles riots, the Sudan, and people are made frightened and confused. They're proud to be Chinese and want to raise ethical kids. They want a country they can be proud of, certainly not like American kids. The Chinese are taught that American youth are smoking at an early age, use pot, have babies in their teens, watch pornography on TV, spread AIDS, get divorced, and don't care what happens to their elderly parents. Why would you want to live in such an immoral way? This propaganda seems to work with many Chinese.
The upshot? Friedman offers this scenario:
So what is growing in China is an authoritarian, patriotic, racially defined, Confucian Chinese project which is going to be a formidable challenge not just to the United States but, I think, to democracy, freedom, and human rights all around the world. China is going to seem quite attractive to many people. That is why it is so very important to understand what living without freedom really means.
Well, "an authoritarian, patriotic, racially defined, Confucian Chinese" nation may be what the Communist Party would like to see develop, but some things are going to work against this.

Friedman notes the large numbers of tourists and students that China sends abroad. These people will have tasted more freedom than China offers, and they might push for more of this same freedom within China itself.

The Confucianism that the Party is pushing from the top down will find itself in competition with other religions, such as the phenomenal growth of Christianity and Buddhism, so state-ordered Confucianism might not be so easily grafted onto the populace as the authorities hope.

The capitalism that China has adopted requires a freer flow of information than is currently allowed, and China is currently learning some hard lessons. The pet-food scandal in the U.S. and medical scandals throughout the world have been traced to the use of tainted or worthless Chinese products, and this makes consumers outside of China less willing to purchase goods from China. As the Chinese become aware of this problem, they may press the state for more free expression and actually succeed because the necessity for freer information will be obvious to all.

China, therefore, might develop in a more democratic direction ... but things could instead go horribly wrong, and that's something that I think about, living here in the lengthening shadow of a rising China.

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At 6:51 AM, Blogger Hathor said...

Another Cultural Revolution?

I wonder if American businesses are complicit in the drug counterfeiting. It seems that I hear more of the fashion industry cracking down, than the pharmaceuticals. I just saw report that scared me, when one of the counterfeit drugs is one that I inject weekly.

I think the American government has encouraged rampant, unfettered capitalism, with the hope that it will democratize China. Giving China the most-favored-nation trade status hasn't help either.

At 7:00 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

I suppose that Milton Friedman (RIP) would argue that unfettered capitalism is actually fettered by the consumer and that the market will weed out the cheaters, but that sort of omnipotent, omniscient market needs a free flow of information, and that just isn't there in China -- nor in America, I'll wager.

You may be right about US policy. It has certainly encouraged capitalism in the hope of forging democracy, and while I think that capitalism does develop the conditions for democracy, real democratic development requires a number of other things, e.g., rule of law, literacy, separation of powers, etc.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 7:22 AM, Blogger Hathor said...

That statement "weed out the cheaters" is even more scary. A dead consumer isn't a discerning consumer.

At 7:26 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

That's exactly right about the "weeding out" process, and it's what I find shortsighted about complete reliance on the market even if the market is efficient.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 9:33 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...


You might consider posting some of these things over on the site. I would comment and I'm sure others would too.

At 9:49 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Thanks, Tuor, for the suggestion.

I've become more of a lurker on other sites these days because if I begin posting things, then I get caught up in discussions that eat up what little time I still have.

So, I may need to keep lurking for a while.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 1:15 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I find myself wondering along the strains of your final paragraph,Jeff. I hope we do not experience the fears come to life.

May I look forward to your "fleshing this out" a bit more?


At 3:08 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

JK, maybe sometime, if I develop enough insight.

One worrisome is that the nationalism might get out of hand and have foreign-policy repercussions.

Another lurking problem is the role of the army, which seems to be changing, i.e., it seems to be growing less dependent upon the Party, which leaves one wondering what force in society or politics would limit it. Some analysts think that the army decided independently to blast that old Chinese satellite out of its orbit and that the Party was caught by surprise.

I also worry about China's potentially hegemonic intentions toward North Korea ... or toward South Korea, for that matter.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 6:58 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Your point on the NK problem is what I most take into consideration. I do not know how that would play out. My fear is that it might occupy too much of the military's attention.

I consider your thoughts on the military's doing their satellite thing may be too accurate. My friend in Austin seemed to have some foresight that this might occur though.

My thoughts on what might then occur in the NW provinces might have global ramifications.


At 7:13 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Thanks, JK. I do think about these things ... and worry.

Jeffery Hodges

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