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Thursday, April 21, 2011

China: Wealth but Not Freedom

When Chinese President Hu Jintao visited Washington earlier this year he received the gracious welcome and state dinner he did not get on his first visit in 2006. He also had some tough discussions on trade, foreign exchange, national security, and human rights.

China can be proud of the rapid economic progress it has made since 1978, when it was still a centrally planned economy with little foreign trade. Today, as the world’s second-largest economy, the People’s Republic (PRC) has gained wealth but not freedom. The Chinese people have a vastly wider range of economic and social opportunities than under the dictatorship of Mao Zedong, but their basic human rights continue to be denied by a ruling party determined to maintain its monopoly on power.

As head of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), Hu has paid lip service to “putting the people first,” but there has been little progress in liberalizing the political regime. The reality is that his idea of a “harmonious society” is one directed by the ruling elite, in which order emerges from the top down, not spontaneously under a constitution of liberty.

One of the CCP’s long-held tenets is “to seek truth from facts.” The most glaring fact is not the inequality of wealth, but the inequality of power that strips the Chinese people of their fundamental rights. Putting the people first means limiting government power and safeguarding rights to life, liberty, and property.

The great Chinese liberal Lao-Tzu understood the importance of freedom and limited government. For him and other Taoists, harmony cannot be forced; it must be natural. In the Laozi, also known as the Tao Te Ching, we read: “The more restrictions and prohibitions there are in the world, the poorer the people will be.” Denying individuals the liberty to exchange ideas, to criticize the government and party, and to associate freely without the fear of repression makes people poorer by restricting the alternatives open to them.

In 2004 the National People’s Congress (NPC), China’s rubber-stamp parliament, amended the PRC Constitution to better protect the private sector and for the first time added the words “human rights” to the document. Article 33, section 3, reads, “The state respects and protects human rights.” Such language encouraged Chinese liberals to test the waters, only to find that reality did not match the rhetoric.

The drafting of Charter 08, a manifesto for fundamental human rights, earned Liu Xiaobo the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize, the first awarded to a Chinese citizen. It also earned him 11 years in prison. The empty chair at the Nobel ceremony was yet one more iconic image of the individual versus the State. Before his sentencing in 2009 Liu stood before the court and declared, “To block freedom of speech is to trample on human rights, to strangle humanity, and to suppress the truth.”

Like others before him, Liu was accused of “incitement to subvert state power.” Yet the Chinese people have always believed that when government acts unjustly it loses the Mandate of Heaven. Charter 08 recognizes that “China has many laws but no rule of law.” The charter, initially signed by 303 liberals, now has more than 10,000 signatories—all of whom recognize that people everywhere have the rights “to freedom, to property, and to the pursuit of happiness.”

Charter 08 and Preexisting Rights

Charter 08 reveals an acute understanding of the case for limited government and the principle that the legitimate function of the State is to protect preexisting rights to life, liberty, and property, not to deny those rights. Civil society requires freedom. To achieve that freedom Charter 08 advocates a constitutional democracy with separation of powers, an independent judiciary, and a bill of rights. Freedom of expression, of religion, of association, and the protection of private property are all enshrined in the document. The hope of the Chinese framers is that Charter 08 will “bring to reality the goals and ideals that our people have incessantly been seeking for more than a hundred years, and . . . bring a brilliant new chapter to Chinese civilization.”

The official reaction to Charter 08 and to Liu’s Nobel Peace Prize was predictable: The Chinese government launched a storm of propaganda in support of the status quo. The mouthpiece of the CCP, the People’s Daily, wrote in October 2010, “By rumor-mongering and libeling, the charter denies the people’s democratic dictatorship, socialism, and the unitary state structure stipulated in the Chinese Constitution. The charter also entices people to join it, with the intent to alter the political system and overturn the government. Liu’s activities have crossed the line of freedom of speech into crime.”

Top-Down Order and Human Happiness

Yet as Premier Wen Jiabao noted last August in a speech in Shenzhen, “Without the safeguard of political reform, the fruits of economic reform would be lost and the goal of modernization would not materialize.” And in an interview with CNN in October, he recognized that “freedom of speech is indispensable for any country.”

The harmony, stability, and peaceful development that Beijing seeks will be on shaky ground until the CCP confronts the reality that top-down order is not consistent with human happiness, and that spontaneous order emerges from free markets and a genuine rule of law. Premier Wen, in his 2003 speech at Harvard, said that China has “found the right path of development” and that “the essence of this path is to . . . respect and protect the freedom of the Chinese people to pursue happiness.” In 2007, following the annual session of the NPC, he encouraged people to “oversee and criticize the government,” and said, “It is particularly important that we need to make justice the most important value of the socialist system.”

Justice, however, requires the prevention of injustice. Liu Xiaobo, Gao Zhisheng, and others entrapped by China’s jackboot justice system deserve to be heard, as do “the lost souls” of Tiananmen.

  • James A. Dorn is vice president for monetary studies, editor of the Cato Journal, senior fellow, and director of Cato’s annual monetary conference.