The Nuanced History of Liberty in China

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by Dan Mikhaylov

The Trump administration’s explicit stance against China has altered the Western political discourse. Discussions on Maoism, the Belt and Road Initiative, and the Communist state’s profuse human rights violations in Xinjiang and Hong Kong recrudesce in the news with unprecedented frequency, heaving into view of even the most oblivious readers.

Currently, China’s predominant portrayal is that of a monolithic structure, a command economy, and a communitarian society, which brooks no dissent or disobedience. Some of this view’s proponents have even posited that the Chinese model constitutes an unequivocal antithesis to liberal democracy, alleged to be incompatible with the local culture and history. Others, including The Economist’s Adrian Wooldridge and Bloomberg’s William Micklethwait, consider it a symptom of the “fourth revolution”, destined to supplant the contemporary consensus on government. Doubtless, this image has been reinforced by failed Western efforts to counterpoise China commercially and diplomatically as well as to help it metamorphose into a democratic state.

However, such conclusions are misguided. Whilst China exhibits a plethora of characteristics that classify it as an authoritarian country, this by no means presupposes that liberty is incompatible with its people’s Weltanschauung; nor is the liberal idea exclusively Western. Taiwan offers a testimony to the former point: the ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) is championing liberal policies without erasing its Chinese constituents’ cultural code. As for the latter, as unaware of unalienable rights as the Chinese philosophical tradition has been, individualism itself has been debated within it. In turn, this suggests China’s divergence from liberalism is somewhat blown out of proportion, and that rather than that, what undermined our earlier attempts to democratize its society was our narrow-minded advertising strategy.

Liberty with Chinese characteristics is far from an oxymoron, as the Taiwanese example amply demonstrates. Its government’s overdue decriminalisation of adultery and the iconoclastic legalisation of same sex-marriage under its first female head of state are but the most ostensible indicators of how liberal permissiveness coexists with the Chinese psyche. Below the surface, there is further proof of Taiwan internalizing the liberal ideology. Thus, for instance, under the current leadership, the nation climbed to the 15th place on the World Bank’s annual Ease of Doing Business ranking. No doubt, the introduction of such measures as seal exemptions for firm registration, an unbureaucratic e-service certification system facilitating litigation, and substantial simplification of the tax reporting process between 2016 and 2019 played a role in this achievement. Moreover, President Tsai Ing-wen has launched the Startup Regularity Adjustment Platform to mitigate “the lack of clarity about applicable regulations, not knowing the competent authority, or laws that are not clearly defined” as means to assist the growth of local enterprises.

Understandably, Taiwan is no paradise, and thinking otherwise is improvident, at best. After all, it remains a diplomatic pariah,  excluded from the United Nations, unrecognized by the vast majority of the international community. Its allies are increasingly fewer in number. Thus, Gambia and the Solomon Islands have recently opted to switch allegiance to Beijing, which arguably adds to the country’s isolation. Moreover, the DPP is yet to deliver on its economic promises; restrictions on private banking and money transfers still exist, prompting potential investors to open private accounts in Hong Kong instead.

A more auspicious blueprint to proselytize liberal-democratic values in the Far East should take this case-study into account, nonetheless. It vindicates that liberal democracy could flourish alongside Chinese traditions that some pundits regard as at the crossheads of liberalism. It shows that liberal democracy could benefit the local populations. Herein, the country’s outstanding handling of the coronavirus illustrates the system’s efficacy. Taipei led a coordinated response, which involved the government partnering with hotels to create two-week self-isolation spots, with tech developers to code advanced tracking software, and with other political parties to project a vital public image of bipartisan unity. Arguably, this is something other countries, like Brazil and the U.S., have been lacking so desperately in this tribulating period.

In addition, the West should consider the history of Chinese individualism, as propagating an endogenous version of liberalism, devised and written using the local language, is bound to resonate with the people unlike some distinctly alien philosophemes. China lacks a profound history of representative rule: the region was dominated for millennia by successive imperial dynasties, and the twentieth-century Republic of China arguably did not resemble a healthy democracy, given its lack of territorial control and institutional opacity. Yet this should not obscure the existence of Chinese individualism.

Resurfacing in the short-lived, chaotic Republican period, it has its origins during the Warring States Period (475-221 BC), an era of extreme political fragmentation, not too dissimilar from the bellicose polycentrism found in eighteenth-century Europe, which sew the seeds of the French Revolution and, by extent, modern politics. It is known as Yangism, named after its founder, Yangzi (440-360 BC), by medieval Chinese historians. Although his treatises have been lost, his advocacy of ethical egotism has survived to this day in the works of his Confucian and Taoist rivals.

According to Yangzi, individual personality is the most important element of the universe and must consequently be preserved. This preservation, or alimentation, of life, as he put it, consists of sustaining human integrity and authenticity, whilst guarding against burdensome things, since only the beneficial ones keep the integrity of human physical and internal nature intact. Based on this, life is defined by its quality and is fundamentally about satisfying human senses as opposed to complying with arbitrary rituals. This meshes well with what Western scholars have argued: liberalism also places the individual at its ideological center and extols social mobility and personal development. As Max Weber put it in The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, sanctifying life has played a role in stimulating business enterprise.

The target audience of Yangism was the ruling elite, and its justification of government equally chimes with Locke’s argument for limited government. To Yangzi, governance was only valid insofar as the defense of human life’s integrity was concerned. In other words, the ideal Chinese Emperor protected his citizens and rebuked benevolent interventionism into their daily affairs, and in the Yangist utopia, one would rationally strive for what one requires, thereby leaving room for others’ self-improvement. Allowing others to take what they need, in turn, would enable them to sustain their lives’ integrity and authenticity and cultivate order and prosperity. Once again, this form of indifferent non-interventionism could supplement our notions of human dignity, in an attempt to formulate a modern, culturally conditioned, freedom-loving ideology in China.

Pondering on a viable ideological strategy against the Communist Party is essential for the West to triumph in what increasingly resembles a Sino-American Cold War. This task might very well seem overwhelming: Beijing appears inviolable. Past attempts to inculcate democratic values in its government and people were evidently nullified by Xi Jinping’s counter-reformist agenda. Arguably, the West needs to give China a more culturally attuned alternative for the Communist regime to undergo any internal reform, much like the Soviet Union did. Liberty is not incompatible with the Chinese mindset, as revealed by ancient Yangism and contemporary Taiwan. If anything, the new alternative must make this clear.

Dan Mikhaylov is a columnist for Orthodox Conservatives, a British think tank dedicated to the promotion of social conservatism. His works have also been featured in The Cornell Review, The Globe Post, Merion West, and The Mallard.


The views expressed on austriancenter.com are not necessarily those of the Austrian Economics Center.

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