Liberalism and Debate in China

The Asian edition of the Wall Street Journal has just published essays by two Chinese liberal scholars who have spoken and written for the Cato Institute. Mao Yushi created quite a storm in China with his article on the website of Caixin magazine criticizing Mao Zedong (no relation). He received threatening phone calls and warning visits. Nevertheless, he has now published a version of the essay in English, translated by my former colleague Jude Blanchette, now working in China for the Atlas Economic Research Foundation. It’s still pretty tough:

Mao Zedong was once a god. With the uncovering of more and more documents and information, he is gradually returning to human form.

Some still view Chairman Mao as a god, however, and view any critical discussion of him as blasphemous….

Mao not only created suffering for China, he exported his theory to the world so that all could share in his cruelty. He encouraged armed revolution in Malaysia, India, Thailand, the Philippines, Burma, Indonesia, Nepal and Sri Lanka. Perhaps Mao’s greatest student was Pol Pot, who stands as the most ruthless killer in recent history. More than 30 years after his death, the world is still dealing with Mao’s legacy….

After Mao’s death, Hua Guofeng and Ye Jianying seized the Gang of Four, and China’s Supreme Court sentenced them to death. Yet the leader of the Gang of Four can still be glimpsed hanging above the Gate of Heavenly Peace and his picture is printed on the money we use every day.

Meanwhile, Liu Junning tells Journal readers that Maoism is not the whole of China’s heritage. Indeed, he says (as noted in Libertarianism: A Primer and The Libertarian Reader), Laozi (Lao-tzu or Lao-tse) was one of the earliest exponents of ideas we might now call liberal or libertarian:

Indeed, what we now call Western-style liberalism has featured in China’s own culture for millennia. We first see it with philosopher Laozi, the founder of Taoism, in the sixth century B.C. Laozi articulated a political philosophy that has come to be known as wuwei, or inaction. “Rule a big country as you would fry a small fish,” he said. That is, don’t stir too much. “The more prohibitions there are, the poorer the people become,” he wrote in his magnum opus, the “Daodejing.”

For Mencius, a fourth-century B.C. philosopher and the most famous student of Confucius, a kingdom would be able to defend itself from outside attack if the king “runs a government benevolent to the people, sparing of punishments and fines, reducing taxes and levies… .”

Note that Laozi and other classical thinkers also drew a connection between good, limited government in general and prosperity in particular.

To say that the narrative of liberty vs. power is uniquely “Western” is to turn a blind eye to the struggles of those who have gone before us. Individual rights are not a Western development any more than paper and gunpowder are inventions that are uniquely Chinese. Is Marxism “German”? Is Buddhism “Indian”? Of course not. When ideas are born, they take flight into the world to be used, improved or discarded by all of humanity. Constraints on political power and the protection of individual rights belong to all….

China will truly prosper only when individuals such as Liu Xiaobo, Ai Weiwei and the many other Chinese patriots who speak for reform are safe in the knowledge that they can do so without a late-night knock on the door from the government.

My own thoughts on the ideas of the American Revolution and of the Chinese Communist Party appeared at the Britannica Blog on Monday.