Commentary

The Future of Liberalism in China

This article was published in the Washington Times, Aug. 7, 2003.

Thirty-five years ago, the “Great Helmsman” Mao Zedong disbanded the Red Guards who were creating chaos in China. Although Mao recognized his mistake of giving teenage students virtually free rein to terrorize the populace, he did not abandon his utopian vision of a socialist state, nor did he end his ruthless suppression of “capitalist roaders” and other so-called bad elements during the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution (1966-76).

Deng Xiaoping, himself a victim of the Cultural Revolution, rose to lead the Chinese Communist Party in late 1978. By opening the nation to the outside world and introducing market forces, he began a new chapter in China’s long history. Deng’s mantra was “Seek truth from facts.”

Unlike Mao, Deng was not ideologically rigid. His favorite expression was “It doesn’t matter if a cat is black or white, as long as it catches mice.” The economic system was to be judged by its performance for the people: “Poverty is not socialism. To be rich is glorious.” Market socialism thus took the place of pure socialism.

There is no doubt that China’s economic liberalization has been highly successful. But institutional incompatibilities between state planning and the market still exist, especially in the financial sector. Real capital markets depend on private property rights, and China’s leaders are in no hurry to sanction those rights for fear of losing power. But there is a more serious problem confronting China’s ruling class — namely, the need for fundamental political reform to create a limited government under the rule of law and to end the CCP’s authoritarian regime. The future of liberalism in China will depend on meeting that challenge.

According to Cao Siyuan, a leading proponent of political reform and privatization in China, “If the current political system is not reformed into a civilized political system [i.e., one in which the citizens are sovereign], it is entirely possible that tragedies like the Cultural Revolution will happen again.” Cao provides a roadmap for reform in his new book, The ABCs of Political Civilization.

During the Cultural Revolution, more than 400,000 people lost their lives, and nearly a million were victimized. Behind that injustice and violence lay the supreme CCP and its leader. Although China’s leaders are now more civilized than Mao, they and the CCP are still supreme, and Chairman Mao’s picture continues to dominate Tiananmen Square.

The CCP’s monopoly on power leaves little scope for independent thought or freedom of expression, especially in the political realm. Open criticism and discussion are a threat to the CCP’s supremacy. The Party’s powerful propaganda department, headed by a politburo member, hides the truth by distorting both facts and language. Orwellian “Newspeak” is pervasive, from the “Cultural Revolution” and “market socialism” to the very name of the nation — the “People’s Republic of China.”

The CCP does not want people, especially young people, to openly examine its past. Although the Party has called the Cultural Revolution a serious mistake and a national disaster, it has not allowed full disclosure of the facts or publication of critical accounts of that period. The reason is obvious: the Party’s legitimacy would be tested and found to be fraudulent. The “mandate of heaven” would dictate a new political order based on the consent of the people — a constitutional order of liberty. Nien Cheng, in her best-selling book Life and Death in Shanghai, describes how Party officials dodged responsibility for the violent tactics used by the Red Guards: “When there was excessive cruelty that resulted in deaths, the officials would disclaim responsibility for an ‘accident’ resulting from ‘mass enthusiasm’.” The truth about the Cultural Revolution, as historian John King Fairbank wrote, is that it “fed upon … public dependence on, and blind obedience to, authority. There was no idea of morality’s being under the law.” That truth must not be forgotten.

The CCP’s deliberate attempt to hide the truth about the Party’s role in the Cultural Revolution, by banning books by Cheng and others and by romanticizing Mao, may protect the Party’s hold on power in the short run but not in the long run. Eventually, economic liberalization, a growing middle class, and the global flow of information through the Internet will generate increasing pressure for political reform. China’s new mantra should be “Seek truth from freedom.” Global competition has driven China’s economic development since 1978; now it is time to apply that same force to politics and to constitutional change. Truth cannot come from facts if the facts remain hidden by a supreme CCP. What China needs is freedom and transparency: a government whose power is strictly limited and whose fundamental purpose is to protect life, liberty, and property.

The major lesson of the Cultural Revolution is not that it was “fun,” as a former Red Guard recently told his college-aged son. Rather, in the words of Cheng, “Unless and until a political system rooted in law, rather than personal power, is firmly established in China, the road to the future will always be full of twists and turns.”

James A. Dorn is vice president for academic affairs at the Cato Institute and co-editor of “China’s Future: Constructive Partner or Emerging Threat?” (Cato Institute, 2000).