Freedom, property and the pursuit of happiness

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Reforms necessary for China to join ‘the mainstream of civilized nations’, according to the what-we-advocate section of Charter 08:

We should establish and protect the right to private property and promote an economic system of free and fair markets. We should do away with government monopolies in commerce and industry and guarantee the freedom to start new enterprises. We should establish a Committee on State-Owned Property, reporting to the national legislature, that will monitor the transfer of state-owned enterprises to private ownership in a fair, competitive, and orderly manner. We should institute a land reform that promotes private ownership of land, guarantees the right to buy and sell land, and allows the true value of private property to be adequately reflected in the market.

In 1980, the private sector accounted for 0.5% of China’s industrial output; by 2001, that figure had risen to around 40%, and the increase has only accelerated since.

Many of the largest enterprises, in strategic sectors such as energy, are still state-owned assets. A disproportionate number of privatized and “restructured” SOEs have thus been small- and medium-sized.

These newly-created capitalist firms require a corresponding workforce of waged employees. This is conveniently found amidst massive, localized pools of unemployment generated by the transfer of communal and state-owned property to private ownership, as well as through rural-to-urban migration.

The latter, in turn, has been both a voluntary response to incentives, alongside confiscation of agricultural land, demolition of homes and villages, and forced relocation. As elsewhere, the gradual establishment of private property has involved “freedom” less than it has brute theft, asset stripping, corrupt patronage and repression.

Below is a map of “blood houses”, denoting deaths, immolations and verified protest events relating to coerced relocations.

Liu Xiaobo, the chief drafter of Charter 08, warns Chinese state managers of ‘social crises’ and ‘sharpening animosity between officials and ordinary people’: ‘we see the powerless in our society…becoming more militant and raising the possibility of a violent conflict of disastrous proportions.’ As the private remarks of Beijing’s foreign ambassadors to their US counterparts make clear, the local elite shares such concerns.

What then are the prospects for a Chinese liberalism – a set of sensible concessions and calculated reforms that, as Liu suggests, would preserve the current economic trajectory on a more secure political footing?

Signs are unpromising. The 2010 Nobel Peace Prize winner’s well-known views on colonialism, military aggression and Islam reveal the influence of George W. Bush as much as they do that of James Madison and Alexander Hamilton (while the title of this blog post, taken from the text of Charter 08, suggests a likely affinity with latter-day Russian oligarchs).

Indeed, recent US military aggression – with its geostrategic subtext the encircling and “containment” of Beijing and other rivals – could scarcely present less propitious circumstances for a Chinese transition to parliamentary elections and the full panoply of liberal rights. Caught in increasingly protectionist battles for external markets and raw-material supplies, Chinese state managers are hardly likely to relax their grip on the local garrison state. Oslo’s bestowal of the Peace Prize on a Chinese dissident and CIA grantee, an unsubtle contribution to the US State Department’s cause, thus seems reason more for dread than for optimism.

It may well be too late in the world-historical day for a Chinese liberalism to serve the need for stability of domestic and external propertyholders, or to meet any popular-progressive yearnings. As is becoming clearer everywhere, the preservation of basic civil and legal rights, let alone their advancement, requires a different course.

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6 Responses to “Freedom, property and the pursuit of happiness”

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