Fifty Years after the Cultural Revolution

May 16, 1966, is regarded as the beginning of Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution in China. Post-Maoist China has never quite come to terms with Mao’s legacy and especially the disastrous Cultural Revolution

Many countries have a founding myth that inspires and sustains a national culture. South Africa celebrates the accomplishments of Nelson Mandela, the founder of that nation’s modern, multi-racial democracy. In the United States, we look to the American Revolution and especially to the ideas in the Declaration of Independence of July 4, 1776. 

The Declaration of Independence, written by Thomas Jefferson, is the most eloquent libertarian essay in history, especially its philosophical core:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.–That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, –That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.

The ideas of the Declaration, given legal form in the Constitution, took the United States of America from a small frontier outpost on the edge of the developed world to the richest country in the world in scarcely a century. The country failed in many ways to live up to the vision of the Declaration, notably in the institution of chattel slavery. But over the next two centuries, that vision inspired Americans to extend the promises of the Declaration—life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness—to more and more people.

China, of course, followed a different vision, the vision of Mao Zedong. Take Mao’s speech on July 1, 1949, as his Communist armies neared victory. The speech was titled, “On the People’s Democratic Dictatorship.” Instead of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, it spoke of “the extinction of classes, state power and parties,” of “a socialist and communist society,” of the nationalization of private enterprise and the socialization of agriculture, of a “great and splendid socialist state” in Russia, and especially of “a powerful state apparatus” in the hands of a “people’s democratic dictatorship.”

Tragically, and unbelievably, this vision appealed not only to many Chinese but even to Americans and Europeans, some of them prominent. But from the beginning, it went terribly wrong, as should have been predicted. Communism created desperate poverty in China. The “Great Leap Forward” led to mass starvation. The Cultural Revolution unleashed “an extended paroxysm of revolutionary madness” in which “tens of millions of innocent victims were persecuted, professionally ruined, mentally deranged, physically maimed and even killed.” Estimates of the number of unnatural deaths during Mao’s tenure range from 15 million to 80 million. This is so monstrous that we can’t really comprehend it. What inspired many American and European leftists was that Mao really seemed to believe in the communist vision. And the attempt to actually implement communism leads to disaster and death.

When Mao died in 1976, China changed rapidly. His old comrade Deng Xiaoping, a victim of the Cultural Revolution, had learned something from the 30 years of calamity. He began to implement policies he called “socialism with Chinese characteristics,” which looked a lot like freer markets: decollectivization and the “responsibility system” in agriculture, privatization of enterprises, international trade, liberalization of residency requirements.

The changes in China over the past generation are the greatest story in the world—more than a billion people brought from totalitarianism to a largely capitalist economic system that is eroding the continuing authoritarianism of the political system. On its 90th birthday, the CCP still rules China with an iron fist. There is no open political opposition, and no independent judges or media. And yet the economic changes are undermining the party’s control, a challenge of which the party is well aware. In 2008, Howard W. French reported in the New York Times:

Political change, however gradual and inconsistent, has made China a significantly more open place for average people than it was a generation ago.

Much remains unfree here. The rights of public expression and assembly are sharply limited; minorities, especially in Tibet and Xinjiang Province, are repressed; and the party exercises a nearly complete monopoly on political decision making.

But Chinese people also increasingly live where they want to live. They travel abroad in ever larger numbers. Property rights have found broader support in the courts. Within well-defined limits, people also enjoy the fruits of the technological revolution, from cellphones to the Internet, and can communicate or find information with an ease that has few parallels in authoritarian countries of the past.

The Chinese Communist Party remains in control. And there’s a resurgence of Maoism under the increasingly authoritarian rule of Xi Jinping, as my former colleague Jude Blanchette is writing about. But at least one study finds ideological groupings in China divided between statists who are both socialist and culturally conservative, and liberals who tend toward “constitutional democracy and individual liberty, … market-oriented reform … modern science and values such as sexual freedom.” 

Xi’s government struggles to protect its people from acquiring information, routinely battling with Google, Star TV, and other media. Howard French noted that “the country now has 165,000 registered lawyers, a five-fold increase since 1990, and average people have hired them to press for enforcement of rights inscribed in the Chinese Constitution.” People get used to making their own decisions in many areas of life and wonder why they are restricted in other ways. I am hopeful that the 100th anniversary of the CCP in 2021 will be of interest mainly to historians of China’s past and that the Chinese people will by then enjoy life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness under a government that derives its powers from the consent of the governed. 

Posted on May 16, 2016  Posted to Cato@Liberty

David Boaz’s speech at the Libertarian Party of Maine 2016 State Convention is cited on ABC WMTW News 8 @ 11

Posted on May 15, 2016  Posted to Cato@Liberty

A Friedman Prize for Courage

The 2016 Milton Friedman Prize for Advancing Liberty has been awarded to Flemming Rose and will be formally presented at a dinner in New York on May 25. (Tickets still available!)

Flemming Rose is a Danish journalist. In the 1980s and 1990s he was the Moscow correspondent for Danish newspapers. He saw the last years of Soviet communism, with all its poverty, dictatorship, and censorship, and the fall of communism, only to be disappointed again with the advance of Russian authoritarianism. After also spending time in the United States, he became an editor at the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten. In 2005 he noticed “a series of disturbing instances of self-censorship” in Europe. In particular, “a Danish children’s writer had trouble finding an illustrator for a book about the life of Muhammad. Three people turned down the job for fear of consequences. The person who finally accepted insisted on anonymity, which in my book is a form of self-censorship.”

Rose decided to take a stand for free speech and the open society. He asked 25 Danish cartoonists “to draw Muhammad as you see him.” Later, he explained that 

We [Danes] have a tradition of satire when dealing with the royal family and other public figures, and that was reflected in the cartoons. The cartoonists treated Islam the same way they treat Christianity, Buddhism, Hinduism and other religions. And by treating Muslims in Denmark as equals they made a point: We are integrating you into the Danish tradition of satire because you are part of our society, not strangers. The cartoons are including, rather than excluding, Muslims.

Rose promised to publish all the cartoons he received. He got 12. They were by turns funny, provocative, insightful, and offensive. One implied that the children’s book author was a publicity seeker.  One mocked the anti-immigration Danish People’s Party. One portrayed the editors of Jyllands-Posten as a bunch of reactionary provocateurs. The most notorious depicted the prophet with a bomb in his turban.

A firestorm erupted. Protests were made. Western embassies were attacked in some Muslim countries. As many as 200 people were killed in violent protests. Rose and the turban cartoonist were the subject of death threats. To this day Rose travels with security. 

Is Rose in fact a provocateur or anti-Muslim? No. When we discovered that his book A Tyranny of Silence had not been published in English, that was the first question we asked. From reading the manuscript, and from talking to contacts in Denmark and Europe, we became confident that Rose was a genuine liberal with a strong anti-authoritarian bent, sharpened during his years as a reporter in the Soviet Union. His book, recently reissued with a new afterword, confirms that. Chapter 10, “A Victimless Crime,” traces the history of religious freedom from the Protestant Reformation to the challenges faced today by Muslims of different religious and political views.

Through it all, and through future attacks such as those at the French magazine Charlie Hebdo, Rose has continued to speak out for free speech and liberal values. He has made clear that his concern has always been – in the Soviet Union, in Europe, in the United States, and in Muslim countries – for individual dignity, freedom of religion, and freedom of thought. But he has insisted that there is no “right not to be offended.” He has become a leading public intellectual in a time when free speech is threatened in many ways by many factions. Today, in Politico Europe, he deplores a proposed law that would deny admission to Denmark to Islamists and criminalize anti-democratic speech. He worries:

What’s at stake in this controversy, and visible in similar developments across Europe, is the success of the Continent’s struggle to manage cultural and religious diversity. Most politicians believe we need to promote a diversity of opinions and beliefs, but manage that diversity with more tightly-controlled speech. That is wrong. A more diverse society needs more free speech, not less. This will be the key challenge for Denmark and Europe in the years ahead. The prospects do not look bright.

The prospects are brighter as long as free speech has defenders such as Flemming Rose.

The first few recipients of the Milton Friedman Prize were economists. Later came a young man who stopped Hugo Chavez’s referendum to create a socialist dictatorship, and a writer who spent 6 years in Iranian jails, followed by economic reformers from China and Poland.

I think the diversity of the recipients reflects the many ways in which liberty must be defended and advanced. People can play a role in the struggle for freedom as scholars, writers, activists, organizers, elected officials, and many other ways. Some may be surprised that a Prize named for a great scholar, a winner of the Nobel Prize in Economics, might go to a political official, a student activist, or a newspaper editor. But Milton Friedman was not just a world-class scholar. He was also a world-class communicator and someone who worked for liberty in issues ranging from monetary policy to conscription to drug prohibition to school choice. When he discussed the creation of the Prize with Cato president Ed Crane, he said that he didn’t want it to go just to great scholars. The Prize is awarded every other year “to an individual who has made a significant contribution to advance human freedom.” Friedman specifically cited the man who stood in front of the tank in Tiananmen Square as someone who would qualify for the Prize by striking a blow for liberty. Flemming Rose did not shy away from danger when he encountered it. He kept on advocating for a free and open society. Milton Friedman would be proud. 

Posted on May 12, 2016  Posted to Cato@Liberty

David Boaz, Matt Welch, Ramesh Ponnuru, and Conor Friedersdorf debate whether the “Libertarian Moment” was wishful thinking

Posted on May 2, 2016  Posted to Cato@Liberty

About David Boaz

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