TELOSscope: The Telos Press Blog

Obama and Freedom in China

President Barack Obama, unlike his predecessor George W. Bush, has not made promoting freedom abroad his cause. When he arrives in China on November 15 for his first state visit, however, he will not be able to ignore freedom’s latest, most momentous development: the Chinese government has divorced economic freedom from political freedom for the past three decades and has largely made it work.

In Beijing and Shanghai, Obama may continue to mull over the necessity and wisdom of a troop surge in Afghanistan, but in the long run, the legitimacy and attractiveness of the liberal democracy that he has sworn to protect will face as much, if not more of, a challenge from the contentment of Chinese citizens living under authoritarianism as it does from the fear and loathing propagated by radical Islamic terrorism. Will Obama stand listless before Chinese authoritarianism?

One cannot blame Obama for being a bit confused. Freedom is often a far more complicated business than its advocates claim. In their world, Obama must meet with political dissidents and religious figures disowned by Beijing, such as the Dalai Lama; use tougher rhetoric to condemn state-sponsored violence against peaceful protestors on the streets of Tehran; and fly to Germany for the festivities commemorating the twentieth anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. To these critics, freedom could be won with tough rhetoric and symbolic actions.

Obama’s critics are rightly appalled about the White House’s lack of interest in freedom and its symbolisms. Yet challenging authoritarianism, especially the Chinese variety, also requires more than public gestures. It deserves more nuanced attention. Chinese authoritarianism is not the Communism of East Berlin before 1989 or the fanaticism of the despots of Tehran today. Rather, it has given its citizens new material comforts, new opportunities, new choices. In the process, it has produced dilemmas for freedom that were once unthinkable.

In the past, citizens of unfree nations fled to the free world for both economic well-being and political freedom. Today’s China inspired an elderly emigrant who left the southern Chinese metropolis of Guangzhou nearly twenty five years ago to pronounce regrets about having moved to America. In the United States, he toiled in the inner city for two decades. In the middle of one of the poshest districts in Guangzhou, he observed just three weeks before Obama’s China visit, life could have become better without leaving China, without enduring any of freedom’s hardships.

Freedom, for better or worse, comes at a higher price for those who do not face the inside of a jail cell or the hopelessness of starvation and destitution. A vast majority of China’s population are not political dissidents who view the government as their mortal enemy and freedom as their cause. More and more of them are also quickly shaking off the indignities of poverty. For these ordinary citizens, daily life under authoritarian rule is not always—or even often—about the heroics of political dissent challenging the absurdity of government control. Often, ordinary citizens eat, drink, play, work, and live in ways that have no particular political significance. Authoritarianism offers its own logic and rhythm, even if it does not allow for the right to vote or the freedom of the press.

This does not mean that Chinese authoritarianism no longer intrudes into its citizens’ daily lives. It does, often in an insidious manner not understood by those on the outside. The Communist state may not exert its terror each hour, each minute and each second, but it rears its ugly head at any time of its choosing, reminding its citizens that it, not they, are in control. Just ask the women who have undergone forced abortions under China’s one-child policy. The state has violated them, with no apologies and no regrets.

Authoritarianism’s insidiousness or cruelty, however, has not convinced Chinese citizens to choose freedom, en masse. Across China, Obama will see that freedom’s appeal vies with the trendiest neighborhoods, the swankiest storefronts, and the fanciest Western brands.

He could make the more nuanced sales pitch that freedom in China deserves. After all, freedom allowed him to choose, to aspire to, and to attain the highest office of the most powerful nation on earth. Freedom will allow Chinese citizens to choose too, to pursue not just wealth but also rights and dignity.

China’s citizens could choose not to listen to Obama. That would be their prerogative. The more disappointing scenario, however, is that Obama, always eager to distinguish himself from his predecessor, will conclude that freedom is not worth choosing for his foreign policy and stand aside as Chinese authoritarianism marches on.

Ying Ma is a visiting fellow at the Hoover Institution.

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