Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Individual vs. Social Interests

On Oct 8th, the Norwegian Nobel Committee awarded the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize to the jailed Chinese dissident  Liu Xiaobo “for his long and non-violent struggle for fundamental human rights in China.”  

In its press release, the Committee further elaborated its decision and pointed out that China must fulfill its increased responsibility as it continues to make enormous economic advances.   The Committee went on to conclude that “through the severe punishment meted out to him, Liu has become the foremost symbol of this wide-ranging struggle for human rights in China.”  It cannot be more clear than that the award is more a strong and opportune criticism of the Chinese Government than a shinny recognition of the beliefs that Liu has stood and fought for (in non-violent means).   

It is not the first time in the history of Nobel Peace Prize when individuals were singled out for what they stood up believed in and fought against the suppression and overwhelming pressure by the system and authority.  They include, just to name a few in reverse chronological order,  Nelson Mandela of South Africa in 1993, Aung San Suu Kyi of Myamar in 1991, Lech Wałęsa of Poland in 1982, Adolfo Pérez Esquivel  of Argentina in 1980 , Andrei Dmitrievich Sakharov  of USSR in 1975, and I would include Martin Luther King, Jr. of U.S.A. in 1964 as well.   

We owe it to Liu XiaoBo who is still in jail that we don’t stop at reading and echoing the news headlines, or the superficial praises, or the biographies of Liu’s.  Let us dig a little deeper and appreciate the enormity of the issues at stake which has been oversimplified down to few buzz words like Human Rights and Democracy.  After all, we are talking about the welfare of 20% of world population whose collective behavior will affect the stability and prosperity of the whole world. 

While public debates of political reform has been going on in China for almost three decades (with a brief pause after the 1989 Tiananmen Square protest and crackdown) once the economic reform was moving along in early 80’s.  It wasn’t until December 10, 2008, the 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, that the first comprehensive and concrete proposal -  Charter 08《零八憲章》was drafted and published by Liu XiaoBo and some of his fellow activists (Liu was arrested, tried, sentenced, and jailed since for “inciting subversion of state power”) .  In this manifesto, Liu XiaoBo and his co-authors made specific demands of:
  1. Amending the Constitution修改憲
  2. Separation of powers 分權制
  3. Legislative democracy 立法民
  4. An independent judiciary 司法獨
  5. Public control of public servants 公器公
  6. Guarantee of human rights 人權保
  7. Election of public officials 公職選
  8. Rural–urban equality 鄉平
  9. Freedom of association 結社自
  10. Freedom of assembly 集會自
  11. Freedom of expression 言論自
  12. Freedom of religion 宗教自
  13. Civic education 公民教
  14. Protection of private property 產保
  15. Financial and tax reform 稅改
  16. Social security 社會保
  17. Protection of the environment 環境保
  18. A federated republic 聯邦共
  19. Truth in reconciliation 轉型正
There is no doubt that these 19 by 4 characters demands were heavily influenced by and taken largely from the Western (European-American) development and experience.   This is not a total surprise as Liu XiaoBo has been a devoted writer and activist who has been consistently advocating for what often referred to as Western democracy and ideals.   

To understand better Liu XiaoBo’s without easy access to his writings, we can get some insights from what he has been critical of.   Liu attracted attention first in 1987 at an age of 32 when he published his work of Critique on Choices - Dialogue with Li Zehou 《選擇的批判與李澤厚對in which he argued strongly for individual rights in contrasting and challenging the views of Li Zehou 李澤厚, another pro-democracy scholar who has been one of the most respected and influential contemporary Chinese philosophers and intellect.   This invites the question of are there fundamental and important differences among different schools of thought under the banner of liberty and democracy?  Are there multiple paths to reach these goals and what are ways to implement them?  Which one of them is more viable and more likely to succeed?

The now 80 years old Li Zehou distinguishes himself with a more evolutionary and experimental approach as he often expresses his justified concerns for hasty reforms that could lead to confusion, chaos, and disrupt the stability and economic advances of the country.   His doubt and lack of confidence on the readiness of the mass may be a realistic assessment but his worst case scenario of a disintegrated China seems unwarranted.   With such cautionary reminders, Li is considered “conservative” by some as his leaning can be construed as prolonging the status-quo of the authoritarian rule of the Chinese Communist Party although there is no evidence that it is ever his intention.   Li has also been criticized for his framework of reform in four phases implemented over time – economic development 經濟發展, liberty 個人自由, social justice 社會正義, democratization 政治民主 (see e.g., 李澤厚、易中天對話, Sept 2010). Again, the implication is that he appears to believe that liberty and justice can be achieved under an authoritarian regime.  And he is not alone on this, I am sure of it.
If we dig a little deeper, there are more significant and fundamental differences in various models.  In pushing for more rapid socio-political reforms, Liu XiaoBo and his fellow activists place European-American thinking and experiences at a central and dominant position.  Such a school of thought is considered more radical by some and has been characterized as a “Westernization全盤西化” approach by Li Zehou. In other words, it is a transplantation of western ideals and core values and implementation of them in Chinese society. 

What Li Zehou proposes instead is what he called a Fuse of Western and Chinese Values 西體中用.  The essence of Li Zehou’s at the philosophical and intellectual level was summarized in his 1999 paper Modernization and the Confucian World where he argued that Confucianism will be divided into two – social morals and religious morals.  While the religious morals such as harmony, cooperation and family values will be retained, social morals such as individual autonomy and human rights need to be replaced with modern notions (from the west). 

Li is vague in terms of the details however.  For instance it is difficult to envision that western legalistic system can serve as the last line of defense in his paradigm when Confucianism calls for the emphasis of social order and harmony at the expenses of individual rights.  It appears he and most Chinese probably do not realize that the western judicial system is not constructed to pass judgment of what is right or wrong but to merely determine if it is legal or not.  This is completely foreign to the Chinese culture and tradition that Li and many are hoping to preserve or at minimum serving as a foundation during the long transition. 

When all said and done, the most important difference between their propositions is that while Liu subscribes to the Libertarian theory that human rights follows from the natural law, Liu rejects it as universal truth and timeless and called it “anti-historical”.  That is, the significance of history cannot be discounted and must be a part of the core value reality.  In another word, the rights are earned and shaped by the standing environment and circumstances.  The implication is that in Liu’s paradigm, Chinese Communist Party has no right to intrude on the human rights but in Li’s paradigm it can with legitimate reasons.  

This brings us to the central and practical issue of the whole debate: how to balance and resolve conflicts between the individual and social interests which can be translated into how to balance the individual rights and state power.  Government exists because of the needs to represent the social interest including security, economical and political.  Different forms of governments are simply different ways to handle this issue and there is no perfect form of it.  It is a choice (of people) and continuous refinements are needed as the reality changes as.  Extreme points of the spectrum neglecting individual or social interests such as anarchism, collectivism, totalitarian, etc. are clearly non-starters.  Benevolent authoritarian government (a popular dream among many Chinese) may be found once in a while but never lasts since such a system depends solely on the transient competence, diligence, and virtue of the ruling party.  It is built with an open invitation to corruptions and disrespects of individual rights in the name of the social interest.  

Most developed western countries today, as exemplified by U.S., implements a (one man one vote) democratic political systems, completed with a blend of capitalism and socialism that is codified by an elected legislative and adjudicated by a judicial system.  It has shortcomings and traps such as populism, tyranny of majority, and less efficient and responsive as due process overrides expediency.  Such a system gained legitimacy and is admired by many in the world for their advocacy (some may consider them lip services) of universal values such as human rights.  What is often neglected in the abstract discussions is the economic power and wealth created and cumulated by these countries over the past centuries.  One cannot help but wonder if we are envious of the economic achievement or the shinny principles and values?  

In a recent interview, Li Zehou was thrilled about his sense of freedom derived from the financial independence and security after he spent years in U.S. making a living as a writer and faculty.  I am sure many Chinese-American immigrants have had similar experiences as the famous writer Ha Jin aptly and avidly depicted in his 2007 novel A Fee Life through the main character Wu Nan.  That is, for most mortals, the true sense of freedom comes after when you appreciate of what you have, not what you don’t have.  

I agree with Li Zehou that economic development is the priority and Chinese government must continue to pay attention to raising the total wealth of the society with limited parity.  I do realize that Li Zehou’s thoughts and views might be more appealing to many Chinese as he advocates the adaptation rather than abandonment and replacement of the Chinese traditional culture and values.   But he and others will be surprised to find out there is very little time before the serious demands for liberty and political right reaches the boiling point, following the rise of economic power.  Instead of denial and dragging its feet, Chinese government must take a concerted effort to begin implementing and experimenting with socio-political reforms.  Liu XiaoBo’s Charter 08 is a good starting reference.  Hopefully China will find its own and most effective ways to approximate the ideal society and figure out a way to maintain the proper balance of individual and social interests.  This is not done for any abstract purposes;  this is urgently needed to sustain the economic advancement.
Talk to you soon!

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