Xinhua has an interesting opinion piece about the recent unbanning on mobile phones and computers in Cuba. First, the title of the article: 从免于匮乏的自由开始 meaning “Starting with the freedom from want”. The political significance of the phrase “freedom from want” comes from Franklin D. Roosevelt’s State of the Union address, and comes, as we say nowadays, bundled with three other freedoms: speech and expression, religion, and fear.
After reviewing history, the author then begins to discuss what “freedom from want” means, describing the lines of Cuban people buying mobile phones and computers (assembled from parts imported from China) as reminiscent of the old days in the USSR and China, even before the release of the iPhone, people used to have to wait in long lines outside stores to get stuff they wanted. Cuba, like China before it, is learning that the only way of satisfying the people’s natural desire for material comfort is to loosen the state’s control over goods and resources, allowing people to buy, sell, dispose of and accumulate wealth as they please. Facilitating this process, says the author, is the sign of a good government and leadership.
There is a typically Chinese assertion that this freedom is the most basic of them all, and according to their logic, is a necessary condition that must precede the other basic freedoms. This has sort of been the official consensus on the way that China has to do things. You can’t tell a country emerging out of war and poverty to care about political rights or the freedom of worship. Not when the people are hungry, and not when they only have the clothes on their backs.
There’s a certain sense in which that is true, but the more we read essays like this, the more we feel ourselves getting lulled into the belief that there will be a “some day” in the not so distant future where China’s leaders say, ok, we’ve pretty much finished up with the freedom from want, let’s move onto worship or maybe freedom of speech and expression for the next few decades.
But of course, we all know that these arguments, whatever their stand-alone intellectual merit, become suspect as soon as it dawns on you how self-serving they really are. It’s that very emphasis on “freedom of want” over all else which explains why, although China has signed the UN International Covenant on Civil and Political rights in 1998, it has not, ten years later, yet ratified it through the NPC. Sure you could argue that “freedom from want” is not too ambiguous and more easily quantified and measured, making it a worthy goal as a whole, whereas “freedom of speech and expression” is a whole lot more vague and therefore contentious. Do you want freedom of speech a la France, or more along the lines of Singapore? Do you allow cartoons satirizing/insulting certain religions? Do you allow comedy shows that satirize politicians? So many countries have “freedom of speech,” and yet their history and culture determines, in part, how “freedom of speech” is understood and practiced in their respective mainstream political cultures.
It has been thirty years since China began its reforms, and almost twenty since many Eastern European countries began theirs. Thinking about Cuba does make for some interesting comparisons between the post-socialist path of these various countries, especially in terms of how the old ruling elites fared both during the transition and now that their political evolution has, at least in the short-term, come to some kind of rest. However, most of those countries have managed, to some extent, to make some substantive progress on civil and political rights. But of course, the ruling elites in those countries often paid a huge price for that (Poland, Romania, Czech Republic, etc.), either by losing their power or their heads. It will be interesting to see where Cuba goes in the next few years. It’s interesting how the Chinese laud Raul Castro as being one of these pragmatic leaders of courage and insight a la Deng Xiaoping. This reminds of us another political leader of some courage and insight, this one a little closer to home: Chiang Ching-kuo (蒋经国), who you might say was quite instrumental in Taiwan’s democratization. But we haven’t seen any laudatory articles about him in Xinhua, at least not recently.
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