To be fed or free

Aside from exploding bottles of silly string in the bonfire, chalking borderline offensive images on our fence and generally not being sure what was happening around me, I managed to sneak in an interesting conversation with one of my flat mates friends at our recent Halloween barbeque. The discussion was over the balance between economics and ethics in his home country of China. While my ability to criticise economic policy is embarrassingly poor, the conversation did prod my western democratic leanings.

I was actually lucky enough to visit China a number of years ago on a holiday with my folks. Unfortunately my younger self took little interest in making sociological observations and instead spent most of his time buying paintings of dragons (totally worth it) and stealing my little cousin’s gameboy to play a ninja turtles video game (also, mostly worth it). Probably the most significant observation I made was being startled at a black guy ordering KFC in mandarin, talk about globalization epitomised.

China, while being a beautiful and culturally mosaic country, has been under scrutiny for various practices that appear abhorrent to us in the west. The repression of freedom of expression, the unjustified occupation of Tibet, the stringent nature of it’s government and struggling human rights record. At surface value, to a laymen observer such as myself, these are repugnant actions. But while my newly acquainted Halloween buddy shared in my frustration, he proposed to me an interesting take on such situations.

What he said was this. China is on a journey. Right now it is incapable of moving forward in it’s economic interests without neglecting human rights and a more democratic approach. Once the country stabilises itself, moves more of it’s population into the middle class through economic improvements, only then can it transform into a democratic country and establish the levels of human rights as declared by the UN. In other words, such actions are necessary evils to bring about a fruitful future for it’s entire population.

That is an interesting utilitarian thought which is quite at odds with the western ways of thinking. We value the right to individual autonomy and egalitarian participation in public government. Whereas submission to the greater good is a concept more easily accepted by the east. The idea that individuals must sacrifice for the greater good of the state. In other words, fascism versus democracy.

Now I’m not sure if things will play out this way for China. Marginalisation of human values and over-centralisation of power has a terrible track record in history. But maybe sometimes the end does justify or at least necessitate the means. In an overpopulous country of scarcity, maybe we can’t give everyone complete liberty. Maybe rights and democracy are a utopian luxury that a country needs to sacrifice to attain rather than simply being a given.

I understand it is very difficult to justify such repression and oppression. After all, Ghandi is often cited as saying that an end can only truly be reached via a means that maintains the values of the end. But I’ve often read that everyone in China is now better off than they were before. So maybe, just maybe, it is sometimes better to be fed than to be free.

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