The costs of liberty

Peng Jie came to Beijing for the same reason rural migrants have come to cities for generations – to find opportunity and a new life. And she did. The problem was that her community was seen as a blight on the gleaming vision for a modern Beijing.

Alexander F. Yuan/AP
A migrant worker watches over a little boy in the Chinese city of Chongqing.

Anyone who has been to China will tell you it is doing amazing things. I can still remember the first time I stood in the Beijing airport in 2008. It is an almost incomprehensibly vast space – an architectural statement of national destiny. There are many similar examples across the country, from high-speed trains to sinuously twisting high-rises. China’s trillion-dollar plan to build new trade routes – called One Belt, One Road – is nothing less than an attempt to reengineer the globe to bring everyone to China’s doorstep. In many ways, China is redefining what a modern nation can be and do.

And yet, there is the monumental asterisk of Peng Jie in this week’s cover story by Michael Holtz.

Ms. Peng came to Beijing for the same reason rural migrants have come to cities for generations – to find opportunity and a new life. And she did. The problem was that her community was seen as a blight on the gleaming vision for a modern Beijing. She and her neighbors were seen as interlopers. So the neighborhood was bulldozed, sending Peng back to her hometown.

Peng’s own government destroyed the life she built.

To the Western mind, weaned on democracy and the rights of the individual, this is jarring. How can a government treat its own people with such unconscionable callousness?

A Chinese patriot might respond with a different question: How well is your government working?

By 2049, China wants to achieve full prosperity, including alleviating poverty, inequality, and pollution. If it succeeds, China’s economy will be triple the size of that of the United States, according to an analysis in The Atlantic magazine.

Is a Western-style democracy the surest way to do that? Our Chinese patriot might argue that, at this moment, Western democracies are not exactly models of efficiency and action. China is showing what a centralized government can do when it is focused single-mindedly on building prosperity for its citizens. In that way, China truly is offering a different vision for the world.

Western politics and society have been built on the bedrock of liberty and self-government. But maintaining liberty and self-government requires patience, grace, and goodwill. They require consensus-building – often with people with whom you have little in common. If that spirit is not there from the start, building it creates enormous and inevitable inefficiencies.

Those Western inefficiencies and frustrations are the cost of protecting Peng’s rights. Or, put another way, China’s efficiency comes at the cost of Peng’s rights.

The coming decades have been cast as a potential rivalry between China and the West. But perhaps they hint at a deeper question. Must this be an either/or vision? Can the power of collective action be unleashed only by taking away individual liberties? Or must a government built on rights and self-government inherently be inefficient?

The solution is, of course, glaringly simple. The most powerful nation is the one that finds unity and collective power in its expression of liberty and self-government. The coming decades will offer ample opportunity for all nations to prove it.

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