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.

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.
Real news can be honest, hopeful, credible, constructive.
What is the Monitor difference? Tackling the tough headlines – with humanity. Listening to sources – with respect. Seeing the story that others are missing by reporting what so often gets overlooked: the values that connect us. That’s Monitor reporting – news that changes how you see the world.

Dear Reader,

About a year ago, I happened upon this statement about the Monitor in the Harvard Business Review – under the charming heading of “do things that don’t interest you”:

“Many things that end up” being meaningful, writes social scientist Joseph Grenny, “have come from conference workshops, articles, or online videos that began as a chore and ended with an insight. My work in Kenya, for example, was heavily influenced by a Christian Science Monitor article I had forced myself to read 10 years earlier. Sometimes, we call things ‘boring’ simply because they lie outside the box we are currently in.”

If you were to come up with a punchline to a joke about the Monitor, that would probably be it. We’re seen as being global, fair, insightful, and perhaps a bit too earnest. We’re the bran muffin of journalism.

But you know what? We change lives. And I’m going to argue that we change lives precisely because we force open that too-small box that most human beings think they live in.

The Monitor is a peculiar little publication that’s hard for the world to figure out. We’re run by a church, but we’re not only for church members and we’re not about converting people. We’re known as being fair even as the world becomes as polarized as at any time since the newspaper’s founding in 1908.

We have a mission beyond circulation, we want to bridge divides. We’re about kicking down the door of thought everywhere and saying, “You are bigger and more capable than you realize. And we can prove it.”

If you’re looking for bran muffin journalism, you can subscribe to the Monitor for $15. You’ll get the Monitor Weekly magazine, the Monitor Daily email, and unlimited access to

QR Code to The costs of liberty
Read this article in
QR Code to Subscription page
Start your subscription today