The freedom to decide

China's command economy has pulled 500 million people out of poverty. Many Chinese are now searching for something deeper than material prosperity.

Wong Campion/Reuters
Ethnic Miao read the Bible at a church Dec. 21 in Chuxiong, Yunnan Province, China.

In the history of the world, as the old saying goes, no human has ever washed a rental car. Nor has anyone wanted to be told what to do, what to buy, or where to work. Choice is a fundamental human like. 

Most nations now get that. Although the exact level of state involvement in an economy remains open to debate, the brutal experiment with total state control is over. The last of the statist systems – Russia, China, Vietnam, Cuba, and even, in small ways, North Korea – have hybridized themselves to allow a greater degree of material diversity (consumer goods keep people happy) and to encourage innovation (command economies can’t command the creation of the next Amazon, Facebook, Uber, or Tesla).

But free enterprise is not just about enjoying abundant goods and services. Its subatomic structure is ideas. Free markets run on ideas. People try them on, dispute them, reject some, adopt others. Let ideas clash, John Stuart Mill urged in “On Liberty.” Good ones will become better. Lousy ones will go down the drain. 

Ideas are the source code of free enterprise. That is where hybrid systems start to sweat. Ideas change the way people think. They open windows in minds, reveal that no one is born inferior or superior, tap into universal values. This is dangerous if your system is constantly telling its people that they are special, that other people’s values don’t apply to them. China, for instance, describes its capitalist/communist mash-up as having “unique Chinese characteristics.” Vladimir Putin argues passionately that Russia is not an ordinary country but a unique “state civilization.” We are different, they are saying. Pay no attention to how others live.

To be fair, every nation insists that it is different. Exhibit A is the notion of American exceptionalism. But difference has degrees. Being open to and unafraid of ideas, as the United States and many other nations are, leads to reform, reinvention, improvement. Open societies adapt to challenging ideas. Controlling societies block ideas, and when that fails, try to co-opt them.

In a Monitor cover story (click here to read it), Robert Marquand explores Christianity in China. The gospel of love transcends boundaries and cultures. Beijing has tried to hybridize the Christian message, to control it under the Three-Self Patriotic Movement and the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association, but Christianity is spreading fastest via loosely organized evangelical Protestantism practiced in unsanctioned “house churches.” Government toleration of those churches has now turned to persecution. Crosses are being removed, edifices plowed down.

The astounding rise of China in recent decades – the lifting of 500 million people from poverty since 1981 – has spread material comfort. The government takes credit for that achievement, which followed the shedding of Marxist rigidity and the controlled embrace of free enterprise. But spiritual comfort is harder for the government to provide and impossible to control. It starts with the individual and spreads not by central command but by words and works. 

There is no uniquely Chinese answer to the question “Did not our hearts burn within us?” 

John Yemma is editor-at-large of the Monitor. He can be reached at

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