Democracy, the Nobel peace prize, and the robber-baron Communists

by John MacBeath Watkins

One of the odder sights ever recorded on film had to be the “Goddess of Democracy” built by protesting students at Tiananmen Square in late May, 1989. It bore a striking resemblance to the Statue of Liberty, and following its unveiling, the crowd in the square grew from about 10,000 people to 300,000. The idea for the Statue of Liberty was of course hatched by a couple of Frenchmen during the reign of Napoleon III, who had been elected president of France before initiating a coup and taking on the mantle of emperor. It was as much a symbol of threatened French liberty (though it was built after the fall of Napoleon III) as of continuing American liberty.

The Tianamen protesters wrote a declaration to go with their statue that read, in part:

“At this grim moment, what we need most is to remain calm and united in a single purpose. We need a powerful cementing force to strengthen our resolve: That is the Goddess of Democracy. Democracy…You are the symbol of every student in the Square, of the hearts of millions of people. …Today, here in the People’s Square, the people’s Goddess stands tall and announces to the whole world: A consciousness of democracy has awakened among the Chinese people! The new era has begun! …The statue of the Goddess of Democracy is made of plaster, and of course cannot stand here forever. But as the symbol of the people’s hearts, she is divine and inviolate. Let those who would sully her beware: the people will not permit this! …On the day when real democracy and freedom come to China, we must erect another Goddess of Democracy here in the Square, monumental, towering, and permanent. We have strong faith that that day will come at last. We have still another hope: Chinese people, arise! Erect the statue of the Goddess of Democracy in your millions of hearts! Long live the people! Long live freedom! Long live democracy!"

The statue was knocked over by the tanks that invaded the square to re-assert the authority of the Communist Party.

It seems irrational for a person to take up a political crusade that they know will land them in prison or even result in their deaths, but ideas can drive people to accept their own destruction to achieve a greater end. Even after the brutal suppression of the Tianamen Square protest and the persecution of its leaders, China continues to have citizens who care more about what kind of society China becomes than about their own safety and comfort. The 2010 Nobel Peace Prize winner, Liu Xiaobo, is serving an 11-year sentence for advocating democracy. In an editorial on Oct. 10, 2010, The Guardian said:

“It is not hard to see why Beijing should react as it did. Although Mr Liu is known and admired among human rights campaigners abroad, he is not, thanks to a powerful apparatus of censorship, a famous figure for most Chinese.

“Charter 08, the call for democratic reforms that Mr Liu co-authored and which earned him an 11-year prison sentence, is not a widely circulated document. Having the man and his cause flashed all over global media threatened to subvert Chinese information control.”

It's Henry VIII's old dilemma, the difficulty of chaining the word. On July 19, Qin Xiao, retiring chairman of China Merchants, a state-owned bank (China's sixth largest,) spoke at a graduation ceremony for 2,000 people at Tsinghua University, urging them to resist the lure of material things and pursue “universal values,” including freedom and democracy

“Universal values tell us that government serves the people, that assets belong to the public and that urbanization is for the sake of people's happiness,” while supporters of the China Model, Quin said, believe that the state should control assets and the interests of the individual are subordinate to those of state sponsored development, and that people should obey the government.

Qin's ideas about where government gets its legitimacy are recognizable to us from Hobbes, and his ideas about property are communistic. The notion that the state should control the assets is really a way of saying those who control the state should control the assets, which is to say, the Communist Party. The latter formulation is what usually happens when a society attempts to apply communism. This is not merely because those in power like to grab all the good stuff, nor is it only because control of property is itself a source of power. It is also because property is not land and buildings, it is the system of rights to the use of such physical objects. In the absence of some system of rights, property is a commons, and the tragedy of the commons is that everyone has an interest in exploiting it, and no one has an interest in maintaining it.

But part of the political significance is that China's biggest exporters are at least partly state-owned. China is manipulating its currency to undervalue it, so that its exports are more competitive because its labor is cheaper. Qin is no doubt aware that this means the government is making workers poorer so that the industries the state controls will be richer.

Well, what's the point of being a Communist if you work for a robber-baron party?

Liu and Qin would both recognize the following sentiment:

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. -- That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, -- That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.”

This is, of course, from the second paragraph of the Declaration of Independence. The China Model Qin spoke of is the party's effort to base its legitimacy on nationalism. But the meme of liberty and self-government is a powerful one, and one of the few that has shown itself able to rule for long without great force.

How does such an idea worm its way past the censors and override a person's sense of self-preservation?