Reflections on lecturing in China

August 6

I spent most of the last month teaching and lecturing about property rights issues in China and Taiwan. In addition to presenting a series of lectures for students and faculty at Zhengzhou University, I also gave talks on property and eminent domain at the Unirule Institute of Economics in Beijing, and an economics conference in Shanghai. During my time in China, I met with numerous Chinese academics and students, as well as a few government officials and other intellectuals. In this and my next few posts, I will share some of my impressions.

Because of China’s growing economic and geopolitical importance, they may be of some interest. But it is only fair to note some important caveats: I am not an expert on China, and I do not speak Chinese. I could only interact with people who spoke English (or through a translator), and it is a difficult to say how representative they were. Some of what I saw and heard was interesting and important nonetheless. But it should not be taken as anything like a definitive sampling of Chinese opinion.

That said, it was striking to me that most of the Chinese academics and intellectuals I spoke with are not fans of the country’s present authoritarian regime. In private and even semi-public conversations, many of them openly stated that they wanted the government to give way to a Western-style multi-party democracy. They also advocate the introduction of full freedom of speech and religion. Most also want greater movement towards free markets, private property, and liberalization of the economy, though there is more disagreement on this point than with respect to political and intellectual freedom.

Some of the Chinese scholars also expressed dissent from the official party line on the sensitive issue of Taiwan. One told me that, if the people of Taiwan wish to be independent, they should be allowed to do so. Another said that, although he hoped that reunification would come eventually, he opposed it at present, because, as he put it, “it would be a disaster for Taiwan” because the island would fall under the control of the mainland’s authoritarian regime.

When pressed, the Chinese academics I spoke with acknowledge that there have been important improvements in China over the last twenty to thirty years, in terms of both economic well-being and intellectual freedom. But they are clearly more impressed with the freedoms they want, and do not yet have, than with the ones they have gained so far. Alexis de Tocqueville famously argued that the French Revolution was caused by “rising expectations,” as the granting of limited freedom led the people to seek more. A similar dynamic seems to be at work among at least some of China’s intellectual class.

When I asked these intellectuals whether their views are shared by the general population, most seemed confident that they were. One told me that if the Chinese government were to allow a genuinely free election, the winner would probably be the Kuomintang (the current ruling party of Taiwan) rather than the Communists. Ironically, an American academic expert on China recounted to me that a pro-communist Chinese intellectual had recently told her that he opposed reunification with Taiwan because such a step might force the government to allow free elections, which he too expected to be won by the KMT rather than the Communists (a result he, of course, did not welcome). The growing prevalence of protest movements in China provides some support for claims that public opinion is aligned with that of liberal intellectuals. But it is very difficult to say if intellectual advocates of liberalization really have majority opinion on their side or not.

American intellectuals often overestimate the extent to which the general public agrees with their views, even though there are numerous high-quality public opinion surveys that they could use to correct their misconceptions. There is much less in the way of good polling in China, and it is certainly possible that liberal Chinese intellectuals are out of touch with mass opinion, just as their American counterparts often are.

Moreover, it would be a mistake to assume that the people I spoke with are fully representative even of intellectual opinion. Although I did not encounter them myself, China also has ultranationalist intellectuals – many of them associated with the military – who believe that the government should take a harder line against the West, and that China is being corrupted by Western liberal values. The divide between pro-Western and nationalistic Chinese intellectuals reminds me of the longstanding similar debate between nationalists and Westernizers in Russia.

Despite such caveats, it is notable that there is at least a substantial number of Chinese intellectuals who not only want the regime to liberalize, but are willing to forcefully express such views to foreigners they do not know very well. It suggests that they are both deeply dissatisfied with the status quo, and increasingly willing to say so.

That does not, of course, mean that Chinese political discourse is completely free. In my next post, I will discuss my impressions of the extent of intellectual freedom there, including the vague but significant constraints that still remain.

Ilya Somin is Professor of Law at George Mason University. His research focuses on constitutional law, property law, and popular political participation. He is the author of "The Grasping Hand: Kelo v. City of New London and the Limits of Eminent Domain" (forthcoming) and "Democracy and Political Ignorance: Why Smaller Government is Smarter."
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