In the People’s Republic of China, the idea of people owning property is just a dream; central planning runs everything from the economy to the number of kids in your family; religious persecution mercilessly shackles people’s heavenly souls to the realm of earth.
Having met many Falun Dafa practitioners persecuted for their belief in China, who escaped to the West seeking freedom, this reporter knows that concepts such as property, capitalism, and spiritual freedom are alien to most inhabitants of the Middle Kingdom. Knowing only serfdom since birth, such persecuted peoples’ absorbing Western traditions of freedom quenches thirst they never knew they had.
As we discovered in Part 1, Western biblical traditions established that freedom isn’t limitless but bestowed on condition of moral laws. In Part 2, we learned how, in the name of freedom, rebellion may serve slavery as easily as emancipation — Both trends echoed in China over the last century.
Last, we delve into perhaps the greatest challenge freedom has faced in history: communism. It led to religious persecution in China and new exodus to the West, where spiritual practitioners found liberty, capitalism, and “the pursuit of happiness.” These, too, we shall explore.
The Rise of Communism and Persecution of Falun Dafa
The Age of Enlightenment from the 1600s brought new ideas of rationalism, dismissed tradition as superstition, and established science and new political philosophies. Darwin’s atheistic theory of evolution spawned “social Darwinism,” and Karl Marx strode onto the scene proposing theories of violent revolution. This would spark the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 in Russia and the later Chinese Communist Revolution from 1948, which overturned 5,000 years of ancient tradition and wisdom. Many cite the death toll of communism at some 100 million.
With devastation in China, emerging from the ashes of 50 years of revolutionary political campaigns, the Chinese people lost faith in goodness and God. Religion was demolished, group after group targeted, until people so feared the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) that many resigned to a banal, demoralized existence.
That changed in 1992 when a spiritual movement swept the Middle Kingdom, after the country’s qigong (traditional, meditative exercises) upsurge around the Cultural Revolution in the 1970s. Many saw the true, ancient, and good things of China exhumed in the practice of Falun Dafa, fostering spiritual freedom from bondage via the principles of “Truth, Compassion, and Tolerance.” Compared to the atheistic CCP, Falun Dafa stood out in marked contrast.
It was this contrast, and the movement’s popularity (then with an estimated 70 million practitioners), that led then-Chairman Jiang Zemin to outlaw the practice in July 1999, and establish the gestapo-like 6-10 Office to target and eradicate it. Practitioners began disappearing; media campaigns spewed incessant propaganda and staged events to demonize Falun Dafa, pitting countrymen against one another; and mass arrests tore families apart.
Many practitioners, having experienced renewed faith and spiritual purpose from Falun Dafa, went to Beijing to peacefully appeal against the crackdown. But the persecution escalated. They were arbitrarily jailed, forced into slave labor, even tortured with electric cattle batons, and worse. Thousands died, while horrifying stories of organ harvesting began surfacing; several international investigators estimated that tens of thousands were killed “like cattle” this way.
Amidst onslaught of such merciless persecution, practitioners responded with tolerance and nonviolence, per their belief. Unlike other groups targeted by the CCP, practitioners refused to kowtow. Their strength, like the early Christians’, is deep-seated in the heart — no earthly tyrant can easily strip that away. The persecution continues today.
Escaping overseas, many were amazed by what freedom affords in the West. On gaining freedom, they realized they were hoodwinked by the CCP and denied their very birthright — their natural right — to prosper, own property, and pursue happiness itself.
This article will explore the rudiments of these recent conceptions of freedom. Few men in modern times have elucidated on them as well as political thinker John Locke and economist Friedrich Hayek, championing freedom in the face of tyranny. Such ideas stand out markedly compared to the actions of the CCP.
‘The Pursuit of Happiness’: The Natural Right of Property Ala John Locke
In the Enlightenment, lawyer John Locke (1632 to 1704) rationally justified freedom’s traditions when all traditions were being questioned, and strongly influenced America’s Founding Fathers. Locke’s “Life, Liberty, and Property” were echoed by Thomas Jefferson in the Declaration of Independence, but, a skilled wordsmith, Jefferson’s “Pursuit of Happiness” waxed poetic in place of Locke’s “Property” — They meant the same thing.
Yet Jefferson and Locke were congruous that all men were endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights. Appealing to trending sensibilities, Locke opted for “laws of nature” or “natural laws” over laws “God-given” or “revealed.” Speaking of rights, he coined “natural rights.”
Seeking a natural right of property, Locke harks back to primitive man before banding together to form societies. Men, Locke in a thought experiment reasoned, in a “state of nature” were “perfectly free to order their actions, and dispose of their possessions and themselves, in any way they like, without asking anyone’s permission — subject only to limits set by the law of nature … with no-one being subjected to or subordinate to anyone else.”
He invoked a conception of a world, and all its resources, bequeathed from above solely to man for sake of his survival and prosperity:
Whether we consider natural reason, which tells us, that men, being once born, have a right to their preservation, and consequently to meat and drink, and such other things as nature affords for their sustenance: or Revelation, which gives us an account of those grants God made of the world to Adam, and to Noah, and his sons, it is very clear, that God … has given the earth to the children of men; given it to mankind in common. … But I shall endeavor to shew, how men might come to have a property in several parts of that which God made to mankind in common, and that without any express compact of all the commoners. …
God, who hath given the world to men in common, has also given them reason to make use of it to best advantage of life, and convenience. The earth, and all that is therein, is given to men for the support and comfort of their being.
This notion would look unkindly on the CCP’s total usurpation of land in the country. The CCP, it seems, willed to supplant God to redistribute these resources as it sees fit.
Locke, in his thought experiment, spells out how one obtains a title of ownership, appropriate property, in a state of nature where all things began in common:
He that is nourished by the acorns he picked up under an oak, or the apples he gathered from the trees in the wood, has certainly to himself. No body can deny but the nourishment is his. I ask then, when did they begin to be his? when he digested? or when he eat? or when he boiled? or when he picked them? It is plain, if the first gathering made them not his, nothing else could. That labour put a distinction between them and common: that added something to them more than nature, the common mother of all, had done; and so they became his private right. And will anyone say, he had no right to those acorns or apples, he thus appropriated, because he had not the consent of all mankind to make them his?
The labour of his body and the work of his hands, we may say, are strictly his. So when he takes something from the state that nature has provided and left it in, he mixes his labour with it, thus joining to it something that is his own; and in that way he makes it his property.
We own our labor. When mixed with resources, that entitles us to some ownership of what labor produces. This is not true in China, where products of labor are syphoned off by the CCP; only what subsistence it deems fit to relinquish trickle down to the people. This plunged the masses into dire poverty in many parts of the country, and fed corruption. Workers are paid pennies on the dollar by Western standards.
What Locke is getting at is land:
But the chief matter of property being now not the fruits of the earth, and the beasts that subsist on it, but the earth itself; as that which takes in it and carries with it much land as a man tills, plants, improves, cultivates, and can use the product of, so much is his property. He by his labour does, as it were, enclose it from the common. … He that in obedience to his command of God, subdued, tilled and sowed any part of it, thereby annexed to it something that was his property, which another man had no title to, nor could without injury take from him.
Thus, the CCP’s annexation of all land, from 1953 onwards, caused serious injustice to landowners. As many as 2 million were killed in the expropriation. Having inflicted such grievous injury to the people, a hefty remediation is long overdue. Locke’s thought experiment established a birthright for the impoverished serf under the jackboot of the CCP, that they might claim title to what is theirs rightfully.
In his book “The Second Treaties of Government,” Locke also explicates the people’s natural right to create, alter, or dissolve their government at will. Their initial compact founded government to protect their rights; failing in this capacity, it becomes null and void. That offers a little comfort to the students who shed their blood on Tiananmen Square for democracy in 1989, or the Hong Kong protesters who in 2019 resisted the CCP’s flagrant usurpations of their liberty, and wielded umbrellas to shield themselves from tear gas and rubber bullets.
But that’s a story for another day.
The American Dream: Capitalism Explained by Friedrich Hayek
Three centuries after Locke wrote his treatises, Austrian economist Friedrich Hayek (1899 to 1992) turned the tables on the Enlightenment “rationalists,” whose legacy led to socialism and communism which so damaged traditional culture — and freedom itself. He championed liberty and capitalism — the very rudiments of the American Dream.
The scientific revolution called into question all prior traditions (particularly religion), forcing them to “rationally” justify themselves or be denounced as superstition. Descartes in 1637, with his “I think therefore I am,” kicked off the movement; his Cartesian (dubbed after the French thinker), rationalist followers possessed what Hayek termed “the fatal conceit” in his book of the same title, and befell “the errors of socialism.” Of this arrogance, he wrote:
Thus I confess that I always have to smile when books on evolution, even ones written by great scientists, end, as they often do, with exhortations which, while conceding that everything has hitherto developed by a process of spontaneous order, call on human reason – now that things have become so complex – to seize the reins and control future development. Such wishful thinking is encouraged by what I have elsewhere called the ‘constructivist rationalism’ …
These assumptions include the unscientific, even animistic, notion that at some stage the rational human mind or soul entered the evolving human body and became a new, active guide of further cultural development (rather than, as actually happened, that this body gradually acquired the capacity to absorb exceedingly complex principles that enabled it to move more successfully in its own environment).
Hayek, as Locke, looked to ancient man for answers. Swapping thought experiments for anthropology, he showed that civilization writ large was not rationally conceived, its yields not “fully known in advance” nor initial causes “fully observable and seen to be beneficial.” Just the contrary. He found “much to indicate that those who aimed simply at happiness would have been overwhelmed by those who just wanted to preserve their lives.”
Early humans who lived in “small roving bands or troops,” clinging to tribal “instincts,” had to adapt behavior as trade networks expanded into larger orders of civilization — the rudiments of what today is called capitalism. The survival of small groups depended on adopting particular sets of “morals” and “traditions” suited to greater trade and interaction. As the world changed, so would they have to, or get left behind.
Echoing Locke, Hayek unearthed freedom and property’s being foremost in these early adaptations:
So far as we know, the Mediterranean region was the first to see the acceptance of a person’s right to dispose over a recognised private domain, thus allowing individuals to develop a dense network of commercial relations among different communities. Such a network worked independently of the views and desires of local chiefs, for the movements of naval traders could hardly be centrally directed in those days. …
[P]roperty is indispensable for the development of trading, and thereby for the formation of larger coherent and cooperating structures, and for the appearance of those signals we call prices.
Far from rationally conceived for “known beneficial ends,” these “irrational” traits, he writes, “must have been accompanied by a substantial disruption of the early tribes.” Recognizing property and other “previously unheard of practices” was essential for communities to “permit members to carry away for use by strangers … desirable items held within the community that might otherwise have been available for local common use.” That echoes David Hume’s previous declaration: “The rules of morality are not the conclusions of our reason.”
Protection of several property, not the direction of its use by government, laid the foundations for the growth of the dense network of exchange of services that shaped the extended order.
Nothing is more misleading, then, than the conventional formulae of historians who represent the achievement of a powerful state as the culmination of cultural evolution: it as often marked its end.
More traditions were needed for this macro-order: “hospitality, protection, and safe passage,” writes the author, and “honesty, contract, exchange, trade, competition, gain, and privacy.”
The result of this macro-order? Unmatched prosperity and productivity; exponential increase in technological advancement and civilization ensured survival and prosperity. Hayek writes:
A chain reaction began: the greater density of population, leading to the discovery of opportunities for specialisation, or division of labour, led to yet further increases of population and per capita income that made possible another increase in the population. And so on.
The key to this growth, says Hayek, is the dispersion of information — meaning freedom; individuals are free to dispose over a set domain of self-determination and decision-making. Profit was the driver behind enhanced productivity and efficiency. Central planning of communist governments, meanwhile, destroys practically all that vital information; nor could it ever gather much. It was Adam Smith, Hayek noted, who identified individual freedom as key:
What is the species of domestic industry his capital can employ, and of which the produce is likely to be of the greatest value, every individual, it is evident, in his local situation, judges much better than any statesman or lawgiver can do for him.
Robbing people of both freedom and incentive, the CCP fails its civilization, but realizes its opposite, as Hayek points out:
Most defects and inefficiencies of such spontaneous orders result from attempting to interfere with or to prevent their mechanisms from operating, or to improve the details of their results. … Pretending to be lovers of freedom, they condemn several property, contract, competition, advertising, profit, and even money itself. Imagining that their reason can tell them how to arrange human efforts to serve their innate wishes better, they themselves pose a grave threat to civilisation.
The economist adds:
I have also maintained that the extended order would collapse, and that much of our population would suffer and die, if such movements ever did truly succeed in displacing the market.
In that vein, communist countries like Venezuela and Cuba lately produced food shortages, facing uprisings; while we know some 3.9 million Ukrainians perished from famine under Stalin’s centralized economic policies.
The beauty of freedom, and the American Dream, is that social benefit stems not from well-meaning tribal instincts — altruism, sharing, equal distribution, solidarity — but from simply observing traditions of freedom: rights to property; earnestly working for a living, for ourselves and our loved ones; we can use whatever extra is earned to gratify instinctual desires to do good. Our industry creates possibility for employment and wealth overall. The products of our labor serve all. Unintentionally, others benefit.
While we marvel at Western tradition, we mustn’t miss the freedom Falun Dafa practitioners extrapolated from “Truth, Compassion, and Tolerance,” facing merciless persecution under the CCP. That practitioners displayed such love and forbearance speaks volumes of a tradition echoing the early Christians — that it shall endure far into the future.