Thursday, October 21, 2021

Would Chinese people accept that human flourishing is inherently individualistic?


The question I have posed for myself has been prompted by a reader of my book, Freedom, Progress, and Human FlourishingHe asked how I would respond if someone offered to pay me to write an edition of the book for Chinese readers. Would I say that the exercise would be pointless because few Chinese readers are likely to be receptive to the ideas in the book? Or would I say that a Chinese edition would need to include a discussion of additional constraints holding back individual flourishing in the PRC?

My book was written primarily for readers living in the Western liberal democracies. It presents human flourishing as an individual aspiration and endeavor, involving the exercise of practical wisdom. I suggest that it is ultimately up to individuals to use their reasoning powers to form their own judgements about the basic goods of a flourishing human. I seek to persuade readers that a flourishing person manifests wise and well-informed self-direction, has good health and psychological well-being, enjoys positive relationships with others, and lives in harmony with nature. I argue that progress occurs when there are growing opportunities for individuals to flourish. Economic growth counts as progress to the extent that self-directed individuals aspire to have improvements in their living standards. (You can read a little more about the book here, and listen to me talk about it here.)

Is Chinese culture opposed to individualism?

Some research on individualism and collectivism may suggest that Chinese people would tend to adopt a collectivist, top-down view of human flourishing, rather than an individualistic, bottom up, view. However, the World Values Survey (WVS) does not support the view that Chinese people are too preoccupied with filial piety, altruism, and obedience to have individual aspirations. Data from the 2017-2020 wave of the WVS suggest that the percentage of people in China who say that one of their main goals in life is to make their parents proud (23%) is not particularly high; corresponding figures for other jurisdictions are Taiwan (27%), Hong Kong (15%), Singapore (28%), Australia (26%) and U.S. (31%).  The percentage in China who identify independence as a desirable child quality is relatively high (78%); corresponding figures for other jurisdictions are Taiwan (68%), Hong Kong (55%), Singapore (56%), Australia (52%) and U.S. (55%). The percentages who identify unselfishness, good manners and obedience as desirable child qualities are not particularly high (29%, 84% and 6% respectively) by comparison to Taiwan (23%, 74% and 9%), Hong Kong (11%, 73% and 9%), Singapore (27%, 79% and 17%), Australia (42%, 84% and 19%) and U.S. (28%, 48%, and 20%).

It is not difficult to find aspects of Chinese cultural heritage that imply an important role for individual self-direction. The Daoist philosophy of skill is directly relevant to question of what nature tells us about how we can flourish as individuals. There is a relevant post about the Laozi, Zhuangzi and Liezi on this blog.

Cultural support for economic growth

The discussion of determinants of economic growth in Chapter 5 of my book suggests that aspects of culture that are favourable to entrepreneurial innovation include interpersonal trust, respect and tolerance, and individual self-determination. WVS data suggests that the percentage of people who consider that most people can be trusted is relatively high in China (63.5%) by comparison with Taiwan (31%), Hong Kong (36%), Singapore (34%), Australia (48%) and U.S. (37%). The percentage in China who identify tolerance and respect for other people as a desirable child quality (60%) is not particularly low; corresponding figures for other jurisdictions are Taiwan (73%), Hong Kong (70%), Singapore (64%), Australia (80%) and U.S. (71%). 

A relevant indicator of self-determination in the WVS is the data on ratings of the extent that survey respondents feel they have a great deal of freedom of choice and control over their lives, or alternatively that what they do has no real effect on what happens to them. On the10 point scale, the average scores of Chinese respondents (7.0) were similar to those of Taiwan (7.3), Hong Kong (6.6), Singapore (6.8), Australia (7.5) and U.S. (7.7).

Economic freedom

My discussion of determinants of economic growth also emphasizes the importance of economic freedom and a prevailing ideology that supports economic freedom. Improvements in economic freedom contributed to the high rates of economic growth experienced in China in recent decades. However, the Fraser Institute’s ratings of economic freedom suggest that the process of economic liberalization has now stalled, leaving China’s economic freedom rating for 2019 (6.5 on the 10-point scale) far lower than that of Taiwan (8.0), Hong Kong (8.9), Singapore (8.8), Australia (8.2) and the U.S. (also 8.2).

Productivity growth in China has slowed considerably over the last decade, according to  World Bank and IMF research. IMF estimates suggest annual productivity growth of 0.6% from 2012 to 2017, much lower than the average of 3.5% in the preceding five years (reported by the WSJ). It seems unlikely that China will be able to maintain high GDP growth rates in the absence of substantial economic reforms to promote greater economic freedom.

Ideological constraints

The prevailing ideology of governance in China, Marxism–Leninism, was imported from the West. This one-party state ideology was developed by Joseph Stalin in Russia the 1920s.  The current system of government - with the communist party bureaucracy guiding the state bureaucracy at all levels - was copied from the Soviet Union.

Although the evidence discussed above suggests that people living in the PRC tend to have as individualistic a view of human flourishing as people in the U.S and Australia, it is clear that the leaders of the Chinese government do not recognize fundamental rights that support individual flourishing.

The Myth of Chinese Capitalism, by Dexter Roberts, provides an insightful account of the ideological constraints currently limiting human flourishing in China. The government of the PRC does not even
recognize the rights of people to choose where to live, or to own land:

“Despite huge progress in wiping out poverty, the countryside still has large numbers of poor people and incomes continue to fall behind the rest of the country. This unfortunate fact is in part because of the hukou system, which restricts rural people’s ability to fully integrate into the cities. Equally responsible, however, are the continuing limits on farmers’ rights to the land. While they were given freedom to decide how to use the land they lived on, they were not given ownership.” (p 74)

It is common for local officials to acquire agricultural land for conversion to industrial and commercial use, with farmers being paid little compensation. The user rights are then sold at high prices to developers on the outskirts of cities.

The highest priority of the party-state is to stay in power. That involves a combination of responsiveness and repression to construct a “harmonious society”. Responsiveness takes the form of top-down efforts to reduce disparities in living standards. Repression occurs by suppressing dissident speech, extensive use of monitoring technology and a social credit system which rewards and punishes people based on aspects of their personal behavior that the government wishes to encourage or discourage.

 Daniels suggests:

“For years, China’s leaders have had an unspoken agreement with the people: they guarantee rising living standards and, in turn, the populace tolerates control by a nondemocratic and often unresponsive party.”

What happens if living standards do not continue to rise. Like many other analysts, Daniels is concerned that a “militarily powerful Communist Party facing widespread dissention at home might well seek to distract its citizens by lashing out in a hot spot in the region, such as Hong Kong, Taiwan, or the South China Sea” (p 191).

With the benefit of hindsight, it now seems obvious that gains in economic freedom that occurred in China over the last few decades were the efforts of an authoritarian government to harness market forces for its own purposes, rather than reforms undertaken in recognition of links between liberty and individual flourishing.

At the beginning of this article I offered some gratuitous advice to the leaders of China by quoting from some ancient writings by Lao-Tzu (Verse 57 of the Tao Te Ching). It seems appropriate to end this brief discussion of ideology with another quote from the same source:

“The more prohibitions you have,

the less virtuous people will be.

The more weapons you have,

the less secure people will be.

The more subsidies you have,

the less self-reliant people will be.”


Chinese people are not unduly preoccupied with filial piety, altruism, and obedience. They tend to have an individualistic view of human flourishing that is not greatly different from that of people in the U.S. and Australia. The contemporary culture of Chinese people tends to be favourable to the entrepreneurship likely to be necessary for living standards to continue to rise over the longer term.

However, the ideology of the party-state is much less favourable to ongoing improvement of living standards. Past gains in economic freedom reflected the efforts of an authoritarian government to harness market forces to lift productivity in response to aspirations of the people to enjoy higher living standards. The gains in economic freedom occurred because that suited the purposes of a communist party primarily interested in its own survival, rather than because its leaders had undergone an ideological transformation to become supporters of liberty. The ideological opposition to liberty of general secretary Xi Jinping now seems to be impeding the ongoing expansion of economic freedom that is needed to enable productivity to continue to rise.

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