Freedom and Development: The Case of China
One of the main theses in Amartya Sen’s book, Development as Freedom, asserts that individual freedom should be both the goal of and primary catalyst for economic development. This analysis reflects a generalization that fails to account for the normative cultural frameworks that exist in many countries. One clear example is China, where one could argue that economic growth is an accepted goal, and individual freedoms, particularly political freedoms in the Western ideal, may neither be necessary or even desirable. While this dichotomy exits in many countries, nowhere does it approach the scale that can be found in China.
From at least the time of the Han dynasty, the overarching political goal in China has always been political unity over individual rights. There are a number of endemic factors that led to the development of that construct. Issues such as geography, climatology, religion and demography have all played a role in the development of China’s political culture.
This lack of emphasis on individual rights in China corresponds to another axiom of Chinese political culture, namely that the most important job of a Chinese leader is to feed his people. This imperative has also been a part of Chinese political culture from the first emperors to the present day. Over the millennia, leaders who violated this axiom were either deposed or had to correct it. In fact many scholars have asserted that The Great Leap Forward, which produced perhaps the greatest famine in history, ultimately led to Deng’s desire and ability to begin to open markets in the late 1970s. 
The implications of this political and social framework are profound on the notion of individual freedoms, particularly political ones, as universally aspirational. Since the advent of economic reforms in China in 1978, there has been an historic economic transformation. From 1978-2008 China has undergone a poverty reduction the likes of which the world has never seen. At the start of reforms in 1978 approximately 300 million rural Chinese fell below the standard measure of local poverty at the time (approximately $.60 per person per day. By applying the higher international standard of poverty at $1 per person per day, perhaps as many as 75% of the population was poor by the international definition in 1978. This figure represented perhaps as many as 600 million people. Using the international standard of poverty, the number of people below the poverty line in China had been reduced to less than 10% of the population. This number represented approximately 130 million, a reduction of nearly half a billion people from poverty in just 30 years.
This unprecedented level of economic development did not, as Sen asserts, benefit from an ancillary growth in personal freedom. While personal freedoms have certainly grown somewhat in China over the last 30 years, the expansion is minimal compared to the economic growth. By any measure, the Chinese do not enjoy most of the “freedoms” that Sen references. On a basic level, the Chinese do not have a political democracy and thus lack the ability to choose their leaders. In addition, Chinese society lacks institutional, legal and administrative transparency that supports personal freedoms. The Chinese also lack the freedoms of speech, assembly and religion. On a daily basis, the Chinese are restricted from searching the internet, organizing political protests and even practicing qi gong in a public place.
For political scientists, this dichotomy is problematic. On the one hand, it can be argued that there should be universal and intrinsic rights that should apply to all people regardless of their nationality. This position dismisses the relativistic notions of cultural norms as merely excuses for oppressive regimes.
It is against this backdrop that Sen argues against the notion of economic growth as equivalent to development. Sen asserts that particularly with China it is expedient to overlook human rights violations in times of economic growth, but during times of crisis, true development protects the population through democratic institutions. Sen cites The Great Leap Forward as an example of the excesses of undemocratic governments that are unchecked by protected individual rights.
This analysis may miss a few crucial points. First, in many democratic countries, voters seem to be willing to give up freedoms in the name of security and economic growth, with Ukraine being the most recent example. Second, many countries, such as Singapore, appear to be prospering in most metrics despite limited personal freedoms and transparent institutions. Third, The Great Leap Forward occurred before the economy was opened up in 1978. The current regime in China doesn’t appear to have any ideological aspirations and is only interested in consolidating and retaining power.
Thus, the example of China seems to support the notion that applying a universal set of freedoms as both a goal and a means of development is reductive. While the Chinese were given some economic freedoms that allowed their economy to grow, they were not the broad freedoms that Sen is referencing. Sen would argue that the Chinese level of freedoms fall below an imaginary threshold below which economic growth isn’t equivalent to development. Yet, for the half a billion Chinese who have been lifted out of poverty, the sine qua non for a better life is economic development and not freedom per se.
 Charles Hucker, China’s Imperial Past: An Introduction to Chinese History and Culture, (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1975) 16
 Hucker, 78
 E. Stuart Kirby, Introduction to the Economic History of China (London, George Allen & Unwin, Ltd. 1954) 75
 Christopher Howe, Y. Y. Kueh, Robert Ash, China’s Economic Reform: A Study with Documents (London, Taylor & Francis, 2002) 3
 Phillip Karp, “Lessons From China for Africa – One More View” blogs.worldbank.org July 3, 2008 <http://blogs.worldbank.org/eastasiapacific/lessons-from-china-for-africa-one-more-view>
 Amartya Sen, Development as Freedom (New York, Alfred A. Knopf, 1999) 43
 Sen, 43
© 2010, Darren Katz. All rights reserved.