Economics 101

The Price of Prosperity in China: How Can We Promote Freedom While Protecting Human Life?

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In my economics classes, we talk a great deal about the requirements of a free society.

Some are obvious:

  • Well-defined and well-protected property rights
  • Nimble prices
  • The ability to buy and sell according to our needs
  • The rule of law

What is not so obvious is how to transition from a society without freedom to one that is teeming with it. This is where the class discussion gets interesting – and heated.

In one of those heated class discussions, I showed the students this article that appeared this summer in the Washington Post. It is the tragic story of four children who lived in Giuzhou, one of the poorest provinces in China.

The children, aged five to thirteen, were abandoned by their parents in 2013 when their parents left the village to look for work. The four children survived by eating corn flour for two years.

Without any parental support, the children withdrew from school and eventually engaged in a suicide pact leading them to drink pesticide.

Upon discovering the children suffering from convulsions, local Chinese officials began pointing fingers as to who was responsible. Nearly a dozen local officials were fired or suspended.

An Excruciating Decision

The trend of Chinese parents moving from rural villages to larger cities in search of work is real. There are 250 million migrant workers in China, leaving 60 million children behind. Some are left with grandparents, but many are left alone.

As a parent myself, living in the United States, this seems unfathomable.

Our reality is so drastically different. I am increasingly likely to have Child Protective Services called if I leave my child in the car for five minutes while I run into the dry cleaners.

So what is the difference? Are parents in China neglectful and abusive, only seeking cash?

No, they’re not. The decision they have to make is excruciating for many parents. The Washington Post reported this story about a man who left his village to pursue employment:

Wu, 24, left the tiny village of Zhaishi in the craggy mountains of Hunan province eight years ago. Staying would have meant back-breaking labor for just $3 a day — when work could be found. The tall, lanky young man bought a bus ticket to the city of Zhangzhou, where his uncle took him on as an unpaid barber’s apprentice. Wu then moved to Zhuzhou, where he got a job pulling in $500 a month.

There are many more stories just like this. Parents see an opportunity to provide a better life for their children and go to extraordinary lengths to do it.

It’s not a good idea to leave your children behind, but one can understand on some level the desperate attempt to escape grinding poverty.

The Necessity of Moral Virtue

How do we wrestle with a developing country like China? It is experiencing the possibility of great change and has had incredible economic growth over the past four decades. But the ethos of liberty, all those requirements listed at the beginning of the post, are largely absent.

In a Communist system, there is no notion of the individual. There can’t be—the individual seeks to serve the state and lives in a dismal moral abyss as a result. So when four children who lived in the most tragic of circumstances commit suicide, the response is finger-pointing by party leaders.

Transitioning from this type of system to one where individual life is protected and celebrated and where we can all thrive and flourish is a tough one. The biblical values of dignity, uniqueness in gifts, trading of gifts, and through that serving others and bringing about greater levels of flourishing – these are the keys to success.

We can’t rely on Chinese party officials to instill the moral virtue that says leaving your children to fend for themselves is wrong. These have to come from the hearts of individuals themselves. They have to be cherished values and desires that are woven into the fabric of how we relate to and interact with each other.

An Opportunity for the Church

The church on the other hand, can make great strides in this process.

Christianity is not-so-quietly growing in China with an estimated 100 million Christians, more than ever before. The church provides the message of hope in the gospel and the worth of human life. Trade, which has been on the rise in China since 1978, also allows precious opportunities to trade not only goods and services, but values, ideas, norms.

Free market trade and the increase in Christianity provide a formidable force to help the everyday Chinese citizen embrace the ethos of liberty: life, trade, property, and flourishing.

We need to grow both in size and strength to conquer the demoralized abyss that lies in the wake of decades of communism. There has never been more hope that the ethos of liberty will win the day. Let us keep praying for and trading with China.

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