BEIJING - In response to a letter sent by a women’s rights NGO regarding quota on enrollment of women in certain colleges and universities, China’s Education Ministry said that this restriction was based on “considerations of national interest.”
The officials probably thought they would subdue any unruly voices with such a pompous answer. However, they are wrong. It has actually provoked even more debate as to what constitutes national interest, and what kind of national interests should take precedence over individual freedom?
Whether or not it is all right to impose gender quotas for certain professions, it is clearly ill-conceived for the Education Ministry to say it is on grounds of national interest. This shows that the officials still believe in the “state is supreme” value system and that the simple evocation of national interest is sufficient reason to reject any demand for individual rights.
Such a value system has been the norm throughout China’s history. There are multiple examples where personal interest has had to give way to macro interests. For instance, in the early days of Communist China, for the sake of an “industrial nation,” farmers were forced to accept the unequal exchange of their agricultural products for industrial goods.
The result of this self-sacrifice is that the toiling peasants stayed poor. In the mid-1950s, to promote “orderly cities” as the national interest, the government introduced a series of policies to dissuade, restrict and prohibit the free movement of farmers. The farmers were being forced to stay in the fields without being able to share in the country’s welfare.
During the Cultural Revolution, the whole of society came to a standstill. In the national interest of a “stable society,” tens of millions of young intellectuals were forced out of schools and jobs and dispatched to remote rural areas. This led to countless tragedies.
In that era, policy-makers took it for granted that the public would accept the decisions. This was because when the country was building the “new China,” there was the communist notion of “the smaller me should obey the greater me”. It was unquestionable that for the overall objectives of the nation, we should make personal and collective sacrifices for the “greater good.” If an individual were to go against the country, it would be like an egg against a wall, destined to lose.
However, after 30 years of reform and opening-up, China’s context is very different. When officials raise “national interests” as an excuse, the public starts to get unruly, to ask questions. This is progress for society. In comparison with following blindly and being too afraid to speak up, people have started thinking about the relationship between the state and an individual. They are now able to express their thoughts.
Questions for a young democracy
What is a nation? And what are “national interests”? Can we use them to violate human rights, or to preempt individual choices? These are all issues to be thought about for a country that wants to grow into a modern democratic state with the rule of law.
As economist Milton Friedman wrote in 1962, “To the free man, the country is the collection of individuals who compose it, not something over and above them.”
“The free man will ask neither what his country can do for him nor what he can do for his country. He will ask rather ‘What can I and my compatriots do through government to help us discharge our individual responsibilities, to achieve our several goals and purposes?’”
This shows that the value of a country is to serve its citizens in their search for happiness and service. When this relationship is clarified, it is not difficult to see that national interests should be consistent with personal interests. This is what Milton Friedman means when he writes that the free man “recognizes no national goal except as it is the consensus of the goals that the citizens severally serve. He recognizes no national purpose except as it is the consensus of the purposes for which the citizens severally strive.”
A country should give its citizens the right of free choice, instead of using the national interest as an excuse to limit the rights of its citizens. Citizens know they are owed these rights. They are neither cynical nor indignant.
Compared with 30 years ago, China has made great progress in respecting human rights. Nevertheless, the mentality in which the national interest is placed above personal interests is still the norm.
Two thousand years ago, the Chinese philosopher Mencius said that common people come first, then the state, and then the rulers. This is how human rights, sovereignty and political power should be exercised.
The once-existing value system that “the state is supreme” put the cart before the horse. During the revolution, it might have been used as a last resort, but this value system needs to be changed now that a modern state has been established. For this value system hides a great danger: the danger of an all-powerful state apparatus that can easily turn into a monster used to manipulate individuals and quash human rights in the name of supremacy.