"One's first step in wisdom is to question everything--and one's last is to come to terms with everything." ~ Georg Christoph Lichtenberg
Notes from Korea, China and Vietnam
My main mission on the trip, which was sponsored and paid for by the Atlas Economic Research Foundation of Fairfax, Virginia was to make contact with liberty-loving intellectuals and think tanks in all three countries. South Korea, of course, is the most advanced in this regard, having a very good and sizable think tank called the Center for Free Enterprise. I spoke at one of their luncheons where they had an award ceremony for college student winners of an essay contests on liberty. I was stunned at how many of the students wrote about Hayek and Mises!
The Center for Free Enterprise in Seoul is fighting an uphill battle to turn around a rising tide of socialist and anti-American sentiment in the country, especially among young people. Government schools in Korea are not exactly imparting the principles of a free society to the students, which underscores the importance of CFE's work.
I took some time to go up to the DMZ, where I went down into a tunnel that the North Koreans had built for the purposes of invasion but which the South discovered back in the 1970s. I thought it was sweet irony that the commies spent a lot of time and money to build it for evil purposes and now the South has turned it into a capitalist money-making tourist attraction and a stark reminder of the evilness to the North. I also went up an observation tower to look over into North Korea, which was predictably stark, gray and forbidding.
In Beijing, I gave an hour and a half lecture based on my "Seven Principles of Sound Policy" speech and another one I do on privatization. I continue to be blown away, incidentally, by the reception that "Seven Principles" talk has gotten around the world; I think it's up to at least a dozen translations now, on at least four continents.
The audience at People's University (which I advocated selling, by the way) was about 100 faculty and graduate students. They all had copies of the speech translated into Chinese ahead of time and as I read it, another man translated into Chinese. I was thrilled by the response. There were a couple Marxists in the audience but when they spoke up, everybody else pounced on them like roosters on a June bug. China's #1 political scientist outside of the government, who is also a courageous and principled Hayekian libertarian, spoke up and cited points in my talk and really devastated the Marxists. That guy, by the way, was my main host in Beijing. I was honored to have dinner with him three times; he drove me back to the airport in his car and we have struck up a great friendship in person and now by e-mail. He may visit us here at the Mackinac Center in May. The New York Times recently cited him as one of the leading dissidents in China who put his name to a petition last month demanding that the law codify and protect freedom of speech.
Economically, it is wildly apparent that China has made enormous progress since my last visit in 1988. Growth and construction are everywhere. Private businesses of all sizes are all over the place. Many Chinese told me that there is no turning back. Too many people are enjoying the fruits of economic liberties to allow any regime there to ever seriously turn back the clock to the days of Maoist central planning. The works of Hayek are well known and often cited among Chinese intellectuals, who are very aware and disturbed at the drift toward socialism in America. They told me more than once how laughable some of the academics from America are who come there and still extol some aspect of central planning, which no one "with any brains" believes in any more in China.
China has several think tanks now and perhaps the best one in my belief is also the smallest, the Cathay Institute, which is run by my political scientist friend I spoke of above.
Of course, I made my third trek to the Great Wall this time, as well as Tiananmen Square. This was my fourth trip to China since 1985. And incidentally, the weather was as perfect as you can expect this time of year in all three countries, with not a drop of rain or a flake of snow any time during my two weeks. And I was able to get the ball rolling on a fantastic cultural exchange that will likely bring a sizable exhibit to the Midland Center for the Arts of never-seen-before-outside-of-China art objects, many by artists of the Yuanminyuan Artists community in Beijing, which was "dissolved" by the Armed Police in 1995.
Vietnam was actually the highlight for me. Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) are charming, with some of the best-dressed, well-groomed and good-looking people I've ever seen. Everyone is quick to smile and strike up a friendly conversation. I found no lingering hostilities left over from the war; quite the opposite, in fact. Americans are treated immediately with great respect and affection. Vietnam has also made enormous progress economically, as a result of a liberalization and abandonment of most central planning. Fully half of GDP is now generated by private businesses big and small; 90% of workers are employed in the private sector; and the government is selling off state-owned enterprises as fast as it can. The country has its first stock exchange (for two years now), which I visited in Ho Chi Minh City. I also interviewed its deputy director. Hanoi will open a stock exchange later this year. It already has a four-story luxury shopping mall downtown, and the whole city was just a remarkably beautiful, bustling, and interesting place. I walked for miles all over both those two major cities of Vietnam.
I found it interesting that Hanoi allows enough local autonomy that the policies in Ho Chi Minh City are noticeably more pro-enterprise, which is producing pressure on the city authorities in Hanoi to ease up on regulations and paperwork so as to stimulate business there even more.
Vietnam doesn't yet have a free market think tank but I met with two activists who want to start one and wanted my advice on how to do so. You can't imagine what a thrill it was to realize I was in on the ground floor of a truly historic occasion, the formation soon of the first free market think tank in formerly communist Vietnam. One of the two gentlemen is a lecturer at National Economics University in Hanoi, a new university whose prime mission is to teach people what they need to know to transition from central planning to a market economy. I remain very grateful to friends at Atlas for passing on the names of these guys to me, and have advised Atlas that they are indeed two remarkable young men they will want to cultivate.
None of the libertarians I met with in any one of these three countries knew of the others in the other countries, so a great blessing of this trip was getting them all in touch with each other. They are now eagerly e-mailing each other and exploring ways to gather strength from each other. I will stay in touch with them all, helping them along as I can in terms of answering questions, giving them moral encouragement, and putting them in contact with others around the world they need to be in touch with. Atlas will also assume much of this responsibility and will further what I started by assisting the folks I met with. This is important because when liberty wins anywhere, it is a victory for us all and if we are smart, we will leverage those victories into more, closer to home.
The trip was terrific in many ways but one: I was unable to explore the growth of Christianity in China and Vietnam as I had hoped. My time to do so was quite limited to begin with because of meetings and speeches that were scheduled for me but I did make it to three churches, one in Beijing, one in Hanoi and one in Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon) but all three were closed up those days and no one was around. I was told, however, that they are filled on days when services are scheduled and several of my economist friends in China affirmed that there is indeed a great resurgence of Christianity in the country. But in the time I was there, I was not able to meet with any Christians to talk about it. I'd like to go back some time to do nothing but that. Meantime, if you are interested, there is a fascinating new book out on the subject by David Aikman, former Time magazine bureau chief in Beijing, entitled "Jesus in Beijing."
I will be writing a lot more about what I learned on this trip, for Atlas and for FEE's journal, "The Freeman," and other places, but I hope you find this very brief summation of some value.
Lawrence W. Reed President Mackinac Center for Public Policy www.mackinac.org