Sunday, 29 November 2009

Does liberalism have Chinese roots?

Tim Ambler and Morgen Witzel, in their book Doing Business in China (first published in 2000, with a second edition in 2004) suggest that the liberal idea of laissez faire originates in China. Socialism, on the other hand, has its roots in Western philosophy. This is an interesting idea, because we tend to think that economic liberalism comes from the 'free' Western world, whereas socialism is the legacy of China's own recent past.
The connection between Chinese philosophy and economic liberalism, also put forward in an article by Witzel on the internet for European Business Forum ( (
is formed by the inspiration some European, notably French, thinkers drew from Daoist (Taoist) writing. Witzel emphasizes the difference between Confucian and Daoist thinking:

"While the Confucians believed that virtue could best be achieved through regulation and control, the other great philosophical school of ancient China, the Daoists, argued the opposite. One of the key principles of Daoism is that true achievement comes not through action but rather through its opposite, wu-wei, or 'non-action'. The Daoist view was that the best way of achieving a desired result is through stillness, causing things to happen without intervening. In economic terms, this means letting nature take its course.

The central Daoist text, the Daodejing, spells out this concept explicitly. Those in positions of power are urged to know much, but do little. Chapter 8, for example, urges: "In governing, know how to maintain order. In transacting business, know how to be efficient. In making a move, know how to choose the right moment". Chapter 17 says that the most effective form of leadership is to motivate people rather than drive them or control them." (end of quote)

In his book with Ambler he shows how in the eighteenth century these ideas reached Europe through the translations of the Daoist texts by the Jesuits. The term wu-wei ( 無為) was translated as 'laissez-faire' by the French economist Quesnay. And this 'proves' that liberalism has Chinese roots and contradicts the dominant idea that China has been importing liberalism from the West since the the end of maoism.

I like this sort of creative reversals and it certainly helps us see another side of Chinese society: a society full of energy and improvisation, of creativity and self-organization. Some people see China as the most liberal country in the world. In spite of the many rules, the Chinese have much more freedom to decide about their own life than many Europeans, wrote Fons Tuinstra in 'Het andere Oosten' ('The other Orient') in 2003. But does this flexibility in business, this reliance on spontaneous self-organizing forces have anything to do with European and American ideas of liberalism? I don't think so. Equating wu-wei and laissez-faire does not do justice to the meaning of both terms and their embeddedness in completely different cultural contexts.

As a friend of mine suggested, wu-wei comes much closer to a concept like nirvana in the philosophy of India than to laissez-faire. The Daoist concept of wu-wei emphasizes effective action without being coercive. It is about using the potentialities of a situation to the full, by not interfering with the natural, spontaneous forces present in this situation. It has nothing to do with personal freedom, let alone with political freedom or free choice by enlightened citizens: elements that are essential in the European and American liberal views. The Chinese don't have a Statue of Liberty, inspired by Daoist philosophy. It would be unthinkable!

Daoism does imply abstinence from unnecessary interference with the 'natural' course of events. 'Spontaneous' or 'natural' action (zi-ran 自然) is an importance concept in Daoism and to some extent we can see a parallel with ideas of natural law in Western thinking. In this sense we can call Deng Xiaoping a Daoist. He wished to create the conditions for the Chinese economy to unfold and he created opportunities for learning and experimentation. These policies emphasized the 'natural forces' in society and a 'wu-wei' attitude of the Chinese leadership. This had nothing to do with political liberalism, as history has shown. When the natural forces of democratization became a threat to the political leadership, in the Tiananmen incident, Deng was prepared to use force to violently correct the situation. It shows that the room for the natural processes of self-organization and the abstinence of leadership from coercive intervention is constrained by political logic: leaders will not allow their position to be jeopardized.

So, whereas we can see some interesting parallels between Western liberalism and Chinese Daoism, they have completely different roots and are based on different values. In the Western view, economic and political freedom are believed to go hand in hand. It is the belief in 'the end of history' thesis put forward by Fukuyama. The Chinese 'Daoist' version of liberalism combines economic liberalism with an authoritarian State, which contradicts the values of the Enlightenment. The idea, first put forward by enlighted thinkers in the eighteenth century, that Daoism could inspire liberal philosohy was based on a misunderstanding. The tension between Western and Chinese ideas of a spontaneous social order will continue to exist and become more relevant as the Chinese economy gets increasingly integrated in the global economic system.


Ambler, Tim and Morgen Witzel, Doing Business in China. London: RoutledgeCurzon, 2004, Second Edition.

Ames, Roger T. and David L. Hall, Daodejing "Making this Life Significant" A Philosophical Translation, New York: Ballantine Books, 2003

Witzel, Morgenm What we owe to Chinese classical economics: where did modern economics originate? European Business Forum, Wntr, 2005

No comments:

Post a Comment