As he mobilised China with the Cultural Revolution, Chairman Mao did not want to create just a new political or economic system. He wanted to create a new mindset entirely. To realise these goals, both the freedom of speech and the freedom to organise had to be completely eliminated.
For Chinese at the time, meeting with others publicly was entirely out of the question. Even within the walls of their own homes one had to be wary, as neighbours and even family members might report them to the Party leadership. My own grandfather was sentenced to over a year of hard labor simply for making a comment about Mao’s wife to one of his colleagues.
Walking through the streets of Shanghai today, it seems inconceivable that just 40 years ago the place was under the thumb of such an oppressive regime. Markets and capitalist activity are everywhere, businesses are started with ease, and buildings shoot up without years of urban planning procedures.
While on the surface, it seems that China has been completely transformed, deep down, the legacy of the Cultural Revolution lives on. Though the level of enforcement and the severity of the punishments have both declined, free speech and freedom to organise are still heavily restricted.
As a result, there is a tremendous hunger for new ideas, particularly greater understanding of this new market economy that they are experiencing today. Chinese have embraced and thrived with capitalism out of instinct, but not because they agree with or understand it. Thus, a number of entrepreneurs and students are currently seeking out the answer to the question of whether or not capitalism is moral.
Eager to provide them with the answer to this question, Li Schoolland initiated the first Shanghai Austrian Economic Summit in 2012.
Given the restrictions on group meetings, especially to discuss politics, in order to pull this off we had to take every precaution in order to stay under the government radar.
In addition to selecting the title of “Austrian Economics” rather than “free-market economics”, we also played it safe by choosing a venue in Kunshan county, in the outskirts of Shanghai. There it was easily reachable by metro, but technically outside of Shanghai jurisdiction. Moreover, the venue itself was a Doubletree hotel, which provided a further level of protection by being an international company.
Setting up the event, as we found out, was the least of our challenges. Getting the word out without attracting state attention was the real obstacle.
All forms of Western social media are banned in the country, from Facebook and Twitter to Youtube. Even on the accessible Chinese social media sites, any politically sensitive keywords are thoroughly censored.
Making things even more difficult for us this year, a few months prior to the event, the state began cracking down on anything related to Google. Among other issues, this greatly disrupted our website, as any coding or links connected to Google were blocked entirely.
Nearly all the promotion of the event had to be done on WeChat, the most popular social network in China, which meant constant promotion through one chat group after another. Even when we would come across someone with thousands of followers that wanted to spread the word about our event on their profile, we had to assess if it was worth it, because we knew that the eyes of the state were on them.
Luke, one of the local organisers was reported to the police himself when he posted the event on his profile. All of the things that made things difficult for us, however, simply served as a reminder of why it was so important to organise such an event. That is, because the need is just so great.
The majority of the audience was from China, but we had speakers and attendees from 13 other countries as well, including Tom Palmer (Atlas), Dan Mitchell (Cato), Kriengsak Chareonwongsak (Institute of Future Studies), Feng Xingyuan (Unirule Institute), Wang Ning (Ronald Coase Institute), Ilya Somin (George Mason University) and many more. Students came from all across China as well as India, Nepal, and the US.
Topics ranged from the theoretical to the historical to the actionable. Starting off with the foundation Austrian Economics, we continued on to case studies from neighbouring countries of Thailand, Nepal, India, Japan, and Hong Kong. That was followed by more in depth discussions of the role of institutions and democracy in influence economic policy as well as key lessons in entrepreneurship and business intelligence that are essential in shaping the future of China and the world.
One of the most powerful talks given was from Yeonmi Park, who told the heartbreaking story of her escape from North Korea. Along with her mother she was smuggled out in to China, but her troubles didn’t stop there. Even in China they could be easily deported back to North Korea if they were discovered, so enduring tremendous hardship, fear, and danger she continued on by bus and foot through to Mongolia.
At one point, when faced by some unsympathetic border guards who threatened to send them back to North Korea, she took a knife and declared that she would kill herself before letting them send her back. She was not acting either. Luckily they let her go, and eventually she made her way to South Korea where she is now working with Casey Lartigue at Freedom Factory to work with other North Korean refugees and to help promote their cause.
Finally, we had the honour of having Prof. Mao Yushi, founder of the Unirule Institute in Beijing and the 2012 Winner of Cato’s Milton Friedman Prize for the Advancement of Liberty, to present our keynote speech on Classical Liberalism in the context of China.
In the end, the whole event was a great success, as an incredible group of over 140 academics, entrepreneurs, students and professionals came together to hear about and discuss ideas of free-market economics and politics.
The network has been formed and the discussion has been started. In a country where they people have a market economy, but can’t talk about it, our hope is that more and more Chinese will now have a chance to understand the functioning and morality of capitalism.
Check out photos from the event on Facebook: