Measuring Freedom

Mittens and the President spent debates one and two trying to out chest thump each other about China.  There’s more to come in the final debate, where fifteen minutes have been set aside for “the rise of China and tomorrow’s world.” On one level, the men are debating economic policy. On another level, they’re positing China as a threat, to show they are the one better able to protect the country from the new yellow peril.

With so much airtime given over to China – Evan Osnos at the New Yorker called it “the strangely starring role that China has come to play in this campaign” – Time Magazine decided it was a good week to put China on its cover. The focus of Hannah Beech’s cover story is the Community Party’s leadership transition rather than the economic policies that have incited so much finger pointing and whining from Mitt and the President. Still, Time manages to ride the China-as-threat leitmotif with an all red cover headlined, “The New Leader of the Unfree World.”

The article itself is titled Big Brotherhood, with a long sidebar on “An Orwellian State.”  The lead paragraph describes a recent official celebration that took place in a Tiananmen Square that “bristled with the paraphernalia of a paranoid security state.” Rather than political reform, Breech writes, the Communist Party has been building a “massive internal-security apparatus” that has made China “the biggest security state in the world.”

Being critical of an enemy wins votes and sells magazines. But it can also, sometimes, lead to an uncomfortable self-awareness.  This was the case after World War II, when Americans were confronted with the hypocrisy of Black soldiers who had fought for freedom and democracy in Europe returning home to Jim Crow.

Time’s report that China’s “massive internal-security apparatus” has “received more than $110 billion in funding” this year brings into question the Department of Homeland Security’s current $59 billion budget request. The size of its budget makes DHS “massive” on the same scale as China – significantly more massive, in fact, if the measure in is dollars spent per capita: $83/person by China, compared to $193/person by the United States.  This comparison begs the question of how China and the United States’ internal-security apparatuses are alike or not. Is this an apples to oranges comparison, or something closer, winter melon to watermelon?

The United States is more obviously a carceral state than a security state, with an incarceration rate of 743 people per 100,000. This is a rate that’s an astounding six times higher than China’s 120 per 100,000. A carceral state does not translate directly a security state, but it has some bearing, certainly. One question is whether prisons, jails and other parts of the criminal justice system should be included in the tally of a country’s “internal-security apparatus.”

One way to answer is to consider purpose. In China, the point of all this spending on internal security is weiwen, or stability. If the “internal-security apparatus” in the United States includes all the bureaucracies charged with increasing our version of weiwan – public safety – then yes, the criminal justice system is part of it. Under this metric, the United States gives China a run for its money for the title of “biggest security state in the world.”

Does this make United States a big hypocrite whenever it criticizes China’s “massive internal-security apparatus”? There are other aspects to weigh and measure, certainly. There’s the prevalence of paramilitary police forces, the relationship between political leadership and the police, the number and nature of political prisoners, the level of surveillance, the control of information, and the extent of crackdowns on social unrest.

The point is not to excuse China’s oppressive security measures, or to ignore them. Weighing and measuring the internal-security apparatus of both China and the United States could, though, be useful in the same way Black veterans of World War II called for a Double Victory against enemies of democracy, both abroad and at home.  Similarly, the black freedom movement later used Cold War anticommunist rhetoric to turn a lens back onto miserable conditions for African Americans within the United States.

Is it possible, though, to weigh and measure something as slippery as the security state?

A few pages down from Big Brotherhood, in the same issue of Time, The Pursuit of Happiness describes the Buddhist kingdom of Bhutan’s efforts to measure happiness in its gross national happiness (GNH) survey.  Bhutan researchers at the Centre for Bhutan Studies have quantified happiness by putting scores to 33 indicators categorized into nine domains.  Far from being a cute aside, the GNH has shifted the focus of Bhutan’s government programs and policies away from increasing productivity (as measured by the gross domestic product) towards increasing happiness.

It took the Bhutan researchers seven years to think through the questions and structure behind their GNH survey.  What would a survey designed to measure the extent of the security state – and its opposite, freedom – look like?

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