Magazine Feature

Dialogue of Freedom

Asian voices challenge cultural assumptions about democracy.

"It's happening in China. It's happening in Eastern Europe …," a friend wrote to me in 1989, the epochal year of mass peaceful demonstrations, tumbling walls, violent crackdowns and removal of dictatorships. He was lamenting an apparent indifference among the younger generation in the West (including himself), for whom freedom had become identified with gratification or a notion that lay buried in some ancient document far removed from everyday life.

Yet freedom is never static. It has a tendency to migrate. The young people who faced down government troops and tanks in Beijing, Rangoon, Berlin and Prague drew their inspiration from freedom movements that took place in Europe, India and the United States in the last two hundred years.

U.S. textbooks often portray freedom as an exclusive property or invention of the West. On a policy level, this notion supports the "export" of democracy to developing countries. Paradoxically, some authoritarian governments use the same argument to justify the status quo, claiming "Western" liberty is alien to their traditional cultures.

We sell our students short if, in an age of global interaction, we present a simple dichotomy between "East" and "West," "developing" and "developed," or an account of U.S. heritage derived mainly from European roots. For instance, fifth-generation Chinese Americans or recent immigrants from Southeast Asia -- what stories do they bring that may infuse our heritage of freedom? When we freely buy a product manufactured under exploitative conditions in developing economies, whose freedom do we uphold? Is U.S. society free? What are the criteria by which we evaluate?

These questions are pertinent as students negotiate the contemporary meanings of freedom. In sync with world trade, transfer of technology and immigration, curriculum standards in many states now advocate closer looks at the social values, political structures and economic systems of other nations. Increasingly, informed participation in democracy at home requires a grasp of global interdependence. But what exactly does "interdependence" mean? How might a global context renew our understanding of freedom?

This article and accompanying activities invite you and your students to explore the meaning of freedom through Asian perspectives. Three spokespersons -- one historical and two contemporary -- will be our guides: Zhuangzi or Chuang Tzu, a Daoist (Taoist) poet-philosopher in 4th-century-BCE China; Indian-born Nobel economist, Amartya Sen, whose work on poverty links "development" with freedom; and Aung San Suu Kyi, Burmese democratic leader and Nobel Peace laureate.

Because freedom does not fall neatly within definitions or national boundaries, a dialogue format (dia-legein, Greek: "to gather, say") perhaps best represents the engagement of ideas and allows room for mediation. As a number of Asian languages -- Chinese and Urdu, for example -- read from right to left, the three "voices" that follow can be read in right-to-left sequence, or vice versa. This structure also allows visual cross-referencing. The idea is that while contexts and viewpoints may differ, freedom travels, giving rise to intersections and cross-fertilizing.


Aung San Suu Kyi

For Gandhi, Mandela and countless prisoners of conscience around the world, physical confinement fails to limit their visions of peace and justice. In a house in Rangoon, under surveillance, one woman's quiet strength succeeds in drawing attention to her people's plight, and sheds light on universal human dignity.

"We just want to go about our own business freely and peacefully, not doing anybody any harm, just earning a decent living without fear." The voice of the ordinary Burmese seldom finds expression in a military regime that seized power in 1962. Since her return to Burma in 1988, Aung San Suu Kyi, human rights activist, leader of the National League for Democracy (NLD) and winner of the 1991 Nobel Peace Prize, has become the spokesperson of a people "who are prisoners in [their] own country."

Though the NLD won the 1990 parliamentary election by a popular majority, they were denied the right to form a government. Aung San is under house arrest, while other members of the opposition, students and clergy are routinely subject to imprisonment, torture and forced labor. The State Law and Order Restoration Council, commonly referred to as SLORC (despite a recent name change), runs an oppressive, arbitrary government that generates widespread corruption, poverty and fear.

A devout Buddhist, Aung San advocates a system of government based on human rights. "The Buddhist concept of law is based on dhamma, righteousness or virtue, not on the power to impose harsh and inflexible rules on a defenseless people." An ardent student of her father (a general who led Burma to independence during World War II and was assassinated while preparing the country for democratic civilian rule), she extends his legacy by adopting the nonviolent teachings of Mahatma Gandhi.

"Buddhism, the foundation of traditional Burmese culture, places the greatest value on [the hu]man, who alone of all beings can achieve the supreme state of Buddhahood." Similarly, the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights affirms that the fulfillment of human rights is a collective goal of humanity.

Years of government repression and negative development in Burma led to violent clashes in the late '80s. What began as student demonstrations spread throughout the country. August and September of 1988 saw thousands of civilians killed in the capital Rangoon alone. Aung San's major contribution has been to convince myriad opposition groups to refrain from violence. Nonviolence does not mean "to sit back weakly and do nothing." Instead she urges civil disobedience, following the footsteps of Gandhi and Martin Luther King.

Aung San has consistently called for dialogue with SLORC. She makes the following distinction: "Democracy acknowledges the right to differ as well as the duty to settle differences peacefully." Authoritarianism, on the other hand, equates criticism and opposition with "'confrontation,' which is interpreted as violent conflict."

In her essay "In Quest of Democracy," Aung San evokes the duties of the ruler in the Buddhist tradition. They include:

  • liberality (to ensure economic security of the state and the people);
  • morality (to refrain from killing, theft, adultery, falsehood and intoxication);
  • self-sacrifice (The Monkey King sacrificed his life to save his subjects, including one who had always wished him harm; when asked: "You are their king; why did you bother to die for them?" the Monkey King replied, "Because I am their king.");
  • kindness (to care equally for all people);
  • nonviolence;
  • non-opposition to the will of the people (Striving to practice liberality, King Vessantara gave away the state's white elephant, against the will of the people; the pious king was sent away.).

The ruler's attributes bear intimately on the subjects. As the last story illustrates, s/he is answerable to the people. In the words of Aung San, the Burmese people (including ethnic and religious minorities) seek economic growth, a sense of empowerment and inner fulfillment. They respond nonviolently, but courageously, to the hand that crushes them:

Emerald cool we may be
As water in cupped hands
But oh that we might be
As splinters of glass
In cupped hands.


Amartya Sen

The last decade of the 20th century proved that severe deprivation or human rights violation is never merely local but has worldwide economic, political and military repercussions. Witness Indonesia, the Balkans and sub-Saharan Africa. Conversely, we cannot pigeonhole poverty, ethnic conflict and religious intolerance as "Third World" issues; they exist in the heart of "developed" societies.

Nothing is more down-to-earth than the struggles of billions of people daily to make a living. Yet Nobel economist Amartya Sen links the downtrodden with the highest aspiration -- freedom. In Development as Freedom (see Resources), Sen contests the narrower views of development in terms of material prosperity. Why does one seek wealth? Not as an end in itself, Sen explains. Rather, wealth allows us greater freedom to do the things we value.

In so arguing, he challenges two positions that have prevailed in many modern Asian countries. One argument, advanced by Lee Kuan Yew (senior statesman of Singapore) and Chinese communist leaders, for example, is that democracy is incompatible with Asian values. The other is that development comes at the expense of freedom (wealth first, civil liberties later). Sen draws on Asian traditions and contemporary examples to show that social and economic development goes hand-in-hand with freedom, and that both find heritage in the rich diversity of Asian traditions.

In Buddhism and traditions of earlier Indian thinking, for instance, free will is the basis of ethics and social relations -- "To be responsible, one has to be free." (This statement is significantly different from another premise, more familiar in U.S. culture, "With freedom comes responsibility." See activities.) Contrary to public perception that equates Asian political culture with tyranny, Sen cites three rulers in Indian history to trace a legacy of freedom:

After the horrific battle of Kalinga, an encounter with a Buddhist monk converted the mighty conqueror Ashoka (3rd century BCE) into an advocate of tolerance. He renounced violence and instituted a Buddhist state that would grant ethnic and religious equity to the peoples of the vast Mauryan empire. He built a social system based on impartiality toward all creatures. His missionaries brought Buddhism to Sri Lanka and Southeast Asia. To subsequent generations, Ashoka embodies ideal Buddhist kingship.

Kautilya (4th century BCE), chief minister, oversaw economic policies and laid down principles of effective administration. Though motivated by state security rather than equality, Kautilya nonetheless recognized individual well-being as vital to security.

Moghul emperor Akbar (16th century) specifically promoted religious tolerance and actively integrated the Hindu and Muslim cultures of his empire.

Closer to our time, a review of Asian development programs also rebuts the claim that authoritarianism is the key to the region's remarkable economic growth. For example, in societies with varying degrees of restrictions, such as Singapore (a multicultural city-state), South Korea (a country still divided from and technically at war with its northern counterpart), Hong Kong (a British colony until 1997) and China (a communist regime) since the 1980s, "openness to competition, the use of international markets, a high level of literacy … and public provision of incentives" are factors that have contributed to growth.

Sen lists five instrumental freedoms that would achieve what Aung San Suu Kyi describes as "development of the people for the people by the people":

  • Political freedom (freedom to choose the government and its form; freedom of expression, dissent);
  • Economic facilities (more equitable distribution of resources);
  • Social opportunities (provisions such as education and healthcare that, in turn, affect political and economic participation);
  • Transparency of operations (measures for preventing corruption and abuse);
  • Social safety net (protection from extreme deprivation).

Freedom is an intrinsic human expression, but the institutions and values that support its daily practice are not. Sen sums up the significance of dialogue in fostering a democratic culture: "The exercise of freedom is mediated by values, but the values in turn are influenced by public discussions and social interactions, which are themselves influenced by participatory freedoms."

The challenges remain in emerging as well as established democracies -- how to ensure plural access to information and resources, and how to empower individuals to work as agents of community development.



Zhuangzi's stories run the gamut of fables, philosophical prose, repartees and some of the most beautiful poetry in Chinese literature. His playful iconoclasm provokes a fundamental assessment of freedom. He is "far out" -- a trait that makes his ancient writing surprisingly accessible to contemporary young audiences.

Zhuangzi's language, which is self-consciously "wild and wide of the mark," challenges prevailing modes of reasoning that discriminate between right and wrong, useful and useless, and other dualistic opposites:

Suppose you and I have had an argument. If you have beaten me instead of my beating you, then are you necessarily right and am I necessarily wrong? If I have beaten you instead of your beating me, then am I necessarily right and are you necessarily wrong? … Whom shall we get to decide? Shall we get someone who agrees with you? But if he already agrees with you, how can he decide fairly? Shall we get someone who agrees with me? But if he already agrees with me, how can he decide? Shall we get someone who disagrees with both of us? … Shall we get someone who agrees with both of us?

The U.S. presidential election in 2000 may have been an uncanny re-enactment of the above scenario. Partisan politics and parliamentary debate are cornerstones of Western democratic institutions. More so than other political processes, they have contributed to stable, representative government. Yet increasing polarization and voter apathy (especially among young people) also reveal limitations to this form of democracy.

Is there room for a public discourse or personal ethic that goes beyond dualistic opposition? What might that be like? Zhuangzi invokes philosophical distinctions (e.g., priority, knowledge, certainty), but the banter accelerates, and soon differences between "this" and "that" no longer make sense:

The enlightened person recognizes a "this," but a "this" which is also "that," a "that" which is also "this." His "that" has both a right and a wrong in it; his "this" too has both a right and a wrong in it. So, in fact, does he still have a "this" and "that"? Or does he in fact no longer have a "this" and "that"?

The dismantling of opposites opens the way to a position of freedom that is captured by images of "wander" or "play":

A state in which "this" and "that" no longer find their opposites is called the "hinge of the way." When the hinge is fitted into the socket, it can respond endlessly.

Conflicts, the divisions between "us" and "them," are the result of fixed boundaries and limited knowledge, as Zhuangzi teases:

When the monkey trainer handed out acorns, he said, "You get three in the morning and four at night." This made all the monkeys furious. "Well, then," he said, "you get four in the morning and three at night." The monkeys were all delighted. There was no change in the reality behind the words, and yet the monkeys responded with anger and joy.

From international conflicts to domestic quarrels, attempts at mediation frequently founder upon irreconcilable differences. Each party claims the power of "right" or "priority," which lends authority and justification. Destruction and separation follow. Zhuangzi was no stranger to such scenarios; he lived in a time known historically as "Warring States."

Zhuangzi uses the metaphor of the "piping of heaven" to approximate the Daoist notion of freedom: "Blowing on the ten thousand things in a different way, so that each can be itself -- all take what they want for themselves, but who does the sounding?" The "piping of heaven" cannot be accounted for, just as the Dao (Way) cannot be named or categorized. More imperceptible than the wind ("piping of earth"), whose presence can be traced through movements or sounds, the "piping of heaven" rises above laws of hierarchy and decorum. The snake glides; the millipede runs on many legs. They move at different speeds, by different means. Each can be itself.

Playful and ironic, Zhuangzi's dialogues offer an example of discursive freedom. They are marked by the ability to adapt, to forgo distinctions based on privileges and prejudices, and to forgive -- so that each can be itself. When we can create such dialogue in the classroom or community, that may be one way (dao) of expressing freedom.



We return at the end of this essay to the circle (the Daoist ring of both "this" and "that," "East" and "West," the global economy …). Where do we situate ourselves on this circle? It may come as a surprise to our students that, in contrast to the much poorer Chinese or people in Kerala (an Indian province that has actively promoted education and healthcare), African Americans have a higher mortality rate. (The study Sen quotes takes into account both men and women, not just young males who are vulnerable to "death from violence.")

"Minorities," Aung San reminds us, are not always defined by ethnicity, but also by "poor access to power." The 1995 United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) Human Development Report posed the following questions:

  • Do people participate in economic growth as well as benefit from it?
  • Are human choices enlarged or narrowed by new technologies?
  • Are budgets being balanced without unbalancing the lives of people?

The classroom, far from a cocoon, is one site where our students live out, prepare for and grapple with the global mediation of technology, trade and migration. In curricula, as in our daily interactions, we face questions about the integration of new cultures and the preservation of old. Who decides? Are there forums for discussion? Can we agree on the criteria? In a world of shifting boundaries, our students will need to address the circle whose center is everywhere and whose circumference is nowhere.