China's public officials invade private rights
By Zeng Ying
Published: October 30, 2009
Chengdu, China — Hongya County in China's southwestern Sichuan province recently launched what it called a "critical campaign" – demanding that all public servants and employees of state-run institutions plant at least two bougainvilleas in the yards or balconies of their homes. Those who failed to carry out this instruction would be reported to their superiors. This unusual command has around considerable dispute, according to local media.
In a separate story with similar connotations, Wenjiang district of Chengdu city in Sichuan has added a new item to the list of review criteria for local cadres' year-end performance evaluations – all civil servants have been requested to study Chinese classics.
As part of their evaluation, their superiors must first examine their study plans and report on their progress; second, listen to their oral presentations; and third, interview them as to how they have practiced the spirit and teachings of the classical literature in their daily work, especially by embodying "harmony."
In both these cases public power has invaded the private domain, as if it were entering an unpopulated land. But what people plant or read are completely personal affairs; as long as they don't break the law or harm the rights of others, no one has the authority to tell them what to do in these areas.
More than a century ago, English philosopher John Stuart Mill wrote a work titled "On Liberty," advocating moral and economic freedom of individuals from the state. In other words, let public officials mind public affairs and let private citizens take care of their personal lives. The two areas should be clearly distinguished; any form of confusion between them is intolerable. This is a fundamental value of modern civilizations under the rule of law.
But such basic values remain vague in Chinese society. Numerous stories in the Chinese media provide examples showing that China still has a long way to go toward respecting such distinctions. 更多信息请访问：http://www.24en.com/
In some places in China, those in power still mistakenly and stubbornly assume that they have the right to freely exercise their power, whether in the public or private domain. One day, the media report that a local government has asked its officials to smoke a particular brand of cigarettes. Another day, the media describe how local civil servants have been threatened with losing their jobs if their family members or relatives refuse to move out of their homes, which some local authority has decided to tear down for a relocation project.
In many cases, public officials in China can freely kick down the people's private rights and then step over them for whatever reason, and in grand style. For instance, bougainvilleas can beautify the county while Chinese classics can perhaps improve people's characters. But are such campaigns – conducted forcibly at the whim of officials, disregarding citizens' freedom of choice – so good and beautiful?
Some Chinese may comment, "Isn't this only about two bougainvilleas?" But the significance of this issue does not lie in the simple matter of the flowers themselves.
This country once took a very deviant course concerning the issue of private rights. Using great excuses, the authorities forced the masses to do things they didn't want to do. Local authorities freely dominated the people's time, forcing them to read quotations from Chairman Mao Zedong and to do "voluntary" labor, for example.
In order to prevent those days from returning, we Chinese need to haggle over every trifle, starting from even a flower or a blade of grass.
(Zheng Ying is a freelance critic on current affairs and a former journalist based in the city of Chengdu in Sichuan province of China. This article is edited and translated from the Chinese by UPI Asia.com)