December 2003 -- Communist China is experiencing a sexual revolution, and Beijing is not at all happy about it. Sexologist Li Yinhe believes that while less than two decades ago only 16 percent of Chinese engaged in premarital sex, today at least 60 percent do. One-night stands, urban bar scenes, and open Internet discussions of sexual issues are now common among young people.
It’s no mystery why the communist authorities are chagrined by this revolution. George Orwell's 1984 was published in 1949, the year the communists took over China. It depicted a future Stalinist regime in which sex, except for producing children, is prohibited and punishable by death. Similar to Orwell's nightmare, public displays of affection in Red China—even handholding—were banned, and romantic relationships could get one fired or worse. Clothing in Orwell's world is unattractive and unisexual. China followed as Orwell foretold—remember those Mao jackets? Unable to fight a totalitarian regime and secret police, a woman in Orwell's hell rebels by having as many pleasurable, secret sexual trysts as possible. China now is at that stage, though the rebellion is very public.
Why do the dictators in Orwell's fiction and in real-life China so fear sex? Some observers might maintain that in the case of China, the world's most populous country, anti-sex policies were a logical outgrowth of government efforts to end population growth through a one-child-per-family policy. But human beings are the ultimate resource, the creators of all other values. Only in a statist economy is the birth of a cow an addition to the national wealth but that of a human an economic setback; in such a system everyone is supposed to take care of everyone else, so the more people there are, the greater the burden.
But the deeper reason for anti-sex attitudes, as Orwell understood it, is because sex focuses attention on one's own happiness and away from service to the political regime and "collective good." Sex can lead to the creation of a loving, private, and exclusive world: one to which two lovers devote all their time and energy. In Orwell's anti-sex tale, the people’s pent-up energies are channeled into regular hate rallies in which subjects scream themselves into hysteria at the regime's alleged enemies, achieving almost orgasmic release when giant pictures of Big Brother are displayed: a vision that presaged Red Chinese rallies with Mao-worship.
It is legitimate to point out that this rebellion is not without its adverse consequences. Not only is there the probable rise in sexually transmitted diseases—the safe-sex movement has not caught on yet in China—there is the danger portrayed by another great author, Aldous Huxley, in his novel Brave New World. In his seemingly kinder, gentler totalitarian society, individuals are required to have frequent sexual affairs with as many different partners as possible; going with the same person for more than a month is considered a perversion. Why? Because another way to degrade and thus repress individuals is to so trivialize sex—and thus personal relations—that it would be very difficult for an individual to form a deep, loving bond with another unique individual, to create that private world of shared interests, dreams, aspirations, personal flourishing, and happiness. Of course, this is the nature of the moral challenge facing us in the West today.
It is understandable that after half a century of repression, the sexual rebellion in China would swing past what many might consider a responsible use of freedom. Experimentation is no doubt needed before a happy mean can be found. But it is also interesting that while communist officials inveigh against the new freedom, they have not brought the full brunt of their guns and tanks to bear on the new rebels, as they did in Tiananmen Square. Perhaps they realize that so many resources would be wasted and so much blood shed in such an attack that the country's economy, to say nothing of its reputation in the world, would suffer. Perhaps they believe that, while undesirable, it is better for young people to channel their rebellion into sexual escapades than into politics, as they did in Tiananmen Square.
But it is difficult to close an individual's soul once he or she has tasted freedom. This rebellion, if it runs its course, will have political consequences that the communists will find difficult to stop. The rebels are rejecting not only communist asceticism but also the Confucian tradition that the communists use to disguise repression as social discipline. Hopefully the rebels will discover that Confucius, who is often called the Aristotle of the East, understood that true discipline and balance is needed in the soul of the individual, which will give that person the wisdom and courage both to fight for freedom and to best use that freedom in pursuit of his or her own happiness.
This article was originally published in the December 2003 of Navigator magazine, The Atlas Society precursor to The New Individualist.