Ziyi Mai’s favorite economist is Milton Friedman. So when the native of Mainland China moved to the United States in 2009, it made perfect sense for him to choose “Milton” as his English name.
Always eager to talk about anything relating to economics, the 29-year-old Milton admires Friedman because the famous free-market economist relentlessly advocated for freer nations.
“Friedman made great strides toward privatizing services in our society,” Milton said. “Like him, I want to see a freer society achieved in my generation.”
Milton hopes to accomplish that goal by earning a Ph.D. in economics from North Carolina State University and becoming a financial econometrician — always with the goal of promoting individual liberty.
Milton’s internship in 2012 at the John Locke Foundation, North Carolina’s premier free-market think-tank, helped to solidify his decision to become an economist. Up until that point, Milton had been exposed predominantly to Keynesian economics, which stresses government control and intervention in the private sector.
At the John Locke Foundation, he encountered more market-oriented theories that stressed non-interference in the economy by the government.
“My co-workers talked about economics and public policy at both a broad and advanced level every day,” Milton said. “It inspired me to go back to school.”
Growing up in China
Milton’s future is a product of his past. He was born in Guangzhou, a large metropolitan area in southern China, in 1983. Due to the city’s proximity to Hong Kong, one of the most economically free cities in the world, Milton saw first-hand the differences between a command economy and capitalism.
“If you travel in Mainland China, you can see people spitting and throwing trash on the streets,” Milton said. “Some mothers even let their kids urinate on the streets. Nobody cares. In Hong Kong, it’s a totally different picture. They keep the streets clean because a lot of them are privately owned.”
Milton hails from a two-child family — a structure that is illegal in China due to the nation’s one-child policy. He describes how his mother had to flee the city to have his sister in 1989. Otherwise, the local government would have forced her to have an abortion.
When she came back with child in tow, the state forced her to be sterilized and banned her from working. But she had what she wanted most — another child. Today, Milton’s sister is studying law.
By the time he graduated from college, Milton had worked for three years for the state-owned People’s Insurance Company of China.
“I didn’t like the environment there. It’s a hierarchical bureaucracy,” Milton said. “You have to please your supervisors rather than the customers, because it’s tightly controlled by the Communist Party.”
Sensing something more in his future, Milton began to learn English. He applied and was accepted into graduate school at N.C. State in Raleigh, North Carolina, and arrived in the United States in August 2009 to begin his studies.
Shortly after arriving in the United States, Milton encountered something else new: religious freedom. To that point, he had been an atheist. But encounters with his new American friends changed that.
“I didn’t hear about God until I came here,” Milton said. “I spent almost a year investigating the evidence about the reliability of the Bible. My initial intention was to prove that God doesn’t exist, but I couldn’t do that. The more I read the Bible, the more I realized that the moral code is very important to human beings. We don’t have a right to create any moral code. That’s how I became a Christian.”
One of the aspects that Milton most loves about the United States is the free exchange of ideas. “I don’t have to worry about censorship,” Milton said. “In China, if I persistently say something negative about the central government and the Communist Party, I’m at risk of being put in jail if the authorities want to persecute me.”
In the United States, a general sense exists that both parties in an economic transaction should be honest, and that it should always be voluntary, Milton said. Not so in China.
“People there just want to make money without regard for other people’s rights,” he said. “If you earn a lot of money by violating rights, it’s not a free market. It’s not voluntary action.”
Although he plans to remain in the United States after earning his Ph.D., Milton wants to have a positive impact on his native country. He’s working to translate American legal books that emphasize the rule of law into his native tongue, so that others can understand.
“I want to be an advocate for freedom,” he said.
To learn more about the John William Pope Foundation’s support for public-policy groups like the John Locke Foundation, click here.
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