China Power

China and Moral Politics

China needs a flat social organisation that can take care of people’s physical and spiritual needs, argues Pan Wei.

David Cohen speaks with Peking University's Pan Wei, a political scientist who has written extensively about the 'China Model.' This is the first part of an interview conducted on behalf of partner site the Lowy Interpreter.

Megan Fennell asks: Can China learn from Western countries in its process of political reform?

Actually, the West has a lot of inspirations for China, and we import this word ‘democracy’ and ‘participation.’ But the difference is that we emphasise real democracy, rather than procedural democracy. 

Procedural means provided by law, and majority principle, and so on. Real democracy is that everyone has to have their own apartment, their land, their property, and everyone has to have a living. And then to have the freedom of expressing themselves, and trying to use the internet to have something to say about the government, and to make suggestions that affect their lives, and using all kinds of instruments instead of just elections, so people won't have a one-day right, but almost every day.

David Cohen and Peter Martin: Structurally, is there anything China can learn from the West?

I mean, conceptually, it's also inspired by the West about legal rights. China is trying to get some kind of rule of law, and to regulate modern life, urban life, to be a more orderly social life.

But it's pretty hard, because as I said Chinese people aren’t organised in terms of civil society and social classes. Chinese are so equal and so selfish and independent, so they need a kind of social flesh, social organisations, instead of a kind of hierarchical thing. And China has been trying to invent that in recent years, but so far it's not very successful. So we have to think through that, how to invent a flat social organisation that can take care of people's physical needs, as well as their spiritual and emotional need to link the government with the common people.

The party now is becoming more and more bureaucratised, emphasising the rule of law. So it's not tailored to the specific needs of the common people, as well as their emotional needs.

David and Peter: Is that a problem?

If we think about the state as a means to solving problem, it's not going so well.

In the West, you don't need to trust the government, and you can settle the disputes in court, people trust the court decisions. But Chinese people don’t trust the law very much, so it's a government of moral principles. Before, as well as today, it's not just law.

Among academics we have a term ‘moral economy.’ That's the farmers’ economy. So, for example, a landlord might charge a farmer 50 percent of the harvest, but actually this landlord would take care of the tenants’ children's medical affairs, he would waive the rent whenever there’s a natural disaster. But the French government charges less, like 20 percent with the agricultural tax, but then they don't want the food, the harvest, in goods, they want money – you have to sell it. Only 20 percent, but then it’s cold, it’s the rule of law. And so actually the French government suffered constant challenges in Southeast Asia. Why is that? They charged much less than the landlords. And so what I want to say is that this is a moral economy.

A moral economy isn’t about how much you charge, more about whether you take care of my survival. And moral politics, that’s a word that maybe I invented. It's not all about how much I lose or how much I gain, it's more about whether I trust you. And if you act with moral principles, even if I suffer some loss, I will still support you. So that’s government by moral principles. And if the government isn’t considered moral, if it’s not taking care of me when I suffer very bad things, then I will not trust you, no matter how much you pay.

David and Peter: How do you think the Chinese government is doing now?

Right now it’s going more toward Western countries, more toward the rule of law. But now they're suffering from a lack of trust. And that’s the problem. And that’s the progress of my perceptions. I thought in the past it was more a rule of law problem, but now I find it’s more and more a problem of trust.

Anand V asks: According to your China model, how much should be the participation of the public in governance? How much freedom should be given to the people and private sector? Does all this involve constitutional reform?

Right now, it’s not about private businesses, or state businesses, it's that the business world as a whole is getting more and more say in government. In China, there’s a word, a negative word, ‘interest groups.’ In Chinese civilization, or in Chinese culture, interest group politics is a bad thing. So today, if people see something they don't like, they say it’s special-interest politics.

So interest groups in the West are justified, they are the essence of democracy. But in China, it’s a negative thing. So far, the government, because of this, is very pro-business, and probably the government will change when it’s ready to rebuild an egalitarian system.

The general public, they have more instruments, that is to say the internet, to express themselves. Also, there’s the evaluation system. If your public evaluations are very bad, it’s very hard for an official to get promotion, so they are pretty sensitive to general public opinion. But general public opinion is hard to find out, so the Chinese government is using survey methods, and the evaluation department is playing a part in this.

Cara Bleiman asks: I would like to ask Prof. Pan Wei whether he thinks Taiwan's model of democracy is suitable for China?

Actually, in China, Taiwan seems like a pretty bad model. In the national legislature, about 20 percent of representatives have criminal backgrounds, and a higher proportion of local parliament representatives. It's pretty corrupt. You can see two presidents, one in prison and another in the courts. And the crime syndicates in Taiwan played an important role.

And the two-party system, they represent not different interests, social strata or anything. The cleavage is about independence or unification, so it's pretty dangerous, like a third world country — if an election is about independence, it's about civil war! So I don't think it's a good model for China.

Furthermore, Taiwan's economy has stagnated for quite some time, more than the last decade. Only in the past year, because of the conciliation with China, has Taiwan's economy had more than double-digit growth. But still, it seems that politics is paralyzed by political disputes. So if you survey the public in Taiwan, you find that they trust no one, not their own party and leaders.

So Taiwan doesn't have a political stability model, or an economic growth model.

The original version of this article appeared here.