The Debate

Political Culture and the Chinese Communist Party’s Modern Authoritarianism

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The Debate

Political Culture and the Chinese Communist Party’s Modern Authoritarianism

The roots of a dystopian future have already been laid in China.

Political Culture and the Chinese Communist Party’s Modern Authoritarianism
Credit: CC0 image via Pixabay

Some weeks ago, Elliott Zaagman, co-host of the China Tech Investor podcast, generated some debate on Twitter by asking on Twitter if there was a generation gap in the China watching community: “‘Hawks’ and ‘doves’ seem to be divided among generational lines, younger being former, older being latter. Does this ring true?”

There is certainly something to this. T. Greer, a prominent China-watcher notes that “Newer folks don’t have the institutional, financial, or personal ties to motivate ‘doviness.’”

Individuals such as former U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, who have dedicated their lives to China’s opening and integration into the global economic system, are definitely invested in good relations between the United States and China. And perhaps, because the period after U.S. President Richard Nixon’s visit to China was a time of unveiling what had been until then a mysterious and opaque civilization, people like Kissinger were uniquely enamored with China; in his book On China, Kissinger describes China as a “singularity.”

But it is some of China’s distinct civilizational features, repackaged and re-emergent, that are particularly problematic, however beautiful its language, script, art, architecture, or music may be. Some of these features are part of an increasingly totalitarian political culture under Chinese President Xi Jinping. Increased hawkishness may be a function of time rather than generations, as The Daily Beast’s Bethany Allen-Ebrahimian, a prominent China-watcher, states.

The concentration camps referred to above are the location of the disturbing detention of hundreds of thousands, or up to 1 million, ethnic Muslim Uyghurs in Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region in northwest China — allegedly for their own benefit, in the telling of the Communist Party. In an article at The New York Times, “Mind Control in China Has a Very Long History,” James Leibold traces the history of this need for re-education throughout Chinese history. He describes Confucianism and Chinese political culture as hinging “not on individual rights, but on the acceptance of social hierarchy and the belief that humans are perfectible. In Chinese thought, humans are not equally endowed; they vary in suzhi (素质), or quality… it is a paternalistic approach that pathologizes deviant thought and behavior, and then tries to forcefully transform them.” Furthermore:

Individuals are malleable, and if suzhi partly is innate, it is also the product of one’s physical environment and upbringing. Just as the wrong environment can be corrupting, the right one can be transformative. Hence the importance of following the guidance of people deemed to possess higher suzhi — the people Confucius called “superior persons” (君子) and the Communists now call “leading cadres” (领导干部). So even a lowly Uyghur farmer can improve her suzhi — through education, training, physical fitness or, perhaps, migration. And it is the moral responsibility of an enlightened and benevolent government to actively help its subjects improve or, as the China scholar Delia Lin puts it, to reshape “originally defective persons into fully developed, competent and responsible citizens.”

Historian Harold M. Tanner writes in China: A History that the founder of the Ming Dynasty, the Hongwu emperor (reigned 1368-1398), thought in this manner:

In order to standardize behavior, the emperor ordered that [Confucian scholar] Zhu Xi’s Family Rituals be adopted as the guide to ritual for elite and commoner families alike… The Hongwu emperor also tried briefly to “Confucianize” his people by ordering each community to establish a community school at which the sons of commoners would be given lessons in morality and basic literacy — not to prepare them for further education or official careers, but simply to make them better, more obedient and reverent sons and subjects.

This desire to standardize, to homogenize, is a distinctively East Asian and Chinese cultural norm, derived from Confucianism, and in many ways is the converse of the embrace of the heterogeneity of the world, social norms, and human types theoretically advocated by the West, as well as in Hinduism.

This led to a situation, described by Francis Fukuyama in his work The Origins of Political Order, in which laws and political norms are constructed to manage society and engineer it toward certain ends, rather than to restrain individuals or even entrench particular groups’ rights and privileges. The idea that even kings and leaders must face the moral consequences of their actions, an idea found in Christian, Muslim, and Hindu societies, is largely absent in the Chinese political tradition. Taken to its logical extreme, anything that prioritizes the individual over society ought to be ironed out. Such logic was used by a man who “pushed a would-be suicide jumper off a bridge in southern China because he was angry at the jumper’s ‘selfish activity,’” that is, holding up traffic.

While the Chinese Communist Party’s tradition of re-education has been mostly directed at political dissidents and ethnic minorities, its implications are broader. It is being implied to China’s entire population, in a disturbing fusion of totalitarianism and technology that is at best amoral and, at worst, immoral. China plans to roll out a social credit system in which “each citizen will face penalties or receive rewards based on how they conduct themselves in terms of social behavior and financial track records.” And a Chinese researcher recently claimed to have created the world’s first genetically engineered babies, a step that could have all sorts of consequences in the future. If China can literally engineer babies as it pleases in the future, then people’s brains and bodies can be molded in any way.

Authoritarianism can sometimes be beneficial to growth and political stability. But the social and political implications of the Chinese Communist Party’s decisions, informed partially by its culture and history, are deeply disturbing. The roots of a dystopian future, part Brave New World, part Black Mirror, have already been laid in China. It would be best if these initiatives to mold society are never emulated elsewhere.