The Emergence of China

Melbourne – 5 September 2002

Professor Wang Gung Wu is a distinguished scholar on Chinese studies.   Born in Surabaya, brought up in Malaya, he is Chairman of the Managing Board of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy. He was formerly Director of the East Asian Institute. Wang was a Distinguished Professorial Fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies where he is now Chairman of the Board of Trustees. He is also an Emeritus Professor of the Australian National University, Canberra. I have 2 of his books in my collections.

 
Sidney Myer Asia Centre
The Univeristy of Melbourne

 When we talk about the emergence of China, we must ask, emergence from what? Is China emerging from an immediate past when China was poor and powerless? If we take a longer view, we might see the present as something more like a re-emergence, that is, a revival or restoration. China’s relative weakness during the past century and a half may be seen as an aberration in its long history. China has now had time to regret its stagnant traditional past and rue the day it allowed itself to be dominated by a number of foreign powers. A determination never to be so threatened again may be one of the most salient points in China’s emergence.

An even more basic question is, what is China? If China is simply the People’s Republic of China, emergence may simply refer to the rather spectacular recovery after the terrible years of the Cultural Revolution when the country’s economy almost came to a standstill. On the other hand, if we are thinking of modern China, our story could begin in 1911 or 1949 or somewhere in between, bearing in mind that there are people who say that China is not modern, and is still struggling to attain modernity. There are also other ideas of China. For example, China as a nation-state, the basic unit of international relations. Or, taking a more backward look, China as a restored dynastic polity, or China as a great civilisation. If we consider the nation-state, how does China compare with other nation-states? How far has China progressed towards becoming one? If we think of China as the successor of the Qing empire (1644-1911), we may focus on China becoming once again a strong and united country after a period of division. On the other hand, if China is seen as a civilisation, it is obviously not enough to keep on referring to past glories. What would China need to do to command once again the respect of its own people as well as people elsewhere?

China today is a complex amalgam of the China’s I have mentioned. Thus when we talk of China’s future, we would have to take several manifestations into account. For example, there is the threat of the break-up of the China that existed during the Qing dynasty, talked about since the 19th century. This is the threat to reduce China to the lands occupied only by the Han Chinese. That had begun with the idea of something that Western maps called China Proper, as distinct from Manchuria, Mongolia, Turkestan (modern Xinjiang) and a Tibet that was almost twice the size of the present Autonomous Region. The Russians succeeded in detaching Mongolia from Republican China in 1924, and this tempted the Japanese to try to do the same to Manchuria seven years later. Today there are many who are dedicated to repeat the process for Xinjiang on behalf of the Uighurs and Tibet on behalf of the Tibetans. Yet others would be prepared to risk war to see Taiwan so removed as well. In the eyes of the Chinese leaders, all these threats remind them that, if they should ever be internally divided again, unfriendly powers will be quick to step in and shrink China’s historical borders wherever possible. It also reminds us that the question of what China we are talking about is not an entirely academic one.

From another point of view, many Chinese feel that the nation-state model is being thrust upon China by people who think that, until China behaves like the developed countries of the West, it could not be considered truly modern. One of the corollaries of this view is that China must accept the standards of civilisation determined by the rich and powerful nations of the past century if it is to have a civilisation at all. In addition, if put in ideological terms, there are some people who believe that the crucial test of China’s emergence would be the abandonment of the false gods of communism that led China to disaster in the 1960s and 1970s.

We have to keep in mind these many China’s when I speak of its emergence. I shall concentrate on three main themes which I call the Three-M’s, Maintenance, Morality and Marxism.

I shall begin, however, with a small m-word, the word mindset to clarify the key ideas that run through the Three M’s. The word mindset is a relatively new word. It is used to describe something we should avoid in an age when we stress openness of mind, creativity and flexibility. The Chinese are still unsure of its implications and do not yet have a good translation of the word. In the past, they would have used stronger words that suggested loyalty to tradition and being steadfast in observing conventions. The word mindset, however, more accurately reflects the thinking and learning processes in a world that is changing fast. It refers to the sets of ideas that people can be educated to accept or reject. Such ideas are certainly less difficult to change than tradition or even convention. I believe that the Chinese have no problems here. Their respect for education makes it quite normal for them to change their mindsets. Why they had rarely done so in the past was because their education under the imperial Confucian system was so rigid. But, since the end of the examination system in 1904, education has opened up and, apart from the extreme Maoist period between 1957 and 1978, mindsets have been undergoing change for nearly a hundred years. And the dramatic changes in mindset since the return of Deng Xiaoping in 1978 is the very reason for China’s emergence today.

Here are a few examples. There was a glorification of the idea of revolution that lasted about 50 years, from the 1920s to the 1970s. Today, the word revolution is hardly ever used. Instead, the word reform is now more respectable. This is a word that was once applied to people who did not have the courage or conviction to fight for radical change. Another striking example is the word capitalism, a dirty word since at least 1949. Today it is much less so. Although the word is still officially rejected, much that was associated with capitalism is now normal and vigorously pursued. No less spectacular is the word Confucianism. At least two generations of intellectuals have condemned it as the cause of China’s modern failures. Yet, once the educational texts have been modified, it is no longer vilified but has been warmly received in some of the highest circles of the Beijing government. It would be true to say that the Chinese are often bogged down by mindsets and indeed, with such a large population and a vast bureaucracy, it would have been surprising if they were not. But, unlike tradition, political culture, history and value systems, mindsets can be modified by education, and education in China is opening up today in ways unimaginable only a few decades ago. Nevertheless, it is a word we need to note because education policies are determined by the political elites, and the ideas the elites uphold are coloured by their own education and life experiences. We can see the contrast when we compare Mao Zedong’s learning background with that of Deng Xiaoping, and both those with the education and career patterns of Jiang Zemin and, the man who is expected to be the next President, Hu Jintao. We also need to consider what parts of the Chinese past, and how much of it, has been set into their education as well as the decisions that have transformed their lives.

Maintenance
Let me now turn to the three M-words. The first is Maintenance. This is a rather unprepossessing word, and you may wonder why I have not chosen something more modern and dynamic, like Management, to highlight the heavy burden of keeping an enormous country like China together and more or less stable and peaceful. I have selected Maintenance to emphasize the Chinese genius for regime maintenance that has successfully endured the vagaries of conquests and rebellions dynasty after dynasty since the 3rd century BC. This is not something we should ignore just because China has been so chaotic from the 1850s to 1949, and politically so unstable from 1957 to 1978. Some might argue that it still is unstable, as seen in the Tiananmen tragedy and the present uncertainty about the political succession within the Chinese Communist Party. But what remains remarkable is the way an imperial bureaucracy consisting of scholar mandarins was maintained for over 2000 years. During that time, dynasties and conquerors came and went but the political system survived and further strengthened.

Maintenance today can be seen in the skills of China’s leaders in keeping the country united despite the massive transformation necessary to enable the transition from a rigidly planned economy to one that is suspiciously like a capitalist market economy. This is, of course, not something that a traditional bureaucracy of learned mandarins and rude soldiers could have done. The globalizing world around China is much more complicated and dangerous. What is impressive is that the generations educated under Mao Zedong’s China, who have suffered so greatly from the Cultural Revolution, are so able to adapt to the new challenges that caused the end of the Soviet system which they had used as a model.

Examples abound. Let me mention a few obvious ones. Deng Xiaoping and his chosen successors have steadily opened the economy to competition, they have encouraged party functionaries to manage large industrial and commercial enterprises, and they have instituted an effective tax system after forty years when no taxes were collected. They have sent hundreds of thousands of their best students to study in the capitalist world in their quest for the best science and technology. They have pushed through one of the most un-Chinese policies they could possibly have devised. I refer to the one-child family that threatens to undermine their most ancient and respected tradition, that reflecting the solidarity of the family system. Against all the traditions of government that are embedded in their history, they have allowed hundreds of millions of unskilled workers to migrate from the impoverished rural areas to the major cities and towns, almost wherever they like, in order to improve their chances of making of living.

It is, of course, too early to say if the present leaders and their officials will successfully maintain this regime. I am not suggesting that they will never fail. What does need careful thought is whether those who are looking forward to the collapse of China, or at least of the Chinese Communist Party, are justified in doing so. Certainly, the leaders in Beijing are not running the country in ways that meet the approval of the West. According to the management textbooks and the standards of rational bureaucratic performance favoured in the developed world, there is much that clearly does not follow the rules. The important point here is that regime maintenance is something that the Chinese understand. Those in charge are not revolutionaries. On the contrary, they have come out of a historic revolution and recognise that the country has had enough of revolution. The lesson that attracts them is what followed after the fall of the Qin dynasty in 206 BC. After the gains from destroying the feudal system and replacing it with an imperial bureaucratic one, the Han emperors consolidated the new regime by tempering the excesses of what had been necessary to win in the first place. They then went on to modify the structure to produce wealth and gain widespread support. The present leadership knows the outlines of that story well and will be inspired to try and achieve the same result. In the more open world around them, they will be sorely tested, but they have demonstrated that they have the conservative instincts to set down the tight maintenance methods that are needed. They know they have to devise effective ways to deal with the demands of globalisation and survive the challenges of the next decade or two. They would expect that, if they do, they could provide the foundations for maintaining a new and more enduring political structure.

Morality
The second word is Morality and I am using the word to cover some larger issues. Wrapped up inside that word are a range of problems that deeply concern the Chinese today: their civilisational heritage, the idea of law, the search for a new body of ethics for the modern world and, not least, the dangers of a spiritual vacuum among the young.

Civilisational heritage is very difficult to measure. It is well known that there has always been a considerable gap between what the literati officials steeped in the Confucian classics considered their heritage and what ordinary Chinese believed really mattered in their lives. Modern education has narrowed that gap in certain areas, especially those areas of science and technology in which Chinese civilisation has been found wanting. In addition, other kinds of skills now favoured would include the entrepreneurial and military talents that had been played down by the mandarins in the past. But underlying the new educational goals, there remains a strong desire to re-capture the high sense of morality that all Chinese believe their civilisation symbolized. Indeed, much of the criticism of Confucianism during the past century has been focused on its overemphasis on morality and some of the outdated strictures centred on the family. The attacks on its excesses, however, have never questioned the importance of morality. What was sought was a morality that would better fit a modern society. Even through the fiercest battles that Mao Zedong had launched within the Communist Party, he had unceasingly called for a morality appropriate to the proletariat and revolutionary cadres. This, he thought, was an advanced type of morality. Now that is seen as no longer relevant. But the years of cultural destruction have damaged much of the sense of morality that the Chinese had taken for granted as their heritage. Missing today are the high standards of selflessness that most Chinese believe had characterized social relationships in the past. That view may be more idealized than real, and they may not always agree what in the past should be revived. But they are deeply conscious that something important to their being has been lost.

The search for a new morality has turned them to reassess their attitudes towards the law. Confucianism stood for the supremacy of moral behaviour in well-ordered hierarchies. When everyone knew his or her place in the family and at each level of society, law was needed only for the most recalcitrant cases. But when these socially graded moral codes no longer apply, and individuals and civil organisations confront the modern state, to define what is moral or immoral will need the help of new legal institutions. A system in which the Communist Party is the State and the Party is above the law, leads to a condition where morality is often politically determined. It creates a position wherein the people do not have a legitimate ethical basis to guide them in their daily lives and the law is subject to political manipulation. Under such circumstances, it is no wonder that corruption is so widespread, especially among those who have access to some form of Party protection. The present leadership has become aware of the dangers here. Hence Jiang Zemin’s exhortation in 2001 for the Party to rule not only by law, but also by virtue (yide zhiguo). This is a very traditional appeal to moral values and something that the Chinese people have not heard since the Communist victory in 1949. It is significant that, without a guarantee of thorough judicial reform accompanying this appeal, it was greeted with a great deal of skepticism.

Given their concerns for morality, many people are searching for a new body of ethics for modern China. Herein lies a dilemma, for they seek to do this through secular institutions and not through religions. This too is a vital part of the heritage. The morality supported by Confucianism has always been lodged in an ancient but essentially secularized framework. The acceptance of Buddhist practices by most Chinese and the development of an indigenous Taoist religion did not change that framework. Confucian ethics overrode those ideas and rituals that satisfied the people’s spiritual needs. The imperial governments, especially the most recent two dynasties of the Ming and the Qing, underwrote the moral standards laid down in the Confucian classics and propagated them in every province and county. This ensured that the values of family loyalty and solidarity that supported social stability did not depend on the people’s adherence to or display of religious piety.

All the same, the private practice of approved religions like Buddhism and Taoism, later extended to Islam and minor faiths among minority peoples, was respected. And over the centuries, these religions met the spiritual needs of the people. They did so because there was no real gap between the ruling elites and the people where religions like Buddhism and Taoism were concerned. Apart from a few strict Confucian males, all Chinese saw no contradiction between a largely secular government and the priests, monks and soothsayers who were often active at the imperial court. Many of the highest mandarins and Confucian scholars admitted to having a keen interest in Buddhist sutras and Taoist texts. What they frowned upon were the popular rituals that made spectacular and "miraculous" efforts to appeal to the ignorant and superstitious. In any case, except where a religious sect or cult was organised in opposition to the dynasty, the officials were tolerant of religion as a phenomenon that met people’s spiritual needs.

It is here that the Chinese are experiencing the greatest difficulty today. How can they ensure that a spiritual vacuum is not created that would alienate most people from the goals of the regime. Whether this leads to nihilism and amoral cynicism, or whether it drives some to flock to religions that are hostile to the regime, it would be a source of disunity and instability. The ruling elites face a mindset problem here. China has taken modern science so close to its heart that the present generation of leaders were brought up to treat it as a Holy Grail. The teachings of Marxist-Leninism have endorsed this view of science and the Communist Party expects all its cadres to see it as their duty to treat all religions as manifestations of superstition. Given that background, it is interesting to note the recent calls for Party cadres to study the role of religion in China. There have even been suggestions that young people with religious backgrounds might be admitted into the Communist Party. It is measure of the secular calculation behind these developments that the Party should think that such a decision might help to fill the spiritual vacuum the leaders detect among the young. Underlying it all, however, is a clear anxiety about the erosion of standards of morality that is now obvious.

Marxism
The third word is Marxism. For those who say that the Chinese no longer believe in communism, it may be surprising that I have chosen this as one of my themes. Yes, it is quite clear that communism is meaningless now in China, and the word communist rarely appears except as the name of the party in power. But socialist is still a respectable word that is used to describe the goals of China, the spirit of progress and the cultural ideals that the leaders want for China. And it is in that context that Marxism has been retained. The emphasis on Marxism-Leninism, with or without the Thought of Mao Zedong, has gone except in historical writings about the revolution. For the guiding principles in thinking and planning for the future, the reference point is Marxism.

There are at least three reasons for this retention. Marxism is needed for continuity and regime legitimacy. There is no turning away from the victory of 1949 that set up the China of today. For that victory, Marxism was the inspiration. Although Lenin provided the programme for success and Mao Zedong was the man who adapted it for the peasant conditions of China, the vision was that of Marx. By keeping Marxism on the masthead, the leaders today are affirming that they are carrying on the task of establishing a modern China, one that has called for so many sacrifices from two generations of revolutionaries and one that must be made to endure now that the revolution is over. It identifies the kind of socialism that China aims to work towards, the kind that Marx argued could only come after a period of successful capitalist industrialisation.

A second reason for underlining the importance of Marxism is that there is no return to Confucianism for a China that seeks modernisation. Confucianism stands for an agrarian society that was hierarchically organised to look down on trade and industry and where its people were expected to obey many layers of bureaucrats. If Confucianism is no longer attractive, the only alternative is nationalism, which is seen as a blunt and unreliable instrument for a country that officially recognizes 56 different "nationalities". Also, that would take China down the nation-state road that China has never known before. It is a dangerously narrowing road that could arouse emotions that would be difficult to control once unleashed. When more than a third of the lands within China’s borders is inhabited by minority peoples with quite distinct cultures from that of the Han Chinese majority, any stress on nationalism would open up a can of worms. Resorting to patriotism in place of nationalism may be wise, but that does not convey the quest for modernity that marks off China from its past. Until a more accurate name is found, Marxism has been preferred. It is seen as rational and secular and it has a much better scientific pedigree than Confucianism. As a methodology in social philosophy, it has not only inspired original ideas but is also expected to stimulate the kind of forward thinking that modern China needs.

At the same time, it is no longer necessary to reject everything about Confucianism. Confucian values that are still useful and relevant can be further reformed and enriched by adopting modern ideas and reformulating some of the more enduring sayings of Confucius. Such reformulations have been done before when major contributions by Buddhist and Taoist thinkers were directly or indirectly incorporated into the commentaries of the Confucian classics. It would not surprise me if new amalgams of Chinese and modern ideas of Western origin, including Marxism, would emerge and give the Chinese a more secure sense of where they should be going as Chinese. Hence retaining Marxism helps to keep the commitment to modernity on track.

The third reason is not articulated much today because it is speculative and could, at this stage of development, be no more than wishful thinking. I refer to the heritage of universalism that is still alive in the Chinese imagination. It is difficult for Chinese elites who read their history with affection to accept that China’s fate is to be forever a parochial, and at best, a provincial, recipient of a modern civilisation always defined somewhere else. They would like to believe that while, at this stage of globalisation, they have much to learn from the leading modernising forces, the day will come when China will also contribute to the universalism that would enhance the lives of all humankind. From that point of view, Marxism as a methodology, quite unlike Confucianism, is future-oriented. It is also not parochial and territorial, and if that can guide China towards an alternative civilisation, its Western origin would no more matter than that of Chinese Buddhism. It would appear that, for the leaders in China today, for lack of a better choice, it is a gamble that they are prepared to take.

The choice of the three M-words cannot do justice to all the problems that China faces while it is emerging from its troubled past. But I believe it is a valid way of depicting three of the pillars of the overarching framework in which China’s leaders will be seeking to revitalize China. Maintenance, Morality and Marxism will not solve all the country’s problems, but they are likely to help the Chinese consolidate the gains that their united country has made in the 20th century.

 

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About kchew

an occasional culturalist
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