Gazing back to see China’s future

We must study the centuries-long history that has forged the DNA of Chinese political thinking and make it part of our conversations about China today.

Great Wall of China
The Great Wall of China. Credit: / Alamy Stock Photo

Students who embarked on the study of China and Chinese in the 1980s will recall the question most frequently put to them: ‘What will China look like two decades from now?’ In the higher education sector, training students to be able to divine China’s future path was one of the motivating factors behind the establishment of university programmes in Chinese Studies. The ‘what will China become’ question was the preserve of anyone who had mastered a few Chinese characters, whether one studied Chinese history, art, philosophy, philology, religions, or political science. Nearly four decades on, that very same question still sits on top of the list in almost any conversation China scholars are invited to contribute to. Its answer, however, remains as elusive today as it was back then, albeit that China watchers today have access to more data than ever before. As Simon Leys (1935-2014) once quipped (in an essay bundled in his collection The Hall of Uselessness): ‘What a successful China expert needs first and foremost is not so much China expertise as expertise at being an expert.’

In a day and age when politicians demand quick answers or predictions about the internal and geopolitical fate of China, there is an advantage to being a historian of ancient China: one can take a longue durée view. As much as looking forward is important, taking a reverse gaze at some of the foundational ideas that have shaped Chinese views on society, leadership and power is important for at least two reasons: first, it helps us understand China on its own terms and, second, it tempers assumptions that contemporary developments in China are either entirely new, unexpected, unpredictable or even undesirable.

It is important to remember that the core concepts of Chinese political thought were formed during an age of division, internecine violence, and discord. This was the so-called Warring States period (sixth to third century BCE), the classical age that saw China’s foundational thinkers, such as Confucius, offering moral, practical and strategic advice to feudal lords vying for power. The map of China was a patchwork of contending states, perpetually vying among each other for military and economic supremacy. De facto, the entire project of empire, initiated by the famous and infamous First Emperor (in 221 BCE) and – one could argue – still ongoing today in one form or other, was an attempt to transcend internal social and regional fragmentation. Its aim: to put in place a bureaucratic and military structure that would keep a vast and regionally diverse empire together. This ideal was referred to with phrases such as ‘the grand peace under Heaven’ or ‘great unity’, a condition that was to apply to ‘all under Heaven’. The notion of harmony and the so-called harmonious society, often hailed in public discourse by Chinese politicians today, represents an aspiration whose canonical roots date back more than two and a half millennia. The underlying tenet in early Chinese political thought was that unity and concord must be the default order of society. Any fissures or cracks that would taint this political ideal were interpreted as ominous and requiring intervention.

Except perhaps for some Daoists, very few Chinese thinkers in the classical age saw social harmony as the spontaneous or natural outcome of human behaviour, or the result of free choice. Norms that generate harmony were to be imposed from the top. Ideally, this was the task of exemplary rulers whose moral force of persuasion would inspire others to be conscious of their place in society. Alternatively, it fell to autocrats, who used a system of rewards and punishments and an all-reaching network of bureaucrats to impose their will. The first tradition represents that of Confucius (551-479 BCE) and his followers; the second that of Shang Yang, Lord Shang (fourth century BCE), who, for lack of a better term, is often referred to as the founding figure of Chinese legalism. Much of China’s political history and its historical portrayals of leadership are footnoted by Confucian and legalist thinking. This continues to be the case today, although people may use a different vocabulary, or fail to place contemporary ideas in their historical context. Therefore, a search for a notion resembling liberty or freedom in the Chinese tradition, however tenuous such a quest may be, requires us to filter such a concept through a tradition of political thinking that appeared Confucian on the outside and legalist on the inside, with various shades and combinations in between.

One might argue that any notion that approximates individual liberty is hard to find in these foundational texts of Chinese political thought. Confucius understood the role of the individual in society as one that is characterised by bounded liberty at best. The individual is not conceived of as an ego but as an embodiment of various social roles: ruler-subject, father-son, teacher-disciple, master-servant, and so on. Humans need to be acclimatised to ethical norms through education and ritual. The underlying premise here is that we live in the plural – not only do we dwell and act in groups with others, but within this social setting we also wear multiple hats. A person is an aggregate of multiple roles, rather than an individual with a one-dimensional personality. Navigating this role consciousness with the help of customary norms, rules and regulations ensures the smooth running of the collective. It is within the unit of the family, household and extended clan that people are sensitised to the fundamental hierarchies that make community functional. This concept, also known as filial piety, is also a political virtue: it implies loyalty to the state and subservient respect for authority. Throughout Chinese history, the state has upheld this familial model that casts the ruler in the role of father to the people, thereby extracting and demanding loyalty. Ideologically, the Chinese state, and the person at its helm, therefore, always knows what is best for its people. The individual, then, is judged and validated on the basis of how he or she fits in. China’s social credit system is essentially Confucian. In the Confucian Analects, the morally accomplished person is not so much described positively as someone who aspires to liberate himself from social norms and impositions; instead he is (negatively) defined as someone able to free himself from the tribulations and impediments that prevent him from fulfilling his role expectations: free of resentment (5.26), free of great flaws (7.17), free and easy and not worn down by care (7.37), free of craving and desire (9.28, 14.12), free of self-doubt (12.20).

The stated goal is social harmony, if needed, at the cost of the individual. To stand out in the collective one needs to know how to fit in. There have been several visions of the harmonious society throughout Chinese history. They range from egalitarian utopias (as envisaged, for instance, by the Mohists in ancient times, the Taiping rebels in the nineteenth century, or the communist revolutionaries in the twentieth century), to views of the world as strictly hierarchical with everyone conscious of their social station and duties in the service of others. The late-nineteenth century reformer Kang Youwei (1858-1927) (dubbed the ‘Martin Luther of the Confucian religion’ by his disciple Liang Qichao) branded his own utopian vision of an egalitarian society as a ‘Great Union’ or ‘Great Community’ (Da tong). Such archetypes of a harmonious world tend to be projected back to a golden past from which humanity has deviated. ‘Reforming’ or ‘changing’ the present can, therefore, be construed as restoring an originally harmonious order; revolution or change can be construed as revolving or returning to what came before.

China’s rulers, past and present, have been in the habit of selectively drawing on terms or concepts championed by its ancient philosophers for force of persuasion. During the early 2000s, when China’s leadership took stock of how society had changed since Deng Xiaoping’s economic reforms of the 1970s (the so-called ‘reform and opening up’ policy), the ideal of the ‘(socialist) harmonious society’ (hexie shehui) became the mainstay in the political rhetoric of the People’s Republic. The choice of the classical term ‘harmony’ in the party’s script covered a range of ambitions: tackling corruption and unbridled self-interest, addressing inequality, sustainable development, and care for the environment. ‘Harmony’ supplied the ideological glue to address or pave over the imbalances and (moral) failings of modern society. Such was the message behind the theatrical display of the Chinese graph for harmony (he) during the opening ceremony of the Beijing Olympics in 2008.

Ancient China’s philosophers had different views on many of the great questions of life but there was one premise they all shared, namely, the ideal of autocratic monarchy. The ruler ought to inspire obedience and a willingness to serve among his subjects: ‘The virtue of the gentleman is like wind; the virtue of the small man is like grass. Let the wind blow over the grass and it is sure to bend’ (Analects, 12.19).  The notion that society is best run top-down and that there can only be one person at the top was never fundamentally questioned. Economic, social and military efficiencies were deemed inadequate unless one accepts that, ultimately, only one person can make the final decision. According to Confucius, this person should be a moral exemplar. His mandate to rule is a moral one, but it is one based on competence, not popularity. Chinese political philosophy originated on the battlefield. Every ancient Chinese philosopher or theorist reflects on warfare or draws analogies from warfare. Portrayals of the ruler were often a mirror image of that of a general. Like an army that warrants an enlightened general at its helm, society merits the rule of a vanguard of morally accomplished people, not those elected by the majority, but a meritocratic elite. And since competence leads to the holding of office, authority comes with office, and office alone: ‘Do not concern yourself with matters of policy unless they are the responsibility of your office’ (Analects 8.14, 14.26). Ultimately, the aim is to have the people model themselves, or emulate, those in power: ‘The ruler is the sundial; the people are the shadow. If the form is upright, then the shadow will be upright. The ruler is the bowl; the people the water. If the bowl is round, then the water will be round; if it is square, then the water will be square’ (Xunzi 12.4). Realistically, however – and here comes the legalist view of leadership – the person who rules is not always someone who carries moral credit, but someone who is skillful at leveraging power through manipulating those around him: ‘The True Monarch prohibits through rewards and encourages through punishments; he pursues transgressions and not goodness; he relies on punishments to eradicate punishments’ (Shangjun shu 7.6). Even when the person in the top seat is unpopular, incompetent, or – as was often the case in imperial China – a child, the institution of monarchy must be preserved. There can only be one Son of Heaven. This premise has never been questioned.

What, then, about the rule of law? In the legal custom of traditional China, the law served to project the authority of the state into the household. It was designed to control those who acted as executors of the state, namely, the bureaucracy, the emperor’s automata. Its priority was to assist the ruler in controlling his officials and, through them, the people. Maintaining oversight over officials who act as intermediaries between local and central government has been the constant priority of the Chinese state, from its first emperors to its leaders today. In traditional China, the law was not so much concerned with theories of justice, or the protection of rights, freedoms and privileges of the individual or identifiable social groups (so-called civil law). Instead, the law served the interests of those who rule, not those who are ruled. The law addressed wrongs rather than rights. Collective responsibility within households was a red thread in traditional legal thinking, so was collective punishment. The law also enshrined mutual surveillance and the obligation to denounce others (as well as oneself). On balance, few Chinese thinkers believed that laws could compensate for customary conventions and habits. Behaving legally only touches the surface of what the good society should be. Not violating a neighbour is not the same as treating him nicely. Truly socialised communities warrant customised behaviour in accordance with inculcated moral standards. The law can sanction those who are unfilial and dishonest, but it is unable to turn people into moral citizens.

The balance of historical evidence suggests that it is unlikely that China will witness a major tectonic shift in its political make-up within this generation, and likely beyond. The canon of Chinese political thought, and its long-term imprint on Chinese history, conspires against the desire, expressed by many in the 1980s, that China would somehow embark on some sort of Long March towards liberal democracy in the wake of its economic modernisation, let alone that such liberalisation be one modelled on the West. All signs are that economic liberalisation and political liberalism are not necessarily mutually complementary. As a historian, it is not my task to put a value judgement on this, but we should take this as a cue to become better at learning how to think Chinese. That long overdue exercise should start in our schools, and we will only make progress when the great proponents of Chinese social and political thinking are put on the curriculum alongside the Romans, the Greeks, and the European Enlightenment thinkers. There is a centuries-long history that has forged the DNA of Chinese political thinking, one that should make us aware that the founding of the People’s Republic in 1949, Deng Xiaoping’s reform area, or Xi Jinping’s ‘New Era’ could turn out to be mere eddies on the surface of a deep stream of historical consciousness. We must study that deep history and make it part of our conversations about today’s China.


Roel Sterckx