The strong armed philosophy of the Chinese state isn’t new

The roots of modern China lie in ancient philosophical notions of the all-powerful leader and an obedient citizenry.
Students dressed in ancient clothes stand in front of the statue of Confucius (551-479 BC), during a ceremony to worship the Chinese philosopher and educator at the Changchun Confucian Temple on September 25, 2005 in Changchun of Jilin Province, China. Credit: China Photos/Getty Images
Students dressed in ancient clothes stand in front of the statue of Confucius (551-479 BC), during a ceremony to worship the Chinese philosopher and educator at the Changchun Confucian Temple on September 25, 2005 in Changchun of Jilin Province, China. Credit: China Photos/Getty Images
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The extent to which the Chinese state infiltrates the daily lives of ordinary (and not so ordinary) citizens often perplexes Western observers. A Great Fire Wall filters the online world. A social credit system names and shames ‘untrustworthy’ individuals, officials, and companies for moral, financial, and judicial misdemeanors. In what is now rapidly emerging as the world’s first cashless society, much of daily life proceeds through the mobile phone. Gone are unsightly pockets bulging with wads of renminbi notes. Today a simple scan of a barcode buys you a bowl of noodles in the remotest mountain village. The Chinese government builds up vast pools of information about its citizens and visitors, their movements, and their consumption behaviour. For the one-party state (and businesses alike), biometric data, facial recognition technology, and the glut of cybernetic footprints we leave behind can be a new gold dust.

The art of monitoring people’s lives at the granular level is often laid at the feet of the Chinese Communist Party. One thinks of factory supervisors checking menstrual charts of female workers during the height of the Maoist era, or the one-child policy introduced under Deng Xiaoping when traditional family ethics gave way to neo-Malthusian population statistics. More recently, commentators and environmentalists highlight forced repossessions of land and property for mega projects such as the Three Gorges Dam or the remarkable rapid railway network rippling across the landscape like busy acupuncture meridians. Zipping along at 330 km per hour on a ‘short’ four-hour journey between Beijing and Shanghai, tourists stand in awe of its efficiency and the technical knowhow behind it. But few perhaps reflect on the political machinery and organisation required to advance human mobility at such rattling speed.

Like most governments around the world, China’s current leadership hails the present as a ‘new era.’ But much of what seems new may be rather old. The role of the state as paternal supervisor and administrator of people’s private and public lives goes back to China’s imperial beginnings. Its earliest legal codes are a case in point. Bamboo manuscripts recovered in tombs at Shuihudi and Zhangjiashan (Hubei province; dating respectively to 217 BCE and 186 BCE) show the extent to which the imperial state monitored people’s lives during the time of China’s First Emperor and the successive Han dynasty. These administrative codes were dispatched across the realm to local officials who acted as the executive branch of the court. Hardly any aspect of life remained untouched: love and marriage, adultery and corruption, property and inheritance, the private possession of books, quality control of goods, etc. From shifting border marks on agricultural land, to forging coins, cheating at chess, or underreporting the number of ratholes in a granary, officials were subjected to scrupulous checks in a rigid system of mutual surveillance and upward reporting.

The Confucian notion that subjects should treat their ruler, and by inference the state, with the same respect for authority that children owe to their parents is deeply engrained in Chinese political thought. Showing a lack of filial piety, that is, respect for one’s parents and the elderly, was one of the most heinous crimes in imperial Chinese law. A more radical view held that only collective punishment and rewards enable a ruler to keep his people on the straight and narrow. Han Fei (third century BCE) – a thinker sometimes compared to Machiavelli ­– puts it as follows:

‘A mother’s love for her son is twice that of the father, but when the father gives orders to his son, they are ten times more effective than the mother’s. The magistrate has no love for the people, but when he issues orders to them, they are ten thousand times more effective than the father’s.’

For much of the two thousand years preceding its demise in 1911, the default political ideology that marked the Chinese imperial state was one of monarchic top-down rule implemented by an (aspiringly) meritocratic officialdom and backed up by military force. The ability to micro-manage large swathes of the population enabled the Son of Heaven (the emperor) and his court to mobilise a gigantic work force through a system of corvée labour. Convicts, immigrants, and people who were relocated from their region of origin were routinely recruited to supplement this rotating labour pool. The First Emperor’s Great Wall, or the early empire’s extensive network of roads and imperial highways that stretched across thousands of kilometers are examples of engineering genius combined with firm social engineering. The construction of the 1,776 km-long Grand Canal, linking China’s fertile Yellow River floodplain to the agricultural heartlands of the central plain and the southern Jiangnan region, saw the mobilisation of more than two million men. This then was China in the seventh century AD. Throughout much of imperial China’s history efficiencies of scale have been the result of the state’s power to marshal human labour and resources by means of a rigid flow chart operated by – mostly – trained bureaucrats. To be sure, China had its own culture of personal connections, corruption, and politicised lobbying. Yet, in theory, its civil service examination system was based on the ethos that officials and, by extension, leaders, ought to be selected based on tested and proven competence rather than a popular or privileged vote.

Free movement of people (and goods) was the exception rather than the rule in imperial China. Like today’s hukou system, household registration was paramount. China’s earliest recorded official empire-wide census dates from 2 AD (it records a population just short of 60 million individuals, distributed over 12 million households; by 1800 this had reached over 300 million). For the court, household registration, and settling people on plots of land, served to safeguard its tax basis and helped restrict population movement. At one point, even horses (and livestock) required passports. One thorn in the eye of the Chinese state were floating crowds of dissatisfied peasants or wandering merchants who could circumvent levies and excise or accumulate land. City residents too did not escape spatial restrictions. They were assigned to live in walled wards that were subject to evening curfews. The architecture and urban planning of imperial capitals such as Tang (618-907) period Chang’an (present-day Xi’an) divided the common populace from the imperial administration. High walls separated the palace from the markets and residential wards. Scaling these walls of power, or simply trying to look over them from a high spot, was subject to imprisonment.

As pervasive as the arm of the state could be in the daily lives of local communities, the ultimate fountainhead of political power, the Son of Heaven, remained removed and hidden from most mortal human eyes that served him. Ancient China’s philosophers reflected at length on strategies that could firm up the levers of monarchic rule. One recurrent idea was that ultimate power and authority draws its strength from remaining unknown and invisible. The Confucian philosopher Xunzi (third century BCE) wrote that a powerful ruler ‘does not look yet sees, does not listen yet hears, does not think yet knows, does not move yet gets results; like a clod of earth, he sits alone on his mat, and the world follows him as though it were of a single body with him, just as the four limbs follow the directives of the mind.’ Portraits of the great Qing emperors depict them perching quietly on the dragon throne, deep in the palace, draped in yellow silk robes that conceal everything but their faces. What emerges is a concept of power that is generated by appearing to be passive and receptive, facing inward rather than outward. This balance between ostentation and strategic concealment forms a core element in how the ruler maintains his power base. Efficient government is a blend of commanding publicly while manipulating secretly.

China’s ‘masters of philosophy’ during the age of Confucius (551-479 BCE) had differing views on how best to run society, but the notion that the collective should be led by one figure at the top was never fundamentally questioned. Confucius saw leadership first and foremost as rule by moral example. Power is the gift to inspire others by example. Moral competence inspires compliance, as we read in the Confucian Analects: ‘The virtue of the gentleman is like wind; the virtue of the petty man is like grass. Let the wind blow over the grass and it is sure to bend’ (An. 12.19). Capable leaders are like the pole star: it never leaves its place, yet it commands all other stars to pivot around it. Confucian thinkers were adamant that society is inherently hierarchical (which is not always synonymous with unequal). They saw role consciousness and a self-awareness of one’s social station as a catalyst for a well-oiled society: ‘Let the ruler be a ruler, the minister a minister, the father a father, the son a son’ (An. 12.11). The aspiration here is to rule by promoting harmony: to stand out, one needs to fit in. This can be seen or misconstrued as bland conformity, loss of autonomy or a directive to obey authority, but for Confucius understanding rules and conventions was a necessary precondition to make your mark in society. Conforming is the first stage of informing oneself about the world. Only then is one able to transform it.

Human nature, however, is frail and not always inclined to learn from example. Human beings are intrinsically selfish. This was the argument put forward by Shang Yang (died 338 BCE) and his followers. When persuasive power by moral rule fails, the Book of Lord Shang insists, one must create the total state and respond to human ‘likes and dislikes’ by means of rewards and punishments. These alternative two handles of power have left a deep imprint on perceptions of power and effective governance through China’s long imperial history. In moments when Confucian confidence in the emancipation of society through moral character-building wears thin, the monarch ought to create a situation in which people find it impossible to do wrong. If anything, Han Fei suggests, the monarch needs to be protected from his ministers, and the monarchy from the monarch. When the power of personality no longer holds sway, absolute rule can only be sustained if the office that ‘rules-by-one’ transcends those who inhabit it at any point in time. Logic dictates then that for government and bureaucracy to work efficiently, the Son of Heaven should remain concealed behind walls since technocratic and bureaucratic effectiveness can be undermined when a monarch is either overconfident or incompetent.

During the time of Confucius and Lord Shang, the pressures of constant conflict together with the demands to organise growing populations on the basis of land and resources that were finite, stood at the heart of political thought. In many ways they remained a constant theme in China’s imperial history. The same may be said of the tension between a meritocratic model of government devolved through a cascading web of officials on the one hand, and the conviction that autocratic decision-making leads to greater efficiencies on the other. The strong armed presence of the Chinese state, and the conviction that the benefits this brings to the socio-economic fabric of society can outweigh the cost of individual choice, are neither new, modern nor contemporary. What is new is its visibility, its impact on the world we live in, and the ways in which we evaluate and judge this model of governance. An assessment of the latter, however, is a task for future students of the past.

Roel Sterckx

Roel Sterckx is Joseph Needham Professor of Chinese History, Science and Civilization at the University of Cambridge, and author of Chinese Thought. From Confucius to Cook Ding (London: Penguin, 2019).

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