Thor's China Diary


Honesty, Spirit and the Communist Way

@6 May 2000

Thor May



There are honest people in China, and there are people who are as honest as they dare to be. Yet this society expresses the extremes of tendencies which are found everywhere, and here we have an extreme of moral collapse. "Moral" is used in the sense of "honesty", not sexual license etc. The problem is NOT that of a community which historically never had moral frameworks within which to fudge but roughly conform to decency. The Confucian ethic, the Buddhist and Taoist ethics, and other philosophies certainly diverged from European notions in various aspects. But the underlying tenets were clear enough. A good man was known from a bad man.

The Communist missionaries worked feverishly to sweep these obsolete moral systems away. They proclaimed the brotherhood of man (and woman), based on secular responsibility. For a generation this captivated the ideals of Chinese youth, and basically had them sacrifice personal goals for "the nation". Yet from the very beginning it was a false paradigm, for "the nation" turned out to be by no means the ordinary people of China. They were given ration cards and trinkets. In the old imperial system, the nation had been a fiefdom for a tiny clique of privileged men, headed by a titular emperor. There was nothing new under the sun that Chinese imagination could sustain after 1911, whatever the rhetoric of ideology. From 1949 "the nation" was actually code for the interests of one more group who had grabbed power and privilege: another tatty story of violent revolution eating its children.

This group of power holders retained control partly by coercion, but largely by mobilizing the force of lies, told endlessly with all the paraphernalia of mass communications. It is in the nature of lies that there is a reckoning. Reckoning in a democracy (where lies also grow like mushrooms) comes through the ballot box, very imperfectly, to be sure. The communists keep "rolling over" their reckoning (to borrow parlance from the finance industry), rolling it over with new debts of promise. A diminishing band of "the people" still believe that their trust will not be betrayed. Most already know in their bones that they have been betrayed, but do not know where to turn.

Betrayal is sometimes more a condition in the mind of the betrayed than a treachery committed. Technocrats in the Chinese administration might well feel agrieved at the ingratitude of "the masses". Human expectations are so fickle. Materially China has indeed become a much more secure place to live in than it was seventy years ago, although most of this improvement came with the pragmatic displacement of communist economic lunacy after 1978. For peasants - the majority of the population - there have been hugely significant but little publicised changes quite recently. The arrival of the telephone (even one) in a previously isolated village utterly changes the relationship of people in that village with the outside world. At least the potential for some kind of democratic input is also greatly enhanced (as has been the case also in rural India). Television of course brings such places a whole new set of dreams as well, and is no doubt fuelling the country to urban migration. The telecommunications revolution is quietly changing the Chinese political equation, as are new roads and railways. The progress of mass schooling has been rather more anaemic, a failure that must add to discontent.

So the betrayal felt so keenly amongst Chinese peoples is largely in terms of what was promised, not what was materially feasible. That they, the people, were culpably naive is hardly a consolation. The taste is bitter, and public trust almost extinct. Worse, everyone knows that they too are required to lie in this kingdom of lies. Above all they must proclaim the glory and wisdom of those whom they feel have betrayed them, or else (amongst the middle classes) there will be no personal promotion, nor even the right to study in a university.

Surviving in the kingdom of lies has taught people other lessons, according to their personal inclinations. The first lesson is that public proclamation and private behaviour must be utterly different matters. Most can now put one hand on their heart, look absolutely blameless, and declare their own and China's virtue. The other hand will be in somebody's pocket looking for cash or advantage. The second lesson is that they personally are responsible for absolutely nothing - not their own behaviour, not the collapse of communities around them, not the boss who is embezzling the budget, nor the jobs that never get done. They have learned as a cardinal principle never to volunteer for anything, and never to say what they accidentally saw on a dark night. Who is responsible? The Government. Those bastards want the power, all of it. Let them have it, and let them have the responsibility that goes with it, all the responsibility. So there are no citizens left in China, only the faceless masses.

Ironic, sad. Communism, the ethic that was going to enshrine the very best that humankind has to offer, has conditioned its children to be the very worst. Selfish, irresponsible, amoral, dishonest.

Yet, of course, that is not the end of the story. There ARE (some) people who continue to be as honest as they dare to be. And there ARE numberless millions who are craving to be shown a credible way to stop being "the masses", and shown how to become citizens of a Chinese civilization that they really can call theirs. This inner hunger swings them this way and that. "Market capitalism", a.k.a. "socialism with Chinese characteristics", has been served up to dampen the pangs of spiritual hunger. It tastes good, a quick boost, but leaves the snackers dissatisfied.

In Beijing the high priests understand the failure of their religion, and greatly fear the inrush of new and old belief systems which might fill the vacuum. Hence their disproportionate response to the so-called Falun Gong movement, and punitive attitude to the ancient palliatives of Christianity and Islam. In terms of realpolitik, the communists have made a bad mistake by arrogantly ruling out the assistance of those dimensions uncharted by easy-to-grasp "science" (i.e. crudely, the supernatural). They now have, as it were, nowhere to hide. If they had been a little more diligent about studying human histories they would know that the unseen forces of spiritual authority have had far more staying power in the hearts and minds of common people than any secular government. The non-rational quantum in human psychology is not dispensable, though it may be coaxed a little. This was precisely the insight that Marx, Engels, Mao Tse Tung and all their heirs overlooked, so it might be asking a bit much of their nervous successors in Beijing to swing a spiritual conversion at this stage. Some kind of humanism (my own inclination) might be their only hope, but hardly sits well with their style on past form.

We therefore wait with interest to see, hopefully to chronicle, the spiritual answer that the peoples of China will find for their malaise. We can be sure that it won't be an ~ism attached to communism (not again for two generations at least). Will it be yet another prophet, promising Nirvana on this earth or elsewhere? Will it be the pluralistic response of Western democracies, where everything from witchcraft to environmental worship, to high Latin Catholicism, to football, to coffee shop anarchism ... somehow coexist in a supermarket of the spirits? Will it be an Internet-dwelling superbeing? Is it growing somewhere under a rock at this moment? Relax; the next installment is coming sooner or later to a place near you ... But shaky masters of the current universe, when the changeover comes, please exit gracefully. Let's see if we can keep the body count down this time around...

"Honesty, Spirit and the Communist Way" copyrighted to Thor May 2000; all rights reserved



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