Virtue Rewards Confucian Communists(?)

@20 February 2001


Well, now it is official. The Peoples Republic of China is henceforth an anointed Confucian state. There shall be Rule by Virtue, President Jiang Zhemin declared on January 10, 2001 at the Communist Party Central Committee's recent propaganda conference.


The rededication of China as a Confucian state does have interesting implications. It is a clear bid by the troubled Communist Party to regain some moral credence, especially in the face of that vacuum being filled by the likes of the Falun Gong, or some other competitor. It is smart because it legitimizes the unspoken patterns of behaviour and attitude already existing amongst the ruling classes. It has international benefits, because it brings not only the outer Chinese world of Hong Kong and Taiwan within the mainland's ideological orbit, but also South Korea, ... and even within a hand's throw, the social inclinations of Japan.


The comments which follow apply to the genus, "socialist man with Chinese characteristics", a.k.a. Chinese Communist Party Member. The analysis does not apply "Chinese man with normal human characteristics", who is sick to death of the whole political charade.


Confucian Communism is one prescription that will go easily down the throats of the party hacks. Anyone who has spent time negotiating the "people's" China has quickly learned that notions of the brotherhood of man have a strictly Confucian cast in the land of pretended Marx.


Like his ancestors, the Communist Man with Chinese Characteristics not only has a love affair with hierarchy, he is a loss to move a muscle without it. Ideas of equality are not on his agenda. His social attitudes are structured according to a strict credentialism and announced rank -- precepts that any Confucian ancestor from a dozen dynasties would recognize immediately. These obsessions with hierachy, credentialism, class and rank, as well as a particular concept of "virtue", all meld easily between the Confucian and Chinese Communist worldviews as they develop under realpolitik.


The credential is a certificate, diploma or degree, preferably from a known institution, but bought from a peddler under a bridge if necessary. The real difference in quality between the institution's imprimatur and the peddler's is usually not so great; (hardly unique to China, this feature...). The point of this scrap of paper is to certify that the holder can henceforth cease to do anything of practical value whatsoever. As in imperial China, there is a mad scramble to get eligible children through an entrance examination on the basis of a memorized liturgy, and a profound contempt for innovative thinking in any form. Scientific method, as in testing and empirically disproving accepted wisdom, is tantamount to state treason, just as it was in preceding dynasties.


Announced rank has preeminently been through membership and seniority in the Party. This does not imply practical ability or good judgement. It requires rather an absolutely uncritical mind, or unbounded hypocrisy, the willingness to quote chapter and verse from reams of propaganda, and a finely developed facility for betraying friends, associates and colleagues by writing constant, lengthy "criticisms" based on hearsay, rumour, vindictiveness, and what you think your work unit's chairman would like you to say.


Again, as in Confucian China, practical individuals get short shrift.Among the most despised and underpaid of all people in China are those who do tradesmen's work -- the carpenters, plumbers, mechanics, in general those who keep the country running. Upward mobility from this untouchable caste is to go to night school if you are very lucky (or meet a peddler under a bridge), get a certificate, and thereafter have the rightto order other workers around. With the bit of paper, you have moved beyond manual labour.


In Mao's China, peasants and the proletariate were publicly sanctified as granting heaven's mandate to the rulers. This was a fraud from the beginning, but in concept it was a genuine innovation. That is, Confucian tradition's weakest feature was the real exclusion of ordinary people from any participation in decision making or choosing leaders. It was a fraud because the Communist Party, and Mao Zedong in particular despised and mistrusted the concept of democracy; (the first article of the Chinese constitution says the nation is a "democratic dictatorship" -- without a blush).


It was a fraud in implementation also because Mao and his clique were quintessential members of the chattering classes. He himself was a technological imbecile, but tragically with an ego too impervious to accept such limitations. As a result, his insane directives, such as the deep planting of seedlings, cost tens of millions of lives...


Your ordinary, garden grade Party member is in no confusion about the true status of "the proletariate and peasants". He calls them "the masses". What he really means by the masses is a monstrous seething mob of inferior beings, a constant shadowy threat to his Confucian gentleman's existence, a nightmare that must be kept in check by any means available, typically violent.


Above all, he does not expect these creatures to be upwardly mobile into his social class, and the Party has taken steps to reassure him on that score. Of 130 countries surveyed by UNESCO, (1995) China's expenditure per capita on education came in at 119th. The live dimension of that is that rural school teachers, where they exist, have virtually no resources, little training, and go for months on end without pay (in Hubei when I was there, they were offered cigarettes in lieu of cash by corrupt county officials).


In short, the principled ordering of social classes (and the ideal of family hierarchy dominated by a father figure) is not so very different in the China of 2001 as it was in the China of two thousand years ago. There are innovations of detail. The despised merchant class of old Confucian China, has of necessity been promoted to honorary court status, when the bribes are high enough. The merchant's profession however is still regarded with misgiving amongst the Party faithful, for its potential to curb the dead hand of bureaucracy with competition. In essence however, the official politics and administration of Modern China is old world business as usual. Can they get away with it?


Ah, now this business of Rule by Virtue. Virtue's Reward is indeed an ancient and potent principle.Machiavelli and Confucius would both approve. The problem confronting all ambitious men and women on grasping power is how to discourage upcoming competitors. Ruthless opportunism which has been so successful for the winner must be discounted somehow. Uneasy rests the head that wears the crown, and never more so than in a community without rules. The Chinese crown nowadays is definitely made of thorns..


Those tyrants who are wholly consumed by their misanthropy will rule by terror, but this is a miserable business which often leads to a bad end for the persecutor. The smartest victor is he who upon attaining supremacy by any means, disarms the opposition with virtue. In this he will be hugely assisted by human nature. The young are instinctively idealistic, and if that idealism can be attached to some dogma which buttresses authority and discourages heresy, then his position is almost ensured. Only the most avid and unprincipled amongst the ambitious will then seek to depose him. They will be few enough in number to manage.


In traditional societies, of which there are still many, religion and moral philosophy in their roles of virtuous socializers, are more important allies for the autocrat, or for the privileged classes, than the most viciously repressive police and military force. Whom the soldier must shoot, the priest will castrate with virtue for his Caesar's pleasure. Marx succinctly called religion the opiate of the masses. He might have said the same for communism in its hour of glory, or any widely accepted value system.


All modern states, large bureaucracies, mass education systems also adopt and apply the paradigm just described. However in fluid, industrial and post-industrial societies things are rather more intricate than even the sprawling empires of old China. Instead of the priest or Confucian scholar, a six to twenty year mass education system tries to inculcate obedience to a virtuous norm. Its message is hopefully reinforced by the overpowering hiss of white noise from mass media.


Fortunately, the very complexity of this moral disarmament effort leaves it with untidy side effects. Sometimes indeed, sections of the people-monster turn feral and ravage the patrons who have fed it tranquillizers. "The masses" are apt to develop their own notions of virtue. Perhaps the gentlemen in Beijing should innovate a little more on The Analects. There could be a bumpy ride ahead.



All opinions expressed in Thor's Unwise Ideas and The Passionate Skeptic are entirely those of the author, who has no aim to influence, proselytize or persuade others to a point of view. He is pleased if his writing generates reflection in readers, either for or against the sentiment of the argument.


"Confucian Communists" © copyrighted to Thor May; all rights reserved 2001


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