What the West Got Wrong About China

Until recently, for the past four decades, the myth that helping China get rich would make it into a democracy was part of the everyday “wisdom” in the West. However, China—the second-largest economy in the world—continues steering a totalitarian course with a new “core leader” of the Chinese Communist Party at the helm who builds massive concentration camps in Xinjiang, throws human-rights lawyers and Christians into jail, aggressively brandishes its military force at Taiwan, and even harasses Chinese Americans living in the US.

It’s often said that those egregious transgressions are an indication of the CCP regime’s rejection of “fundamental freedoms, human rights, and democratic norms,” as FBI director Christopher Wray stated on January 31, 2022. Wray was speaking about the Party’s decades-long operation on American soil of targeting, threatening, or kidnapping former Chinese nationals or American residents who openly criticize the Chinese government or advocate democratization in China. They even went further to interfere with the U.S. congressional election by threatening a military veteran who once was a student leader of the 1989 pro-democracy protest in Tienanmen square.   

But what’s been violated here is not so much Chinese Americans’ human rights but their political rights as American citizens. Liberties stipulated in the Constitution of the United States are not abstract human rights, but have a political nature. Freedoms Americans have enjoyed are a legacy bequeathed by their forefathers. Americans must understand that freedom in the Land of Free is a tradition, not a conventionally-assumed axiom—a “self-evident” moral truth—that is unproven and unprovable, and more importantly, nonexistent in other societies. American freedom is prior to the American republic.

The reason why China would brazenly “disregard the international law” that many other nations voluntarily abide by is that the rule of law is not, and has never been, a moral principle in Chinese society.

Arendt and Confucius

Political theorists Hannah Arendt observed that the problem of freedom is crucial to the question of politics, and no political theory can afford to remain unconcerned with it. So, the question of freedom will serve in this piece as the Rosetta stone for our understanding of Chinese politics.

Mistakenly, freedom has always been positively associated with democracy, notwithstanding the precaution taken by America’s founding fathers and the penetrating insight offered by Tocqueville. It is probably due to this reason that Western democratic nations always invoke individual freedoms as the moral principle to legitimate their criticism of the CCP regime’s suppression of free speech, an independent press, and religious freedom. Within the framework of the Western political tradition, this is a legitimate and valid argument when examining human affairs. But all criticisms or indictments are a fool’s errand, exerting no effect whatsoever on the CCP regime, because Chinese society views humans and human affairs entirely differently from the West.

Juxtaposing Arendt’s account of freedom with Confucianism, we can start to make sense of why the CCP unabashedly behaves the way it does.

Distinct from the common definition of freedom, such as Isaiah Berlin’s treatment, Arendt defines freedom as the human capacity to start something new in the man-made world and attributes it solely to the fact that we are born into the world. For Arendt, freedom is not a value or a proposition, as it is now commonly interpreted, but a fact simply by virtue of our natality. “God created man in order to introduce into the world the faculty of beginning: freedom,” says Arendt.  Freedom to Arendt is humans’ raison d’etre, and it is the prerequisite for action which is the essence of politics for Arendt. “Men are free . . . as long as they act . . . for to be free and to act are the same.” Note that the Arendtian term action includes both speech and action, and it is the “only activity that goes on directly between men without the intermediary of things or matter.” In other words, action is the only human activity that is exclusively political.

As intriguing and persuasive as her treatment of freedom is, Arendt’s conclusion does not go beyond the Western framework. Confined in her self-referential imagination which is anchored to the Judeo-Christian world, Arendt attributes freedom to natality. But it works only if we believe humans are born into the world as an individual being endowed with human dignity and rights because we are created in the image of the Creator.  

The traditional Chinese philosophy presents a different outlook on human nature, however. For Arendt, humans are the beginning of something new because birth is a beginning. But Confucianism, the predominant school of thought in Chinese tradition, sees birth as a derivative of the family line.

Confucius’ The Classic of Filial Piety (400–300 BC) provides the window through which we see the Confucian definition of humans. The very first teaching of filial piety states that “Our bodies—to every hair and bit of skin—are received by us from our parents, and we must not presume to injure or wound them.” This is the beginning of filial piety, and its end is to glorify one’s parents in the future by bringing fame and fortune to the family. Humans are not recognized as beings of intrinsic value but as a bundle of utilities.

Thus, we see filial piety stands in stark opposition to such liberal ideas as individual sovereignty. The liberal man is a rights-bearing individual entitled to his “life, liberty, and property,” whereas the Confucian man does not presume to own his own body. He only assumes his personhood through integrating himself into the family line. Liberalism postulates an autonomous self, while Confucianism negates the self.

In the despotically ruled society, such as China, where the man-made world is not “the scene for action and speech,” as Arendt put it, “freedom has no worldly reality.” What constitute the social facts in China are obedience and uniformity, not freedom and individuality as in the West.

The Polis and Under Heaven

The French sociologist Emile Durkheim defines moral authority as a higher end, the good, that prescribes human affairs and legitimates moral judgment. In traditional Chinese society, it is filial piety that authorizes morality, in stark contrast to the modern Western political thought which states that the individual is sovereign. Filial piety, in Confucius’s words, is “a perfect virtue and all-embracing rule of conduct . . . filial piety is the root of (all) virtue, and (the stem) out of which grows (all moral) teaching.”  

To understand Confucian ethics is to understand Chinese political culture, as historically political issues in China were essentially moral issues. Unlike Western politics, which is about administering justice or securing rights according to a consensus among citizens, the Chinese view politics as the making of moral judgments concerning right and wrong in accordance with Confucian ethics. Filial piety is the ethical solution Confucius proposes to end political conflicts, once and for all. “By the practice of it (filial piety) the people were brought to live in peace and harmony, and there was no ill-will between superiors and inferiors,” notes Confucius.

It was the rule of morality, not the rule of law, that defined Chinese politics.

In The Classics of Filial Piety—primarily a moral code of conduct—Confucius teaches that “of all the actions of man there is none greater than filial piety. In filial piety, there is nothing greater than the reverential awe of one’s father. In the reverential awe shown to one’s father, there is nothing greater than the making him the correlate of Heaven.” We can therefore conclude that the Durkheimian sense of the sacred object—the source of moral authority—is the father in both the literal and metaphorical sense. With this understanding, Confucianism can be viewed as a religion as manifested in the ritual of ancestor worship.

What the individual sovereignty is to liberalism, ancestor worship is to Confucianism.

In Chinese society what the ruling class—the Party—and the subjects have in common is the patriarchal hierarchy itself. Rights of any sort do not have worldly reality.

When writing about authority, Arendt reminds us to differentiate between authority and coercion or persuasion. In “What Is Authority?” Arendt untangled the common, mistaken conflation of authority and power. Arendt’s treatment of authority is philosophical and therefore is different from Durkheim’s term which is a sociological construct. For Arendt, coercion (the external force) is used when authority breaks down. Persuasion, on the other hand, presupposes an egalitarian order and operates in argumentation. “Where arguments are used, authority is left in abeyance,” notes Arendt. By contrast, authority indicates the authoritarian relation—a hierarchy order rooted in statuses and allegiances—which is acknowledged and respected by both the one who commands and the ones who obey.

In contrast to the Greek city-state, the 20th-century Chinese philosopher Fung Yu-Lan characterizes the Chinese state as the family-state. In the Chinese tradition, household rule is vested solely in the household head—the despot in the Greek translation.

The way the Greek city-state handles domestic issues is through persuasion, whereas the household rule of the Chinese family-state is authoritarian. In the Greek polis reside citizens who participate in public affairs in the agora via arguing and reasoning, while under Heaven, the Chinese subjects obey the ruler (the Son of Heaven) who ought to be “benevolent” and “righteous,” acting like a father who disciplines and provides for his children. 

Chinese Political Culture

China is the only ancient civilization that continues to exist today. Twenty-five dynasties constituted the long history of imperial China starting from the Qin dynasty (221-206 BC) and ending with the Qing in 1912. Those 25 different households have come and gone, but they have passed on the same mores and values, making the cultural continuity possible. The People’s Republic of China is but the twenty-sixth dynasty.

Despite Mao’s (ostensible) hatred for Chinese traditions, the CCP regime has in effect modeled itself on the imperial family state, taking over not just the land but its subjects too. Today, the public officeholders in China are still referred to as “父母官,” literally meaning the “father and mother officials.” On the other end of the hierarchical spectrum, the people still address themselves as “老百姓,” literally meaning “old hundred surnames.” It is a term that emerged with the founding of the Qin dynasty that ended feudalism in China. The nobility and the slaves disappeared, and in their stead emerged the class of the “old hundred surnames,” a submissive population of probably the world’s first centralized state.

The only difference between imperial China and the CCP regime is that in the past, there was a perpetual, unresolvable conflict between one’s filial piety to the state and to the family, but now this contradiction is solved by playing an intellectual sleight of hand. I grew up listening to the propaganda that the Chinese word “国家” (country) is combined with two characters: “国” meaning the state and “家” meaning the family. Without the state, the family cannot survive, as revealed in the sequence of this word. What’s been inculcated in the minds and hearts of the “old hundred surnames” is that the state is prior to the family.

For too long has the West remained ignorant of the deep structure of the Chinese society that has preserved entirely the traditional political culture. It is this culture, not the ideology of Marxism-Leninism, that explains the voluntary submissiveness among the “old hundred surnames” and their preference for stability over “dangerous freedom” (in Thomas Jefferson’s words). This is why the government brutally sent troops in 1989 to massacre peacefully protesting students. It is why the three student representatives, supposedly fighting for democracy, nevertheless knelt on the steps of the Great Hall while holding a petition paper over their heads—the typical manner of the subjects seeing the emperor—when petitioning for a dialogue with the government officials. It is why China unabashedly breached the Hong Kong Handover Treaty merely two decades later after the signing. And it is why in the spring of 2022, Xi Jinping, the “Emperor Xi,” was able to place Shanghai’s 26 million people under a lockdown that led to the separation of babies from their parents and even deaths due to starvation, lack of medical care, or suicide.

Eleanor Roosevelt once said, “Human rights exist to the degree that they are respected by people in relations with each other and by government in relations with their citizens.” Well, in Chinese society what the ruling class—the Party—and the subjects have in common is the patriarchal hierarchy itself. Rights of any sort do not have worldly reality.

If only Washington politicians, think tanks, or pundits had understood the Chinese political culture, the delusion that a rich China would ultimately become a free China would never have passed into everyday “wisdom,” jeopardizing America’s interests and security.