ANOTHER CHINA: Toward a new world order

Asia Times


CHAPTER 2: Responsibilities of and to the people

2.1 Mass responsibilities

As early as the writing of the ancient classic Zhouli, China was described as organized and structured in system of collective responsibility in which the faults of one person endangered a wider group of people. The system was designed to keep a constant check on everybody. The system was designed to keep a constant check on everybody. The fault of one's neighbor would immediately bear heavy consequence on oneself, and the contrary was also true to a certain degree: the merits of the neighbor would shine on oneself. Each member of the community bore a responsibility for criminal behavior. The rationale of the system, which lasted more or less unchanged for over 2,000 years, was that each person had an interest in behaving well, for fear of denunciation by others. Each person, too, had an interest in keeping an eye on his neighbor, for fear that the neighbor would bring disasters down upon his head.

The system was based on the presumption of individualistic and selfish motivation for survival in a group. Each individual had a selfish interest in adhering to his superiors by checking on his peers. If one denounced one's peer's misbehavior, one would be rewarded; if one failed to do so, one would be punished. These were strong incentives to keep a safe distance from one's peer and to curry favor with one's superior.

In theory the system was faultless, and it created a situation in which the bureaucracy could be leaner. No need for officials directly employed by the central administration to keep direct control over smaller communities. They kept control by themselves. If wrongdoing was discovered, the group would be held responsible and would be collectively punished. So state administration could be smaller, control could be tighter, and the state's top leadership could have much better administrative control over a larger area, because control over behavior entailed also control over production, ie taxes. The system of responsibility was often reinforced by a production system in which each peasant family had an individual plot of land to till, and yet was bundled with other people in the taxation system, which did not recognize the family as a tax subject, but only the group.

But as often happens with perfect theories, this one had lots of trouble in practice. The first problem was in the very logic of forcing a collective union based on selfish sentiments. The people were forced into a situation that looks schizophrenic to a Western eye: they were bundled together, forced to share responsibility, yet they had to continuously check on each other, so that in theory all within a group were in a constant state of war against each other. So although each group member had an interest in checking on everybody else, he had an even stronger interest in climbing up the ladder, in being rewarded. That would take him, partially or completely, out of the lower levels of the mutual checking system.

By a simple rule of numbers, people rewarded would be a minority and most people would remain within the system of collective responsibility. This would force the majority to find a status quo, whereby minor offenses would go unreported because otherwise nobody would have any peace or privacy.

Furthermore, each group had to have a leader, who, by definition had more freedom than the people below him. In other words, the clash of interests between higher and lower ranks could be stronger than the clash of interests among people of the same rank. Therefore, if someone of a lower rank were to report offenses committed by his direct superior he could be suspected of having done so out of envy or in order to replace his superior. This created a situation in which a person of lower rank would have to think twice about reporting anything about his superior, and the superior had latitude in checking on his people and performing his duties. Contributing further to this latitude was the difficulty of drawing an objective line between petty and serious offences. Offences had to be really serious, otherwise the serious punishments meted out would mean no peace, production would be hindered and the community would be thrown into utter poverty.

All of this created a situation in which the center gave up de facto control over lower levels, within certain limits. The limits were basically not criminal but political. If a crime went unpunished and this crime was so serious as to endanger the stability of the community, then the center would have to intervene.

So the theoretical call for constant, selfish check on each other transformed itself into a constant drive to please everybody around. Nobody could afford to have declared enemies - enemies could bring disaster upon oneself, whether one had committed a crime or not. Conversely, friends were one's safety, because they would cover up for one even if one were at fault. This reinforced the central drive to consider crime only in a political sense. A crime would be punished after due consideration of the impact the punishment, as well as the crime, would have on a community. Far from the strict logic of its definition, the system was full of traps and discretionary measures, leading many Westerners to believe that imperial China was anarchic below a certain level, or that imperial rule did not reach below a certain level.

This is partially true, but the advantages of the system should not be forgotten. Without creating a huge, unruly administration, the emperor could reach - if he wanted - any small cell of the empire in an unprecedented way. At the time, no other administration had the same efficiency over such a large constituency of people. The Roman Empire reached out to every citizen, but it did so by strictly limiting the number of citizens. The rest of the empire's population made their own laws. They were subject to Rome's rule, and for it they had to pay taxes and give up land to retired Roman soldiers. But Rome did not administer and control land and population in a way comparable to China. Civil officials were recruited from the army and often still served as military officials. In China it was generally the other way around, with officials, appointed or recruited through civil examinations, serving as military chiefs in case of need.

In Rome, and even more so in feudal times, the personal allegiance of chieftains to a supreme commander was what kept the state together. In China the state was held together by an efficient administration always careful in weighing pros and cons of crime from a superior perspective of national stability, and not simply from the point of view of the objective fault of the subject. If this looks unjust to Western and Westernized eyes, it is partly because Middle Eastern religions accustomed people to the idea that particular actions would meet particular consequences in this or the next world. For China the problem was not to mete out punishment in a way that kept the earthly order consistent with the heavenly order; the problem was to maintain stability, even if that meant overlooking some small faults.

This is inherently logical for any state, and became theory in 17th century Europe with the birth of the modern state. The rule of law had limits when the interests of the state clashed with the interests of individuals. The interests of the state took precedence over the law. In the West, this created a schizophrenia in the law that has still not been resolved. In China, the assumption that the law is useful to keep the state stable means that enforcement of the law must not undermine stability. Stability must prevail. This has created a situation in which human rights are suppressed.

2.2 Laws of passage

With the fall of the Manchu empire and to a certain extent the massive influence exerted by foreign powers, the system of collective criminal and civil responsibility fell into disuse. The trend was strengthened in the years of Chiang Jieshi (Chiang Kai-shek), who adopted the German criminal code. This was a gigantic leap away from traditional Chinese law. Responsibility was no longer collective but personal.

Although official principles were often not thoroughly carried out and long ingrained traditions lingered (there are many instances of whole families being executed because a single member was a bandit or a communist), the principles had nevertheless changed. The change, in theory, continued after the establishment of the people's republic, although even here many administrative decisions were still made according to the old principles: the families of people who, for whatever reason, were politically disgraced, were also disgraced for no reason but their kinship.

The most notorious demonstration of this came during the Cultural Revolution when family lineages were reconstructed in order to establish people's pure revolutionary credentials; and the son of Deng Xiaoping was thrown out of a window because his father was in disgrace. These instances, however, contrasted with the original revolutionary spirit in which it was enough for people to embrace the new republic to whitewash their family's failings. Furthermore, the excesses of the Cultural Revolution increased popular revulsion over the tradition of collective responsibility, and enhanced the need for rule of law and the principle of personal responsibility.

The growth of a market economy, requiring protection of the rights of enterprises and definition of which economic transactions are allowed and which are not, further enhanced the need for rule of law. The push was extremely important and it became, and to some extent still is, a broad social necessity encroaching on the overall need for stability. During the Cultural Revolution, all business transactions were illegal and, in fact, considered morally bad. After the Cultural Revolution, there were no criteria to distinguish which business activities were allowed and which were not; in such a hazy environment anything could be considered legal or illegal according to the eye of the beholder. For example, to sub-let a house allocated by a danwei (work unit) was corrupt, according to some youngsters who denounced this development after June 4, 1989. But in the eyes of American businessmen who were present at the auditorium where the denunciation was made, this was simply business initiative. The same could be said of the sale of girls in the countryside. If doing business was now permitted again, it should be done according to the old practices, which allowed the sale of wives and daughters. So what's wrong with selling a girl from a poor family to a rich peasant who has no wife or needs a younger wife? Or even offering girls "business opportunities" in the old trade of prostitution? Many people could reason that now that business was legal again after years of illegality, every business should be legal, or eventually be legalized.

The lack of ethical criteria at the time, let alone legal criteria, left a lot of discretion in the hands of officials who knew anyway that the center would in general support economic opening up. For an official, taking the initiative of granting permission or turning a blind eye to something not clearly sanctioned by existing regulations was a risk. Besides, it was clear that the person pushing the envelope of the existing rules was doing so for personal benefit, so it would be, to say the least, "impolite" not to pass on some of the benefit to the official involved. The official sharing the benefits with the entrepreneur would also have a strong personal motivation to bend the rules. This motivation was in accordance with the will of the center, which was worried about local officials hampering economic development - development which would ultimately erode their power. In this situation, it was easy for officials to themselves become entrepreneurs and go directly into business.

In other words, local-level officials could control economic activity as they held the administrative and economic power, and they need not explain their actions. In the pre-revolutionary past, officials had been appointed on the basis of nation-wide, fair, strict examinations. An official's hard training and passing of the examinations legitimized the concentration of power in him. In communist China, officials were appointed on the basis of party loyalty, and there were no other clear criteria for judging their capabilities. For officials appointed to run the administration, party loyalty was enough. But the situation changed as soon as there was also wealth to share: social differences emerged and opportunities for enrichment were unevenly distributed according to mere personal relations with an official. This, of course, led to claims of "corruption". At the same time, communism had spread a strong idea of equality: this gave rise to envy, which powered economic development.

2.3 Communism triggers freewheeling capitalism

Can communism help development? On the surface, the answer to this question would seem to be no, given the many failures by communist countries to effect strong economic development. The boldest such attempt, Mao Zedong's Great Leap Forward in the late 1950s, left tens of millions of Chinese dead.

However, the fast growth experienced in recent years by two Asian countries that are still nominally communist - China and Vietnam - could put a new and different twist on the question. Sociologist Max Weber explained how Protestantism played a powerful role in shaping European capitalism. The idea that God's grace could be witnessed in the form of material good fortune befalling the true believer revolutionized the way wealth and its accumulation were viewed in 17th century Europe. The Catholic Church had previously argued that wealth, particularly wealth accumulated on wealth - ie, interest on money lent - arose from immoral profiteering. Interest was considered to be the cost of buying time to repay debt, but since time belonged to God, anyone who received interest was stealing from God. With Protestantism, these views receded and wealth came to be seen as proof of an individual's good behavior and merit. The greater the wealth, the clearer the path to Heaven. This philosophical and ethical sea change sparked the growth of a new class of entrepreneurs committed to getting rich and to expanding their economic activity. It was the key, argued Weber, to the capitalist revolution in Northern Europe.

A similar commitment to economic development can be found in China today. This wellspring of entrepreneurism has often been linked to the flourishing of ethnic Chinese economic activity in Southeast Asia. But China's breakneck growth cannot be dismissed as merely the result of some vague and ill-defined "Chinese spirit". In fact, it is largely due to the country's tradition of communist egalitarianism.

Egalitarian culture has been forced on the country for more than 40 years, almost completely eradicating its heritage. Everybody had to wear the same coat and earn the same money. Even members of the small, privileged elite pretended to be the same as everybody else by hiding their mansions behind walled courts. Yet this egalitarian spirit conflicted with centuries of peasant culture. For 3,000 years, agriculture in China was based on small plots of land worked by peasant families. The state levied taxes and corvees, which the peasants consistently tried to evade. This individualistic spirit made China like a platter of sand. Without the platter, Mao suggested, the sand would blow away in all directions.

The Cultural Revolution of the late 1960s went a long way toward banishing this individualistic spirit, but it surfaced nevertheless - in the collection of Mao badges, for instance. In The Badge, Chinese writer Feng Jicai tells the true story of one man who, during the Cultural Revolution, tried to stand out from the crowd by wearing the biggest Mao badge ever seen. He was envious of a colleague he saw wearing a badge 30 centimeters in diameter, so he got himself an even bigger one. If the Cultural Revolution was supposed to reinforce the fact that everybody was equal, why should people want to wear more or bigger badges to prove themselves "redder" than their neighbors?

The same phenomenon, in reverse, can be seen now. Egalitarianism has not been entirely dismissed. Communist ideology appears in the newspapers every other day, and after 40 years of it people cannot now get used to social differences. For example, a man who owns a private car must pretend it belongs to his company, not to himself - otherwise his envious neighbors will scratch it. But the scratching is only one side of the story. The other involves the race to possess a refrigerator, an air conditioner, a television set at least as big and hopefully bigger than the neighbors'. This race is reflected in popular culture: in the film Ermo, director Zhou Xiaowen tells the story of a peasant woman who works herself almost to death in order to afford a television set bigger than the one her neighbors have. Why is it so difficult for Chinese to cope with social differences, with the fact that someone else has something that they do not? The answer can be read in the party papers: people still think everybody should be equal.

In 1989, when demonstrating students accused Beijing party leaders of being corrupt, then-municipal party secretary Li Ximing and then-mayor Chen Xitong appeared on television to explain that they made just 300 renminbi (about US$63 at the time) a month - more or less equivalent to the salary of a factory worker. This would be unbelievable - and also unreasonable - in most other countries. But in a China not too far removed from Maoist egalitarianism, this was thought to be a way of keeping officials from being considered "corrupt" - where corruption is defined as earning more money than a common worker. But paramount leader Deng Xiaoping, in encouraging economic activity, said that getting rich is glorious. So how can one person accommodate the conflicting urges of a centuries-long individualistic heritage and the still ongoing egalitarian bombardment by official state organs? The answer has been an often chaotic race to become as rich as or richer than one's neighbor. (The model almost never accounts for the existence of a poorer neighbor - though he is certainly there, too - because the official policy assumes that everyone is trying to get rich.)

Ironically, 40 years of communist experience and a still-existing communist order seem to have created just the right mix to encourage business and destroy the structure of the communist state - state-owned enterprises, the command economy, etc - because the old trappings are no longer consistent with both communism's egalitarian ideology and the leader's order to get rich.

At the same time, there has also been an historical change in the relationship between political and economic power in the country. In imperial China, traders and entrepreneurs always had limits on their potential wealth, in that they could never become richer than the local mandarin or the emperor - that would undermine the mandarin's power and prestige. Thus, traders always had to ingratiate themselves with the local mandarin, to make sure they at least looked poorer than him. Or they tried to become mandarins themselves, transforming their wealth into political power. But the amount of political power that could be bought by the traders eventually became so large that it overshadowed the political power in the center. Conflicts then erupted and the emperor would confiscate the merchants' properties, as happened to Lu Buwei, a merchant and patron of philosophers in the third century BC Qin state. Today, there is no conflict between business and political power in China. This is because, for the first time in the country's long history, cadres are engaging in xia hai (giving up state positions and going into business) - rather than moving in the opposite direction as in the past.

For egalitarian reasons, cadres cannot receive huge pay rises, so they have to choose between either becoming corrupt or giving up their posts to pursue more lucrative careers in business. The problem is so firmly entrenched that it is hard to imagine an inversion of this trend in the short term. It will be a long time before cadres are offered big salaries. If they want to follow both the egalitarian requirements of communism and Deng's dictum to get rich, they have to go into business. As long as the salaries of government officials remain low, individual business will thrive unchallenged simply because many of the best brains in the country will be drained from the government and will find ways to survive. In 10 or 20 years, things might change and civil servants might start to make more money. But by then, the business community will have grown so big and powerful that it will be difficult for any government to fight it, or even curtail its power. By then, the business community might also have gained some form of political recognition - access to parliament, legal defense, constitutional amendment to defend private property - that will make its economic position politically unchallengeable.

China's individualistic past, its communist legacy and Deng's theory have combined to create a de facto division of power: On the one side is political power with its interests, on the other is economic power with its interests. The country's political power is not united - it is divided into central and provincial power. Nor is economic power united: it is similarly divided into state and non-state business, with their contradictory claims. These divisions are further exacerbated by social tension between the haves and the have-nots. How to reconcile these contradictions without causing a social explosion is the hot issue of the moment. The most effective way found so far has been through a political system called democracy - whatever we want to lump under that label. That is why we can say that the true communist spirit is bringing both capitalism and democracy to China.

2.4 Corruption and its laws

The combination of this urge to wealth and the reality of entrenched bureaucracy needs laws that on one hand make clear what is legitimate and illegitimate business, and on the other hand result in a de facto limiting of the power of officials.

Furthermore, the growth of different, competing economic interests in the market implies also clashes between those interests. So far, the clashes have been mediated by the central power. In any mediation the central power has to work through acknowledged, standardized criteria to prove its fairness. These criteria are systematized into laws, which are applied by the central government. In other words, the rise of different economic interests and the need of the government for fair mediation creates the necessity of laws. A strong legal framework plus competing economic interests is already the basis of democracy, which means here fair and rather open structured debate between different forces. The ongoing debate on the state of the Chinese economy and the solutions to its problems is evidence of this new democratic life that is helping to defeat rampant corruption.

Old-style corruption becomes inefficient in a system where competing interests have to have equal status. A new fairness and openness becomes necessary to limit the scope for direct intervention through political channels. On one hand the political leadership, faced with the rise of competing interests, has an interest in keeping the competition fair and limiting unfair skipping of rules. Failure to do so could create immense protests that could ultimately break down the legitimacy of the central power. On the other hand, central capabilities for direct intervention are more limited than in the past. Independent economic resources mean a greater independent voice in administering these resources, so the center has less power to interfere in how the new economic interests run their business.

This whole description would seem to fit exactly the reality of an emerging Westernized democracy. The difference is that the act of mediation of the central power is not between individuals or units (companies or institutions) which are treated by the law as individuals; the mediation is between units, and individual people count only insofar as they are part of a unit. The historical and anthropological difference is huge. The Chinese system imposes on the individual a double mediation. In whatever dealings the individual has outside his unit, he has first to confront the unit, which gives him legal protection as well as a right to survive, and then to confront the state. The system, incidentally, is not uniquely Chinese: it is also found in different degrees in Japan and South Korea.

The Chinese way works as long as the individual lives entirely as part of a unit. But the past 13 years have weakened the muscle of units - for various reasons, people are now venturing into the open on their own. Since the early '90s the government has tried to break down the double function - productive and social - of units. Social duties have been taken away from units, and individuals have been forced to look by themselves for health insurance, funds for educating their children, retirement pension schemes, housing, and even lifetime employment which, as the hallmark of the life bond between unit and individual, has been totally smashed.

In the late '90s and early 2000s it may appear possible to rebuild this strong bond between individual and unit, though on a different basis, of course. It may seem, at first sight, possible to create a Japanese-like system, in which individuals are largely protected by their units but admission into the unit is a privilege accorded through merit (passing difficult university exams) or heredity (being related to an old member of the unit). This idea is largely wrong. Despite the fact that some form of unit after the Japanese model could be introduced in some sectors of the production system, another massive social transformation is under way that makes it impossible to extend the system to the whole country.

In the next 30-40 years China will witness the largest emigration drive in history: Over 600 million peasants will have to be urbanized. It is already clear that there are too many peasants in the countryside as agricultural production becomes industrialized. The huge flow of people into the cities will make it impossible to create enough new full-fledged production units to fully take care of all these people. Furthermore, since the mid '90s another social phenomenon has appeared - job hopping. Young, bright professionals don't dream of working in an administration and slowly moving up the career ladder, but go for the best money on offer, hopping from job to job. Their lives are different from those of their parents, and the units too are different from before. These young people want to create their own business, if possible - no matter how small the organization - and be their own boss, rather than be a cog in a big organization.

Arguably, all of this could have been accommodated if society did not deeply believe that the mix of administrative and production powers in the old units was the greatest stumbling block for economic development. As early as the 13th party congress of 1987, the party called for the division of economic and administrative power. The call was the result of a much bigger and older debate which started in the late 70s. Although the call could be implemented only with great difficulty, we can safely maintain that after 20-25 years of attempts to order society, there was widespread consensus that to be efficient an industry had to withdraw from the management of the personal lives of individuals.

The situation creates a difficult problem. From an administrative point of view, the state is not prepared or organized, either culturally and practically, to deal with people on an individual basis; so it would like to continue dealing with people through their units. On the other hand, practical and intellectual evidence shows that units will have to refrain from the management of individuals. We are back to the problem of stability. Individuals manage their lives by always walking a thin line between state and unit. In fact there is a large gray area: individuals use more and more personal initiative beyond the former realms of state or unit, and it is not clear which entity should be in charge of what.

On the surface, the solution is rather simple, and there is widespread intellectual consensus about it: the state should deal directly with individuals. But to do so, it would have to make a great leap forward. To postpone a decision on the issue could be quite dangerous for China's stability. In other countries, the constant, ongoing friction between state and individuals helps maintain stability in two ways. It helps the individual channel his complaints through stable channels in which he has a fair chance of redress - thus, his complaints do not become social protests, but remain individual. At the same time, the state is spurred to constantly adapt itself to social and economic changes, without every time going through painful central political debates. Furthermore, state institutions are removed from the frontline of political debate. If, as in China now, state institutions or industries are leading players in political debate, the interests of the state can be pushed and pulled in different directions, to the point where it is difficult to know what they are. The result is instability.

If political debate is kept to a certain extent out of state institutions and confined to individual people, companies and organized groups (non-governmental organizations, for instance), state institutions can be more neutral, fish in the pond of ongoing debate, and focus better the state interests and long-term policies. Certainly there will always be a certain degree of debate between different institutions, but it is important to underscore that there must be a difference between making the institutions the subject of debate or having them influenced by debate.

The way to address all of these problems is the adoption of a new civil law. But before we examine that, we should look at the issues of human rights.

Next week, Chapter 3: Inhuman rights? Chapter 1: Fun for the masses ( (2001-03-24 Asia Times)


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