Chinese Trust in the Government

The overwhelming majority of Chinese people trust their government like no other country on earth. This may seem strange to some foreigners who routinely mistrust their government. Yet the statistics speak for themselves. For example, the Edelman Trust Barometer of 2019 notes a rise in the general public’s trust of the government and public institutions to a staggering 86 percent. Meanwhile, the monthly Ipsos surveys indicate that on average 90 percent of people have confidence in the direction in which China is headed. And in the five-yearly World Values Survey, the vast majority trust the government to promote human rights in China and throughout the world.

Why is this the case? One reason is of course the effect of Xi Jinping’s leadership, with effective rule by law and its closely associated Social Credit System, anti-corruption campaign and recovery of both traditional Chinese and Marxist values.

Yet, this is only part of the story. The assumption of trust in governance runs deep in Chinese society – assuming of course that the government in question has earned that trust. To understand how this works at a deeper cultural and social level, we need to go back a few centuries.

He Xiu’s Three Worlds

Important here is a certain He Xiu, who lived from 129 to 182 CE. He Xiu wrote a commentary on a commentary; more precisely, he wrote a commentary on the Gongyang commentary on the Spring and Autumn Annals (reputedly edited by none other than Confucius). This particular history is not so important here. Instead, He Xiu[1] introduced a crucial distinction between three terms:

  1. What is ‘rumoured [suochuanwen]’.
  2. What is ‘heard [suowen]’ and thus reliably recorded.
  3. What is ‘seen [suojian]’ and therefore verifiable.

The importance of this distinction can hardly be underestimated. What is rumoured concerns words and indeed a world that is ‘decayed and disordered [shuailuan]’. This is a world of chaos in which the heart is ‘course and unrefined [cucu]’, the country is broken up into small warring states and the records virtually non-existent. Rumours abound of skulduggery, assassination, intrigue and inappropriate behaviour in light of established rituals. In other words, hearsay and gossip are highly unreliable, to be mistrusted at every turn.

By contrast, the world that is reliably reported is one that has written records, which enables the unity of the many different Chinese peoples. It is clearly better that rumour, hearsay and chaos, but it still has its problems. The best is the world that is ‘seen’ and therefore empirically verifiable. One has first-hand evidence, or what is now called scientific evidence, truth from facts (shishi qiushi), as Deng Xiaoping said on many occasions. This verifiable world is united, whether distant or nearby, large or small, and even the heart (xin) or inner being is now deep and thoroughly known (xiang).

In Chinese history, the prime body responsible for reliable records and verified facts is of course the government. Indeed, these are signs of good governance and thereby one that can be trusted.

He Xiu’s distinction has many further ramifications today, whether the refusal of newspapers to engage in gossip, the scepticism concerning oral traditions, the transparency of political statements, or the need for any government statistics to be based on solid research. Let me focus on three examples.

Mao Zedong’s Works

The first concerns editions of Mao Zedong’s works. In China, there are two main editions, The Works of Mao Zedong (Mao Zedong Wenji) and The Selected Works of Mao Zedong (Mao Zedong xuanji). Apart from these two, there are a number of other small collections, relating to early writings or those on specific topics. These have all been carefully produced by the Central Compilation and Translation Bureau, which is fully resourced and responsible for reliable editions of all works in the Marxist tradition.

At the same time, there are a number of other editions of Mao’s works, the most notable being Mao Zedong ji, published in 20 volumes in Japan. While most Chinese scholars have copies of this edition, they are also suspicious. Why? An individual scholar has edited the works rather than a major institution funded by the government. Is it reliable? Can it be cited? Not sure. One has to wary indeed when relying on such material. And the five volume collection, Mao Zedong Thought Lives Forever, published without a place, date or editorship during the Cultural Revolution, is way beyond any form of reliability.

Number of Christians in China

The second example concerns the number of Christians in China. This has been the subject of what are now called the ‘Internet Wars’. The official government figure is 38 million, which foreigners interested in such matters disregard since they suspect that the government wishes to downplay the numbers. Instead, they postulate more than 100 million, based on an anecdote: supposedly Ye Xiaowen, the former director of the State Administration of Religious Affairs, mentioned in a closed-door meeting at Peking University in 2006 that there were more than 100 million Christians in China. The problem here is that those who like to cite this anecdote provide no source for the statement, third-party evidence or indeed check with Ye Xiaowen himself. It turns out that – according to scholars who were actually present at the event – Ye Xiaowen had never said that there were more than 100 million Christians in China, but he did say that there were at that time more than 100 million religious believers. The difference is obvious, and the foreigners who like to peddle this number draw on unreliable rumour.

By now I am drawing on an article published in early 2019,[2] based on a long-term project at Peking University: the ‘China Family Panel Studies’. Carefully calibrated so as to be relevant to Chinese conditions, relying on a vast survey sample with multiple follow-ups, this sociological survey found in 2016 that there were 39.69 million Christians in China (about 2.8 percent of the population), of which 28.29 were ‘open Christians’ and 11.67 million ‘hidden Christians’. The ‘open Christians’ can mostly be attributed to the many legal forms of Christianity in China, such as the Three-Self Patriotic Movement churches (Protestant) and the recently united Roman Catholic Church, while the ‘hidden Christians’ are mostly from the illegal ‘house churches’.

While these figures are derived from a completely independent sociological survey, it is scientifically based and relies on the assumption that one can only trust what is recorded and verifiable. Tellingly, it is very close to the government figures for Christians in China, for the government does not release figures unless they are based on what can be verified.

As for the speculative foreigners, they are simply relying on hearsay and rumour.

Concept of (U)topia

The third example concerns utopia, which in the Western European tradition refers to both a no-place and a good-place. Typically, writings about utopia postulate a world yet to be realised, on a distant island (Thomas More’s Utopia), in the distant future (William Morris’s News From Nowhere), or even on another planet. The accounts are typically imaginative, hearsay upon hearsay, if not rumour itself. Obviously, if the world in question does not exist and therefore cannot be experienced, one must rely on nothing more than rumour and imagination. In other words, it is a transcendent world, much better than ours, but one that we cannot know empirically.

Let us go back to He Xiu, for his threefold distinction of rumoured, recorded and verified is actually the background to a major contribution to the Chinese tradition concerning what is often known as ‘utopia’. But his proposal is completely opposed to Western European assumptions. In more detail, He Xiu proposed three worlds:

  1. The ‘decayed and disordered world [shuailuan]’, which is characterised by rumour and gossip (suochuanwen).
  2. The world of ‘rising peace [shengping]’, which is determined by what is heard and recordable (suowen).
  3. The world of ‘great peace [taiping]’, which can only be known by seeing and is therefore verifiable (suojian).

By now you can see what has happened. What in the Western tradition is called ‘utopia’, based on rumour, is actually the world of decay and disorder. What cannot be known is highly undesirable, with plots, skulduggery and lack of unity.

By contrast, the world of rising peace can be recorded, leading to unity at least within the country and relative stability and security. But the most verifiable world is precisely that of the ‘Great Peace’ or what is also called the ‘Great Harmony [datong]’. This world can hardly be connected with the Western tradition of utopia, although not a few have tried to do so. Why? It is not a world of rumour and innuendo, but one that can be verified empirically and through scientific investigation.

Thus, ‘utopia’ is a particularly bad term to use in this context. If we stay with the Greek origins of the terms, the best term would be topos, a definite place, and the Chinese tradition concerning the Great Peace and the Great Harmony would have to be called ‘Topian Thought’.

Trusting the Government

Let us return to question of trust in governance. As mentioned earlier, throughout Chinese history, the body responsible for recording and verifying information has been the government itself. Given the size of the country, government has always been a somewhat large affair, and in this respect at least the communist government carries on a long tradition. Of course, it has a distinct trajectory determined by Marxism, but it is still responsible for the most reliable information, for it has the best resources to ensure such information.

I would like to close with an unexpected contribution from He Xiu, a contribution carried through in the later tradition via Kang Youwei’s Book of Datong and Deng Xiaoping’s evocation – in a communist framework – of the old Confucian category of a xiaokang society (one that is moderately well-off, healthy and peaceful). For Deng Xiaoping and even more those who followed – Jiang Zemin, Hu Jintao and especially Xi Jinping – this xiaokang society is the goal of the initial socialist phase of the new China, to be achieved by 2020.

This xiaokang society is equivalent now with what He Xiu called the world of ‘rising peace’. Most importantly, it is a world that about which one has reliable knowledge and is therefore able to provide reliable records. What does this mean for the core political program of achieving a xiaokang society in all respects by 2020? Is it merely political spin, a vague promise with little content? Not at all: it entails detailed and innovative planning, targeted projects, scientific analysis and rigorous assessment of results. For example, Xi Jinping has identified a peaceful and law-abiding country, environmental protection, and poverty alleviation as the three greatest challenges. Massive resources and initiatives have gone into each, with the Social Credit System, a wholesale shift away from environmentally destructive practices, and a last great push to lift the final 10 million people out of poverty (850 million since 1978).

Will these targets be achieved? Final assessment will tell. But one thing is clear: without them, a xiaokang society in unachievable; with them, it will be achieved. But such a society must be thoroughly recordable and verifiable. Trust in government turns on this fact.

Notes

[1] He Xiu. 1980. Chunqiu gongyangzhuan zhuxu. 28 vols. Beijing: Zhonghua shuju, p. 2200. Many editions of this work exist, in 28 volumes. It may also be found at https://ctext.org/wiki.pl?if=gb&res=642006&remap=gb.

[2] Lu Yunfeng, Wu Yue, and Zhang Chunni. 2019. ‘Zhongguo daodi you duoshao jidutu? Jiyu zhongguo jiating zhuizong diaocha de guji’. Kaifang shidai zazhi 2019 (1):1-14. http://www.wyzxwk.com/Article/shehui/2019/01/398823.html.

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Why I am in favour of brainwashing

Every now and then, I need to address an audience with brains that have been saturated with all types of liberal and bourgeois rubbish. So I have decided to begin my talks as follows:

I am in favour of brainwashing … it is a very, very good practice.

As Mao Zedong said in 1957 to a group of students:

Some foreigners say that our ideological reform is brainwashing. As I see it, they are correct in what they say. It is washing brains, that’s what it is! This brain of mine was washed to become what it is. After I joined the revolution, [my brain] slowly washed, washed for several decades. What I received before was all bourgeois education, and even some feudal education … At that time, none of us knew anything about how the Chinese revolution was to be promoted!

So I ask you to take a moment to wash your brains, as far as possible. Identify all of the liberal, bourgeois assumptions you might have, especially concerning communism. Only in this way can you begin to understand what socialism with Chinese characteristics is.

The Maopai (Maoist sectarians)

Agence France Presse asked me recently about at item making the rounds in some quarters. It concerns a small group of Maoist sectarians who had travelled south to take part in some worker protests. Coming from a few universities in Beijing, some were put under house arrest upon return. I am told that Cornell University in the United States terminated a cooperative program with Renmin University of China over the issue.

Of course, all of this gains its inevitable spin and the full context is lost. The question is asked: why would a Marxist government seek to restrain a Marxist movement? Here is my response to AFP, although I am not sure they will do it justice:

These types of groups have been in existence for quite some time. One could, for example, outline earlier forms such as the ‘Utopia’ movement of more than a decade ago, which championed the corrupt mayor of Chongqing, Bo Xilai. There are also loose connections with what has been called China’s ‘New Left’, although the latter keep clear of these groups. Today one could perhaps say they are within the broad spectrum of Marxism in China, but they are really quite minor and on the fringe in relation to the vast reality of Chinese Marxism.

A brief outline of their main positions may be useful. Rather than simply calling them ‘Marxists’, they should really be seen as Maopai, Maoist sectarians. The phenomemon is in fact common in the history of Marxism and communist movements. A sectarian group typically assumes it is the bearer of truth, while other groups are heretics or betrayers.

The Maoist sectarians are no different. They believe that they witness to the truth of the last real expression of communism in China with Mao Zedong, especially during the Cultural Revolution. As any careful study of Mao’s extensive writings and acts indicates, their reading is quite selective, suiting their own agenda. For example, they stress a ‘break’ between Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping, suggesting that the latter ‘betrayed’ Mao and took China on the road to capitalism. However, if one studies Deng Xiaoping, it soon becomes clear that the continuities are equally strong, if not stronger. Further, their perception of the Cultural Revolution is rather idealistic and starry-eyed, instead of seeing it as the complex and traumatic reality that it was: a trauma that still runs deep in Chinese society.

Their focus on some workers also indicates a difficulty in dealing with Mao’s emphasis on peasants as the core of the communist movement at the time. Here they disagree among themselves: some recognize the importance of peasants/farmers, while others dismiss them and assert that ‘true’ communism focuses on workers. It is also worth noting on this matter that when workers do strike in China (as happened more in the past but less so today), it is normally in relation to bosses breaking the law. Workers typically invoke communist slogans in their protests, which is a point where the Maoist sectarians can make a connection.

More significantly, their approach runs into severe problems when examined further. They hold to a rather stunning conspiracy theory, which has been running for the 40 years of the reform and opening up. Thus, they see the CPC now as ‘fake’, as using deceptive speech when stressing Marxism, and so on. They also dismiss 40 years of very sophisticated Marxist developments.

They are also rather astute in feeding into a particular form of Western European Marxism, which has – especially after 1989 – felt that no authentic form of socialism could develop elsewhere in the world, especially in China. Thus, they position themselves as the ‘authentic’ voice of Marxism in China. For example, the French Marxist philosopher, Alain Badiou, has been promoting this perspective and is used by some of these Maoist sectarians in their work in China. The problem with Badiou is that he seriously misunderstands Marxism in China today. He has to my knowledge never been in China where he would see a strong communist party, with Marxism promoted everywhere, even to the point where it is becoming part of Chinese culture.

Why have such groups stepped up their activities of late, becoming more open? Xi Jinping is the key here. Everyone in China has known for quite some time that Xi Jinping is very serious about Marxism, directing the development of China’s economy, reforming the communist party (it was in relatively bad shape some years ago), shaping academic developments, art and literature, and so on. Only this year – since the CPC’s 19th congress in late 2017 and Xi Jinping’s major speech in May 2018 commemorating 200 years since Marx’s birth – has the rest of the world begun to notice. These events are beginning to lead to significant reassessment in other parts of the world. In the process, Xi Jinping has successfully claimed Mao’s mantle – as the majority of common people (laobaixing) clearly sense. But this development is quite disconcerting for the Maoist sectarians, for it seriously risks undermining their approach and indeed their conspiracy theory.

A specific event can also be connected to this activity. On 29 October, 2018, Xi Jinping gave a major speech to new trade union leaders on the relationship between workers, trade unions and the communist party. Again, this was a very Marxist speech with a clear articulation of how workers and unions function in building a new China under socialism in power. The challenge to the Maoist narrative should be obvious.

Lenin would have called them ‘left-wing communism, an infantile disorder’. However, one usually grows up and gains some wisdom. I have witnessed a number of people do precisely that: entertain a sectarian perspective for a while but then realise there is a greater and richer Marxist reality reality with which to engage constructively.

‘Like the sun shining over the world’: The Dalai Lama’s poem praising Mao Zedong

This poem was written by the Dalai Lama in 1954. But since the text is somewhat difficicult to find (for obvious reasons), I provide a translation here. It comes from an interview by Anna Louise Strong.

Preamble:

The great national leader of the Central People’s Government, Chairman Mao, is the cakravarti born out of boundless fine merits. For a long time I wished to write a hymn praying for his long life and the success of his work. It happened that the Klatsuang-kergun Lama of Kantsu monastery in Inner Mongolia wrote me from afar, saluting me and asked me to write a poem. I agreed to do so, as it coincides with my own wishes.

Poem:

O, the Triratna (Buddha, Dharma and Sangha) which bestow blessings upon the world,

Protect us with your incomparable and blessed light which shines forever.

O! Chairman Mao! Your brilliance and deeds are like those of Brahma and Mahasammata, creators of the world,

Only from an infinite number of good deeds can such a leader be born, who is like the sun shining over the world.

Your writings are precious as pearls, abundant and powerful as the high tide of ocean reaching the edges of the sky.

O! Most honourable Chairman Mao, may you live long!

All people look to you as a kind protecting mother, they paint pictures of you with hearts full of emotion,

May you live in the world forever and point out to us the peaceful road!

Our vast land was burdened with pain, with shackles and darkness,

You liberated all with your brilliance. People now are happy, full of blessings!

Your work for peace is a white jewelled umbrella, giving shade over heaven and earth and mankind.

Your fame is like golden bells on the umbrella, ringing and turning forever in the sky!

Our foe, the blood-thirsty imperialists, are poisonous snakes, and messengers of the devil furtively crawling.

You are the undaunted roc which conquered the poisonous serpent. To you be power!

The cultural and industrial constructions which make the people prosperous and defeat the enemy’s armed forces are like a vast sea;

These constructions develop continuously until they shall make this world as full of satisfaction as heaven.

The perfect religion of Sakyamuni (Buddha) is like a moonlight pearl lamp shining bright.

It is like a perfumed pearl ornament which we wear without prohibition. O! Of this we are proud.

Your will is like the gathering of clouds, your call like thunder,

From these comes timely rain to nourish selflessly the earth!

As the Ganges River runs precious and to all the earth

The cause of peace and justice will bring to all people boundless joy!

May our world gradually become as happy as Paradise!

May the torch of the world, our great leader, be lit forever!

May the powers of the benevolent Bodhisattvas, the resourceful Dharma-protector, and the truthful words of the Maharishis, make these good hopes true!

Mao’s Liberation of Tibet

It is useful to keep the whole picture in mind, rather than blindly follow what the ‘vegetarian between meals’ would lead us to believe (see further Sautman). To begin with, there is the simple historical question. Although accounts differ in relation to Tibet, the reality is that this region has been subject to Chinese rule in various ways since at least the eighteenth century under the Qing dynasty (with Chinese claims to de jure rule since the Yuan dynasty in the thirteenth century). Claims to some form of independence hark back to an image of the feudal Tibetan empire from the seventh to the eleventh centuries.

What happened after the liberation of Tibet in 1951 by the PLA, which was supported a wide range of Tibetans? A comprehensive 17-point agreement was reached in 1951, approved by all lamas and the Dalai Lama himself. Subsequent CIA agitation, funding, arms and logistics led to reneging on the agreement and the fateful 1959 uprising, which failed to garner widespread support, especially among those Tibetans who had been abused under the former feudal system. The Dalai Lama and his entourage were assisted by the CIA to flee the Tibetan region. Eventually, the CIA wound up its well-publicised ‘covert’ activities in the 1970s, only to be replaced by the innocuous sounding National Endowment for Democracy in 1984 (instituted under Ronald Reagan). As Elizabeth Davis’s careful study indicates, ‘Allen Weinstein, the NED’s first acting president, observed that “A lot of what we [the NED] do today was done covertly 25 years ago by the CIA’. A range of other western government-sponsored bodies work together with the NED to undermine Chinese sovereignty.

Even more, the factionalism of the Tibetan diaspora is bewildering. Many have not lived in the Tibetan region for two generations and they spend as much time attacking each other as they spend in trying to garner cash and support from states keen to irritate China. This factionalism is by no means new, for the struggles between different groups in Tibet’s history often used torture, violence and displacement to assert their control.

What about China’s position? This boils down to two strategies. The immediate aim is security and peace in the Tibetan autonomous region. Apart from the CIA-sponsored uprising in 1959, another more recent example concerns the deadly 2008 riots in Lhasa, in which some Tibetans burned, looted and killed Han Chinese and Muslims. From a Chinese perspective, these acts are part of the ‘separatism, extremism and terrorism’ continuum.

The long-term aim is socio-economic improvement, a core feature of the ‘preferential policy [youhui zhengce]’ for all minority nationalities. Obviously, this takes time but we can already see the significant improvements in living standards, with massive infrastructure projects, favourable conditions for Tibetan businesses, and a host of other measures. The Tibetan region has one of the highest growth rates in China now, although it is belated in comparison with the eastern regions of China.

As I have observed on a number of occasions before, socio-economic improvement is the basis of a Chinese Marxist approach to human rights, which may be described as the right to economic well-being. While the Euro-American tradition focuses on civil and political rights, and uses these to irritate China, it neglects the whole other dimension of the right to economic wellbeing, which includes the rights to work and to development. The Chinese emphasis goes back in more immediate history to the Jiangxi-Fujian Soviet of the early 1930s, with its capital in Ruijin. Here developed what may be called the ‘Ruijin ethos’: focus first on the people’s need for food, shelter, clothing and security; only when these are secured will they become communists. In the longer tradition, the Confucian ethos is strong, particularly with the desire for at least a xiaokang society, meaning that one is moderately well-off, healthy, and peaceful. This basic human right in China has actually been embodied in the United Nations’ International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights (1976). Article 11(1) is relevant here, which mentions that state parties ‘recognize the rights of everyone to an adequate standard of living for himself and his family, including adequate food, clothing, and housing, and to the continuous improvement of living conditions’. Notably, the United States has not ratified this covenant.

But does this mean civil and political rights are curtailed for militant Tibetans? If they engage in ‘separatism, extremism and terrorism’, yes. This is a security issue. But as Barry Sautman observes:

The point to stress is that there is no repression of Tibetans simply for being Tibetan. Nor does the Chinese government repress religion per se. Instead, Tibetans receive a range of preferential policies, and authorised religions in China receive state support. Where religious organisations pose no political threat, they are regulated by the state and can generally function openly, especially among ethnic minorities. The relation between religious organisations and the state is informed by longstanding Chinese traditions; separatism is another story. Under international law, states may make separatism illegal. The Chinese government, based on China’s history of cycles of territorial unity and disunity, makes use of that right.

On the matter of culture it is worth noting the most thorough treatment of the issue by Colin Mackarras, who observes, ‘what strikes me most forcefully about the period since 1980 or so is not how much the Chinese have harmed Tibetan culture, but how much they have allowed, even encouraged it to revive; not how weak it is, but how strong’.

Finally, two pieces from none other than the Dalai Lama himself. The first is a telegram sent to Mao in 1951, indicating support of the 17-point agreement, which included the statement: ‘The central authorities will not alter the established status, functions and powers of the Dalai Lama‘.

The second is a poem he wrote in 1954 concerning Mao Zedong:

 

 

Mao’s ‘contradiction analysis’ valid more than 60 years later

Back in 1957, Mao gave a long speech called ‘On Correctly Handling Contradictions Among the People‘ (I am reading it at the moment as part of my Chinese language study). He was thinking about such matters more intensely at the time, since he had been revising part of his lectures on Dialectical Materialism, first given in Yan’an in 1937. That part would become ‘On Contradiction‘, the most important and influential writing on philosophy in China in the twentieth century.

‘On Correctly Handling Contradictions’, has many insights, including the development in a Chinese context of non-antagonistic contradictions’. But I am here interested in his deployment of contradiction analysis to understand developments in international relations.

At one point, he writes:

The United States now controls a majority in the United Nations and dominates many parts of the world – this state of affairs is temporary and will be changed one of these days. China’s position as a poor country denied its rights in international affairs will also be changed – the poor country will change into a rich one, the country denied its rights into one enjoying them – a transformation of things into their opposites. Here, the decisive conditions are the socialist system and the concerted efforts of a united people.

How true this is today, more than 60 years later.