What kind of ideology rules modern China

The Confucian State: The Ideal Form of Government for China?


Since the coronavirus became a global pandemic, China's political system has become a hotly debated topic in the newspapers and social media of the western world. The fact that the Chinese government initially reacted slowly to the appearance of the virus in Wuhan is cited in Western countries as an indication of the efforts of an authoritarian regime to suppress bad news. The strict quarantine measures that followed are interpreted as evidence of the cruelty of such a system. As a resident of Beijing, I have had firsthand experience of these strict quarantine rules.

But in this article I don't want to tell you about their advantages and disadvantages. Only when the pandemic is over can we make a final assessment of these measures. Instead, I would like to take a step back and offer an interpretation of the Chinese political system: I compare it to the Confucian state as an ideal type of government based on the teachings of Confucius. These teachings, despite their differences from liberal ideas, are compatible not only with China's long traditions but also with the psychological inclinations of ordinary Chinese. I believe that this comparison will help the West to better assess the political system in China. I would even like to go a bold step further: I also hope that my reflections will enable the West to better understand the strengths and weaknesses of free democracy.

The Confucian World

Democratic states all over the world are built on an ideal type of government, “liberal democracy”. The roots of this form of government can be traced back to the treaty theory approaches of Thomas Hobbes and John Locke. Hobbes started from the state of nature in which every human being is endowed with a number of natural rights. The right to self-defense is the most indispensable and inalienable of these rights. But everyone also strives for more possessions, which is why in the natural state there is a constant struggle “everyone against everyone”. That is why people make a social contract to achieve peace. In this social contract, every individual gives up part of their natural rights and surrenders them to an omnipotent government: the Leviathan. Locke supplemented the Hobbesian concept of the state of nature and required every person to obey natural laws. These laws allow individuals to dispose of property, but also limit this right of property: the individual does not own more than he needs to secure his livelihood.

The only disadvantage of this Lockeian state of nature is that no one can be sure that other people are obeying natural laws. This leads to them forming a society, becoming citizens and agreeing together to set up a government that is controlled by themselves. The autocratic regime tolerated by Hobbes is not an option because it is worse than the anarchy of the state of nature. For Locke, whoever contemplates such an autocracy as a government is ready to be eaten by a lion rather than be bothered by goats. So I summarize: Liberal democracy is a man-made social contract between individuals who pursue their own self-interest.

The Confucian State has a different starting point. For Confucius (551-479 BC) people were born with different natural characteristics. Some are smart and some are stupid. The smartest and the dumbest cannot be changed, but those in between can change through learning and practice. As a consequence, society consists of "honorable men" (junzi) and "little men" (xiaoren). The men of honor care about things that go beyond their own welfare, while the little men care only about themselves. Translated into today's words, this means: Confucius believed that human nature consists of a complex combination of characteristics, those of pure self-interest to noble motives. This view is compatible with scientific observations of two conspecifics of Homo sapiens, the chimpanzees and the bonobos, such as those made by Frans de Waal in his famous book Chimpanzee Politics (German: Our hairy cousins) has described. And this view also coincides with what we observe in our everyday life. For Confucius, human nature is the sum of observations and therefore the result is complex. For Hobbes and Locke, human nature is a construct that is only defined by the rationality of the individual. What are the implicit consequences of this difference? In any case, they are immense.

Confucian State vs. Liberal Democracy

First of all, free democracies believe that all human beings are created equal; a Confucian state does not believe that. This Confucian counter-thesis must sound alarming to many people. But the statement “all people are created equal” is a normative assessment, not a positivistic description of reality. So the Confucian objection only recognizes reality. But that does not mean that a Confucian necessarily rejects the pursuit of equality. Indeed, many modern Confucians vehemently defend equality and personal freedom. Because of this, Confucianism is a kind of positive realism: Confucians recognize that the world is not perfect, but they profess to make it better.

Second, according to Confucius' teachings, a society should be organized hierarchically, with the hierarchy being determined by relevant qualifications. This notion is not only held by Confucians; the American founding fathers had similar ideas. In his famous Federalist Papers Alexander Hamilton relentlessly championed the opinion that the office of president is not suitable for a person without outstanding qualities. And the American Constitution gave the right to elect the president to that electoral college, a body of elite electors recommended by their local community. The contemporary Confucian philosopher Daniel Bell distinguishes between good and bad hierarchies. Bad hierarchies like the caste system cement social differences and are oppressive. Good hierarchies enable social advancement and encourage people to improve. While good hierarchies recognize that people are born with different abilities, they also encourage them to improve through frugality and self-study. In fact, historical China with its nationwide unified examination system (keju) in ancient times one of the societies with the greatest social mobility.

Third, candidates' qualifications are the most important criterion for choosing political leaders - not their political platform or agenda. For a Confucian, the most important goal of a leader is to rule virtuously (ren). This virtue does not depend on their duty to be accountable to the people, as liberal democracies demand. Rather, it depends on the personal qualities of the virtuous ruler himself.

From the virtuous ruler

How do you become a virtuous ruler or politician? Through learning and education. Ever since Emperor Hanwu (156-87 BC, seventh emperor of the Han Dynasty) adopted Confucianism as the only state ideology, every Chinese emperor has studied Confucianism throughout his life. A Confucian teacher was assigned to him as a boy. In addition, even after he took up his post, he received regular lessons (jingyan) by Confucian teachers. These requirements were not limited to the emperor alone. Government officials too had to seek their own perfection by studying Confucian teachings. The Keju examination system was created to find the talented among young people. Before the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), the prime minister was the head of government. As one Confucian teacher of the Song Dynasty put it: A prime minister should be judged by how well he manages to keep the peace in the country, and an emperor by how successful he is in his study of Confucianism.

In a nutshell, in the Confucian world, personal virtue and personal merit are everything. The Chinese have long known that if they want to improve their lives, they have to trust themselves, not the government. That's why Jack Ma and Pony Ma, the two richest men in China today, are the heroes of the young Chinese. The Chinese do not believe in the collective as strongly as they themselves and also abroad have long believed. They leave the public sphere to the rulers and obey them. That is why the Chinese seem more collectively oriented than the peoples of the West. In turn, those in power are expected to use their public role to improve the welfare of the collective. Responsibility, not accountability, is the driving force behind power in China.

The selection of political personnel

In the Confucian world, the state is run by officials chosen for their virtues and skills. But who is qualified to make this selection? In a democracy, political personnel are elected by the people. This is based on the assessment that the wisdom of the collective is expressed in the aggregated votes of all citizens. Hamilton rejected this assessment because voters can easily be influenced by opportunistic politicians. Confucianism rejects the wisdom of the many theory for similar reasons: People have come different ways on the path to becoming a virtuous person, so some people have better judgment than others. Therefore, officials should be chosen by those who already have great virtue and valuable skills themselves. In ancient China, high-ranking officials and ultimately the emperor himself took on this task. In today's China, the Communist Party takes the pick. The Confucian State needs a central body with the power to elect state officials.

This centralized selection system has advantages and disadvantages. The main advantage is to protect public servants from the demands and desires of the general public, which in many cases can be short-sighted. In a large country like China, this procedure also gives a central body a powerful tool to control local officials. Since the time of Emperor Qin Shihuang (259-210 BC), who first unified China, the central government has given local officials considerable autonomy. But to prevent them from building their own political power base, these local officials were replaced every few years in a kind of rotation system. This practice still exists today. By determining the occupation of the posts, headquarters can exercise effective control over civil servants and political leaders across the country. But this concentration of power also has disadvantages. The system can quickly become encrusted because each officer is only waiting for an order from above. In addition, the path to the top is so long that after many selection rounds, almost all officials have the same characteristics. While training on the way up improves the quality of management staff, the bureaucracy may overlook talent outside the system who have good skills in solving the country's problems.

The greatest challenge for the Confucian State is the lack of accountability to which the central power is obliged. This duty is an integral part of any liberal democracy. Can this accountability be derived from Confucian State theory? I see two arguments for answering this question positively. First, it is the ultimate goal of a Confucian state ren, that is, to realize virtuous governance. The ruler - in this case the central body of power - should therefore be prepared to leave the ultimate judgment of his policy to the people. After all, the ruling body believes that what it does is good for the people and good for the people. Second, rulers cannot remove popular distrust through promises alone. If the rulers share their power with the people, it is a mutual assurance of the rulers and the ruled: The people can be sure that the rulers strive for the virtuous exercise of power and the rulers can assume that the people will not rebel against them. Therefore, the Confucian state in its modern form should transfer sovereignty to the people.

The efficiency of China's current political system

China's economic success since 1978 has been made possible because the Communist Party has turned to Chinese traditions in which the Confucian state plays a central role. When it comes only to economic aspects, the Chinese success can be explained by the adoption of the lessons of neoclassical economic theory. For an economist who deals with more political As for economics, a far more intriguing question is why the Chinese government and the Communist Party have managed to embrace these teachings.

It is worth remembering that before 1978 the Communist Party was primarily engaged in class struggle. Class struggle as described by Karl Marx as a necessary next step in building a classless society. Finally, the Chinese Communist Party was founded in 1921 because Marxism spread in China. From its inception until 1978, the party took a clear stance against Chinese traditions because it considered them reactionary and backward-looking. In 1978, Deng Xiaoping ended the class struggle and used his pragmatic Chinese instincts to return the party to Chinese traditions. The Communist Party went through a process of Sinization under his leadership.

The two main changes in the Communist Party

The first decisive change was to replace Marxist dogmas with the Chinese philosophy of pragmatism. China does not have any religions that have grown in its own country. Secular life has long been the focus of Chinese civilization. Joy, love, fear, suffering, etc. - all experiences that a person has in life - have always been subjects of poems, verses and folk songs. So the people in China became down-to-earth pragmatists. In its current version, Chinese pragmatism has two specific characteristics. First, there are no one-size-fits-all truths. That is why every claim to truth must be checked in practice. Without this thought, it would be inconceivable that the Communist Party would have embarked on all of these reforms that ran counter to orthodox Marxism. A Marxism that was primarily created and represented in the Soviet Union. The second characteristic: the legitimacy of the means can be justified in the sense of reason by the desirability of the results. In Deng's words, it sounds like this: It doesn't matter whether a cat is white or black. The main thing is that it catches mice. For Deng, the "mice" represented the great renewal of China and the "cat" stood for whatever was necessary to achieve this goal of renewal. One example of this was the introduction of the market economy. Because the market distributes resources more efficiently than planning, China should rely on a market economy. It didn't matter that the market is an invention of capitalism.

As a second change, an intra-party political performance system was reintroduced: a meritocracy for the Communist Party. Deng introduced rules for party members to retire, clearing the way for young members to move up the hierarchy. In the early 1980s he formulated four criteria for promotion in the party: The leadership staff had to be revolutionary, young, knowledgeable and professional. One of the most important promotions of the time was that of Zhao Ziyang to prime minister. Zhao was only party secretary in Sichuan Province before he was appointed to the post. He was named prime minister only because he had taken a leadership role in land and land reform. The tradition of performance-based promotion continued to Deng from the central leadership. In the 1990s and the noughties, economic performance was an essential criterion for ascending the party hierarchy.

However, on the party's theoretical front, change has been slower.The party leaders noticed more and more in the 80s and 90s that the decisions and actions of the party could no longer be fully described in terms of Marxism. In particular, the economic reforms contradicted the practices of dogmatic Marxism, which postulated economic planning and common ownership of the means of production. On paper, Marxism had to be an orthodox ideology because it justified the ideology of the Chinese Communist Party. But in reality, the party leadership gave Marxism a new coat of paint and now defined the party as a “people's party for all”. From now on, the party should represent not only the working class but also other people groups in China. This made the party a neutral power center that does not defend the interests of individual social groups. In this way, the party avoided a problem that plagues many developing countries: the state did not become a prisoner of various interest groups and the Chinese economy was able to grow without interest groups causing a misallocation of resources. That is the essence of the political economy that is behind China's economic success.

Why the international discourse about China is grossly simplified

The prevailing discourse in the international public describes China's politico-economic system as one of political and economic exclusion in which the state controls everything with a firm hand. Indeed, it is common practice at the moment to see China's system as diametrically opposed to the Western free market system and democratic government. However, this is a simplistic and misleading characterization of the Chinese system.

First of all, the Communist Party is not a closed political entity. It is open to everyone who believes in China's great renewal and can and want to contribute to it. Joining the party requires discipline. This hurdle allows opportunists to be discovered and sorted out. The party thus assumes the role of the central authority in the Confucian state, including tasks such as the selection of political and bureaucratic leaders throughout the country. These management personnel are competing for promotion at all levels. Although personal connections play a role, studies show that performance is the key factor behind a promotion. The impression that China's political system is closed has arisen because China is viewed through the lens of democratic party competition. The argument goes: In the Chinese political system there are no parties that compete with the Communist Party, so it is a closed political system. But the Communist Party is not a political party in the western sense. Rather, it is the central authority in a Confucian state.

As for the economic aspect of the politico-economic system, the Chinese economy is not dominated by the state sector. Within China, the contribution of the private sector is described by the simple number series “56789”: The private sector

  • pays 50 percent of taxes,
  • generates 60 percent of the gross national product,
  • is responsible for 70 percent of innovations,
  • employs 80 percent of workers and
  • stands for 90 percent of companies.

The key to China's economic success is not state capitalism, but growth in the private sector. State capitalism itself is a myth. Although the government itself controls the market, it is far-fetched to say that the government controls everything in the Chinese economy. Serious scholars must realize that claiming China is pursuing an economic model of state capitalism could also be a strategy to discredit China's economic successes.

In the social sphere, too, the control exercised by the party is exaggerated. There is certainly censorship in the country, but the regime is definitely far from a dictatorship like that of George Orwell in his dystopian novel 1984 describes. Take the example of the Social Credit Systems. Most Western commentators see it as evidence of China's digital despotism. This assessment misjudges reality: vertigo and fraud are serious threats to decent business practices and everyday life. China is a country that is currently undergoing a rapid transformation from a traditional society shaped by personal relationships to a modern society of strangers. The social credit system aims to punish fraud and reward honesty. It is inconvenient for honest people too, but that is perhaps a necessary inconvenience for China to quickly transform itself into a rule-based, modern society.

The quarantine measures China has taken to fight the coronavirus have been cited by Western journalists and on social media as further evidence of Chinese despotism. Some have even called for quarantine measures to be dispensed with in their home countries because they decidedly wanted to avoid following the example of what they considered to be the despotic method of China. But this line of reasoning ignores the fact that other countries and regions in East Asia have either used strict quarantine measures or digital tracking to prevent the spread of infection. East Asia did this not because it shares the same political system, but because China and these countries and regions share the same collective culture.

Introduce “checks and balances” into China's political system

Certainly, China's political system is not perfect, even when compared to the Confucian state. But that shouldn't come as a surprise. After all, no democracy on earth can achieve the standards of an ideal liberal democracy. Every political system is only on the way to perfection.

The main difference between the Chinese political system and the Confucian state is the lack of accountability of the central government. Even so, it is not advisable to fill this gap with competition between parties in a traditional electoral system. Instead, a process of Checks and Balances Become part of the political system. The principle of constitutional political rule is the separation of powers. The principle of checks and balances should develop from this. Because the separation of powers should not remain an exclusive feature of free democracies. Every rational political order needs the separation of powers, because without it rational governance in a modern society, whose essential characteristic is complexity, becomes impossible. Unfortunately, the instrument of checks and balances itself has become so ideologically charged - in the West as in the East - that a rational discussion of this instrument for controlling the government has become impossible without first judging the political system itself.

Is it possible to introduce the principle of checks and balances in China, given that the Communist Party is the only political power in society? In this regard, the oath of the emperors of the Northern Song Dynasty (960-1127) gives an illuminating example: The first emperor of the dynasty made a secret stone tablet with an oath as an inscription, which obliged future rulers not to kill any officials or people who criticized him. Every new emperor had to take this oath in secrecy. None of the emperors of the dynasty broke this oath. Self-restraint could therefore lead to a permanent agreement between two interest parties with asymmetrical power. Behind the exemplary pact between the emperor and his respective critic was the shared belief in Confucian doctrine. The Communist Party pursues the goal of the great renewal of China. The Chinese people also strive for this goal. Therefore, the two reasons that speak in the Confucian state in favor of transferring sovereignty to the people are also valid for China's current political system: The pursuit of virtue in governance (ren) and the mutual self-insurance of rulers and ruled.

There are several reasons why Checks and Balances have not been fully implemented in China. The most important reason is that there is a lack of consensus on whether the Confucian state can serve as a model of an ideal form of government for China today. The party is not ready to complete its course of Sinization and the public is dominated by the narrative of democracy. As a result, the political discourse in China is tense and determined by a mutual fear: The public, especially the intellectuals, fearfully hope that China will transform into a democracy and that is precisely why the party is afraid for its own power. The second fear is the main cause of censorship.

The Communist Party must complete its Sinization

The Communist Party should take a leadership role in breaking this curse of fear. Consistently leading the course of Sinization to the end is the only way out. Marxism does not explain what the party has been doing right since 1978. Nor does it lead to peace with the worldview of the people in China. If the party recognizes the Confucian state as an ideal type, it will lay a solid philosophical foundation for China's political system that is congruent with the psychological inclinations of ordinary Chinese. In addition, this ideal will help the Communist Party deal with the West.

Liberalism harbors precious human values, but it also has disadvantages. This is especially true in the areas associated with individualism and abstract equality that serve as a breeding ground for populist politics. Confucianism promises healing in precisely these areas. The idea of zhong-yong - this means peaceful coexistence in the political arena - also allows Confucianism to accept many liberal values. Zhong-yong allows China to plead for political diversity in the world.