Privilege - the core spirit of Chinese society

J. Michael Cole's article (as usual, worth readying) regarding the critics of China Post on the democracy inspires some discussion about the democracy (or the lack of it) in Chinese society. I am putting my thoughts here (with netters' questions), with the argument that the democracy is impossible in the privilege-based Chinese society.

Chinese society is based on privileges

The most important ingredient in Chinese culture is "privilege." People do whatever they can to get privileged, and the authority uses the privilege to buy loyalty. The entire social structure is built on the give and take of privileges.

That's why the true justice is impossible in Chinese society, because it requires that everybody is equal before the law.

That's why the democracy is denounced by Chinese, especially Chinese intellectuals, because in a democratic society the non-educated share the same political right as the educated.

If you were a member of any of most of Chinese organizations, you would find that they work as much as possible to avoid "rules," because existence of rules means everyone should follow.

Chinese don't like rules, don't like laws, and reject the democracy, because there is no room for privileges.

Understanding this, it won't be hard to see the source of the chaos in Taiwan.

Anonymous: "Any idea of whether such opinion pieces are sincerely based on the author's commitments, or paid advertising for the CCP?"

I can't say if it is paid for, but it doesn't need CCP to pay for this. That's in Chinese culture so they will say it for their own benefits, for free. We will continue to see Chinese intellectuals saying how bad a democracy is.

A democracy comes with laws

Anonymous: "@ Taiwan Echo. you make some interesting points. but if chinese hate rules, wouldn't they like 'chaotic' democracy? if democracy seems to have less structure, then it would allow you more freedom from rules...?"

First of all, "democracy is chaotic" is something deserves review. A democracy comes with laws to ensure that the democracy spirit is established. Without the fair and effective enforcement of laws, the justice cannot prevail, then the democracy will fail. The idea "democracy is chaotic" is thus a distortion. A democracy would turn chaotic only when people want the "freedom" part but disregard the "law" part. When that happens, the apparent democracy is just a formality. Paying attention to the "law" part of a democracy, it won't be hard to observe how often Chinese intellectuals (in Taiwan) undermine the law, and use that to get privileges. That's what brings chaos into the society. The question "won't Chinese love democracy because it's chaotic" is false.

The Confucianism in China is just a facade

Anonymous: "in a way, you seem to be arguing what the CCP has often argued. democracy is a western idea that is necessarily in conflict with chinese (confucian?) culture. Partly relevant is Bell's book 'China's New Confucianism. He argues that chinese will probably prefer some form of confucian rule, may be not democracy. (He also gives an interesting argument why, according to the confucian view on just war, China couldn't attack Taiwan if the latter declares independence.)"

I didn't read the book by Bell, so I can't comment. But I agree that there probably won't be wars if China does follow the Confucianism. I do appreciate the values presented in the teachings of Confucius. However, here is the situation that most westerners fail to see: in Chinese society, the teaching is one thing, the behaviors in the real world is totally different. Powerful people use the Confucianism to teach people (so the students can behave), but their own behaviors violate the teachings in many aspects. Somewhere along the line of Chinese history, Chinese developed hypocrisy as the "living principle" in conjunction with the "teaching principle" of Confucianism. People who learn the Confucianism in their early ages have to grow up behaving the opposite way otherwise they will continue to get suppressed by those who "get privileged by violating the teachings."

Just review the history of foreign encounters of Chinese. There are so many examples that Chinese gain upper hands by breaking their promises. Failing to keep promises is something Confucius criticized heavily. See how Ma Ying-jeou presents himself in a polite and soft-spoken manner. This part fits the teaching. But how many laws has he violated yet he still claims that following laws is his living standard ? How many promises have he broken, which is in complete opposite direction of Confucianism ? Until this time, the western world is still naively believing this biggest hypocrite. The western world just don't get that in Chinese society, "talking sense" is just a tool to gain upper hands.

Again, it all comes down to the privilege. No matter it's law, democracy, or Confucianism (hey, Confucianism is some sort of rules, too), in Chinese-based society, it will be bent and shaped into a tool to ensure that some class of people will hold their privileges. Newer generations will have no choice but become part of it.

Yes, I am arguing - like the CCP is - that the democracy is impossible in Chinese-based society, but obviously based on very different reasons.

vin: "But Chinese and Taiwanese prize stability above all else -- and stability has for so many Chinese centuries has been based on orthodoxy built on privilege."

Right on! That's how Chinese "use" Confucianism, as a tool to ensure privileges. IMO it's not what Confucius really meant.


Jerome [8/9/09 10:23] said...

I could not agree more; I have repeatedly stated in 3 separate essays tracing why the KMT never succeeded in China. "Power, privilege, and entitlement, how hard they are to sacrifice, even for the noble cause of one's country."

Thomas [8/9/09 16:09] said...

Point 1:

I would argue that gaining privileges is what all social structures are built around. People everywhere do what they can to climb the social ladder and have since time began. Societies just have different ways of going about social climbing.

Point 2:

I would also note that you haven't really made the case that democracy would not work in a Chinese society. The fact that Taiwan is having a difficult time evolving could be just as much do to the fact that a resurgent China seems to be presenting an attractive model that allows the powerful to more blatantly conserve privileges that might be harder to conserve if, to the inhabitants of China and Taiwan, a Western democratic model were clearly superior. In fact, China is providing an unhealthy model to regimes worldwide right now.

Development of rules-based societies does not happen overnight, and indeed, Taiwan was making slow if sure progress in the direction of fairness until recently? What changed?

The KMT, which indeed had not abandoned its hopes of autocratic privilege, was able to effectively tar the party in power and the whole localization movement by opposing the impressive growth of the local economy to that of the faster-growing and larger economy across the strait, and did it with the support of the Chinese.

Meanwhile, business interests (privileged members) in the US and Europe have thrown their lot in with the Chinese. This provides more support for the KMT than they would otherwise have, making it more difficult for competition to develop in the society. Competition, by the way, is what leads to more fairness in the long run.

Why has China not reformed politically yet? In my opinion, China is a victim of its own success. The amazing growth story of the country is precisely what has allowed the privileged to maintain their hold on power. The masses have been somewhat placated by money and the idea that the devil they know is better than the devil they don't.

In short, my point is that you would have to convince me that the thing that has caused backsliding in Taiwan and impeded the growth of a fairer system in China is indeed due to the inherent nature of Chinese societies instead of the presence of an unfortunate set of untimely outside influences.

On to point 3:

You say "That's why the democracy is denounced by Chinese, especially Chinese intellectuals, because in a democratic society the non-educated share the same political right as the educated."

I say: No that is not it. You have highlighted the excuse: "Those "uneducated" people might share our power and lead us to disaster." I believe the reality is that the powerful are simply resistant to sharing power. Do you think that Chinese dissidents, local human rights lawyers, citizen activists, and members of the Chinese Democracy Party are uneducated? Of course you don't. Neither do the "academics" to which you refer and neither do the Beijing officials. The issue is not about sharing power with the uneducated. It is about sharing power. Period.

Final point:

You say that Chinese break promises. Here I agree with you, and it is here that I think that Western politicians are at their most naive. Chinese societies don't foster a spirit of compromise. Chinese leaders simply bend when they absolutely have to. Due to Point 2, the rest of the world overlooks the broken promises. The irony of Ma's approach towards China is that he promotes the idea of compromise when he of all people should know that he has no power to "force" a compromise. So he gets a bone thrown to him here or there and declares a victory, because it is the rest of the world (as well as the localized populace) that expects compromise and he must make a show of gaining it to maintain his credibility.

Taiwan Echo [10/9/09 01:56] said...

Thomas, thanks for sharing your points here.

Point 1:

Good point. I did find out that the meaning of "privilege" in English, i.e., special rights to a person or certain class, seems to be different from its corresponding part, 特權, in Chinese. In Chinese, 特權 implies that the special right is exercised outside of the law. A term "illegal privileges" might be a better term.

Point 2:

You said that the reason the democracy is denied in (current) Chinese society could be due to that it makes it harder for people in a resurgent China to hold privileges. Isn't that statement by itself making the point that the democracy is not for Chinese?

Judging from your statement,

"Why has China not reformed politically yet? In my opinion, China is a victim of its own success,"

You seem to argue that the issue of (illegal) privileges (in conflict with the democracy) you mentioned above only happened after China is getting strong lately. To my understanding, it has been in Chinese history for a very long long time. That's why I commented earlier, somewhere along the line of Chinese history, Chinese developed hypocrisy as the "living principle" in conjunction with the "teaching principle" of Confucianism.

It's fair for you to say that you are not convinced, for that a theory requires evidences to be solid, which in turn requires in-depth researches. What I can offer here is my observation based on my painful experience in a Chinese society, in which I was taught to follow the teachings of Confucius, but later grew up to find that those Chinese elites are allowed to gain and enjoy their illegal privileges by acting in violation of them. Seeing that it seems to be a deeply embedded core of Chinese society, and there seems to be no hope of any change in the future, it makes me come to a conclusion that the democracy is impossible.

Point 3:

Agree with you. I argued that "Chinese don't want to share power with the non-educated" because I often heard Chinese say that people like farmers or labors are not educated so they can't rely Chinese future on them.

Final point:

Well said. But, IMHO, as in Point 2, the hobby of using promises as a tool to gain privileges seems to be part of Chinese society for a long time, and foreigners - businessmen and politicians - have been lied to again and again, long before this surge of China economics. That is, the western world being so naive on Chinese because that they don't understand the nature of Chinese society, not because they want business with China. Somehow the thousands-year-old history seems to represent an imaginary world of mystery that the western world portrays in their dream, which is very different in reality.

Btw, mentioning "western" here, which implies that the issue of illegal privileges belongs to the "eastern" world, might not be fair. Japan, an eastern country, doesn't seem to have this problem.

Thomas [10/9/09 21:24] said...

"the hobby of using promises as a tool to gain privileges seems to be part of Chinese society for a long time"

You keep coming back to the point that the idea of retaining illegal privileges has been a part of Chinese society for a long time. I anticipated this point, but I wanted to limit the length of my earlier response.

In short, I think you are right. However, you forget that, until the end of the 19th century, no alternative models were truly available for comparison. The Manchus were living in a bubble, and for most of their reign, outside ideas were only allowed in in tiny doses. As for earlier than that, for most of China's history, the societies that have bordered on China have been despotic. The bubble was a very old one.

There was a brief shining moment at the beginning of the 20th when things could have been different. But the lure of retaining "privileges" was too strong for the new government. There is nothing strange about this. There are many examples of societies evolving from monarchies that took a backwards step or two.

The KMT never adopted a real democratic system, and once the civil war really started to turn against them, they had the excuse they needed to keep a lock on dissent.

Then Mao won the war and put the country back into a bubble. Now the country is evolving again. But the political evolution is glacial. And much of the intelligensia and middle class has bought into it because they are able to profit from the system. There are spoils for all. The system is not fair, but there is the attitude that as long as one does not lose out personally, there is no reason to change. So we see that the biggest protests in China now are from localized groups of people who have lost out some how. They are angry, but they don't have unified social movements. And why not? Because too many other people are benefiting. So the society is in a constant state of conflict without the creation of a unified social upheaval.

Basically, I would say that you have overlooked the fact that China has never had a period where the availability of another system has coexisted with the widespread desire for systemic change on the part of the populace and the relative stability (emphasis on relative) needed to keep the country from falling into a self-destructive war. Civil wars are not fertile ground for building relatively egalitarian (in terms of rights, not paychecks) societies.

So while I can agree with you that Chinese society traditionally did not favor the development of democracies, I don't think you can say that Chinese society is, in itself, unfavorable to the development of democracy (if that makes sense). Remember that most European countries before the Enlightenment were also unfavorable to the development of democracy. You couldn't get much more despotic than Medieval Europe.

Fortunately for Europe, the Enlightenment served as a fermenting vat for new ideas. Had China been located in Europe, and had Chinese been allowed to be influenced by that fermentation, China might have been different.

China is now in a position to be positively influenced by many new ideas. But the stellar growth of the country has mollified the dissent that might have caused the necessary change.

Until the engine slows, and that won't be happening for at least another decade, the system will continue to become brittle but will probably not break. If it ever does break, it will take decades and a lot of luck for evolution to happen.

vin [11/9/09 01:54] said...

Thomas and Taiwan Echo: I'm interested in what both of you wrote. But I'm overburdened during the week. I would like to comment somtime during the weekend, and I hope you'll both check back then.

Thomas [11/9/09 16:43] said...

I will. Actually, I enjoy talking with both of you. This is a subject that fascinates me and peeves me at the same time.

Anonymous [14/9/09 00:59] said...

Very good analysis Echo Taiwan. But I would like to add one more important aspect of KMT's operation: namely kinship, either by blood or by marriage. Very tribal, uh. Using Li Ao's word: genital connection. For example, Taipei magistrate Chou's father was former KMT diplomat, Ma's father was of course KMT's party official. That why KMT hated CSB not only he is a Taiwanese but also because he comes from an obscure background, a nobody. While in America people may cherish self-made individuals, but not in feudal KMT. I have to tell a sad story though. Forty five years ago independent Gao Yushu defeated KMT's Chou Bailian to become the mayor of Taipei. KMT later not only persudated him to join the KMT, they wanted his son to marry Chiang Chingkuo's daughter. Gao's son had a girlfriend and didn't want to marry Chiang's daughther. It was during the white terror era and Gao's son had no way out. He and his girlfriend both commited suicide.

Dixteel [15/9/09 11:08] said...

I think you have a very good point, echo. Very insightful.

I would also say that the word privilege is not the best word to describe 特權. However, I do not have a single English word or phrase that can translate to 特權, neither. "Illegal privilege" is better but that does not actually cover the whole meaning neither, because 特權 does not necessary break the Law. For example, KMT systematically minimizing the number of Taiwanese students in the Universities etc in the past, legally.

I think maybe one way to describe 特權 is "special advantages and authorization to exercise certain actions or coercion that are not available to others, granted by a person or a group of people arbitrarily" In another word, it is an authority under the "rule of men/women" instead of an authority under the "rule of law."

It all comes back to the point that Chinese intellects, for one reason or another, have a strong tendency to prefer the rule of men/women instead of the rule of law. (actually, different cultures might also have this tendency in different degree, but Chinese intellects' tendency is quite strong and consistent.)

Anonymous [30/3/10 21:19] said...