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Letter from China: Civic virtue without freedom?

    I spent most of July traveling to various parts of the People’s Republic of China. Although I made brief trips to Hong Kong in 2000 and Beijing in 2016, I have never experienced anything remotely similar to this more extended stay. Having a Chinese-speaking guide and the opportunity to speak to “friendly” locals (none of whom can be named out of concerns for their safety) provided more perspective than a tourist would normally have.

    It would be foolish for an outsider to try to make sense of a country so vast and ancient that is undergoing such rapid, even violent change. This, however, has not prevented Westerners from attempting to do so, many of whom come away praising the Chinese model of development as superior to their own. See, for example, New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman fantasizing about being “China for a day” or the Vatican’s Bishop Marcelo Sanchez Sorondo praising China as the world’s best model of Catholic social doctrine.

    Such observers are especially impressed with China’s authoritarian ways, which dispense with democratic formalities such as elections, public deliberation and human rights, at the service of what they perceive to be the common good. Unlike American progressives, the Chinese do not have to deal with annoying pro-life Republicans who deny climate change; they can simply liquidate such reactionaries in good communist fashion. It is not the first time that Western intellectuals have been taken in by such illusions and certainly will not be the last.

    What makes today’s China different than Mao’s is its openness to global trade and certain aspects of Western modernity that would make the chairman’s head spin. As a result, hundreds of millions of Chinese are no longer poor. Western levels of materialism and consumerism are evident everywhere, judging by the prevalence of massive luxury hotels, foreign makes of automobiles, and shopping centers with multiplex cinemas featuring the latest Hollywood superhero films. Blocks of identical hi-rise apartment buildings are being constructed at an absurd rate, even though existing ones appear to be largely vacant. It pained this Detroit Tigers fan to see so many New York Yankee baseball caps throughout the Middle Kingdom.

    Just as happened in the West, mass industrialization and urbanization have led to a breakdown of traditional society and increased individualism. The Chinese Communist Party has therefore implemented plans to create the “harmonious society” and, more recently, the “Chinese dream” By doing so, they hope to lessen the disruptive aspects of modernity while maintaining a socialist ideology, and their own grip on power. 

    In order to learn from the West, Chinese political leaders have apparently been reading Alexis de Tocqueville’s analysis of the French Revolution and the mistakes made by the ancien régime. It is also apparent that they are influenced by one of Tocqueville’s mentors, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and his critique of a commercial society from the perspective of civic and even martial virtue. (There are many advertisements for the Chinese military and public demonstrations of military prowess. Conversely, I was told the word “liberalism” is not commonly used or understood in China.) It is less clear if China will be able to maintain such concern for virtue amid growing prosperity and inequality or if it will inevitably follow the Western road to “decadence”.

    Following Rousseau and Tocqueville, the Chinese seem to recognize the utility of “civil religion” in balancing virtue and material progress. It does not matter to the communists whether the religion is Confucianism, Buddhism, Daoism, Islam or Christianity, so long as it has “Chinese characteristics”, i.e. serves the socialist ideology. The need for civil religion may explain the recent diplomatic accord between the Vatican and China (seemingly designed to weaken if not eliminate the “underground church”) as well as the long-standing persecution of Tibetan Buddhists and Uyghur Muslims.

    Along similar lines, the Chinese government has increased its surveillance methods, using facial-recognition technology to reward “social credits” and punish “anti-social behavior”. Virtually every Western-style bathroom has signs telling men to take a “small step” closer to the urinal for a “giant leap” in civilization. A campaign against spitting in public was launched before the 2008 Olympic Games. One city has recently sought to crackdown on the “Beijing bikini” (which may indeed be a good idea!). I witnessed a group of police surround a single horse-and-buggy operator for having too passengers, as if he were a serious threat to public order.

    The Chinese communists have only partially understood Tocqueville and Rousseau, both of whom had a more exalted notion of freedom, especially of the intellectual and moral sorts, against the levelling tendencies of liberal democracy. Furthermore, neither would have thought freedom and virtue could be maintained in a country as large and impersonal as China. The Chinese government wants civic virtue without freedom, which makes it a dubious type of virtue, more worthy of slaves and animals than human beings. As the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests and the ongoing demonstrations in Hong Kong are revealing, once people have the taste for freedom, it is very difficult to take it away.

    Conservatives and liberals in the West should be able to agree on this, at least.

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