29 November 2012

Letter to an aspiring democrat

To be translated and cross-posted to The Tocharian Rider when time permits.

Dear Alice,

I recently had the pleasure of reading your ‘Civics Lesson’ on Sina Weibo, and firstly I would like to applaud your efforts and congratulate you upon what looks to be an eloquently-stated and heartfelt political manifesto. It is a fine document which I think all Chinese people should read and reflect upon – though, for reasons which will become clear shortly, it is one which I think they ought to take with more than a few grains of salt. As someone who comes from a nation – the United States – which prides itself perhaps unduly on its civic freedoms and its democratic processes, I feel like you would be doing your readers an even greater service if, rather than attempting to copy wholesale the institutions and procedural structures which have caused our nation and the world so much grief over the past forty years (and arguably the past two hundred and forty), you instead took it upon yourself to fashion a clearer alternative model of ‘citizenship’ to the one we espouse, one more appropriate to Chinese experiences and values. After all, as you yourself very ably put it, ‘being an independent person requires you to have an independent will and the ability to make free decisions rich in creativity’ (‘獨立人格是指有獨立意志,能自主決策,富有創造性的一種人格’). If I may, I would like to structure this letter as an ‘advanced civics lesson’ drawing upon ways I believe China can do better than my own country has.

An advanced lesson in civics

It does not take any great skill or responsibility to be a good customer. You wait in line; you pay when (or, in the case of a vending machine, before) your services or goods are delivered; you complain or sue when you find your goods or services are defective in hopes of getting your money back. It takes much greater skill to be a good citizen – a concept which, in the sense you mean it, has its roots in the ancient Greek poleis and thus carries upon its shoulders the immense philosophical burden of virtue ethics. It is necessarily much more difficult to be a citizen than to be a customer at a vending machine, because when you are in the public sphere you are behaving as a member of your community, which is not something you buy fizzy drinks from, but is your father, your mother, your brother and sister, your teacher, your coworker, your lover and your friend. You do not treat these people as your vending machines if you want to be a citizen.

One. You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.

You say that to use the word ‘citizen’ smacks of equality, peace, rule-of-law, unity, toleration and the paramount importance of the individual. Whatever free-and-equalness is conferred by the word, though, is built upon a tremendous foundation, caked with the blood, sweat and tears of those who struggled to create a system of shared values within which all of the above could work. As Norman Mailer once said, ‘democracy is a state of grace that is attained only by those countries who have a host of individuals not only ready to enjoy freedom but to undergo the heavy labour of maintaining it’.

When that foundation is damaged (as it was for both of our countries during the 1960’s and 1970’s), and then destroyed (as it was for both of our countries during the 1980’s), speaking of ‘citizenship’ in a meaningful way becomes impossible. In the United States, corporate-driven media narratives allow people to fashion their own realities out of only those select pieces of information they want to believe. China has a very similar problem. Asking the great mass of the ‘citizens’ to think for themselves in such an environment is equivalent to asking an untrained five-year-old to perform brain surgery.

Two. Patriotism versus nationalism.

I have struggled with this concept for practically all of my education. I still don’t pretend to have all of the answers. All I can do is point to an analogy which has made sense to me: you love your nation like you love your family. You didn’t choose them, but you love them anyway. You don’t even necessarily have to agree with them all the time. You can remonstrate with them, you can fight with them, you can even move away from them, but they are still your family.

I think GK Chesterton put best the difference between patriotism and nationalism: ‘[the imperialist poet Rudyard Kipling] admires England, he does not love her; for we admire things with reasons, but we love them without reasons. He admires England because she is strong, not because she is English.’ The Chinese shouldn’t admire their nation because it endures or because it is dynamic or because it is powerful; they should love it because it is theirs.

Three. A citizen must have a strong sense of responsibility.

A citizen is aware not only of his own rights, but of how the exercise of those rights will affect himself, his loved ones and the society around him. A father might be within his rights to smoke cigarettes around his children, but he is not being a good father by allowing his children to breathe in the poisonous fumes. In some countries a person might be within her rights to do drugs or to have unprotected sex with a whole bunch of people, but she is not being a good citizen by risking the spread of disease or by wasting her own basic dignity.

Four. Rights without responsibilities will die away.

We are seeing that even now in the United States. Our rights are currently being corroded because of the way they have been abused.

Some said individuals have the right to fund elections however they want; now elections are costlier, dirtier, more corrupt and less accessible than ever. What we have is not genuine policy debate, but the pre-scripted ideological poses of the two official candidates.

Some said we had the right to say whatever we want in public; now the American news media (mainstream and independent alike) are clogged to the brim with sound-bites and gladiatorial matches between polarised viewpoints. This is the reason The Daily Show and The Onion are so popular nowadays. Very rarely are we treated to the facts and insightful, informative analysis on those facts – except on the state-run networks like NPR, PBS and Britain’s BBC.

Some said we should have the absolute freedom to believe whatever you want; it has led to the cancerous growths of Protestant fundamentalism and the equally dogmatic reaction of ‘new atheism’. More insidious, it has led to people questioning the very nature of fact, and denying truths such as biological evolution, global warming, the disastrous consequences of a war of choice in Iraq, or the failure of a completely deregulated housing market. A society where people cannot even agree on a certain basic set of scientific facts is a society that is in danger of collapse.

Formal constitutional rights cannot protect themselves, as we are seeing even now; they require a solid foundation of shared values and principles, which everyone participates in building anew.

Five. The seven social sins and the seven virtues.

Borrowed shamelessly from Mohandas Gandhi:
  • Wealth without work
  • Pleasure without conscience
  • Science without humanity
  • Knowledge without character
  • Politics without principle
  • Commerce without morality
  • Worship without sacrifice
Thus, I counter-pose my version of the seven heavenly virtues:
  • Handle property with charity
  • Handle debt with temperance
  • Handle knowledge with humility
  • Handle privacy with courage
  • Handle liberty with prudence
  • Handle politics with justice
  • Handle worship with faith

Six. Basic quality of the citizen #1: Deference to authority.

By this, I do not mean allowing someone else to reason for you. By this, I simply mean that not all opinions are created equal, even if all people are created equal under the eyes of the law. Some opinions are more authoritative – in the sense of being more trustworthy – than others. If I want to seek knowledge about the climate, I go to a climatologist. If I want to seek knowledge about the origins of life, I go to a palaeontologist. If I want to seek knowledge about the divine and about the inner workings of the soul, I go to a priest. Being a scientist, or being a priest, means adhering to a specific ethic of deference: in one case, to facts arrived at by scientific methodology; in the other case, to the revelation of the will of God through the Gospel and through the works of the Church. Citizenship requires a similar ethic: you may be welcome to your own opinions, but you are not welcome to invent your own facts.

Seven. Basic quality of the citizen #2: Respect for the family and the community.

As we are all individuals, we are all imbued with a basic level of dignity. Any abridgement of human life ought to be regarded as a monstrous wrong, whether it comes from abortion or starvation or euthanasia or execution or war. But individuals do not exist in a vacuum. The crucibles of human virtue, including the civic virtues, are the family and the village (as in, the kind it takes a whole of to raise a child). To have functional citizens, you need functional families and functional communities, and vice-versa. Therefore, citizens have an obligation to work toward the ‘common weal’.

Eight. Basic quality of the citizen #3: Pursuit of public justice.

I have nothing to amend here – only to second and expand. Citizens have a duty to speak out against any injustice, no matter whether it is committed by the government, by a corporation or by a private individual. And they have a duty to stand in solidarity with the society’s most vulnerable: those without property; those without jobs; those without homes; those who have been separated from their families; those who are sick and infirm; those fleeing and seeking shelter from war and repression.

Nine. Basic quality of the citizen #4: Loving your neighbour.

And that means loving her in the concrete, not just in the abstract. I speak from experience: it is all too easy to be a universal lover of all humanity – and because it is easy, it is more likely to be fake. Trying to love actual humans is a hell of a lot harder, but in the end it is a lot more rewarding.

Ten. Basic quality of the citizen #5: Respecting the common good.

A ‘free society’ which has no conception of the common good very quickly degenerates into an unfree society, because if our entire public discourse consists of an aggregate of individuals and special interests competing in a political market, eventually the richest and strongest individuals take power, and (human nature being what it is) they will not want to give it up to anyone else. The global ultra-wealthy have no interest in being good citizens; and nor do they have an interest in creating good citizens. The citizen’s interest in maximising concrete freedoms for everyone – a decent job with a just wage, low barriers to ownership of the means of production – therefore requires a central notion of transcendent order which values both procedure and outcome.

Eleven. Basic quality of the citizen #6: Being active in public life.

Again, nothing here to revise – I agree completely. This one is pretty self-explanatory. But being active in public life means more than just voting and more than just exercising free speech.

Twelve. The duties of the citizen.

Obeying the law is a big part of it, as is contributing to the country’s defence and safety and common welfare. But that requires something beyond mere brute individualism: you cannot ask people to do this if they are so intent on securing for themselves individually everything they feel they are entitled to.

Thirteen. On economic patriotism, anti-corruption and liberalism.

Alice, I agree with you completely on this one, but it strikes me that if your true aim is building up a nation which is independent and free and prosperous, what you want is not more economic liberalism, but less. My country became prosperous precisely by protecting its own small industries when it was young; I find it hypocritical that it now goes around telling everyone else that it is in their best interests to do exactly the opposite.

Fourteen. Rule of law, rule of man, rule of God.

There are three sorts of government, as imagined by Max Weber: that of tradition, that of charismatic leaders or demagogues, and that of bureaucrats. However, where I depart from Weber is in his designation of bureaucracy – ‘the rule of law’, where what matters is the office and not the person holding it – as the supreme form of government. Charismatic leaders like Hitler, Lenin and Mao, might be able to sway public opinion to achieve their goals for a short time, but they have a difficult time designing enduring institutions. Rule of law, like that under Qin Shihuang, where what matters is the office and the universal application of rewards and punishments, also may be able to work for a short time, but left to its own devices it will fail. Only a virtuous person obeying Heaven and protecting human dignity – in the West, the divine right – will be able to ensure a lasting and just rule.

Fifteen and nineteen. On the perils of for-profit and state education.

I say this with some trepidation, because I understand how fraught the fight between private and public schools is in the United States and how many other issues it involves – labour rights for teachers and gentrification of neighbourhoods as well as student achievement. But the real issue here is that education should not be run as a business. The profit motive is not appropriate, because the purpose of education ought to be to inculcate virtue, critical thinking and self-reflection in students, not to make a profit off of them. I don’t care whether it’s the state or charities doing this, though if the state runs education one has to be vigilant that brainwashing and indoctrination do not result.

Sixteen. The government is not just there to sell you things.

Going back to my introduction, where citizenship requires more than just being a good customer, likewise government requires more than being a good salesperson. Transparency should be par for the course, but not because it is good business practice! Government should be transparent, local, open and accessible, because that is the right thing to do, and a government’s motto should be ‘justice’, rather than ‘the customer is always right’.

Seventeen. Historical awareness requires more than self-blame.

It is true that every government should face up to its own historical misdeeds, but this is not just Germany’s problem, or just China’s problem, or just Japan’s problem or just America’s problem. Looking at Germany is not instructive, because even though they have apologised for the Second World War, they have failed to learn the principal lesson from the victors: that economic justice is important for social stability and democracy. They have heaped all sorts of blame upon themselves, but (upon becoming Europe’s primary economic powerhouse) continued to exploit poor economies in the south of Europe (Greece, Spain, Italy, Portugal) and leave them mired in inescapable debt – as a result, fascist parties like Greece’s Golden Dawn are again on the rise. And the last people to get the historical irony will inevitably be the Germans.

Likewise, if you truly want to get over the great mistakes of the Cultural Revolution, you shouldn’t be so eager for the Chinese government and people to start organising new rounds of struggle sessions, self-criticisms and purges. That would be only replacing one kind of Cultural Revolution with another.

Eighteen and twenty. Freedom of speech and of the press.

Formal freedom of the press is no guarantee that news will be reported accurately, just as formal freedom of speech is no guarantee that all speech will be equally protected. One need only witness the coverage in the run-up to the Iraq War, where every single mainstream media outlet (with the exceptions of a few local papers owned by Knight Ridder) reported wrongly on Iraq’s capacity to build nuclear weapons without checking their sources. This is not a bug, it is a feature – corporate media outlets in a ‘free press’ such as we have will not dare criticise the government too loudly, lest they lose access to the halls of power.

Twenty-one. Who best understands the spirit of contract?

I promise I will limit myself to only, say, three Chesterton quotes – a very difficult task for me. But: ‘Thieves respect property; they merely wish the property to become their property that they may more perfectly respect it.’ Likewise, who better understands the spirit of contract than swindlers and gangsters? ‘You pay me, and I don’t kill you’ is a perfect example of contract logic – indeed, it has been the exemplar of contract logic since contracts were first invented. Insisting on ‘the spirit of contract’ without also accounting for differences in economic, social and military power is not only naïve, it is a recipe for disaster. Citizens ought to be much wiser than that – to have the cunning of serpents, as well as the innocence of doves. They ought to insist on the spirit of virtue, not the spirit of contract.

Twenty-two. Let’s not imitate Hong Kong…

Particularly when Taiwan, Japan and South Korea have been doing so much better. Hong Kong has the biggest wealth gap of any industrialised country (with a Gini coefficient of 0.537 in 2011) and the world’s most unaffordable housing. Four families own half the wealth of Hong Kong, whilst 300,000 elderly people have to rely on picking up recyclables to survive. The government of Hong Kong – supposedly ‘independent’ judiciary included – is run by the Chinese Communist Party and by the local billionaires. Only half of the seats in Hong Kong’s Legislative Council are elected; the other half are appointed by ‘functional constituencies’ consisting of private interest groups. By any objective factual measure, Hong Kong is less democratic than countries such as Russia and Iran. It is obvious that it is more unequal, and their judiciary, however independent, has not helped matters any.

Twenty-three. Be independent thinkers, and don’t copy us!

We’ve made enough mistakes for the world without an entire fifth of the world’s population following unthinkingly in our footsteps, parroting our worst ideas and copying our worst institutional set-ups. The value in independent thinking lies in the improvement of your own soul; and your soul cannot improve if you are ever focussed on attaining what others have attained, the way they have attained it. We (in the modern West) always like to complain about China’s exports being unsafe, but from where I’m standing it seems like you’ve gotten the rawer deal: we’ve already exported to you the destructive ideologies of social Darwinism, of racism and eugenics, of extreme nationalism, of Marxism and now of neo-liberalism, libertinism and soulless consumerism. It isn’t too late yet, though: China’s heart has been broken again and again by each and every successive government it’s had since the fall of the Qing Dynasty, but that only goes to show that it still has one. I have seen it. I have talked with it, eaten with it and drunk baijiu with it, in the backcountry roads of Kangding, in the hutongs of Beijing, among the Zhuang in Guangxi and with my in-laws in Luoyang. And it is beautiful.

Please consider these admonitions from a citizen of the United States, who cares deeply what happens to China.

God bless, Matt


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. "Don't copy us", but do copy our history of economic conservatism? I think I understand what you mean by making it clear that existing structures need to to be taken with the grain of salt which is their historical context. I just feel that telling someone to not copy you is a concern that might fall a bit short. :/ Let's also not fall prey to romanticizing feudal and imperial China.

    I also agree with the basic idea behind Germay's failing. I would not characterize that as the "lesson" of the WWII victors (what was the USSR's lesson?). I have hardly seen a nation that learns from positive lessons (rather than negative ones). 'That what was done to you, will you visit on others' is a common narrative for any victimized nation. Guilt can be an impressive blinder. How many people have reacted sharply on the guilt of their nation for specific infractions, yet ignored a larger issue? :P

    Also, I appreciate that this is a point-by-point reply, but a political system needs to be able to absorb all kinds of citizens, not just virtuous ones. Otherwise, there are gonna be pressure fractures at worst, and injustice at best.

  3. Hi Rob!

    Point taken: I should certainly have made that argument clearer. I only wanted to point out the disconnect between the social liberalism / economic neo-liberalism Alice seems to champion and the patriotism she wants to inspire in her readers. And I would like people to think critically about these issues of citizenship as a result of her writing, but that of course does require that what they want is in line with the common good, with what is beneficial and uplifting to all members of the society.

    I would hope I am not romanticising feudal and imperial China here. Though I will note that Qing China circa 1880 was demonstrably more egalitarian than anything which came after it, with a Gini coefficient of 0.242 (according to Branko Milanovic of the World Bank, of all places).

    But glad you agree with the guilt point - I wasn't sure I was on the right track with that one. As much as I may castigate the US for whitewashing its own history, I have long felt that a hell of a lot more than white liberal hand-wringing and crocodile tears was needed on that score. I'd thought Germany's experience was illuminating as to how that is the case, but even so it struck me as I was writing and revising it that it sounded a bit peevish.