Professor Perry Link is a Chancellorial Chair for Innovation in Teaching Across Disciplines at University of California, Riverside. His latest book is on ‘Chinese’, entitled, An Anatomy of Chinese: Rhythm, Metaphor, Politics. So Professor Link’s article in Foreign Affairs is a seasoned writing about Chinese and a stimulating dissertation on defining Chinese with a political focus, in terms of nationalism and present day Xi’s China. He start out with a characterization of pre-modern Chinese with heaven-sanctioned principles guiding proper human (Chinese) behavior and traditional Confucian civilization defining human relations such as leader-follower, father-son, husband-wife, etc. This traditional philosophy and its derived moral-political model were able to resist foreign influence such as Buddhism, northern conquerors and other Asian and West invaders. The moral-political system was powerful enough to make others to adapt to the ‘Chinese’ way until the arrival of the industrialized Westerners. They broke the Chinese model and made the Chinese to recognize the need to change. However, the Chinese only do or change what is necessary, still wanting to keep her core of Chineseness.
Can the moral model of pre-modern Chinese still stand or must be displaced by newer idea of political morality? A question challenged the Chinese Communist Party since Mao’s time. The West brought to China not only technology but also Western notion of democracy, human right and modernization. The changes faced resistance; in recent decades the CCP tried to revive the traditional moral-political model with modern adaptation. Link describes Xi’s Chinese Dreams with focus on wealth, national pride and respect for authority but not on morality. The CCP accepts the terms of democracy, human right and modernization but with Chinese characterization to fit CCP with a desire to export a successful Chinese model of development to others and return China to the center of the world. Link says that this vision is a possibility but not certainty.
Link then characterized China’s concern for instability with a number of sources. One is the generation gap where the young people are materialistic, nationalistic and aggressive and the old accept more western indoctrination. Second is the wealth gap, a considerably widening gap causing the poor resenting the rich. Third is the power struggle among elites who enriched themselves through graft with insecurity, causing them to send their wealth abroad, their kids to the West even to have their babies born in the West. These instability sources in addition to the geographical instability linked with external influence in Tibet, Xinjiang (Uighur), Taiwan and Hong Kong are certainly challenging the Chinese leader Xi. Link asserts, although Xi’s anti-corruption campaign is earning him popularity, but Link is pessimistic about the ultimate outcome. Link questions Xi’s ability to compare to Mao to succeed in mobilizing the people, citing that Internet is making people hard to be controlled as in Mao’s time.
Link quoted Jonathan Spence’s book, “The Search for Modern China”, “For nearly two centuries, the great ancient civilization of China has been looking for a way to reinvent itself for the modern era. This process has involved fits, starts, and reversals. It has caused trauma and led to at least 70 million unnatural deaths.” Then Link made his final remark, “The key questions today are whether the Communist Party’s project to revive Chinese-style authoritarianism in modern clothing will succeed and, if so, what its effects will be—both on China and on the world at large.” Link is betting against CCP’s success, citing the clear long-term trend toward greater popular participation in politics. The Chinese government has pulled off unexpected successes in many areas in recent decades and could surprise the world by engineering its retrograde political vision at home and export authoritarianism abroad; Link asserts both China and the world would suffer and a vision of Chinese identity more suitable for the present age evading.
China as a big country and her 1.3 billion Chinese people are not easy to characterize. Link made broad observations about the pre-modern traditional Chinese philosophy and moral model. He also touched on the issues as the Chinese were making a transition to a modern China. It is true that the Chinese has experienced a treacherous revolution trying to establish a republic nation and searching for a moral-political model with a safe and stable path to modernization. However, the difficulties the Chinese faced and the slow progress they achieved were not so much due to weak leaders or stubborn resistance, rather it was largely because of external interferences, the intrusion of Western powers, the Japanese invasion, the influence of the Soviet Union and the sanctions applied to the Chinese isolating them from the world. The Chinese has made a significant progress economically since being admitted to the world economy in the last three decades, indicating clearly that the Chinese is an adaptive people with the smarts to absorb and keep good values of the capitalistic system. Taiwan and Hong Kong each has adopted a different political system successfully, suggesting equally that the Chinese people are flexible to political models. Hence I would not be as pessimistic as Professor Link in predicting failure on China’s effort to find a moral-political model to suit the mainland as well accommodating Hong Kong and Taiwan.
Although Link’s article is interesting and stimulating, his attempt to interpret Chinese tradition and trends of modernization may border ‘superficial’ as he said about the west having a superficial understanding of modern China. Confucius and Mencius believed that human nature having both good and evil traits; education and environment are critical to shape human behavior. China has been poor for long and Chinese absorbed numerous intruders throughout the history resulting in many dialectic and local cultural differences. But the core Chinese philosophy evolved from 5000 years of history binds and persists. One of her core principle is ‘Wang Dao’ (non-violent and seeking good and shedding evil). The internet is a blessing to China to leapfrog over Western nations in cultivating modern civilization among diverse races and culture while keeping the core Chineseness. So long as China or Chinese is putting high priority on education (she always does), the nation is heading to a bright identity and a working system tomorrow.
One weakness of Link’s article is assuming that the CCP did not change or has not changed or does not want to change. In my observation over the years from Mao to Deng and now to Xi, the CCP has changed for the better and wants to change even though it does worry about stability. Lack of political stability is the fundamental reason for China’s slow progress in political reform. My other disagreement with Professor Link is his assuming Mao being superior and Xi is no Mao, hence unable to mobilize the Chinese people. Link made this assumption without proof. Whether Xi will surpass Mao or not is not relevant since the history shows that the Chinese leaders following Mao all have made significant contribution to China’s modernization despite of the corruption in CCP. The current anti-corruption campaign in China may not wipe out corruption 100%, but it will turn a new leaf for the CCP. CCP is a large party each year adding more than one million new members. From party reform point of view, this political regeneration process could be the greatest and fastest in the world.
The CCP desires to change for obvious self preservation reason. CCP’s vision to develop a moral-political model with Chinese characteristics is not easy to articulate and also difficult for vast majority of Chinese to understand and appreciate. However, the change momentum (with no external interference) may be slow initially but will accelerate eventually. Most political analysts in the West fail to see this. The definition of being Chinese today will change with the change process. Chinese ‘citizenship’ will emerge with her Chinese characteristics continuously evolving, keeping some of the 5000 years virtues and adapting some of the modern values. Of course, this change process is not simple; stability is critical, hence China is extremely leery of any external influence to her internal stability.