A Blog by Rolf von Bueren
I read an article on China, “What kind of Regime does China have?”, by the famous American political scientist, political economist and writer Francis Fukuyama in The American Interest website, and I found it to be a well-written piece that addresses many of the valued points one should know. In my view however, Mr. Fukuyama misses one important angle – perhaps the most important one – the mindset of the Chinese.
We Westerners and Mr. Fukuyama believe that the aspiration, the outlook, the emotions are the same around the world, that we all want “democracy”, whatever that means, that we are all emotionally attached to individual freedom and the dreams of the West. With this in mind, Mr. Fukuyama writes his piece with a Western proselytic mindset, wanting the Chinese to be like us, the Westerners.
Are the Chinese like us? Yes and no. They share many similar values with us, but their priorities are different, which creates different approaches.
I read a book written 60 years ago by a Jesuit China Watcher, Rev. László Ladány, in which he stated that the Western people walk 100 meters above the ground in the air, elevated by religion, emotions and attachment. Hindus walk about 50 meters in the air, and the Chinese walk on the ground. This statement explains the different attitude of the Chinese towards life, politics and this world.
The value system is different in the West and East, USA and China. In the West, the individual is dominant, while in China, it’s the society, which comes first. In China, the mandate to rule was given by Heaven, and whoever fought over it and won, owned it and ran it, and had to fulfill the people’s expectations. This outlook produced a different perspective, interpretation and reaction towards society by the Chinese.
Of course, cultures are feeding each other these days more than ever, but basic structures created by nature, by wars and invasions, by history in the West and East, are different and rub against each other. Hong Kong, Taiwan and Macau are examples Chinese territories where the cultural mutation from prolonged colonization, occupation or proximity to others has shifted the basic culture and way of thinking away from that of the mainland.
The policy of Chinese government of the last 1,000 years was made by foreign courts for 430 years; from 1206 to 1368 by the Mongols, and from 1644 to 1912 by the Manchus, who conquered China and submitted themselves to the superior Chinese culture and civilization, but maintained their own languages and civilization, and ran their courts in their own style.
In this context, it may be worth noting that China, in spite of its long-standing bureaucracy, never had a foreign ministry until around until the late in the 19th century. The Chinese saw no need of it as everyone had to come to the middle kingdom to pay their respects. Initially the foreign ministry had to deal with stubborn foreign envoys who did not want to conform to the court etiquette and kowtow to the emperor, and even then there seem to be no need for a foreign policy.
But back to the Mongols and Manchus…
This, I believe, is one of the explanations – perhaps not the only one – which created a kind of work separation. Certain aspects in life were determined by the government, like security, economic stability and infrastructure, while the individual priorities were dominated by Confucian thought, like education of the children, health concerns, free commerce under a stable currency (issued by the government). These rules were intermixed and interdependent, but create a different outlook and different attitudes towards the government. Everything is tolerated by the government, but don’t break certain rules, and do your duty. Chinese citizens might think, “I myself will do my duty and will tolerate certain mistakes of the government, but please do not interpret tolerance as stupidity!”
Some scholars say that China, in the past, was run by the smallest and thinnest bureaucracy in the world. Taxation upcountry, for instance, was done by lumping 100 households together and appointing one collector from the group of 100, and he had to deliver. The authorities would watch whether any of these collectors became unreasonably rich in a short period of time and clamp down on him. This may have changed and the cost of the party on the economy may have become a burden for many companies.
Modernity has added the temptation to exert stricter control. No harm will happen to anybody if they go on with their own lives and business, and do not threaten the party and party rule, which is not a problem for most Chinese as they are busy with their own priorities anyway. Things change fast however, and online storms can stir things up, like the baby milk scandal of 2008 when the government failed to control the quality of essential products and received a storm of criticism. However, the Government reacted very quickly to rectify the situation and to reestablish the status quo between government and citizens.
The Government can change as long as they accept the given power and responsibilities, and execute them in a way that the Chinese citizen can go about with his business with the least possible interference.
We in the West are settled in a Western-centric mindset with an underlying proselytic drive, based on the historic success of having run the world for 200 years. We preach our mindset and believe that the others need to change and follow our example. In his book “Fire and Blood”, Enzo Traverso referred to “Europe's own image of superiority and domination” and its “historical 'mission' as a vector of progress.” In other words, the Europeans thought of themselves as the chosen civilization to export their way of thinking.
Please listen to what Yukon Huang, senior fellow in the Carnegie Asia Program, has to say on YouTube. He will tell you in American English that “Common Wisdom” as we call it in the West does not apply to China, that many of our preconceptions of China are wrong, and yet these are the misconceptions I hear every day on television.
Interesting. Looking forward to more. Best wishes
Interesting. Looking forward to more. Best wishes
This was a good read. Well thought out and many good points which make sense.
A big problem is also the current western political system, which encourages quick and cheap likes to get the voters attention. If longer term visions can be implemented it would help each other tremendously.
Dear Mr Von Bueren,
I appreciate that you attempt to give an insight into the difference of the Western and Chinese mindset, but I find your exploration Way too idealistic.
I agree that the Western mindset is more individual and the Chinese mindset collective. However, I believe that the Chinese mindset does not reach as far as to consider the good of society. Otherwise things like pollution and human rights would be tackled by now. During my time in China, I found that there was not much consideration for the things that happened outside the close circle of family and perhaps the extended circle of friends. While in the West we are taught to respect each individual and it’s rights, in China there is very little consideration for strangers (exceptions exist of course) and especially no empathy for animals (which is significant to consider for me also in this context).
Yes, China has shown progress and the Chinese society progressed very fast. But that didn’t happen without sacrifices to the environment and to humans. I understand that a country as big as China has to be ruled with rather strict control. However, in my opinion the deprivation of free access to information and general brainwashing should not be justified. The young generation doesn’t remember Tian An Men or is not aware what really happened due to the governments efforts to wipe out the event. And what is happening in Hong Kong right now (my current residence) can not be justified by your above elaboration. The early introduction of the security law is a breach of the One country two systems legislation. And 2 million people (Chinese people) Took to the street to show their discontent for 6 months. They were simply ignored. So how do we justify this action. Are they selfish Chinese who don’t consider the well being of the bigger Chinese society? Or are they perhaps misguided Chinese because they want democracy? Reading the above, I suppose that is the explanation. They have been under British rule for too long, which gave them strange ideas. It’s time to correct their behaviour. And if they are not willing, so be it by force. Because in the end it will be for their greater own good.