Focus topics

Pater patriae

By Stefan Baron

According to the latest Edelman Trust Barometer, 82 percent of Chinese people have confidence in their government. None of the other 27 countries surveyed even comes close to this figure.

All over the globe, socialism has failed, except in China. The explanations for this usually boil down to Beijing playing unfair. And indeed, China has not been squeamish in its choice of means in its race to catch up with the West. Nevertheless, it falls far short of the mark to attribute its brilliant rise primarily to intellectual property theft, forced technology transfer, and the denial of a level playing field for all, so-called reciprocity. In its “ideological blindness” and conviction that democracies are always and everywhere superior to other systems, the West has “underestimated” China, according to political scientists and ex-diplomat Kishore Mahbubani.

The reason for this is mainly to be found in a lack of understanding of Chinese history, culture, and way of thinking. While the West likes to view things in binary terms, in either-or categories such as right or wrong, good or evil, black or white, and in dichotomies such as theory and practice, subject and object, individual and community, the Chinese only know shades of grey. For them, opposites form a unity. In their thinking, the conflicting forces of yin and yang represent the law of motion of the entire universe. Chinese thinking knows neither one truth nor multiple truths that are valid indefinitely, but only relative and situational ones instead. This is why China’s system of government and economy cannot be simply labeled as communist, socialist, dictatorial, or totalitarian. It is a hybrid, similar to Chinese culture as a whole.

Unlike Communist Parties in other countries, the Chinese Communist Party has consistently adapted socialism to the country’s practical, concrete, situational, non-linear, and holistic tradition of thought, proving to be highly flexible, experimental, and adaptive. The Chinese style of governance, according to China scholars Sebastian Heilmann and Elizabeth Perry, understands politics as a “process of constant change and conflict management, trial and error, and ad hoc adaptation”. China’s ruling party does not regard Marxism as an unalterable development doctrine, but above all as a dialectical method of inquiry that allows only practice on the ground as a criterion for truth.

For a long time now, the CCP can no longer be described as a workers’ and farmers’ party. The so-called “class background” now plays almost no role at all anymore. Its nearly 92 million members come from all strata of the people. Among them are also numerous intellectuals and entrepreneurs as well as a number of billionaires. Only the most successful in their respective fields are admitted. Their average age is well below that of the population as a whole. A third of the approximately two million new members each year have an academic degree. About three-quarters of the students admitted to the party in recent years have come from the country’s top universities. Such members are not a flock of sheep; they want careers – but they also want a say in things. And there is no better way to do this than in the CCP.

Contrary to what is usually assumed, China is being led less and less by dogmatic ideologues of the kind we grew to know from the former Eastern bloc, and more and more by well-trained technocrats who have proven themselves in a wide variety of positions. They act pragmatic, focused on success and problem solving, all according to the famous motto of Deng Xiaoping: “It doesn’t matter whether a cat is black or white, as long as it catches mice”. Their ultimate goal is not communism. China’s income and wealth disparities are enormous; to this day China does not even have an inheritance tax. “The only thing we care about is good conditions for our development” is how Deng once described the CCP’s strategic focus.

This has never changed. According to China’s state and Party leader Xi Jinping: “Since its founding, the Party has never changed its original desire to fulfill the historic mission of the great renewal of the Chinese nation.” Zhonguo talking about, the “renaissance of China”, in a sense a “Middle Kingdom 2.0,” a China that has put the humiliation by foreign powers in the second half of the 19th century and first half of the 20th century behind it once and for all and regained a global standing, economically, politically as well as culturally that it had enjoyed for thousands of years before – this is the “Chinese Dream”. The overwhelming majority of the population shares this dream and trusts the CCP to make it a reality.

Many in the West think this can only be the result of brainwashing and/or fear of speaking freely. But a representative, long-term study published in July 2020, led by politics professor Tony Saich, director of the Ash Center at Harvard University’s Kennedy School, paints a different picture. Saich had Chinese people survey their satisfaction with their government in eight waves from 2003 to 2016. In the process, more than 31,000 urban and rural residents were surveyed face-to-face by Kennedy School interviewers, rather than online or over the phone. In other words, the government’s ability to monitor the respondents’ statements and thus influence them in its own way was at least severely limited compared to regular survey methods. The result of the study: Chinese people attested to the increasing competence and efficiency of their country’s state institutions at all levels, but above all of the central government. Between 2003 and 2016, satisfaction with the government in Beijing rose from over 86 to 93 percent. Harvard researchers consequently attested the communist leadership a “lasting resilience through earned legitimacy”.

The vast majority of Chinese honor the progress that the current system of government has brought them. And not only because of relief from abject poverty, a general increase in material well-being, but also because of significantly increased life expectancy, better health care, and schooling, and last but not least, more personal freedoms beyond politics than ever before in Chinese history; such as the freedom to choose one’s residence and workplace, to choose one’s spouse, to travel abroad as well as studying there, and more. “The majority of Chinese seem to be comfortable with policies that value order and stability over freedom and political participation,” said Wang Gungwu, arguably one of the most distinguished living Chinese historians. “They believe their country needs this at the current state and are upset at being repeatedly criticized as politically unfree and backward.” Freedom and human rights as such do not exist for the Chinese anyway, only different freedoms and rights. And these are not valued equally by all people at all times and in all situations. While one person values being able to vote for the government and openly criticize it more, another person values a life without material worries more highly.

China’s political system has always been based on the paternalistic family model of Confucian doctrine. The word “state” in Chinese consists of the components “country” and “family”. It is therefore something like the family of all families, and the head of state is the father of the family, Pater patriae. As long as the latter duly fulfills his duty of care towards the people, their loyalty is certain. In the eyes of the majority of the Chinese, the ruling CCP has so far evidently taken this duty sufficiently to heart and has therefore been able to remain in power until today. The party’s autocracy seems to have no alternative for the foreseeable future. However, this is by no means true forever. Relative and situational Chinese thinking speaks against it. The West would, however, be well-advised not to influence developments. It would only delay it.

Stefan Baron is co-author of the book “The Chinese – Psychogram of a World Power”. His new book “Ami go home – a remeasurement of the world”, which focuses on Europe’s role in the emerging Cold War 2.0 between the USA and China, was recently published.


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