Culture, Philosophy, and Government.

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Brian Hennessy. An Australian in China. October, 2009

No matter how much Westerners may dislike the Communist Party and its tentacles which infiltrate almost every aspect of daily life in the Middle Kingdom, China’s rise confronts us with an inconvenient truth: maybe this is the best system for governing China at this stage in her development.


Qin Shi Huangdi – the first emperor of China

Chinese Culture, Western Philosophies, and Government.


Despite the damage inflicted on the Chinese people by Mao’s post-revolutionary madnesses: (e.g; the Great leap Forward and its man-made famine; and the Cultural Revolution and its mass distortion of reality and subsequent terrors), historically, when offered a chance to change the system after one of China’s periodic violent transitions of power, the only thing that changed was the guy at the top – the emperor. Culture and government were one and the same. The system always remained intact.

Thousands of years of social conformity, collective thinking, and voluntary isolation from other societies have insulated this civilization from alternative explanations of reality and cross-cultural influences. For example, progressive western ideas which altered the previously accepted cultural, political and social landscapes of Europe and her satellite cultures in the new world have always been regarded with suspicion in China simply because they are not Chinese in origin. Cultural chauvinism remains a powerful force in the Middle Kingdom, despite its policy of opening up and reform. Foreign colonial occupiers of China during the nineteenth century reinforced this attitude.

Although western Marxism was a driving force for change last century, what we see today is the enduring strength of a culture which has always absorbed and then changed foreign invaders whether they were military, cultural, or political. Zhang Zemin’s ‘Socialism with Chinese characteristics’, is a modern example of this cultural phenomenon. Absorb the idea, then adapt its best features to mainstream Chinese culture. Russia did it the other way around, and failed. Now Russia is looking at and learning from, the Chinese model (Refer: Putin’s visit to China in October, 2009).

Today’s ruling elite, although collective rather than individual, governs China in a manner not dissimilar to that of its imperial forbears. There has been no fundamental change in the way society operates or is governed. A rigid bureaucratic hierarchy stretching from Beijing to the village continues to run this country. Thank you Confucius.

Thousands of years of cultural strength have conditioned Chinese people to believe that there is no need to tamper with this system which they know has guided China to where she is today. They know its advantages and disadvantages, and have resolved, for now, to stick with the devil they know.

Further, a deeply rooted oriental fatalism sabotages liberating political, social, and religious beliefs which might empower Chinese individuals. China is a culturally bound collective. The only ‘liberated’ people in China today are the rich and powerful who owe more to political patronage than they do to Confucius or western philosophy. There are no gurus or Oprah Winfreys in China. Not yet anyway.

So, in the absence of a clear alternative, and as a result of the continuing struggle for survival, systemic change is a luxury that Chinese people are not yet prepared to countenance. Other matters have a higher priority. Matters such as food, education, and healthcare for the masses; and more money for government officers and the middle-class. Systemic change might put these priorities at risk.

The West: a comparison Like them or not, new ideas got a hearing in the west and helped raise the consciousness of the western masses. The more rational explanations of reality among them eventually underpinned various movements for change.

Unlike China, violent revolution in the west often resulted in systemic change. Change that had no loyalty to culture. Thus, when hard times afflict the west, there has never been a reversion to historical culturally bound ideas and systems that have had their day, despite the appearance of the occasional demagogue who has the answer to life, the universe and government if only we would vote him into power. For example: South Africa and the racist Boers who wanted to insulate white culture from black cultures; and Pauline Hansen who wanted to insulate white Australian culture from Asian and Middle-Eastern cultures. 

It is worth reflecting on the value of modern western institutions and philosophies which resisted these cultural throw-backs and their outdated ideas. Western societies have benefited from the separation of culture from state systems of governance.

China is different We must understand before we criticize. China is a developing nation which contains 1.3 billion people and 20% of the world’s population. And according to UN data, 800 million of these folk live below the poverty line.

Education and health services are inadequate, ensuring food for all is a worry, and maintaining the integrity of China’s borders is a geopolitical nightmare for the central government in Beijing. Restive minority peoples are pushing the boundaries.

Maintaining economic growth at 8% per year in order to keep Chinese society on the rails is an even bigger challenge. These are critical times which demand Nike’s exhortation to the consuming masses: “Just do it”. Forgive the irony.

China’s ruling elite has big problems. At this crucial stage of China’s development, perhaps it is better for Chinese people to stick with the cultural devil they know rather than experiment with foreign ideas they don’t know.

Does anyone believe that the European Union could do a better job of managing China? We westerners should make a better effort to understand China and her complexities rather than self-righteously criticize her for her faults. China is a continent, not a country. The EU is an apt analogy.

Congratulations China on your 60th anniversary. Feudalism to capitalism in one generation, lifting the standard of living for so many people along the way. You have much to celebrate.

Call me a ‘China apologist’ if you like, but this article reflects what I see and hear in Chongqing, 1600 kms west of Shanghai, in the heartland of mainland china. .







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