Features Australia

Letter from Beijing

13 January 2018

9:00 AM

13 January 2018

9:00 AM

Political extravaganzas in China, like October’s 19th Communist Party Congress, aren’t policy turning points. They are theatre. Only one of the last dozen such performances heralded a new course: when Deng Xiaoping in 1982 subtly buried Mao’s leftism. Party congresses are opera with plumes and feathers. High notes in tonight’s arias hide low notes in yesterday’s skullduggery.

Walter Bagehot, in 19th century Britain, said government comprises a dignified part (monarchy, Lords) and an efficient part (parliament, inky wretches of the press). China relives this duality in the 21st century. Lately, Beijing has found a novel – not yet efficient – way to influence Australian policies by enticing Sam Dastyari, Bob Carr, and other notables willing to parrot China’s views.

In Beijing, locked-down for the ‘19th Da [Big One]’, as Chinese dubbed this Congress, state and society were apple and banana. In newspapers, TV, and slogans on fences, the state declared the ‘historic’ and ‘brilliant’ Big Da would anoint Xi Jinping and his ideas. Few listened.

The city works well, but politics is absent from daily life. Chit-chat is about traffic, prices, health (‘Don’t forget your mask, darling’) and unsafe baby food. The red hot state, inside the ill-named Great Hall of the People, leaves a bored populace cold. The official public philosophy of Marx-Lenin-Mao-Xi is a distant mountain, seldom visited, its message lost in a buzz of money-making below.

Class determines politics, left-wing professors told me years ago. But decades of Mao’s rule from 1949 produced no middle class. Nor are class relations the key to China’s recent success. Rather, an undefined state-society link sees business groups and others in murky deals with government. This hybrid dish is recently spiced with Confucianism. Never mind that Mao said, ‘I hated Confucius from the age of eight.’ Xi doesn’t hate Confucius; he finds the sage morally useful.

Confucianism over millennia viewed society as one big family, with the emperor as father figure. Forget heaven and the after-life. Confucius declined even to discuss an ‘after-life’. The Chinese state often repressed transcendental religion, but not Confucian social-religion. Confucian norms favored community over the individual. Function outweighed intrinsic rights. Today as under the dynasties, authoritarianism reaches down as neo-Confucian social-religion gazes up.

Crucially, China’s economy flourishes without the West’s public-private division, and without the West’s civil society separate from the state.


The former Harvard economist Alexander Gerschenkron said ‘late developing’ countries use state power to catch up with early capitalist modernizers. It’s true of China. Because Chinese tradition emphasised community and social responsibility, it suits the late-developing Deng-state. China has organisational resources, thanks to Mao’s unifying hand, and financial capacity, thanks to Deng’s open door, to match the USA and Japan.

Individuals, not taken seriously by the state unless they step out of line, are permitted to choose apolitical lives, opting to be capitalists, Christians, or jet-setters to New York and Paris. The state generally allows this. Marx’s idea of class is irrelevant. Xi and China’s billionaires share one continent-sized bed.

Citizens are members of society not primarily through government dealings (none vote), but as consumers at shops and businesses; employees (some in a joint venture with foreigners); families doing transactions with rural relatives; members of a church or cultural club.

The state allows initiatives from below on a trial basis. ‘Getting on the train before purchasing a ticket’ is the street slang for bold business activities which benefit from vague laws and seek a government rubber stamp later. This cheeky practice furthers economic growth, while reducing the danger to bureaucrats if growth disappoints.

Here, ‘socialism with Chinese characteristics,’ which Xi chose in October as his ruling motto, finds its meaning. ‘For a new era,’ Xi added to the motto – broaching a future, ominous for Washington and Canberra, when Chinese ways will be universal ways. But the set up breeds corruption. And its rationale triggers China’s cocky treatment of Australia recently.

The CCP acknowledges reduced trust between Party and people. This cries out for less state suspicion and eavesdropping. Society wants more room to breathe. The 1.4 billion Chinese people hold varying views of socialism – not just Xi’s view.

Confucian social religion should be part of Xi’s China Dream. The official state ideology surely has outlived its once-inspiring purpose.

Instead of elevating Xi to Mao-status in the party constitution, as the 19th did, Beijing should set out principles of socialism without giving the package an heroic or teleological label. It would draw on the social-religion of Confucianism, just as the US constitution and British common law draw on values of their societies.

Xi Jinping has tightened the party-state. ‘Wherever the Party goes, you must go,’ he declared to soldiers at the PLA’s 90th birthday celebration, and similarly urged ‘absolute loyalty’ on the media. He pushes foreign joint ventures, Disney in Shanghai among them, to allow Communist Party cells in their factories, and hold meetings (of Disney’s 300 CCP members) in factory rooms during work hours.

Before long, China may install a leader from a Buddhist family (as Mao was) or one who has lived years in the West (as Deng did). Possibly a Trump-like figure whose background is business, or even a female Christian. Any would signal a landmark for the autonomy of Chinese society and Confucianism’s role.

Without exception, China’s Communist leaders, from Mao to Xi, have all been lifelong politicos. Skullduggery, not opera, has been their trade. Yet China is the most money-minded major nation in today’s world!

Soon we’ll know whether Xi, inflated by the 19th Congress, will soar as a tyrant, or take the next ‘reform’ step beyond Deng-ism, matching economic freedom with political freedom. I am not optimistic, short term.

The day after Deng died in 1997 I wrote an oped in the New York Times which the editors shrewdly headed ‘The Last Communist’. The little chain-smoker indeed ditched Marxism. But he kept Leninism. So does Xi. Prosperity, Globalisation and Confucianism should give Beijing a chance to finish the dismantling. But jettisoning Leninism might rock Mao’s state. That risk must frighten Xi.

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