China's Lost Soul and Fading Chance for Democracy

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Thursday February 6, by Jerome F. Keating Ph.D.

A century has passed since China's "so called revolution" of 1911. A full century, and yet, despite the passage of time and the bounteous republican rhetoric, in reality China is no closer to Sun Yat-sen's democratic dream of a government of the people, by the people and for the people than it was in the closing days of a reform bent Qing. For despite China's first stillborn attempt at a republic and the resultant period of warlords and on again, off again Civil War, the unfortunate reality and bottom line is that when the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) finally drove the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) into exile, Qing China had simply traded an emperor for an oligarchy and Manchu rulers for Han rulers. In short, it was Orwell's Animal Farm revisited where Napoleon defeated a posturing Snowball, but this time with Chinese characteristics.

Harsh words? There is much more. While China can certainly boast a current improved economy under the CCP's new, shall we say, "capitalistic/social system," in which "to get rich is glorious," it has also in the process lost its Confucian soul. Some may, of course, claim that the loss of that soul came in the Cultural Revolution, while others may even question the extent of that soul or even how accurate and what kind of soul it was. For in each of China's successive dynasties and rules on up to the present, each ruling power has never allowed any sense of alternative or revisionist history to be taught. Instead, its emperors and/or oligarchs only sought to explain and justify their legitimacy to lead the return to glory to the exclusion of any others. To this end, each rule has followed a similar pattern where an inherent dictatorial Legalist tradition manipulated the Confucian tradition to thus maintain loyalty and deny any opposing voices that might hint at a democracy.

Today, certainly for all practical purposes, Confucianism and democracy have long been window dressing, an empty shell, not only among China's leadership, but also among its growing nouveau riche. Unfortunately, even for the common people, the ultimate death knell tolled last summer, when after some two and a half thousand years, China's rulers found that they had to make it a law requiring all children to visit their parents. The irony of this decree, no doubt went unnoticed by many. Yet here was a country that touted its sacred Confucian heritage but was forced to legislate what should be a natural matter of filial piety in any society let alone a Confucian one. When such morality needs to be legislated it is a clear sign that the soul has gone. Palpable explanations as to why this happened under the current Legalist rule and its past draconian solutions like the one child policy are available, but regardless of such, that decree had to be and was made.

To legislate the visiting of one's parents was not, however, the ultimate insult. An even greater one came with the ironic or sham continued policy of China's oligarchs to open Confucian Institutes around the world. These institutes were allegedly proclaiming the virtues, which the oligarchs had just destroyed. Thus China remained Animal Farm but with Chinese characteristics.

But what about democracy? Confucian scholars will no doubt have their challenges in explaining how Confucius's unchanging hierarchical system built on an agricultural economy can be twisted to democratically fit the current capitalistic economy. They will likewise have to labor over the four ranked classes of society. Namely, how scholars can remain number one under a government that is professedly anti-intellectual. How peasant farmers can be number two when they are the poorest and work on polluted land. Artisans and craftsmen will perhaps have little challenge as number three. But the big explanation will be on how the wealthy merchants and traders have become the richest; these movers and shakers of the society are in positions that everyone aspires though the business class hypothetically remains number four.

No, the real challenge impeding any hope of progress for a democratic republic is outside Confucian gerrymandering. Two salient self-defeating items almost foreign to Confucius stand out. The first is the need for size to give face to national pride and identity and the second is the failure to come to terms with Mao Tse-tung.

What lay behind this is the paradigmatic thought that China cannot exist without size and of course the resources of others. China must be bigger than its neighbors. It must eliminate Tibet, and Xinjiang (and Mongolia if it only could). For this reason democracy will always fail because most Chinese will sacrifice it for size. Ironically, Confucius never said anything about the size of a state, but all Chinese are obsessed with the propaganda that justifies it. Of primary importance here is the need to be not just part of an empire but part of a great empire.

So the myth of cyclic return to greatness repeats itself. Reform will always crash on this barrier. Land must be grabbed. The new Middle Kingdom Syndrome had proclaimed, "Overthrow the Qing, and restore the Ming." What this translated to however, was, "Restore the Han, but keep the Manchu conquered lands."

The second self-defeating democratic issue, the coming to terms with Mao, is linked to this. Mao's "Let 100 flowers bloom" became a trap to ensnare democratic dissent. His disastrous Great Leap Forward, Great Famine and Cultural Revolution followed. Mao was the ultimate in draconian building of a state. The obsessed people still cannot come to terms with Mao because he did give them size albeit in the process the end justified the means. Further for the current oligarchs he is the one who legitimizes their rule and whatever draconian actions and solutions they choose.

Democratic Taiwan stands in sharp contrast to its hegemonic neighbor and can even quietly sneer at China's posturing pride and antics. Taiwanese do not need the borders of the Manchus to feel Taiwanese identity. Their island is sufficient. They do not suffer a Middle Kingdom Syndrome. They have never even had to dictate a one-child policy or any such family policy, and they certainly have not had to command that all children must visit their parents. Taiwan's democracy may not be perfect but it is not Animal Farm with Chinese or any other characteristics.