China is Neither a Civilizational State nor a Meritocracy

Al Jazeera’s most watched English-language programme is “Head to Head.” Hosted by Mehdi Hasan, who is also the political editor for the UK edition of the Huffington Post. It features Mehdi’s obstinate, in-your-face form of firebrand interviewing. He is immaculately researched and fiercely combative. Set in the Oxford Union, the surroundings seem almost at odds with the intention of making Mehdi’s guests squirm. Yet there is no end of very high-profile figures wanting to be on his one-hour show – especially intellectual figures who have achieved some public prominence. Bernard Henri Levy and Tariq Ramadan have been among his guests (or victims). Because public intellectuals take their turn alongside political figures, and because each interviewee is the centre of attention for an hour, “Head to Head” is probably the English-speaking world’s most sustained thinking person’s programme. The combat, in short sharp sound-bites, still allows more thought to be portrayed than any other programme. When Mehdi flags, he turns to three panellists who, in turn, ask questions of the guest. Mehdi might have moments when he can thus pause, but his guest cannot.

When, therefore, I was recently asked to be a panellist on an instalment of “Head to Head,” I should have been pleased. I was instead somewhat furious. This was because the guest was to be Zhang Weiwei, a professor at Fudan University in Shanghai. Insofar as a public intellectual is possible in China, it is the sort sanctioned by the Party. He acts as a scholarly apologist for the Party and its government. Zhang is very good at this, and has built a considerable international following – as someone who has something new to say about China. I don’t think it’s new at all. I think it is disingenuous apologia, cloaked in the misuse of scholarship, and is designed to seem like new insights that, in reality, defend a very old authoritarianism. I was also angry because the programme was to be recorded shortly after the 25th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre of 1989 – and the scars of that still linger deeply enough for the Chinese authorities to have gone to extreme lengths to prevent the commemoration of its anniversary.

But a government that kills its own children is not only a barbarity, it is in China’s case a huge violation of Confucian propriety and obligation.

Sun Yat Sen, when he campaigned for a republic at the turn of the twentieth century, said he did so because of a non-reactionary Confucianism – when loyalty and fealty not only went up the chain, but care and protection had to come down. If it didn’t, those at the top, the rulers, would lose their right to rule.

In 1989, the Chinese government certainly came down against greater democracy – and it is important to point out that this was a Gorbachev-style series of reforms that the students wanted, statues of liberty notwithstanding, so the demands were radical at the time but not revolutionary – but it also came down against its own civilizational impulses and bearings.

One of my two co-panellists was Martin Jacques, the legendary editor of the former Marxism Today, which called in the 1980s for a new brand of hard-headed leftist thought that was dubbed the ‘new brutalism.’ That it gave rise, through a series of glib under-readings, to Tony Blair’s sense of what was real and really able to be done, and what could really not be done, i.e. anything left at all, was not Jacques’ fault. Jacques went on to marry a Chinese woman, and his hugely influential book, When China Rules the World, was a sympathetic portrait of Chinese dynamism and implicit aspirations. It also perceptively heralded, if not a new global order, finally competitive globalisations. But Jacques also probably coined the term, ‘civilizational state,’ to describe why China could not be easily read, understood, predicted, or given prescription along Western lines. Zhang Weiwei was to take this term and run with it.

My other co-panellist was Diana Wei Liang. She had been at Tiananmen Square, crawling over tanks and shoving leaflets into their turrets – and had escaped to take an American MBA and PhD and become a professor at university business schools in both the US and UK, before making her name as a novelist – her detective fiction set in the twisting lanes of an old China that has now been largely obliterated by relentless modern urbanisation. Along the way, she stopped speaking Chinese. Of the three of us, it seemed it was she of whom Zhang Weiwei was most cautious.

Zhang Weiwei’s ‘big book’ is The China Wave: Rise of a Civilizational State, and it has been a best-seller in both China and the USA. I have two major difficulties with Zhang’s portrayal of the Chinese world. The first is his use of the term ‘civilizational state,’ and I am not overly concerned as to whether he or Jacques first coined it – except I think Jacques did – and the second is his notion of Chinese ‘meritocracy’ as being a substitute for democracy.

If Jacques uses the term ‘civilizational state’ to explain a certain contextual imperative for understanding China – and I have fully supported this in my own writing about the need for cultural contextualisation, appreciations and different origins and constructions of norms and ethics – this is very different from using the notion (Zhang never fully explicates the term in rigorous conceptual terms) as an excusing device. As if to say, ‘China doesn’t have to do things any other way but the Chinese way because there is a Chinese way in China’ – rendering all argument fruitless because any alternative way is not Chinese, and makes all things circular because all things Chinese are justified by virtue of their being Chinese. It is a hermetically-sealed virtuous (or vexatious) circle. It works off an old Chinese sense of exceptionalism – but this has gotten China into huge historical tracts of trouble, from the Mongols, to the Western imperial states, to the Japanese military machine of World War II.

Being Chinese is no safeguard against things non-Chinese and, even with competitive globalisations, there are still very many competitive things that are non-Chinese. The real problem within China, however, with Zhang’s civilisational Chineseness is its encounter with modernity and global communications and information. An insistence on a ‘pure’ civilisational state at that stage starts becoming a mere revanchism. It starts acquiring the habits of a hermitage and the rules of a monastery. Letting in placatory materialism assumes that associated philosophical, ideological and sheer deconstructive impulses can be filtered out. In this sense, the maintenance of the civilisational state becomes a grotesque naivety and its enforcement – which must veer here and there, defining exclusions and inclusions – a kind of postmodern Stalinism.

This renders the controlling Party not only one with a measure of unpredictability, as it seeks to achieve some impossible consistency on what is allowed or not, but makes the Party determined to maintain its hegemonic position of final arbiter of the shape and, above all, content of society.

Without intervening variables such as a genuine civil society, a free press, an independent judiciary, and free universities with freely-speaking students, the Party seeks to progress from hegemonic to monolithic. It is this monolith that Zhang speaks of as allowing, in place of democracy, ‘meritocracy.’

This is where I found the purposeful disingenuousness of Zhang to be offensive. His thesis is that each leader of China, and his senior cohorts, has emerged through a system of such selectivity, level by level, that he who emerges at the top has already shown his mettle by having administered and governed vast provinces and economies. No one can become Party chairman or state president without such a degree of experience and honing that the process can only be described as one of ensuring the highest merit. He argues that no other state or earth can boast such a selectivity and constant testing of a person’s mettle and capacity – a person’s merit.

Put more properly, however, and certainly not dismissing merit entirely, it is also an emergence, level by level, through a closed system of intrigue, faction-fighting and patronage, pacts to obtain protection and accord it, the building of alliances, and the securing of favours. It is completely lacking in transparency or even public visibility. There is no test whatsoever outside the jurisdiction of the Party. Zhang would certainly be correct to call his emerged leader a huge survivor and someone honed by the experience and constant practice of survival. He would certainly be a pragmatist and coalition-builder. But he could not be an outsider, a person of radical ideas outside the Party norm, or a person without a power base. Pedigree via descent from, marriage or other linkage to, ‘star liberation families or figures’ seems also to be hugely important – so there is an aristocratic element to it all. He may well be the ‘best of the rest,’ in the sense that he is the best man left standing.

The rest have, like Bao Xilai, for instance, been comprehensively and ritually disgraced – if not with his family, then with his wife. There is a smack of practice that once emanated from the closed doors of the Forbidden City. In that sense, Zhang might, in this case at least, call it a ‘civilisational’ process – except that the closed doors of the Forbidden City, and its ethos, conceit and self-deceit of exceptionalism led to disaster in the face of global encroachment. Just at the moment when China should be learning how to embrace a globalisation it might lead, Zhang advocates essentially a return to administration of China and the world from behind closed red gates and private gardens. Every member of the inner court who advises the chosen one is a eunuch who offers advice in chorus with the others on their knees. Zhang has cast himself into the role of the eunuch-at-large, travelling the world with his preposterous message.

At best, in Zhang’s terms, it is the Party that has cloaked itself in civilisational chainmail. Thus cloaked, it can point to achievements. It is true that China and Chinese people are now more prosperous and more free than at any time of the world’s history. But this does not say much for freedom within Zhang’s civilisational history. In that sense, his civilisation is a failure. And, as Uyghur members of his Al Jazeera audience hastened to remind him, especially when he lauded this comparative freedom and the pristine nature of Chinese human rights, Uyghurs and Tibetans do not recognise any bestowal of such rights upon them from Zhang’s civilisational state that is, in fact, staunchly Han. Should I say China is thus a Han tribal state? The plucking of labels is a sorry business. And the use of labels to disguise a shallowness of thought is likewise.

Have I been unfair to Professor Zhang? Quite possibly. But hardly fully so. He stands, and falls, on the slender thread of a fiction that seems factual. For him and for the Chinese leaders, it is a lovely exonerating fiction. For the students of 1989, this cannot be the case. 1989 was a year of overthrows. In the great cities of East Germany, Berlin being the chief case in point, when the students and people rose as they did in Tiananmen Square, the police would not turn their guns on their own people and children. In Zhang’s China, not only did they turn their guns upon the young demonstrators, they sent in the tanks. This much is not a fiction, but fact. It cannot be escaped. I conclude with the obvious play on words: a civilisational state must first, of course, be civilised.

Heaven is slow. But China must apologise for 1989 and establish a programme for the steady increase in freedoms. Or, one day, it will wake up and the Mandate of Heaven will have melted away.