China's ideological ghosts

How Confucianism and communism have guided China's Covid-19 response

China's collectivist response and the strict authoritarian measures implemented to combat coronavirus cannot be understood as the product of a single ideological perspective. The Marxist-Leninist ideals that underlie Chinese government and the Confucian principles that permeate Chinese society can both be found in the superpower's Covid-19 response.

Just as the coronavirus crisis is set to peak in Europe, and is mounting in severity in the US, it looks as if it may be slowing down in the country where it started: China.  China’s role in the crisis has been subjected to a great deal of analysis in the past few weeks, ranging from awe at the building of a new hospital in Wuhan in the space of a week, and approval of the firmness of the lockdown in the city, to suspicions about how accurate the low mortality rate reported in China really is, and anger at attempts by Chinese social media influencers to imply that the source of the original infection came from the US.  On the virus, as in other areas – 5G technology, the development of a surveillance society, the climate emergency – China tends to generate apocalyptic stories in which it will either be the saviour of the world, or its destroyer.

The reality, as ever, is likely to be more measured.  There is no going back to a world, now twenty years past, where China’s economic influence and authoritarian system had little significance for the liberal world.  Yet China is still a relatively poor country on a per capita basis that is struggling to create a wider sense of its own geopolitical role.  To understand why China appears so confusing to the wider world, it’s worth examining the different aspects of the complex ideological mixture that has marked its response to the virus.  Those aspects do not just apply to disease control; they express something more fundamental about the contradictions that have always made up Chinese society, and continue to do so now.

There is genuinely a more collectivist response to crisis in China than in many liberal societies.

One significant problem of interpreting contemporary China is that observers can be trapped into believing that one framework is sufficient to explain things.  One such framework is the idea that China is still, at heart, a typical Communist country, an escapee from the world of the 1960s that has  somehow made its way into the present day but with improved AI and social media.  Another is the thought that somehow, China’s modernity masks a society which has never really changed since the days of Confucius. Actually, both interpretations have some value to them.  But not on their own.

It’s often said, rather carelessly, that China tends to be a more conformist society than those of the liberal, individualist west.  Actually, if China were that conformist, its ruling party would not spend so much time trying to censor free speech, arrest dissidents and generally batten down so many attempts by its people to speak their minds. 

But there is genuinely a more collectivist response to crisis in China than in many liberal societies. And one reason for that is the legacy of Marxist-Leninist influence, reinterpreted by Mao Zedong during the Cold War, and still explicitly endorsed by Xi Jinping, who has made the study of Marxist-Leninist classics an important part of his political re-education campaign.  Mao’s reading of Marxist theory involved the development of the idea of the “mass line,” a form of popular participation in politics that involved the party going out widely and deeply into society to find out what they thought about an issue. In that sense, there was a form of democratic input into policy.  But the party’s response was far from liberal: once the mass line had been decided, the rulers’ word was final, with no dissent tolerated.  Today, politics in China on key issues – which would certainly include the response to the coronavirus -  works on a similar basis; find out what is happening, then send down an edict which brooks no argument.

An ethical system that stresses hierarchy and knowing your place is useful for a top-down party that wants to stifle dissent.

Yet Marxism is by no means the only influence on Chinese social and political thinking.  The legacy of the Confucian heritage that shaped China for over 2,000 years is still very much present.  This isn’t a given.  A century ago, there was a profound intellectual revolt against the “traditional” thinking that rebel intellectuals – like a young library assistant named Mao Zedong – thought had held China back and made it vulnerable to gunboat-sailing, opium-trading western invaders.  Yet one of the most notable elements of the post-Mao Chinese Communist Party was its willingness to embrace Confucius once again.  There were multiple reasons for that, including somewhat cynical issues of control: an ethical system that stresses hierarchy and knowing your place is useful for a top-down party that wants to stifle dissent.  Yet there are other, more central values that make Confucianism resonant: it stresses mutual obligation, learning from previous examples, and a wider idea of “benevolence.”  These values, carefully deployed, have resonance in a society in which rapid economic growth  has left millions of people feeling alienated and lost.  They also come in very useful in understanding why sacrificing some individual liberties (as in a lockdown) serve not just the party’s desires, but are an act of benevolence toward fellow-humans, which in turn earn reciprocal respect and affection.

Yet although communism and Confucianism have both made China a more collectivist society than most in the west, there is plenty of individualist thinking too, influenced by western liberal ideas but by no means a simple derivative of it.  Today’s China is the China of killer apps, of individual consumer choice and style, and of a growing interest in foreign travel and education.  The coronavirus has proved that it is also a country with a loud and raucous presence on social media which has been deeply critical of what it sees as the errors of the party’s handling of the virus crisis.  Those comments were being regularly scrubbed out by internet censors almost as fast as they went up, but they showed that there was no single consensus in China about what has happened so far.  To be sure, there are multiple nationalistic, xenophobic takes on the virus that argue that China has dealt with the crisis far better than any western society, and argue that China’s authoritarian rulers are superior to western democrats.  There are also plenty of people who have said that they will not trust the system again.  What happens in China can’t be understood without understanding both of those points of view.

Communist history and futuristic hi-tech can overlap quite fruitfully from the party’s point of view.

There are other factors that have shaped China’s response to the virus.  One is society’s willingness to allow the state to collect data (admittedly, without much choice being given to the individual).  One reason for this relates to a system that has existed ever since the foundation of the Maoist state in 1949, the system of “files” or dang’an.  Every citizen has one, and in them, everything from education to political record is kept recorded.  During the Cultural Revolution, accusations drawn from the material in people’s files was a large part of the tactics of terror.  In the age of big data, when the Chinese state has unprecedented opportunities to place material from the files into a vast electronic database, we see the world’s first combination of ultra-high-level technology with authoritarian politics.  It looks – and is – high-tech.  Yet its origins lies in a system designed  under chairman Mao, who learned in turn from the experience of the Soviet Union (and whose major spymaster, Kang Sheng, learned all he needed to know with Stalin’s terror chiefs in 1930s Moscow).  Communist history and futuristic hi-tech can overlap quite fruitfully from the party’s point of view.

There is no doubt that the global politics of the coronavirus will focus more attention on China in months to come.  Such attention on China’s actions and responses is appropriate and necessary.  But that analysis needs to come from an understanding of China’s society that goes beyond the nationalistic or the superficial – and that is as true of analysis in Beijing as in Washington or London.

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