Why does China thwart, frustrate and even embarrass those who are only trying to help? For all who befriend China, the story is the same: high hopes, then disappointment. The exhilaration of the Beijing Spring followed by the rage of the Tiananmen massacre was only the high-theater version of the countless commonplace ways China continually brings hope and then despair to its well-wishers. All governments, whether democratic or communist, have had their special problems in maintaining smooth relations with Chinese authorities. But it is of course the Chinese people themselves who are most hurt and frustrated.

China seems to evoke in others, particularly Americans, an irresistible desire to serve as China’s teachers in the ways of the modern world, and thereby presumably help China improve itself. Yet, from the time of Lord Palmerston’s efforts to get the Chinese to accept the conventions of Western diplomacy, to President Bush’s humiliating attempts to alter the behavior of Beijing’s current rulers, China seems impelled to reject the helping hand and to act in ways that seem perversely self-damaging in the eyes of those who believe they have that country’s interests at heart.

Western frustrations with the conduct of Chinese officials began with the first efforts to "open" China. Even after 1842, when the Qing court agreed in the Treaty of Nanking to establish state-to-state relations, the British were driven again to using military muscle, in part to get the Chinese to establish a foreign office and conduct "normal" diplomatic relations. Faced with force majeure the Chinese reluctantly gave up their tradition of "managing barbarian affairs" through the offices of the Board of Rites, where specialists in protocol could teach uninformed foreigners the "usages of the empire," including how to get down on all fours when kowtowing to the August One. They did indeed set up a crude facsimile of a foreign office. The British, however, were driven to exasperation, for it seemed to them that in staffing the new office, the Tsung-li Yamen, the Chinese must have diabolically scoured the imperial bureaucracy to find the most dimwitted of officials. Additionally the Chinese had placed the foreign office on a back street in a rundown building, where passers-by could press their noses to the windows to watch Western diplomats attempt to lecture Chinese mandarins on why foreign affairs should not be treated as a mere nuisance.

It is of course understandable and hardly noteworthy that cultural differences should arise in relations among people with different traditions. The problem of disappointment with China, however, is of a more troublesome sort. Indeed the difficulties are particularly frustrating because outsiders often have an easy time establishing comfortable, even warm, relations with individual Chinese. Problems almost invariably arise out of the actions of the government and, specifically, from the ways in which power and authority operate in China. Chinese authority causes trouble not just for foreigners but for the vast majority of the Chinese people. Just when all appears to be going well, Chinese officials create problems for seemingly unaccountable reasons.

It is hard to pinpoint the intentions behind their disruptive acts because, in a world of grantedly irrational political systems, China’s is possibly the most bizarre. Can it be that one year after Tiananmen more than one billion sullen people are left mute and passive victims, awaiting the outcome of power struggles among enfeebled strongmen, the one with top billing holding no posts at all, his presumed principal opponent’s only claim to legitimacy being membership in an "advisory commission" of "retired" leaders? The problems with China are far more than just those associated with conventional communist oppression. China has a political system in which accountability seems to be absent altogether, in which no one appears to know where responsibility should lie anyway and, consequently, one in which awful things can happen to the ordinary citizen.

The accumulation of American frustrations with China can lead to feelings of betrayal. Americans may even come to believe that with the end of the Cold War China has lost its geopolitical relevance. But because a quarter of humanity cannot possibly be irrelevant, it is important to try understanding why the Chinese government, in contrast to the Chinese people, has been and remains such a disappointment. Unfortunately, the problems are not ephemeral; their roots extend deep into China’s historical experience. Any true understanding of these problems, therefore, calls for an analysis of the complex and unique ways in which the Chinese state and society have evolved.


The starting point for understanding the problem is to recognize that China is not just another nation-state in the family of nations. China is a civilization pretending to be a state. The story of modern China could be described as the effort by both Chinese and foreigners to squeeze a civilization into the arbitrary, constraining framework of the modern state, an institutional invention that came out of the fragmentation of the West’s own civilization. Viewed from another perspective, the miracle of China has been its astonishing unity. In Western terms the China of today is as if the Europe of the Roman Empire and of Charlemagne had lasted until this day and were now trying to function as a single nation-state.

The fact that the Chinese state was founded on one of the world’s great civilizations has given inordinate strength and durability to its political culture. The overpowering obligation felt by Chinese rulers to preserve the unity of their civilization has meant that there could be no compromises in Chinese cultural attitudes about power and authority. Whereas pragmatic considerations have readily guided the Chinese in other spheres of life, this has not been possible with respect to the most fundamental values that determine the basis of the legitimacy of the state and govern the relationship between the state and society.

Chinese civilization has produced a distinctive and enduring pattern of relations between the state and society. Although the affairs of the state were always secret and tainted with the suspicion of scandal, the realm of government projected grandeur and thus gave all Chinese a right to pride and dignity. Chinese society, on the other hand, was peculiarly passive toward its government, made no claims on state policies and concentrated its energies on the private domain. It has always been a society composed of inward-looking groupings, and thus cellular in its structure. Society in China existed only at the local level; there were no national institutions of society, such as the church in Europe. Thus the state existed alone at the highest collective level.

One secret of the unity of China has been a conspiracy of make-believe, which masks the strengths and limitations of both the state and society. The Chinese state, both imperial and communist, has always pretended to omnipotence, but in reality its policy-implementing authority has been surprisingly limited. Chinese society for its part has gone along with the pretense of official omnipotence while following its own lead and making almost no demands on the government. Rulers and subjects have thus tended to keep their distance from each other while pretending to be harmoniously close.

This peculiar relationship sets the stage for the great Chinese political game of feigned compliance. Central authorities issue their "absolute" orders and local authorities proclaim their obedience, even as they quietly proceed to do what they think best. Higher authorities are hesitant to check too carefully about implementation of their orders for fear that it might reveal their impotence and shatter the pretentious of absolute power. Lower authorities are careful not to be too blatant in disregarding more troublesome orders, while overzealously carrying out those that are untroublesome. Should central authorities be embarrassed, however, they can act with mad fury.

In traditional China, as in present-day China, the clash of politics occurred among the uppermost rulers and their bureaucracies. The people as a whole had almost nothing to say or do about public affairs, even though the fiction might be that all policies were executed in their name. The struggles of factional politics among the elite operated to neutralize policy initiatives, and thus spared the population undue obtrusiveness. The Confucian mandarins understood that the purpose of bureaucratic government was to uphold the ideal of stability, which is best achieved when bureaucrats bend all their wits and energies toward blunting each other’s initiatives.

Although government in the People’s Republic involves more concerted policy efforts, it is one of the great illusions of the day that Chinese authorities are as omnipotent as they pretend to be. In a host of fields, from tax collecting to controlling economic activities in Guangdong, Fujian and other dynamic provinces, central authorities know that feigned compliance still reigns and that it is best not to attempt the impossible by demanding precise obedience. Sovereignty, after all, calls for theatrical representation.

In the meantime, the Chinese public ignores its aged leaders’ buffoonery when they shrilly promise the imminent collapse of capitalism. The words of officialdom can hardly be taken seriously by an intelligent, pragmatic people when their leaders warn that "Western capitalist nations have never relinquished their goal of plundering China," while these same leaders simultaneously call for more foreign investment. The regime has now mounted a campaign warning that the West is plotting a "peaceful evolution" for China from socialism to democracy, a danger the people can only hope will come sooner rather than later. The political language of the elite at times loses all contact with reality. It speaks of the "bad old days" of Western domination, when only two percent of China’s national income was related to foreign trade and investment; it touts a proud new anti-capitalist, anti-imperialist era, when nearly one third of China’s national income currently depends on the world capitalist system. State and society in China have quite different realities indeed.

This distinctively Chinese relationship between the state and society was sustained by a shared belief in a moral order, the upholding of which gave the government legitimacy, and the existence of which gave the people security and peace. Although most traditional societies had comparable moral orders, elsewhere the process of modernization involved transitions to political orders based on competing economic and social interests. With successful modernization the balance of power shifts in favor of society and the emerging interests of the people. The authority of government comes to depend on the outcome of political processes. Instead of legitimacy being derived from an orthodox moral order, it is invigorated by the play of politics as codified in a system of laws.

In the case of China, however, significant competing interests never emerged. Instead of a drive toward pluralism and a system of legitimacy anchored in the realities of political processes, there was a frantic search for a new moral order to replace the eroding Confucian order. Marxism-Leninism in its Maoist form became that new moral order that reenergized rulers’ pretentions of moral superiority and invincibility. The result is a distinctive system, which can be called Confucian Leninism, in which rulers, especially under Mao Zedong, claim to have a monopoly on virtue, society is guided by a moralistic ideology, and the hierarchy of officialdom is supposedly composed of exemplary people skilled in doctrinal matters. This continuing Chinese emphasis on a moral order explains the exaggerated importance of ideology in the Maoist years, the current propensity to revert to orthodoxy at every sign of political difficulties, and the generally erratic behavior of the state.

Mao sought to do something that Chinese emperors and mandarins were far too prudent to try. He sought to use the legitimacy of the moral order to mobilize the people for material advancement, especially during the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution. When this effort failed, the legitimacy of the new moral order eroded and there was a crisis of faith. For a brief time Deng Xiaoping reestablished a sense of legitimacy by providing immediate materialistic pay-offs from his reforms. When economic problems began to emerge after 1985, however, the government had neither a moral order nor the benefit of a political process to provide it with legitimacy. The only immediate alternative was repression. Tiananmen has become the universally acknowledged code word for repression in the search for legitimacy.

For a time the horrors of the Cultural Revolution seemed great enough to extinguish any lingering legitimacy of Marxism-Leninism-Maoism. When Deng initiated his economic reforms, there existed a debate between party theorists advocating the "two whatevers"—whatever Mao said and whatever Mao did—and those advocating "seeking truth from fact." The debate confused the issue of what should be the criterion for evaluating policies with the larger question of what should be the basis of legitimacy now that Mao, the Superthinker, was dead. The pragmatists’ argument that "practice is the sole criterion of truth" provided far too risky a basis for state legitimacy. No society has been so foolish as to make successful policies the basis of the legitimacy of its government, since the very essence of legitimacy is that it should sustain the government regardless of how partisan policies are working out. In practical terms, Deng used the debate long enough to eliminate his rival Hua Guofeng and his "whatever" faction, and then reasserted the authority of the Four Principles, which gave primacy to the party and to the moral order of Marxist-Leninist-Maoist thought. The debate helped party leaders to liberate their thinking from the silliness of Maoist rhetoric, but it failed to usher in a new basis of legitimacy for the state.

The inestimable importance of a moral order for political legitimacy has made Chinese leaders, both Confucian and communist, dogmatic believers that values can be vividly categorized into those that are at the core or essence of the moral order; those that are foreign but useful, such as Western science and technology; and those that are an abomination because they contaminate the purity of the core values. The third are to be vigilantly guarded against and denounced, for example, as they are today, as "spiritual pollution" and "bourgeois liberalism." All Chinese leaders, starting with the reformers at the end of the Qing Dynasty, have steadfastly followed this formula in trying to modernize China while still preserving its civilization. Serious troubles arise, however, when in practice it proves impossible to ensure that the three categories of values are being kept neatly separated. Panic grows at the thought that the purity of the core values is being contaminated by Chinese who are supposed to be learning only practical matters from alien cultures.

This hypersensitivity to what is precious in the Self and what may be useful in the Other makes the Chinese more extreme than other transitional peoples in having at the same time a superiority complex and an inferiority complex, a contradiction which does not particularly bother them. Enough has been said elsewhere about the "Middle Kingdom complex," but what needs to be noted here is that this complex is accompanied by a keen awareness of the need to learn from others, to send students abroad, to search for what is best and to replicate it in China—with little regard for patents or copyrights. In this process the Chinese have elevated science and technology to the ranks of their core values and have come to revere science in much the same spirit as the earlier mandarins did Confucianism. Thus, instead of science having the liberating effect it did in the West, in China it has become a new orthodoxy for a state-supported technocratic elite. The Chinese political approach to science and technology therefore has an absolutist character; it is assumed that there is always a single, best answer to all technical problems.

The Chinese tradition of orthodoxy suggests that technocrats should have a common solution to any problem, with disagreements fought out within the circle of the elite, in the style of defenders of a moral order. Chinese political leaders have refused to recognize that technical problems usually have multiple solutions, and that choosing among them calls for a clash of values and power inherent in competitive politics. Debates over alternative technocratic solutions in other countries have generally widened political participation and strengthened pluralistic tendencies. This is not so in China, precisely because "science" has been made a part of the Chinese core values that, ironically, must be protected from contamination from other aspects of Western culture that are not "science."

Expecting that science should provide absolute certainty, like answers to arithmetic problems, Chinese political leaders are easily angered by the fact that technology generally calls for probabilistic thinking. They thus imperiously demand the single "best" answer to a policy problem. Of course political leaders in other countries also have their frustrations with the contingent nature of applied scientific knowledge. Harry Truman, for example, once complained that he wished he could find a one-armed economist, one who would not always be talking about "on the one hand, and on the other hand." In China, however, the authoritarian traditions of the emperors and of Leninism-Maoism combine to produce hostility toward any suggestion of ambiguities and probabilities. Chinese rulers’ reactions thus tend to be of the old imperial stripe: "Don’t tolerate, exterminate."

This dogmatic approach to science, along with adherence to "scientific" Marxism-Leninism, has produced a troublesome psychological problem for communist leaders as they try to preserve the dichotomy between essential "Chinese" values and the "dangerous" values of foreign cultures. The core values now to be defended are, in fact, foreign imports: science and Marxism-Leninism. In an effort to get around this awkward reality, the leadership talks of "building socialism with Chinese characteristics." This does not solve the problem, however, because for forty years the party has been denouncing just about every feature of Chinese culture as a feudal abomination that should be obliterated. In the end it is not easy to articulate what exactly are the Chinese qualities that should now be defended. In practice all that is left of "Chineseness" is the belief that leaders have a claim to moral superiority as the defenders of the moral order, even if this means acting in erratic and arbitrary ways that set back the nation.


The stunted growth of interest groups in China is rooted in part in the nature of traditional Chinese society, which was essentially agrarian, and in which the only established channel for upward mobility was the government bureaucracy. China did not have the diversities that emerged in Europe with the rise of cities, the development of a merchant class, the growth of professions and occupations, and all of the other social changes that contributed to the pluralism basic to modern Western politics. In the West the rise of interest groups in society was also fueled by religious beliefs that valued the individual and gave legitimacy to individualism and the search for self-realization. In China the society was community oriented; individuals were expected to find their identities as a part of a group and to conform to the conventions of the collectivity.

This characteristic of Chinese culture had profound implications for the way Chinese political life developed, and explains why today the government can be so troublesome. The fact that all Chinese derived their identities from being members of a group, starting most importantly with the family and the clan, gave stability to China’s unique structure of state-society relations, making it relatively easy for the government to rule. In the Ming Dynasty as few as 100,000 officials managed an empire of 100 million people, and a single magistrate was responsible for a county averaging 50,000 people. Collectivities governed themselves and the state could rely on the principle of collective responsibility. In policing it was not necessary to apprehend the particular person who committed a crime; Chinese justice could be administered by arresting, torturing and punishing the culprit’s father, grandfather or the head of his or her clan. Since fathers had no desire to suffer for the bad acts of their sons, they could be counted on to go to great lengths to bring them up in the right way. Filial piety had practical as well as spiritual implications.

Society also benefited from this system in that individuals could derive a strong sense of security from being a part of solidarity groups that provided mutual support. Under the Chinese system of social connections, called guanxi, an individual might also have access to reciprocal ties with people beyond his or her primary group. An individual could thus become a part of a complex network of associations extending outward from the family to people from the same town, province, school or other institutions. People who shared any commonly recognized identity could count on each other.

For both the mandarins of the past and the cadres of today, these networks of personal relationships have provided the latent structures of factional Chinese politics. Guanxi ties, however, have not always provided security. In a forthcoming study, John K. Fairbank tells how the Hongwu emperor of the Ming Dynasty became so furious with his prime minister that he had him beheaded, along with all the members of his extended family. His fury still unappeased, the emperor then went after everyone who was known to have been in any way associated with any of them, to the extent that this early Stalinist-style purge exterminated over 40,000 people. Fairbank observes, "Guanxi has its dangers."

Since Tiananmen, state terror has been reimposed with ease, partly because the students and dissidents who need to use guanxi can never be certain that their networks have not been penetrated by informers. The environment became one in which people felt safe trusting each other only if they had some damaging information in reserve that could be used if necessary against another. The problem of trust has contributed to the factionalism that has splintered the opposition to the regime, even among those outside the country.


The group-oriented character of Chinese society also makes governing easier because the collectivities are expected to look after their own members, while not making demands on the government. China has always had protective associations, but not pressure or interest groups. This was true of the family and clan in traditional China and is true of the work unit and the "iron rice bowl" in today’s China. Just as individuals are not supposed to assert their own interests above those of the group that provides their identities, likewise all subordinate interests in China’s hierarchical society are expected to defer to higher interests.

The taboo on the articulation of interests no doubt contributed to the unity of China, but it also set sharp limits on political development, even to the point of dictating the scope of discourse and determining who was a proper spokesman on public affairs. This prohibition meant that China never developed a real political economy in the sense of openly acknowledging that political power might be harnessed to advance economic interests. Those with interests that might be affected by governmental policies could not publicly call for allies or seek to mobilize opinion in favor of their interests. They could instead only try to operate quietly by seeking special favors in the implementation of policies, and thus risk being seen as a source of corruption. Consequently, although China has great regional differences, ranging from the rice economy of the south to the millet and wheat economies of the north, and from its cosmopolitan coast to its provincial interior, these differences have never been openly acknowledged. Everyone has simply gone along with the pretense that whatever the central authorities advocate is in the interest of all Chinese.

The rule against asserting one’s own material interests has made selfishness China’s ultimate political sin. Since openly advancing personal interests is seen as dishonorable, severe limits have been placed on even the vocabulary of Chinese politics. The language of Chinese politics has always been limited largely to supporting the values of the moral order. Political discourse thus becomes moralizing, not the analyzing of problems. No matter what scoundrels they may be as individuals, as self-conscious members of a supposed virtuocracy, Chinese officials are trained to praise all acts of the government as morally unassailable. Other Chinese are limited to two acceptable levels of discussion: the ad hominem level of remonstrating against particular officials for their selfish wrongdoings, or the lofty plane of boasting of their own selfless patriotism. Thus Chinese political discourse is either thick with charges of corruption against selfish officials or, as people seek to demonstrate their selflessness, highly idealistic and patriotic.

The imperative of always needing to appear selfless also limits who participates in political discussions. Most people remain mute for fear of being viewed as selfish and concerned only with their own material interests. Intellectuals and students thus receive a near monopoly on speaking out, for they are thought to have no special interests beyond their prime responsibility of defending the moral order. This responsibility has made them prisoners of the status quo, unable to freely advocate genuinely alternative approaches. China never had the clash of church and state, of religion and science, that established the Western intellectual as a legitimate outside critic of authority. As a result the Chinese governmental process has rarely had the benefit of intellectual criticism. It is true that many noteworthy Confucian scholars bravely remonstrated against officials of the imperial government, or even the emperor, but it was almost always in orthodox terms.

The story of intellectual dissent in the People’s Republic has been much the same. Intellectuals have criticized the personal failings of officials, and some have at great risk even questioned the correctness of Mao’s and Deng’s policies. The tyranny of patriotism, however, has imposed a form of self-censorship. The Chinese tendency to blur the distinctions between party, government and country has made it dangerous to challenge fundamental policies or the basic character of the political system for fear of appearing to be unpatriotic and subversive. Liu Binyan, China’s famed investigative reporter, even after 22 years of exile in the countryside, until Tiananmen never questioned the values of the party and sought only to expose individual wrongdoing. In his essay "A Second Kind of Loyalty," which electrified the Chinese reading public, Liu suggested that, in addition to the simple-minded obedience to the party of the good soldier Lei Feng, there was a second kind of loyalty, typified by two people who had chastised officials for their failings. As late as Tiananmen, few intellectuals questioned whether Liu was still too bonded to the party to recognize that there might be an even higher kind of loyalty, that of criticizing socialism out of love for China. What makes Fang Lizhi, China’s Sakharov, stand out among Chinese intellectuals is his outspoken recognition that China has been cursed with what he calls "the problem of patriotism," which stops all reasoning because once you "criticize someone for being unpatriotic it will shut him right up."


A further problem in a society in which self-interest must be masked and people pretend to selflessness is that people never feel they know where others really stand. Everybody knows of course that people have hidden interests. There exists, therefore, considerable suspicion about hidden agendas and real motives. From ordinary social relations to international politics, inordinate attention is given to determining the real position of others. Are they potentially friends or foes? Stratagems abound, but they have to be followed with the greatest care because of the danger of causing the other party to "lose face," which is the grievous pain people experience when their masks are stripped away.

The social imperative not to offend, especially in face-to-face relations, contributes to an astonishing double paradox in contrasting Chinese and American political behavior. American politicians, operating in a democratic political culture, paradoxically discount what other politicians say publicly ("He had to say that for his constituents"; "it was only said for election purposes"), while believing that the hard currency of political communication is found in the privacy of meetings held behind closed doors, where they can talk "man to man."

Chinese leaders, operating in an authoritarian political culture, follow the opposite rule. They believe face-to-face meetings are where hypocrisy prevails. That is where it is obligatory to tell others what they want to hear, where ceremonial rituals must be carefully observed so that relations go smoothly; no one loses "face" and there is no hint of confrontation. In Chinese political culture one discerns where the other party stands only by reading between the lines of public statements and attaching importance to the code words employed.

This paradoxical difference between the Chinese and American evaluations of private communications makes even more puzzling the secret visit to Beijing after Tiananmen by President Bush’s national security adviser, Brent Scowcroft. According to American logic, the trip’s purpose might have been to reassure Beijing that the U.S. president was not as angry about Tiananmen as his public statements may have suggested and, further, that Bush’s subsequent public statements about trying to keep China "open" should be discounted as conventional American hypocrisy employed to pacify his political constituents. Seen from a Chinese point of view, however, the trip was merely a ceremonial visit where flattering toasts are to be dismissed according to the conventional Chinese hypocrisy of face-to-face meetings.

The need in Chinese social and political life to probe where others stand as they uphold the ideal of selflessness makes the identification of friend and foe a constant concern. This produces layers of ritual about friendship that only further obscure whether or not the reality exists in any particular relationship. In Chinese culture people can become instant "old friends," but the obligations of friendship are vague; there is only the general notion that the more fortunate party ought to be helpful. Even a slight sign of coolness, however, can raise the suspicion that the relationship has become adversarial. This is not the place to analyze the complex sentiments associated with friendship in Chinese culture, but suffice to say that friendship is a highly valued ideal that is nonetheless hard to realize in practice. It is also an inappropriate ideal in institution-to-institution relations for, ironically, just as cooperation seems to draw closer, the likelihood of trouble usually increases sharply.

China still actively plays the theme of friendship in the old tradition of treating well those who have come from afar to partake of its wonders. True, there is currently some embarrassment over the old Maoist slogans of "We have friends everywhere" and, in sports, "Friendship first, competition second." Yet when Chinese behavior is more soberly analyzed, it is striking how few allies China actually has and how easily its relations with others tend to sour. Usually trouble arises just when relations seem to be getting closer: as with the Soviet Union in the late 1950s, India in the early 1960s, Vietnam in the late 1970s and Japan and the United States in the late 1980s. Since the post-Mao era of "opening" to the world, China has of course been seeking "normal" international relations. It is significant, however, that China still has no particularly close allies. Over the last few years when Chinese officials have been systematically questioned as to the countries with whom they have the closest and easiest relations, they have generally been hard put to specify any country other than their formal ally, North Korea. Few knowledgeable people, meanwhile, believe that China and North Korea are really close friends.

The overriding duty to defend a great civilization by upholding a moral order seems to cause Chinese leaders to discount the risks of irritating other governments. At the same time they are themselves hypersensitive to perceived slights. Thus Chinese officials generally strive to claim the moral high ground in any diplomatic negotiations. Just as Chinese rulers traditionally believed they could shame their subjects into correct behavior, and much as Chinese parents use shaming to socialize their children, so Chinese leaders today seem to believe that it is to their advantage to tell other governments that their relations with China are either "bad" or not as "good" as they should be. They will speak of how there is "a cloud over the relationship," and claim that relations can be improved only if "he who tied the knot unties it." There is no hint of a quid pro quo, however, no concrete indication as to what it might be worth for the other party to improve its relationship with the Chinese. Other governments should simply do what is "right" and be thankful to China for providing moral instruction and guidance. It must be conceded that the Chinese tactic of blaming others for any setback in relations is remarkably effective when it comes to the United States. America’s puritan instinct dictates that if something has gone wrong it is proper first to suspect that the fault is probably one’s own; and even if it turns out to be the other’s, one should remain as closemouthed as possible for fear of making things worse. This tendency in turn only compounds the problem, because Chinese culture takes for granted that an accused party who offers no defense must be guilty.

There is an additional twist to the differences in American and Chinese thinking about the role of morality in international affairs. As pointed out by George Kennan and Hans Morgenthau, among others, the United States tends toward a moralistic approach to foreign policy that inhibits the advancement of American interests and allows others undue advantage. Chinese leaders, as the practiced guardians of a moral order, turn the issue of morality the other way around. They use arguments of "right" and "wrong" as a way to inhibit the actions of other countries, thereby advancing China’s own practical interests—interests that of course they pretend are of secondary concern. Chinese leaders’ commitment to the advantages of being morally superior is so great that even after the horrors of Tiananmen they still thought they could benefit by blaming the United States and others for what had happened.


The erratic behavior of the Chinese state in both domestic and international affairs is further exaggerated by the Chinese belief that benevolent government requires rule by men and not by law. (The Chinese tradition of rule by law was one of arbitrary and harsh authoritarianism.) New vigor was given to the Confucian ideal of rule by superior men when China adopted Leninist elitism, and the combination of Confucian Leninism has produced a system that gives successive top rulers extraordinary freedom. Consequently, and paradoxically, ultimate power in a society that is otherwise group oriented rests largely in the hands of individual personalities.

The peculiarly personal quality of sovereign authority has made leaders acutely sensitive to the need to take advantage of their every opportunity and to cling to power for as long as possible. Without a system of laws they cannot be sure their policies will survive their hold on power. No leader, not even a Mao or a Deng, can leave behind statutes that will bind the country to any particular policy course. New rulers bring new policies. This also means that questions of succession dominate Chinese politics. When things are going well, people wish "long life" to the paramount ruler; when they are going badly, people look forward to the arrival of the Grim Reaper. As long as leaders’ influence ends at the grave, it is natural for them to try to hold on to power for as long as possible. Gerontocracy is the result. The "eight ancients" today rule over the entire political system and generational change is excruciatingly slow. Indeed, it is an oddity that aspiring Chinese leaders seem to get old faster than those ahead of them die.

The zigs and zags of Chinese policies made possible by the rule of men rather than law is also exaggerated by the Chinese spirit of pragmatism, which holds that changes in circumstances should prompt changes in action. In contrast to American politicians, who go into contortions to prove that through thick and thin they have always been consistent in their views, Chinese leaders find it painless to change their positions as circumstances change. For them it is a sign of wisdom to adapt to the logic of a situation, and it is an indication of power to be able to order policy changes. Proving that one has both wisdom and power is a combination hard to beat in any culture, and thus it is not surprising that Chinese leaders will confidently alter their policies. Americans are puzzled that Deng Xiaoping, who brought about such liberalizing reforms, could also be the butcher of Tiananmen. They forget that he is the same man (although his name was then spelled Teng Hsiao-p’ing) who in 1958 proposed the Anti-Rightist Campaign and who sold Mao on the idea of sending intellectuals down to the countryside to rusticate. Most Chinese leaders have likewise had several political incarnations.

The tradition of government by superior people, acting as the guardians of a moral order, has inhibited the institutionalization of government in China to the point that there is widespread speculation about how much of the communist system, built up over half a century of struggle, will outlast the octogenarians who are now the supreme rulers. Yet, paradoxically, in spite of the apparent fragility of a noninstitutionalized system of government, communism endures in its Confucian Leninist form, while being in crisis nearly everywhere else.

Optimists take heart from actuarial considerations and belief in the doctrine that "nothing succeeds like a successor." Pessimists recognize that the Chinese gerontocracy hangs on while American administrations come and go: an infirm Mao outlived Richard Nixon’s presidency, and now an elderly but vigorous President Yang Shangkun is a good bet to outlast the current U.S. administration. Beijingologists scanning the ranks of the leadership to spot a possible future reformer place their hopes on Li Ruihuan, the former carpenter and now party propaganda czar, or Zhu Rongji, the mayor and cheerful booster of Shanghai. It is certainly wishful thinking, however, to believe that the Chinese political system is a well-integrated machine ready to respond to one man pushing a button labeled "reform," and thereby bring back the happy visions of the early 1980s. Prediction is made difficult precisely because the Chinese political system is capable of sudden zigs and zags according to the whims of a few men, while simultaneously carrying the burden of being true to a great and only slowly changing civilization. In a rhythmic way China’s strengths turn into its weaknesses and its weaknesses become its strengths.

It is prudent to have guarded expectations about the immediate actions of Chinese leaders and the outcomes of their factional power struggles. It is nevertheless possible to be somewhat more certain about the evolution of modern China. It will probably continue to be the story of a society composed of people with remarkable talents for adapting to the modern world, but cursed with a political culture that constantly dashes any hope for smooth progress. The distinctive state-society relationship that has worked so successfully in preserving the unity of China also works to make progress erratic.

The failure of significant interests to emerge politically suggests that there is little prospect in the foreseeable future that the balance will shift from the state in favor of society, as has occurred in Eastern Europe and is occurring in Taiwan, South Korea and the other countries that are leading the worldwide transition away from authoritarianism. Dissidents trying to think through the future of China are mired in utopian debates that would at best call for heroic efforts to establish once more a new moral order. Some talk of a "third way" between capitalism and socialism; others dream of returning to the heady days of the early 1980s, before reforms ran into increasingly daunting problems and it became apparent that without solid political support there is no easy exit from a centrally planned economy. The prospects of such support are made dimmer by the Chinese tradition of believing that all successful leaders must be supermen, for today there are no charismatic figures among the dissidents.

Still others take hope from Chinese history. Out of the chaos of a disintegrating dynasty there have repeatedly emerged dynamic founders of new dynasties. Such a reliance on historical analogy is questionable, however, because in the past the Confucian moral order remained in place, ready to be reinvigorated by the new dynasty. It is harder today to identify what are the norms that could give vitality to a new political order, and therefore the drift of inertia becomes a guiding force. The strongest consideration uniting the opposition is a passion for revenge, for "settling scores," but there is no agreement even about which scores need settling first. Today there is widespread hope that "democracy" could become China’s new moral order, but it is hard to imagine that a democracy could exist without a politics of competing interests.

China’s distinctive state-society relationship has contributed to the peculiar rhythm of its politics. The factional struggles within the elite have produced not the Western pendulum swings between left and right, liberal and conservative, but an up-and-down motion of centralizing and decentralizing, of tightening and loosening the state’s penetration of society. The vast majority of the population live as peasants in some five million hamlets and villages with their own largely self-contained social and political systems. They see the workings of government as much like the weather, to be thanked when favorable and cursed when bad. The urban population is not organized into interests, but rather is made up of strata or segments, such as the intellectuals and technocrats, industrial workers, managers, service people, entertainers, journalists, owners of small enterprises and the like. Their response to the politics of the state is largely one of mood: when things are favorable for them they are capable of enthusiasm, when things go wrong, of alienation. Most of the strata joyfully welcomed the early Deng reforms, but by 1985, and especially since 1988, they have one by one become disenchanted. Swings in mood between enthusiasm and alienation are humanly significant, but they are not a substitute for real politics.

Although it is hard to find a silver lining in the clouds, Chinese society, in spite of current repression, continues to have surprising dynamism. The coastal provinces have fought back the forces of political repression and economic recession and, consequently, economic progress at the local level continues. The modernizing elements in the society seek to expand their international contacts as best they can. Just as Soviet society made significant progress in urbanization, education and professionalization during the political stagnation of the Brezhnev era, so it is likely that Chinese society will advance in spite of its anachronistic government.

China’s peculiar state-society relationship allows its leaders to rejoice in their presumed omnipotence, and its bureaucrats to engage in their factional struggles, while the Chinese people are left to seek comfort and security in the personal groupings that can protect them from more extreme political storms. Acts of make-believe smooth over the obvious contradictions and ensure that Chinese civilization will change only slowly in spite of all the zigzags of an erratic state. The unshakable idea that China remains a great civilization fuels a comfortable superiority complex and makes the vast majority of Chinese optimists, for they must believe that it is only an anomaly that things are as bad as they currently are, and in the future greatness will inevitably return.

In coping with the civilization as a state, the outside world has every reason to follow its own optimistic instincts and try to build ties with elements of China’s distinctive society. At the same time, it should give careful heed to the pessimistic forebodings history provides of the erratic ways of China’s political system. The fundamental goal in dealing with China should be to strengthen elements within Chinese society that can in time serve as more effective checks against the troublesomeness of the state. Even after Tiananmen, during a year when officially relations were "bad," this process has continued as, for example, trade with the United States has grown. Until a more substantial shift in power occurs in favor of society, however, the question of whether other governments have "good" or "bad" relations with the Chinese government will remain a trivial distinction.

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  • Lucian W. Pye is Ford Professor of Political Science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and immediate past President of the American Political Science Association.
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