MINISTER FOR TRADE & INDUSTRY, SINGAPORE
SPECIAL LECTURE BY GEORGE YONG-BOON YEO
AT THE GOLDEN JUBILEE ANNIVERSARY OF NEW ASIA COLLEGE, HONG KONG,
Throughout Chinese history, a profound tension exists between stability and instability. Chinese civilisation is the longest continuous civilisation on earth going back more than 5,000 years. This shows the tenacity of the culture and its deep stability. However, Chinese society is also highly fragmented. The father of modern China, Sun Zhongsan, once described Chinese society as a tray of loose sand. Outside the extended family, Chinese people tend to be lacking in public spirit. In their minds, a clear distinction is made between what is within the family and what is outside the family. Within the extended family, mutual trust and assistance is taken for granted. Beyond the extended family, liberties are often taken unless there is a threat of punishment.
Without a strong state to hold Chinese society together, it can dissolve quickly into internal dispute and civil war. In physics, there is a phenomenon called "artificial stability". This describes a situation when stability is achieved by external control over what would otherwise be unstable. For example, a fighter aircraft, whether it is a Sopwith Camel, a Spitfire or an F-16, is designed to be unstable so that that aeroplane can manoeuvre freely in a dogfight. The control system or the pilot has to maintain stability all the time. Once the control is withdrawn, the aeroplane quickly turns left or right, up or down. In the same way, a bicycle is more stable when additional load is placed at the back but this makes it less manoeuvreable. When the load is placed in front, the bicycle is more unstable, but the rider finds it easier to steer the bicycle. Chinese society is "artificially stable". Without a good control system externally imposed, it becomes chaotic.
Many years ago, I had an interesting discussion with a Suzhou official. He told me that the Jiangsu Provincial Government was reluctant to develop the parts of Jiangsu adjacent to Shanghai because Shanghai might one day take over those areas as the city grew. When there were floods in the lower Yangtze Delta, decisions had to be taken whether to sacrifice large areas of farmland in Jiangsu or to allow Shanghai to be affected. Furious arguments would take place and Beijing would have to step in to arbitrate and decide. Without a strong centre in China, the different provinces could quickly go to war with one another as had frequently happened in the long history of China. No wonder the Romance of the Three Kingdoms began with the famous saying that "long disunity leads to unity and long unity leads to disunity".
This tendency of Chinese society to be chaotic is both a strength and a weakness. The frequent disorderliness is also a source of creativity and dynamism. While China today remains an authoritarian state, there is intense competition at the provincial and city levels. It is a situation of controlled chaos.
The Idea of One China
Cycles of growth and decline are common in human history. What is unique and extraordinary about Chinese history is the ability of Chinese society to re-gather itself into a single polity again and again. The Han Dynasty was roughly contemporaneous with the Roman Empire. Both broke up at about the same time. The areas under the control of the Roman Empire never succeeded in reuniting themselves. Attempts were made by Charlemagne, Napolean, Hitler and others, but they never came close to achieving the dominance of Rome. Even the European Union today is a loose confederation of tribal groups. In contrast, China was able to reunify itself many times since the fall of the Han Dynasty. This is because the idea of one China is deeply embedded in the minds of all Chinese people.
For centuries, Chinese children, before they could read or write, were taught to recite the San Zi Jing through which the Confucianist idea of society being one big happy family is programmed into young minds. The three-character phrases are like strands of cultural DNA which are passed on from generation to generation. Thus, the political idea of one China is also a cultural idea. This distinguishes Chinese culture from other ancient cultures. For example, Jewish culture is as tenacious as Chinese culture but it does not put the same emphasis on political unity. Hindu culture is also an ancient culture. While Hindu culture encompasses political ideals, it does not programme into all Hindus the idea of one India the way Chinese culture does. For this reason, the idea of Taiwanese independence is emotionally unacceptable to many Chinese people because it goes against a long-held cultural ideal.
The Stability of the Chinese Family
However, like Jewish and Hindu cultures, Chinese culture places great emphasis on the family. This is the basic building block of Chinese society, and is almost indestructible. Despite wars and revolutions, floods and famines, the Chinese family has held together. In this century, despite family members being separated by hundreds or thousands of miles over long years, the Chinese family held together in a remarkable way. Strong Chinese families explain the strength of Chinese diaspora culture. Diaspora Chinese culture is much more tenacious than diaspora Japanese culture.
However, the strength of the Chinese family also means that, outside the circle of relatives and friends, Chinese people tend to be less public-spirited. The difference between the public spirit of Japanese people and Chinese people is well-known. I remember once visiting the Meiji Shrine in June when the blue irises were in bloom. Because the Meiji emperor planted blue irises which the empress loved, Japanese women romanticise this particular irises. On the day when I visited the shrine, there was a long procession of Japanese women lining up to view the blue irises. There was no rush. When it was their turn to take photographs, they took them quickly so as not to hold others back. When they saw litter on the ground, they picked them up. It is hard to imagine Chinese people ever behaving in this way. If there were a similar event in Singapore we will need many workers the following day to clean up the park.
Weakness of Independent Chinese Civil Society
In the confucianist classic "The Great Learning", we learn to cultivate the self, establish the family and govern the state, thereby bringing harmony to human society. At one end, we have the individual and the family; at the other we have the state as one big happy family. In reality, between the Chinese family and the Chinese state, there is a big disconnection. In western society, the space in between the family and the state is usually occupied by relatively independent civil society. This civil society makes possible Western democracy. In Chinese society, civil society is more problematic. When civil society is independent, the state takes a negative view of it because it dilutes central power. When central authority is strong, Chinese civil groups instinctively look to it for support and patronage. Without firm leadership, Chinese civil groups often suffer from internal conflict as individuals and groups jostle for control and official favour. This is a phenomenon which affects Chinese civil groups all over the world, including Singapore. In the journal Foreign Affairs, Francis Fukuyama described the same phenomenon from a different perspective. He traced it to the lack of "social capital" in Chinese society.
What is the reason for weak Chinese civil society? This is an important question because without strong civil society, Western-style democratic cannot take root. The weakness of Chinese civil society is a direct result of the strength of the family on the one hand and the centralised state on the other. Independent groups are hard to organise because of the lack of public spirit outside the family and state structure. These tendencies are deeply coded in Chinese culture and not easily changed. They are in the cultural DNA and shape the political institutions governing Chinese society. One way or another, democracy in Chinese society must take these tendencies into account. How democracy with Chinese characteristics will evolve in the next century is an important question in global history. I doubt very much that Western democratic systems will take root in China because the history and tradition are so different. Some scholars recommend a federal system for China, but that is not likely to succeed because of the idea of one China.
Genius of Chinese Statecraft
The genius of Chinese society is in statecraft. Without this genius, China could not have re-constituted itself again and again. I would like to highlight some key aspects of Chinese statecraft.
The first aspect is the separation of religion from politics. In many countries religion remains an important part of politics making governance more difficult. In South Asia today, we have in India a self-conscious Hindu government, and in Pakistan an army that has become more Islamic over the years now in control. In Western Europe, religious wars decimated entire populations right up to the 17th century. In Eastern Europe, religion is still an important factor in politics, no more so than in the Balkans. In contrast, the Chinese state has been secular for most of China's history. Communist atheism took easy root in China partly because it conformed to Chinese political culture. Confucius advised that the state should keep religion at arm's length.
Another important aspect of Chinese statecraft is recruitment of officials on the basis of examinations. When the civil service was invented in China, it was a revolutionary idea in the world. It was only 200 to 300 years ago that this idea found its way to the West. Now it is universally accepted around the world. But nowhere in the world, except in China, is this elitist system extended over such a wide geographical area and to such a degree. In the Chinese mind, that the provincial governor could be from another province is culturally acceptable. One cannot imagine in Europe today, despite the European Union, that a German could become the mayor of Paris, much less, the president of France. In China, this cross-posting from one end of the empire to the other has been done for over 2,000 years. During the Tang Dynasty, a few prime ministers were of non-Han origin. A Korean general led the Tang army across the Tianshan mountains into Central Asia where it was defeated by the Arabs. A Japanese jinshi governed Vietnam, then a part of the Chinese Empire.
Chinese statecraft always recognised the problem of corruption and nepotism. By various means, the Chinese state set up systems to limit this problem. But it could never be got rid of completely because of the strength of family ties. During the Ming and Qing dynasties and in China today, high officials are not posted to the districts they come from, not within a distance of 500 li. By this rule, no Singaporean could be a minister in Singapore, and no Hong Konger should be governing Hong Kong. This point is worth reflecting on. In China, a high official working in his native district would face unbearable pressure to favour relatives and friends. Therefore, it is always better to bring in an outsider who can be objective. But this outsider is not a foreigner. He is still Chinese and therefore legitimate. Such an outsider would not be acceptable as a high official in a European country or in Singapore. In Hong Kong under one-country-two-systems, Hong Kongers are supposed to govern themselves. This is only possible because the public institutions of Hong Kong are derived from the British, which is also the case in Singapore.
A system which enables high officials to be posted from one corner of the empire to another can only be achieved if power is concentrated at the centre. This has long been an essential aspect of Chinese statecraft. The Leninist method of organisation was in line with that political tradition which explains why it was easily transplanted onto Chinese soil. In fact, both the Communist Party and the Kuomingtang adapted Leninist party organisation. The People's Action Party in Singapore also developed the same method of organisation because it had to fight the Communist Party of Malaya. Certain cultural characteristics are persistent.
In the next century, China will have to move towards more democratic organisation, the rule of law and constitutional governance. It will evolve its own system taking ideas from the West and adapting them to Chinese conditions. The technological revolution sweeping the world also requires the Chinese state to devolve more power downwards and to empower as many individuals as possible. These changes are unavoidable if China is to be economically strong. Without economic strength, the Chinese state will be weak. Once the Chinese state declines, it will eventually break up and society will be in chaos once again.
Confucianism - Past, Present and Future
In making this adaptation to the challenges of technology and the modern world, Confucianist ideas will have to be interpreted afresh. Confucianism will not be discarded because it is an inseparable part of Chinese culture. To remain close to the people, Chinese communism must gradually accommodate Confucianism. A reverse takeover is likely to happen. China will eventually digest the ideas of Marx and Lenin so completely that they become Chinese. Chinese civilisation will transform and absorb Communism the way it transformed and absorbed Buddhism from India.
When I visited Mao Zedong's birthplace in Shaoshan three years ago, it was interesting to see how Chinese culture is incorporating Mao, the man and his ideas. The Mao ancestral temple where joss sticks are burnt is next to the Mao Zedong memorial hall. The grave sites of Mao Zedong's parents and grandparents have been cleaned up. Mao Zedong has entered the Chinese pantheon as another deity to be worshipped. His good deeds are remembered; the evil deeds are blamed on others. This is nothing new in Chinese history.
The same digestion and absorption of Western democratic ideas will also take place. In theory, all Chinese accept the ideas of democracy whether they live on the Mainland, Hong Kong or Taiwan. But the practice of democracy is quite another matter. Even in Taiwan, the evolution of democratic institutions has still to go through many twists and turns. Political corruption in Taiwan and the involvement of secret societies in local politics are serious problems. For Hong Kong, it will also be a long road which must eventually lead back to the Motherland. For Singapore, democracy with Singapore characteristics will continue to evolve in response to the challenges of the knowledge economy, globalisation and racial politics in Southeast Asia.
Internationally, a China however strong will have to contend with other big powers which are neither tributary states nor barbarians. While no country can ignore China in the next century, China cannot expect to be the middle kingdom in the world. In official policy pronouncements, China is very humble and recognises the equality of all nations. But, deep down, Chinese people feel culturally superior with a sense of their own destiny. If they did not feel so, Chinese culture could not have survived for so long. This sense of superiority can give rise to big problems if it becomes excessive. The idea of the Chinese race will have to be moderated in this new world. A Hong Kong Chinese has become the Governor-General of Canada. Another Hong Kong Chinese is the Governor of the State of Washington in the US. In Southeast Asia, many ethnic Chinese hold important political positions. They can only do this by not allowing their sense of race to become excessive. This is a challenge for China in the next century. The Confucianism of the 21st century cannot place China at the centre of the universe.
So long as we recognise this to be problem, it can be managed. We face the problem of inter-racial relations everyday in Singapore. When the Chinese Foreign Ministry, in response to the outrage expressed by Chinese inside and outside China, took a strong position against the violence done to Chinese Indonesians in May 1998, eyebrows were raised in Southeast Asia. When President Jiang Zemin asked to visit the Chinatown in Bangkok last month, eyebrows were raised in Thailand. The Li Wenhe case in Los Alamos has racial undertones which we must recognise.
I have touched on some aspects of Chinese culture which influence the development of Chinese politics without giving clear answers to many of the problems that exist. There can be no clear answers. The Chinese revolution which overthrew imperial rule is still on-going. It is the greatest revolution the world has ever seen, starting with the Taiping Revolution, 1911, May Fourth, the anti-Japanese war, 1949, the Cultural Revolution and Deng Xiaoping's final push to reform and open up China. The destiny of Hong Kong is bound up with the progress of this revolution. But how much better is it to be a young Chinese today than it was to be a young Chinese 50 years ago, 100 years ago or 150 years ago. Whatever the current problems, there is a cultural self-confidence that they can be overcome and the future secured. This is also a story about the past, present and future of Confucianism and its pervasive influence on the continuing evolution of Chinese culture and politics.