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Home arrow Political science arrow China’s Ethical Revolution and Regaining Legitimacy: Reforming the Communist Party through Its Public Servants



At the macro level, China’s neo-socialist development combines many contradictory elements: reaffirmation of the Leninist organizational discipline, creation of a modern governmental bureaucracy and neoliberal marketization. The linking of science and technology with national development has been called an example of “techno-nationalism” that promotes science and technology in nation building and raises questions about how to adapt or adopt Western practices into Chinese culture and tradition (Ackerly 2005: 21). Despite their apparent incompatibility with Western philosophical traditions, these elements do add up to a society that not only works but also has managed to steer a consistent course of unprecedented social, economic, cultural and administrative modernization (Hillman 2010: 49). That is to say, the neoliberal techniques of governing can be combined with non-liberal ways of governing the self and others, such as Maoist politics of socialist modernization and ethics of concern for the well-being of the nation (Ackerly 2005: 7). What has emerged in China is an organizational and ideological fusion and synthesis of socialist and neoliberal principles (Hillman 2010: 49).

In this sense, neo-socialism can also be viewed as a kind of “late-socialist neoliberalism,” in which it exhibits multiple techniques, norms and modes of self-formation that are at once distinct from Maoist state socialism and from neoliberal regimes found in the West (Ackerly 2005: 9). Thus, as we have demonstrated throughout the book, it would be more productive to disaggregate the various components that constitute a governing regime, rather than further advance opposing definitions of neoliberalism and authoritarianism (17). That is to say, the embracement of neoliberalism in China does not imply the wholesale replacement of authoritarianism; the adoption of neoliberalism thus does not simply represent the corruption of socialism by global capitalism (17-18).

Similarly, the combination of autonomous choice, the marketization of labour, proactive employment policies by the Chinese state and the linking of national strength and individual career development did not necessarily produce fundamental incompatibilities for individuals (145). There can also be a kind of “communist managerialism” within the self that is both “red and expert.” This hybridization is what Hoffman calls “patriotic professionalism.” For this kind of ethics, it weds career planning and individual professional development with national projects of state-strengthening and urban projects of local growth and prosperity in a hybrid way (6).

As Hoffman argues, for Chinese people, the sense of responsibility— to one’s family, one’s country and even one’s own professional development—has become paramount (2006: 562). Care for the nation is no longer about the duty to sacrifice one’s future for the nation, patriotism is about fulfilling one’s potential through responsible choices and by so doing, also fostering national development (563). Thus, the filial duty of being Chinese, the sacrificial ethic of being an official, and entrepreneurship together produces possibilities for patriotic professionalism among Chinese people. The negotiation of self-managed development and expressions of patriotism illustrates a new ethics of subjectivity (565). Patriotism that draws on the Maoist notions of loyalty and a strong nation on the world stage is infused in the practices of choice and an ethos of self-enterprise (554). How does all of this play out in the everyday reality of contemporary Chinese officials? A number of our participants were delighted that promotion through nepotism was now less prevalent (but not completely eradicated). For example:

Most officials I met still can fulfil their duty and try to achieve the best in work. I think they must have considered the promotion, but it is also very clear that the current promotion has a clearer and sound evaluation system, that you need first to make some achievements. We do not deny that there are factors related to social relations in the promotion process, but the most basic point is that you are capable, which is the consensus now. (An official from the disciplinary department)

In this discourse, “highly capable, professional and global” officials would not necessarily imply a less loyal and less ethical communist. Thus, the mechanisms of governing within the Party are to deploy market-based techniques, norms of enterprise from the knowledge economy and socialist ethics of collective projects, along with the contemporary rearticulation of Confucian literati ideals and practices of self-cultivation (Ackerly 2005: 118). In this sense, referring to what we discussed in Chap. 2, the case of paradox becomes “contradictory yet related elements that seem logical in isolation but absurd and irrational when appearing simultaneously” (cited in Li 2014: 642). As we discussed above, neoliberalism and socialism are intertwined in patriotic professionalism, and the referencing of literati and Maoist ideals of self-cultivation become combined with the market- inflected uses of “human quality” (suzhi) (Ackerly 2005: 115). Whereas dialectical materialism as practices under Maoism sought to destroy differ?ent views, the philosophy of harmony under the contemporary resuscitation of Confucianism seeks to acknowledge and integrate differences (Li 2014: 638).

Although the practices of self-cultivation are not new in China, the part of the self being worked on, cultivated, regulated and “improved” in contemporary times is not the same as that within the Confucian tradition. The complexity and flexibility of Confucianism have allowed it to be incorporated into both Maoism and liberal interpretations (Moody 2011). In either case, it is believed that moral behaviour and strength of character derive from the constant cultivation of the self (Osburg 2013: 93). In the cultivation of the self, we find that there are various cases of hybridization within the official selves in the context of the ethical revolution, which has considerable reach and depth, for example, into maintaining monogamy with one’s partner through a practice we have come to refer to as ethical masturbation. In this case, the sexual desire of the official is neither fulfilled by his wife nor is fulfilled through finding mistresses. It is fulfilled by himself in the name of ethical masturbation (contrary to what Foucault discussed in the History of Sexuality, in which the masturbating child is rendered unhealthy). As an official from a provincial department revealed:

I don’t want my wife to be worried about me. The rules require me not to have relations with other females other than my wife. Thus, sometimes I do masturbation especially when I am away from my wife for work. I think I am a good man, at least I am not messing around with other women as the privilege of my occupation would have granted me.

Pleasure is given by the subject himself who is located in the tension between the Party’s requirement and desire for sexual congress. In this sense, loyalty and sincerity are hybridized into a unified ethics of officials’ purity. This case again shows that “unwillingness” can be both negative and positive. Thus, there is a unique sense of self that straddles the boundaries between strong individuality, total submission to the Party’s will, elitist exclusivity and faceless anonymity (Bregnbaek 2012: 737).

That being said, President Xi and Chairman Mao’s responses to the chaotic conditions were different. For Mao, he chose to directly confront circumstances in a forceful manner under the philosophy of the dialect (one force meets and overcomes another); from this perspective, the concept of struggle is fundamental. Whereas Confucius sought to understand and integrate the chaos; in this context, good governance would come from officials who could develop themselves (virtue) through self-cultivation and self-creation (Li 2014: 634). Thus, if Maoism represents the dialectical manifestation of struggle, clash and conflict, then Confucianism represents the integrative manifestation of harmony, coherence, congruence, accord and coordination (635). As a mid-level official from a policy research department told us:

It is the twenty-first Century, the era of rapid economic development, we were all paying attention to the money values, we ignored why our currency has the face of Chairman Mao on it. Actually our nation doesn’t lack faith, belief is still in the people. They yearn for an ideal initiated by Chairman Mao, they still want to struggle for the ideals of fairness, justice, without exploitation and the road of common prosperity, they still believe in the pursuit of the goal of the Communist Party. So it is not the case that the whole society has lost its faith. It is a difficult time, we are in need of a kind of spiritual Long March. We lack the perfection of our spirits, only the sound development of the spiritual ethics can keep up with and adapt to the economic base.

This is how the “traditional” and the “modern” can interact and emerge in the face of “problems” defined by contemporaries. The division between “tradition” and “modern” cannot be viewed from the dividing lines of time, but can be seen as one of many resources for the construction of discourse. An ideological hybrid is made possible when Maoist dialectics and Confucian notions of harmony are embedded in the same subject (633). Both emphasize the fundamental law of “the unity of opposites or contradictions” (634). Thus, virtue becomes the cohesive force of the soul itself (Foucault 2005: 304). This is also why Chairman Mao became a source of faith and inspiration in China.

Moreover, although having high expectations, officials also acknowledged irrationalities in China. Worries over their future fate echoed concerns of earlier eras and produced contradictory nostalgias for what was seen as security but also the lack of opportunity that was associated with state assignments (Ackerly 2005: 118). Thus, the tension between the past has now produced a hybrid. In this discourse, the role of market competition in the form of the commodifying aspects of life is not limited to the market rationalities under Mao (42). An official explained this to us in terms of promotion processes, and the differences inherent in the private sector relative to the Chinese civil service:

I accept officials who were promoted by leaders. The point is what criteria are used to evaluate leadership promotion. Because people themselves cannot be measured, proof needs to be provided to show one’s ability, which is very difficult, as everyone is working hard. Our work is not like in the business sector in which you get the bonus according to what you have done.

It is feasible with a standard to assess work. But if promotion is based on the recognition by leaders of those who pretend to work hard, then this will lead to everyone only doing what the leaders care about. (An Official from a human resource department)

Based on this trend, in Maoist China, as Keane argues, collectivism and altruism were the cultural templates for a Chinese socialist subjectivity. The communist collectivism in China that overhauled the pre-existing Confucian moral code of propriety and the code of benevolence, served to link people’s desire with the fate of the nation-state, which enabled people to believe in the authority embodying truth (2001: 11). However, due to the vacuum of state ideology in the post-Mao era, and economic prosperity enabled by property rights reform, the changing social relations now have engendered new identity formations (Keane 2001: 3-4), which presents a synthesis of value structures and belief systems (Keane 2001). The new moral order in China is therefore: “People are encouraged to be economically productive and self-reliant while at the same time respecting the so-called socialist spiritual values of collectivism and patriotism” (14) As an official from the general office of a provincial government tells us:

But I think we also should avoid individualism and heroism like Stalin. That is to say, no one is perfect, even President Xi. I oppose the blind pursuit and admiration; I will not wear the clothes that President Xi wears. The way in the UK is more feasible and can be taken as reference that people recognize the royal family is not a designation based on what they have done but rather is something extraordinary.

Thus, Marxist-Leninism met the requirements of both the cultural iconoclasts and political nationalists: it was Western to the core as the cultural iconoclasts had strongly recommended and its anti-imperialist stance was precisely what the political nationalists had demanded (Wei-Ming 2005: 163). The seeming contradiction is thus solved by the sinicization of Marxism in the way in which paradox is viewed as consistent. Thus, a search for cultural roots and commitment to a form of depoliticized humanism became a strong voice in the discourse on cultural China (164).

This is why depoliticized humanism can be seen as a product of politicized tradition (165). Thus, the collusion of feudal Chinese traditionalism (the remnants of a politicized Confucian moralism) and the modern Western collectivism (the outmoded practice of Leninist dictatorship) generates a hybrid legitimacy for China that is neither solely reliant upon individual moralist nor on collectivism (165). The result is the emergence of a new inclusive humanism with profound ethical-religious implications for the spiritual self-definition of humanity (166). The meaning of being Chinese is basically not a political question; it is a human concern with ethical-religious implications (167). That is, this becomes a sociological question, as Winchester and Hitlin argue

Sociological inquiry opens up space to be reflective. It helps us understand the forces shaping our moral senses and possibly make better-informed choices about what we, as a society, ought and ought not do. That is, in an ever-more complex world, this sociological approach to morality cannot arbitrate good and evil, but it might just help us live together. (2010: 44)

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