Towards a better society in China

April 11, 2012

As a slogan, the Three Represents was puzzling. It was in 2000 that Jiang Zemin decided that the once revolutionary Chinese Communist Party would represent the private sector, which he called “advanced productive forces”; along with its traditional constituencies of intellectuals (“advanced culture”) and workers (“the overwhelming majority of the people”).

The 2000 strategy of Jiang, then the General Secretary of the CCP, did help bind the peculiarly Chinese political system into promoting the common good. The challenge was to ensure that the nation’s single political force did not lose touch with the country’s increasingly diversified economy. The inclusion of bourgeois businessmen and grasping capitalists has kept the Party credible and effective in a poor and ideologically scarred country. But as China leaves impoverishment behind, its leaders need to worry about more than mere material prosperity. The time has come to plan for a broader national agenda – a move from the Three Represents to the Five Responsibilities.

First, China must honour the responsibility to its past. For the past two centuries many Chinese leaders have seen their homeland as backward. They enthusiastically cast aside ideas and ideals which – until about 1700 – had made Chinese culture so sophisticated, its philosophy so profound and its government so impressive.

A visit to the new “Road of Rejuvenation” exhibit at Beijing’s National Museum of China suggest that the naively Marxist narrative of class conflict and revolutionary heroism lives on. Of course, such propaganda should not be taken at face value, but a more honest and helpful view of the past is both possible and desirable. The government will struggle to maintain intellectual legitimacy if it relies on such a narrow vision of history.

Second, the government has the responsibility to develop a more consistent attitude to the West, as the Chinese often call everything that has emerged from European traditions. Having cast out so much of the Chinese past, the CCP often accepts the West as the standard-setter in technology, law, education and culture. As the country becomes more successful, it will need to copy less and develop more of its own version of modernity.

The most urgent aspect of this responsibility is to rethink a Western idea which has been abandoned in its homelands. Communists believed that an advanced State had no need to allow political opposition or organisations which are not closely aligned with the government. The Party need not remain enslaved to this bad idea. Even if the one-party government remains sacrosanct, the distrust of civil society, which makes it difficult for activists, artists and religious groups to flourish, deserves reconsideration.

Third, the CCP has a responsibility to develop its non-economic elite, Jiang’s “advanced culture”. While the CCP discarded most old ideas, it continued the pre-Communist Chinese belief that intellectuals and spiritual leaders should play an important role in setting the national agenda. But in the last decade, the Chinese elite seem to have decayed. Money-grubbing and technical thinking have triumphed, at the expense of imagination and moral example-setting.

Fourth is the responsibility to the common people, Jiang’s “overwhelming majority”. The CCP does a pretty good job for the people, especially on economic issues. Still, there is substantial work to be done, and not just in further increasing wealth. The government should make education less mechanical, step back from enforced family planning and enliven the mostly drab new urban expanses.

The final responsibility is to the environment. This has been largely neglected in the rush to increase living standards. Now, though, China is rich enough that cleaner air and water would do more for those standards than increased production. Care for the environment can be seen as the culmination of the other four Responsibilities. Respect for the natural world was crucial in traditional Chinese religion. Reinvigorating that legacy could help China improve on the West’s techniques for integrating production with environmental concern. It would require support from a committed and honest elite and a disciplined people.

The transition from Represents to Responsibilities can only be made by facing what a Marxist might call the internal contradiction of the CCP. It cannot develop much further without abandoning its founding principle, a narrowly materialist world view. ’Harmonious development’, the slogan of Jiang’s successor, Hu Jintao, has a vaguely spiritual ring to it, but doesn’t overcome the contradiction.

The CCP was clever enough lead the recovery from Maoism and avoid the decay of the former Soviet Union. Despite much corruption, it still garners levels of respect and trust from the people that would render any Western political party green with envy. Perhaps Xi Jinping, set to succeed Hu later this year, will define a Party which is responsible enough to give China not only more prosperity but also the better society its people deserve.


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Quite a number of millionaires leaving China, first chance they get. That cannot bode well.

Posted by krimsonpage | Report as abusive

What a well thought-out, diplomatic, and eloquent article.

Posted by mgunn | Report as abusive

Disturbing lock of character and vision. Political Neanderthal ism wearing horse glaces.

Posted by aqa57 | Report as abusive

An interesting article but due to the obdurate nature of the CCP I doubt that they will pay any attention to it. Also, there is no specific reference to the responsibility to minority rights and human rights which defines a nation’s level of morality. The Chinese government scoffs at morality but all nations should know that morality resides at the heart of the human spirit and that ultimately there is a very real cost to any nation that abandons the concept, both in economic terms and in mental health outcomes for its people

Posted by apophthegm | Report as abusive

I echo mgunn’s thoughts: this is a great essay. It manages to hit all the important points without sounding overly critical.

Posted by AndrewDale | Report as abusive

Descent general piece on China. Most of the ‘improvements’ suggested by the author could also apply to us, even more so.
China seems to be slowly coming out of oppression & we seem to be getting into it. Who would ever thought that we would look up to the Chinese for inspiration.

Posted by GMavros | Report as abusive

I would like to add that the smartest move China took was in controlling the growth of their population. The only reason I can think of for a country to want to increase the population would be to produce connsumers which is based on greed. These consumers will eventually not have enough space or resources to live decent lives. It is a waste of time to protect resources and recycle unless we have population control. You can usually attribute most problems on this planet to unwanted and unnecessay births. Today very few people have the time or money to raise more then one child properly.

Posted by FLASH123 | Report as abusive