Power to the party as China mangles history

May 30, 2020 | News & Media, Read

The Australian newspaper’s Inquirer section today published an edited extract of a Ramsay lecture to be delivered soon by eminent China expert John Fitzgerald.

The recorded lecture, Trust in a time of pandemic: the use and abuse of civilisations will be available on this website in four instalments starting next week. For the full article as it appears on The Australian newspaper website click here

Power to the Party as China mangles history. Rather than culling privileged social classes, communists build their own. By John Fitzgerald.

Ding Yifan broadcasts a video blog across China — Think Different — to teach people with little experience of the West how the world really works. In recent weeks he has taken to explaining how the COVID-19 pandemic has exposed the flaws in Western civilisation.

The pandemic teaches us, Ding says, that human life has little value in the West. This is not the case in China. Central to China’s civilisational heritage are two fundamental concepts, he tells us, one asserting the “sanctity of human life” and the other commanding respect for elders. Both are anathema to Western civilisation.

Producing Think Different is just one of many roles Ding performs in China. Among them, Ding is deputy director of an institute under China’s State Council, the highest executive arm of the people’s state. He’s also vice-chairman of a learned society based in the party’s central think tank, the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences in Beijing.

Ding informs his viewers that Western civilisation is based on a different suite of fundamental principles laid down in classical Greek and Roman mythology. In this tradition, sons murder their fathers and elders eat their young for fear of being consumed themselves. He illustrates his argument with Renaissance paintings of a pantheon of classical deities from Kronos to Zeus mutilating their elders and sinking their teeth into the bellies of infants.

This gruesome civilisational heritage, Ding continues, explains a great deal about the West and the difficulty it has had responding to the coronavirus. It explains why clinics and hospitals in Italy — the home of classical Western civilisation, he reminds us — experienced special difficulty. Just as the myths of Zeus and Kronos would predict, doctors and nurses snatched respirators from the mouths of the elderly to preserve the lives of the young. In China, this would be considered a gross infringement of human rights. Not in the West.

Now there are no compelling reasons for thinking the tragedy that befell northern Italy under the coronavirus pandemic had anything to do with latent collective memories of Zeus or Kronos. There are simpler, contingent, explanations for the arrival, spread and impact of the pandemic in northern Italy that don’t require us to fall back on vague civilisational claims. Many have to do with China.

The virus spread rapidly because the government of China was slow in sharing information for several weeks during the lunar new year when hundreds of millions of people normally would be expected to take to the roads, rail and air to visit families and friends in China and abroad.

The mortality rate was especially high in northern Italy because the speed and scale of infections overwhelmed the public health system, as they had earlier in Wuhan. Decisions had to be taken around the allocation of respirators because there were insufficient to go around. We can’t be certain about the criteria for allocation but Australian ethicist Peter Singer has indicated all decisions were taken with ethical considerations in mind.

When resources are scare, choices are made. The New York Times reports that when personal protective equipment was scarce in Wuhan, available supplies were distributed to party and government officials ahead of health workers and infected citizens. Again, we don’t need to resort to hoary civilisational claims to explain why communist cadres enjoy special privileges in Wuhan, or anywhere else in China, any more than we need fall back on the cult of Zeus to explain contemporary health priorities in Milan. Party apparatchiks enjoy special privileges in China for the same reasons their counterparts in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe did, in their day, as Milovan Djilas explained many decades ago in his classic work The New Class.

Communist parties in power, rather than doing away with privileged social classes as Marxism said they should, make a privileged class of their own party functionaries. Everything else about communist systems, Djilas declared, “is a sham and an illusion”.

If civilisations do matter in an interactive global society, then we need to be able to call out the shams and illusions among competing claims about them. For one thing, reducing contemporary developments to arguments about ancient civilisations and histories risks obscuring developments in other times and places potentially more illuminating than broad civilisational comparisons.

Comparative political scientist Stein Ringen argues that China is a perfect dictatorship on the cusp of becoming a totalitarian party state. In this case, would not the Communist Party of the Soviet Union be a more fruitful point of comparison than China’s own civilisational heritage? And if China’s totalitarian impulses were to trend towards ethnic nationalism, which is not out of the question, might not the history of national socialism in mid-20th century Europe serve as a more appropriate point of reference than a point selected at random from Chinese legend or imperial history?

Yet the idea that Confucian civilisation is thriving in Xi Jinping’s China is taking hold in the West. What is behind this illusion? What is it that sustains the idea that China’s Communist Party is the institutional reincarnation of 3000 years of civilisational development in China?

Opinion makers in foreign countries are fair prey for the party’s civilisational misinformation campaign. We could cite many instances in Australia and elsewhere illustrating the party’s success in cultivating business elites and retired politicians to speak out about China’s history and civilisation on its behalf. The most recent to attract international attention is a former senior partner with McKinsey, Peter Walker, author of a new book that sets out to correct American misperceptions that he believes get in the way of understanding China. It all boils down, Walker tells us, to civilisational differences of culture and history. If only we all understood China as well as he did, problems would be resolved.

Walker’s book, Powerful Different Equal, has been promoted on Communist Party media platforms in China and overseas. Mainstream US media remains sceptical. Asked on Fox News to explain how China’s culture and history could account for the incarceration of one million Uighurs in the autonomous Xinjiang region, Walker pointed out that while he personally disapproved of Beijing’s actions, he understood that they were a reflection of the civilisational values that distinguish China from the US and the West. Pressed further, Walker went on to explain that the mass incarceration “all goes back to Confucian values”.
Are we to believe that Confucianism has a lot to answer for in Xinjiang? Not at all. It’s the Communist Party that has a lot to answer for. The notion that China’s communists are legitimate heirs of an ancient civilisation is an illusion projected out to gullible but well-connected foreigners through an old-style Leninist propaganda campaign. This is Leninism 101.

China’s vast state disinformation system is tasked with managing and controlling all flows of information, all forms of content, across every cultural, media and educational institution in China, along with all their branches and sub-agencies overseas. Everything we could possibly want to learn from China, about that country’s civilisation, history and culture, now comes bearing a stamp of approval from the party’s central propaganda bureau.

In the words of Xi Jinping, China is engaged in a struggle for world dominance. It is not a clash of civilisations but a struggle of a more familiar kind, between tyranny and liberty, involving propaganda and disinformation of an old and familiar kind as well. The party’s weapon of choice in this struggle is disinformation designed to place a heavily armed authoritarian party state in what Xi calls the “dominant position” in the world.

Once we recognise that the differences that divide Australia from People’s China are not differences of culture or civilisation but differences of ideology, political values and systems of government, we can be confident we have encountered this kind of historical struggle before.

Yes, we need to master history and culture — the history of Chinese and international communism and of modern mass nationalism, and the culture of Leninism. And while we should avoid spinning ourselves a Western version of Ding’s civilisational yarns, we can draw on the civilisational resources of an inclusive liberal democracy — Western and Eastern resources, classical and religious, historical and modern — to expose this abuse of history and civilisation.

How? I can think of three ways and am sure there are many others. One is to build independent sources of knowledge of China’s history, culture and contemporary government and society, within Australia, to help us make independent judgments on our own account. We need to build knowledge resources among our political and business communities, and in our wider educational systems, to understand the world around us, including China.

To achieve this, Australian universities should sever all formal ties with China’s disinformation network, including the global Confucius Institute network, and build independent system capacity in China studies in the humanities and social sciences, with flow-on programs into our schools.

There is little about contemporary China that cannot be explained using standard scholarly disciplines and pedagogical tools. We are not talking about esoteric knowledge here.

The second way is to build trust through transparency in all aspects of relations with China. In Australia, trust and transparency go together in public life. Australians trust one another to do the right thing, whether they know one another or not, and consider openness essential for maintaining public trust. In Australia, trust is a public good.

This is not the case in China, where trust is a personal thing, embedded not in public life but in relationships among people and networks. Inter-personal trust of this kind is predicated not on openness but on secrecy.

It is this style of secretive interpersonal trust that China’s party leaders are seeking from Australia when they talk of enhancing mutual trust between the two countries. They are unlikely to find it because the kind of trust Australians hope to find in China involves even greater openness and transparency.

My third point is this. There is a certain innocence or naivety about Australians that needs to be acknowledged and embraced. In my experience, people in China admire the way Australians trust strangers on sight and wish they could say the same for China.

True, they may take us for suckers, for being open and trusting, or “country bumpkins” as one Chinese friend told me decades ago, but comparisons of this kind are not meant unkindly. A reputation for naivety is not a bad thing among people in China long accustomed to watching their backs and cynically searching for ulterior motives in the conduct of others. That can get tiring.

And it is not just a matter of ethics. Australia’s reputation for innocence and naivety underpins the country’s reputation for quality and reliability in the provision of food and beverages and in education and services. China’s producers and service providers cannot compete in these fields in their home markets because they cannot compete on honesty, transparency and trust.

A national reputation for naivety offers a sound foundation from which to press for greater openness and transparency as a condition for building genuine trust with China.

Finally, mindful of the differ¬ences in ideology and values that divide us, we need to remember that Australia’s relationship with China cannot be reduced to ideology and politics alone. Trade, investment, migration, crime prevention and, in this time of pandemic, human health and safety all play a part in our bilateral relations.

We need to take initiatives on our own account on each of these fronts, where there is still ample room for naivety and goodwill, and for the kind of openness essential for building trust between countries and among people.

John Fitzgerald is emeritus professor at Swinburne University of Technology. This is an edited extract of a recorded lecture to be broadcast by the Ramsay Centre for Western Civilisation next week.