Over at the Huffington Post, Rachel Beitarie interviews Eric X. Li, under the title "Democracy is not the Answer." Li, who describes himself as a Shanghai venture capitalist (which carries a bit of irony, as I will attempt to demonstrate), is a well known apologist of authoritarianism, author of such pieces as: "Why China's Political Model is Superior." In the most recent interview he engages in a bit of facile Confucius-citing, so I figured that brought his arguments into the general ambit of this blog. As you might guess, I disagree with him fundamentally.
Li's general project is to construct a kind of Chinese exceptionalism, to show that, whether in the political or economic or cultural realms, China is sui generis and, as the second title above suggests, superior to others. As an American I am quite familiar with exceptionalist type arguments and, anticipating the Chinese nationalist critique that this post is likely to inspire, I state here that I also reject claims of American exceptionalism. Whether American or Chinese or French or whatever, exceptionalist arguments are generally historically flawed, deeply flawed, and, bascially, intellectually uninteresting.
Let's go right to a big issue. Li states:
...And cultures are fundamentally incommensurate to each other, as they have been developed under vastly different conditions, including hard conditions such as geography and climate. On the abstract end, one can claim we all want certain things, such as dignity - who can argue against that? Sounds universal? Yes. But what dignity means not only can be different but also totally opposite among cultures.
Incommensurability is a big philosophical idea, with various debates surrounding it. In ethics, the notion of "incommensurable values" raises quesitons arising from the idea that: "Values, such as liberty and equality, are sometimes said to be incommensurable in the sense that their value cannot be reduced to a common measure." I think this is what Li means when he says "cultures are fundamentally incommensurate with one and other..."
But this is where he goes wrong: moving from incommensurable values to incommensurable cultures. These are not the same and the difference makes a difference.
Most problematically, Li does not define what he means by "culture." And he provides only the crudest intimation of what he is getting at, something about "geography and climate." Obviously, he wants to say that "Chinese culture" is not the same as "American culture" or "Western culture," etc. But at this level of abstraction the invocation of incommensurability makes little sense.
The basic problem is that "culture" is not a useful category for discussing value incommensurability becuase the value incommensurability problem exists within every category of "culture" that Li implies. The tensions between freedom and equality, or - to invoke a case that Chinese exceptionalists seem to focus on - between individual and collective interests, are common within "American culture" and "Western culture." We argue about them all the time.
To avoid this obvious reality, Li has to conjure straw men:
One fallacy in the modern Western political ideology is the so-called freedom of speech. It makes a presumption that speech, unlike acts, is harmless and therefore can and must be allowed absolute freedom....
A quick class in constitutional law would yield rather quickly the understanding that speech is not an absolute freedom, that is it limited in the interest of public safety ("imminent lawless action" anyone?) and other public goods (obscenity). Now, Li might argue that the parameters of free speech are wider in the US than in China, to which there are two responses: 1) this is a political, not cultural, practice that can be developed in various cultural contexts; thus, speech is freer in Taiwan than in the PRC; 2) within American culture there continues to be wide divergence among various groups on what appropriate limits on speech should be, with some American groups coming much close to a "Chinese" standard than others. Value incommensurability, in other words, is not simply an inter-cultural phenomenon.
The problem here, for Li, is the underdeveloped concept of "culture." It seems that he wants us to believe that "cultures" are distinct and impermeable and unchanging. And that is simply historically and empirically false. "Cultures" (I put it in scare quotes precisely because of the variability of any specific definition of any particular "culture") are always, and have always been, dynamic and open and overlapping. Li seems to recognize this when he writes:
This is not to say that aspects of alien cultures cannot be imported and absorbed. Buddhism came into China from the outside and became a major feature of the Chinese civilization. The success or failure of such importation depends on how consistent it is with the fundamentals of the host cultures, whether in its original or adapted forms. Marxism found deep resonance in China's Confucian egalitarianism and its modern features were much needed in China's desperate attempt to modernize. As such, Marxism's adapted forms have taken roots in modern China.
But this just killed his assertion of cultural incommensurability. If Buddhism is imported and absorbed then it becomes a local expression of the more general category of "Buddhism," and that general category provides a measure by which it can be compared to other examples of the general category - which seems to me to be the very definition of "commensurability." Same with Marxism. Now, we can argue that there are important differences between Chinese and Soviet Marxism (there are!) but that discussion operates within the framework of "Marxism" which, again, provides a set of measures to draw similarities and differences. Commensurability, again.
This shows how useless the term "culture" is. "Chinese culture" is a collection of many, many practices and ideas and beliefs. It is big and vast and complicated. Within it are its own instances of value incommensurability (which is one possible way to understand Chen Guangcheng's stance v. those who seek to repress him). In its vastness, there are similarities and differences with "American culture." Most aspects of "Chinese culture" are certainly commensurable with "American culture" or other instances of "culture" globally. (I am not quite ready to say all instances of "Chinese culture" are so commensurable - I am open to suggestions for more specific instances of incommensurability operating at something less abstract than the level of "culture"). Here are two examples:
1) Scientific research. We must recognize science as a "cultural" practice, in the conventional sense of "culture" as a set of orientations and beliefs and practices. As such it clashes with other cultural practices - i.e traditional forms of epistemology; magic; superstition; etc. Scientists in China perform research according to widely held views on proper methodology and reporting. They also perform it within a broader "Chinese cultural" context. Science, much to the delight of Chen Duxiu, has become a part of "Chinese culture," in a way that it was not at the beginning of the twentieth century. And they're good at it. Moreover, they want to be good at it - a Nobel Prize or two would be highly coveted. They may have some rather small variations to the usual practice of science, such that we could refer to something as "Chinese science." But, even if that is the case, there remains a rather well articulated measure for valuing the practice of science. Thus, that part of "Chinese culture" that expresses itself in scientific research is certainly commensurable with other forms of scientific research world-wide.
2) Women's rights. In traditional China, women did not enjoy the kinds of legal protections that are now common throughout the world. Indeed, the Communist Party made a rather big deal of how it was the liberator of women from the feudalistic, Confucian patriarchal exploitation of the past. The New Marriage Law of 1950 was seen, wtihin China, as elevating the social and political status of women, ideally at least. And today, women in China complain that their rights are not being duly protected, that the social and political gains of the revolution are deteriorating in the opening and reform period. Whatever one thinks of these particular complaints, what is notable is that they assume a general standard of "women's rights," a general standard that can be used to measure the progress or backsliding of "Chinese women's rights." Once again, we have inter-cultural - or perhaps we should say transcultural - commensurability.
We could go on, examning more partiuclar facets of "Chinese culture" to demonstrate commensurability with those same aspects of other cultures. Indeed, the work of Longxi Zhang is interesting in this regard. But one really needs to be called out: economics.
I, for one, absolutely believe that economic life is a kind of cultural practice. Markets are based upon certain cultural assumptions and, as they operate, they change other cultural practices. Contemporary China is a powerful example of this. Perhaps nothing has changed "Chinese culture" as much as economic reform of the past thirty years. And those changes have increased the economic-cultural commensurability between China and the US and the "West" and other cultural formations. Yes, of course, there are differences in how the Chinese and American economies operate. But mere difference is not incommensurability, which suggests no general standard can be used for comparison and judgment. And we know, obviously, that every day business men and investors and traders and, yes, "Shanghai venture capitalists," work hard to find ways to make big piles of money from the dynamic pattern of similarities and differences between China's economy and other economies.
Further, economics, as an intellectual discipline, basicially rejects cultural incommensurability. It claims to be a universal science (a claim that I do not really accept because they take it too far, ignoring cultural differences within a broader commensurability). Ask Justin Lin Yifu if China is economically-culturally incommensurable and I suspect he would just laugh.
And there's your irony: if Eric X. Li was right, he'd be out of a job. And the fact that he is a successful transcultural investor demonstrates that he is wrong in his assertion of cultural incommensurability.
So, what happened? Li made too sweeping a claim to try to defend the political authoritarianism of the CCP. He is trying to construct a grand China exceptionalist argument to wall off the Party from political critics, like Ai Weiwei and Chen Guangcheng. But upon scrutiny his Great Wall of Chinese Expcetionalism crumbles. And he is left with a rather bare political apology.
To get back to the beginning of this post, Li also tries to argue that Deng Xiaoping was something of a Confucian:
In the Chinese tradition, an enduring definition of the end of political governance was articulated by Confucius two and a half millenniums ago. He called it Xiao Kang (as differentiated from Da Tong -- an unattainable ideal). In contemporary terms it can be described as a society of general peace and prosperity with a just legal order and built upon a righteous moral foundation. Interestingly enough, when Deng Xiaoping launched his reforms in 1979 he declared that the goal of the Chinese nation in the next phase of its development was to build or, perhaps more accurately, rebuild a Xiao Kang society.
It was probably no accident that Mr. Deng, in declaring China's national goal, did not rely on the modern Communist ideologies that were instrumental in the revolution that established the People's Republic, but rather reached deep into China's ancient tradition, to Confucius. Measured by the "end" as articulated by Confucius and by Deng, the current one-party state model has so far served China well, albeit with real shortcomings.
Yes, xiao kang is common in Party decriptions of economic reform. But it is, in the words of John Wong: "... fuzzy and grossly imprecise, especially when applied to a transitional economy like China." He goes on: "To an ordinary Chinese [xiao kang] may vaguely convey the feeling of being 'neither rich nor poor' or buqiong buhu". Moreover, it is not a central concept of the Analects or Mencius, no where near the importance of ren or yi or li. And it is not at all clear that xiao kang is a concept that differentiates Chinese developmental goals for those of other countries, or at least not as it is used in this China Daily op-ed:
The xiaokang idea came fromthe late Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping in the late 1970s and early 1980s while he was working on the country's developmental blueprint.
The government's goal now, for 2020, is to make sure that xiaokang is everywhere and the people are well-off, in a way that is similar to developed countries in the West.
Oops - that writer needs to read the incommensurability memo...
But the big laugher here is the implication that Deng Xiaoping was a Confucian. He was not. He was a dedicated communist-nationalist. His highest priority was maintaining the institutional integrity of the CCP, which he guided as the country careened into the Great Leap Forward, and saw destroyed by Mao during the Cultural Revolution, and rebuilt after 1979. It was the Party that he sought to maintain when he gave the order to kill hundreds and hundreds of people in Beijing in 1989. Those main lines of his career have nothing to do with Confucianism. Indeed, Deng was anti-Confucian in his willingness to use force to defend the Party. Xiao kang is small beer in the fullness of Deng's political life. He was much more interested in building up China's economy as the basis of national strength, something more in line with Legalist thinking. I think the turn to reform in 1979 was a great thing for many Chinese people, and Deng deserves credit for that. But he was not motivated by Confucianism.
To be clear: Confucianism is a valuable philosophy. We all can learn from it; we all should learn from it. I teach it to my students. I think about ways it applies to my own life. But it is precisely because I take it seriously that I reject its association with the Chinese Communist Party. Were Confucius alive today he would reject much of what occurs in Chinese politics and economics.