It is not often that I am palpably excited to read a conceptually complex book on Chinese philosophy and politics, but that is precisely how I felt as I worked my way through Jiwei Ci's new work: Moral China in the Age of Reform (Cambridge, 2014). The significance of this volume lies in its immediate relevance to pressing issues of Chinese politics as well as its theoretical sophistication in dealing with those issues.
Ci interrogates the current "moral crisis" in China. This is something that all observers of Chinese politics and society and culture must grapple with: the clear sense among many Chinese people that four decades of very rapid economic and social change have destroyed the old bases of morality, be they Maoist or Confucian, and left in their wake ethical confusion and frustration. The material conditions of life - the scramble to find a job and comfortable livelihood; the fierce competition to gain access to higher education; the new cultural economy of urban spaces - have fundamentally undermined older moral codes and conduct. Simply (and this is not a simple text; Ci's analysis is theoretically rich and deep), if both Maoist and Confucian morality relied heavily upon upright exemplars who modeled good behavior, and who became symbols that shaped the use of highly centralized state power, then the material conditions that enabled those exemplars, that gave them tangible meaning in the world, have been utterly destroyed in the headlong rush toward wealth and comfort and progress. The emperor not only has no clothes but he has no shoes nor even ground to stand on. Ci writes:
If the moral crisis reveals one thing most immediately and consequentially, it must be that China today lacks a new moral subject, a kind of subject that is fit to act morally and meaningfully in the new society that the three decades of reform have brought into being - and fit to make this a better society..... The new conditions of life, however we care to characterize them, and whether we like them or not, call for a different kind of moral subject.
This new subject has no moral leader to follow, no moral exemplar to emulate, because it finds itself under conditions of life - economic, social, cultural, and otherwise - in which the very categories of moral leader and moral exemplar no longer make sense. It must assume responsibility for itself as a moral subject, a subject among equal subjects. (2-3)
This is the key political-philosophical problem in China today, and Ci has gotten to the heart of it - and we're only on page 3!
Ci develops his diagnosis of China's moral crisis in two chapters, drawing on his previous work. But what is most remarkable about this new book is his prescription: freedom. He sets this out in the introduction, before expanding upon it in other chapters:
Whatever alternative to this [new modern] life we find attractive or feasible, I for one believe that a radically more individuated moral subject must figure in it and so, correspondingly, must a kind of freedom that makes such a moral subject possible. Only this kind of moral subject can give us any hope of making the best of the new form of life in China today and, if necessary, transcending it through critique and struggle from within. (4)
In short, rapid economic and social and cultural change has created a new kind of individualization, one that cannot be undone, at least not easily. Thus, the primary political philosophical problem in China today is the theoretical underdevelopment of the value of freedom as both an empirical and normative condition. Ci argues that economic and social reforms have created all sorts of de facto freedoms: freedom to choose a job, a car, a spouse, a TV show, whatever. In a sense, then, freedom is simply now a fact of Chinese life. But it is not fully justified, in a political philosophical manner, for the obvious reason of single party authoritarianism. Ci recognizes the obvious institutional barriers, and his book is a first conceptual step toward a more robust defense of freedom in contemporary China.
And that, for me, is an exciting project. Too much of the discourse on Chinese politics centers on questions of authority. Democracy is rejected, and freedom ignored, because social and cultural conditions in China supposedly require the concentration of political power by a technocratic elite. Freedom is too often framed as a threat to necessary authority. We don't often talk about what freedom should be in China. Ci makes that the focus of his work.
It should be noted that Ci is not a crude neo-liberal apologist. His understanding of freedom is nuanced and multifaceted, drawing upon Foucault's notion of a "mode of subjection" (chapter 3) Indeed, it is precisely because of this critical understanding, which links freedom and order, that he is able to assert that freedom, as a value, need not be alien to contemporary Chinese reality. He writes:
In an important sense, the profound social transformation of China in recent decades has overtaken us, to the point where we risk permanent moral crisis as a society if we do not begin to find a place for freedom in our moral and political culture - freedom as a mode of subjection and, either as part of this mode of subjection or in tandem with it, as a moral resource, as a right, and as concrete liberties. (53-54).
Notice how he frames this conversation as an interior dialogue among Chinese people - "we". Freedom, for Ci, is not an irrelevant "Western" concept being forced on a culturally distinct China. It is, as the title of chapter three suggest, "a Chinese question," wholly appropriate to current conditions there.
Much more could be said about how Ci expand his, and our, thinking on how the value of freedom can be articulated and defended in China today. He brings in, at different moments, Freud and Thomas Metzger. The theory runs deep at times. But what is most important here, whether we agree will all of his analysis or not, is that he is arguing about the thing that most needs to be argued about now in China: freedom.
His discussion inevitably runs into the notion of democracy, which he takes up extensively in chapter 8, "Democracy as Unmistakable Reality and Uncertain Prospect." Here he makes, in the context of a thought experiment, what some might find to be a controversial assertion,:
...China is already what I would call a proto-liberal-democratic society, and, on the normative question of where China should be heading, that China should move in a broadly liberal democratic direction. (158)
The crucial word here is "society." He obviously understands that the political system of the PRC is not democratic. But the social and cultural changes that have occurred in recent decades have produced "proto-liberal-democratic" expectations and experiences for many Chinese people in their everyday lives beyond the reach of the state. He makes five key points along these lines:
(1) the abandonment of the highly sublimated goal of communism in favor of much more mundane goals, (2) the emergence of the individual as the main agent in everyday life, (3) the rise of a brand-new idea of equality that sees people as equal individual agents largely in the mode of bourgeois subjects, (4) a profound change in the ruler-ruled relationship from comprehensive leadership to instrumentally rational administration, and (5) the greatly increased need to secure popular consent as a basis of the legitimacy of state power...
I think all five of these are empirically defensible observations; thus his assertion of a "proto-liberal democratic society" is plausible. The problem, of course, resides at the level of the political system, which Ci certainly recognizes. But that is the issue that needs our attention and analysis and argumentation: how to theorize the potential for freedom and democracy in China. On Ci's analysis, democracy, like freedom, is not socially and culturally inappropriate in the contemporary Chinese context. Quite the contrary, social and political-conceptual conditions are already taking shape. Although CCP hegemony may make democratization an "uncertain prospect" at best, there is a kind of "unmistakable reality" the presses for more, and more meaningful, democracy in China.
When Ci suggests that the preferred normative direction for Chinese political development is "liberal democracy," he is not embracing a narrow definition of that possibility. Were democracy ever to really arise politically in China, it would certainly have a unquie manifestation. A Chinese variant, while necessarily expressive and protective of freedom, would be reconciled with particularly Chinese notions of the social "good." Ci defines the central political project:
Thus our task is cut out for us: we need to valorize freedom as a condition for a new moral subject and new moral culture, we need ot overcome the formidable political obstacles against such valorization, and we need to make sure sure that we come up with the right kind of freedom, that is, freedom that stands in the right kind of relation to the good. A tall order indeed! (185)
This, to me, is precisely the conversation we should be having about Chinese politics now; and that is why Moral China in the Age of Reform is the best book on Chinese philosophy and politics this year, maybe this decade.