Faith and Trust   In whom can you trust? Epistemological optimism and pessimism

This is the fourth post in the series on civil society in China

An ancient proverb – “The Center is our benefactor, the province is our relative, the county is a good person, the township is an evil person and the village is our enemy” 

This Chinese proverb suggests optimism about the relationship of the peasant to higher levels of government. Nothing at all like the American conception of pushing government decision-making to as low a level as possible, and certainly nothing like Republican avowals to “drown the federal government in a bathtub.” And most assuredly nothing like “Keep your government hands off my Medicare.”

Local government in China – village, township, county – is historically where corruption was worst, official despotism most virulent, and, not surprisingly, where peasant discontent was focused.

 De Tocqueville described the difference in 1830 –

In America I met with men who secretly aspired to destroy the democratic institutions of the Union; in England I found others who attacked the aristocracy openly, but I know of no one who does not regard provincial independence as a great benefit. In both countries I have heard a thousand different causes assigned for the evils of the State, but the local system was never mentioned amongst them. I have heard citizens attribute the power and prosperity of their country to a multitude of reasons, but they all placed the advantages of local institutions in the foremost rank.  (De Tocqueville, Democracy in America p 115)

Chinese today express optimism about the integrity and wisdom of their government at the highest levels. This is borne out is survey after survey, often to the dismay of Americans who see only with American eyes. This has all the appearance of faith rather than trust, which is corrigible.

A caveat – one finds a distinction between educated Chinese and relatively uneducated Chinese, not so dissimilar to the same finding in the US. Those who can do more critical thinking in China, those who have been outside, tend to have a more balanced if not critical view of Beijing. Those with less education see the central government as a benefactor. This is distinct from less educated Americans, who seem relatively united in their mistrust of the US government.


Faith in leaders and CCP

True story – Chinese-American journalist and editor Lu Keng  was incarcerated in a Chinese Communist prison for twenty-two years. When freed, he met General Secretary Hu Yaobang in Zhongnanhai. He waived off any sympathy for his suffering  by helping Hu with a Mencius quotation and then dismissing Hu’s suggestion that he had “suffered quite a lot” by saying, “Never mind, never mind. That was a great era. During a period of historical change, inevitably some people will suffer some bitterness under certain circumstances.” This man was unjustly incarcerated for more than two decades (cited in Pye, The Mandarin and the Cadre page 97).

Another - Liu Binyan,  China’s famed investigative reporter, spent 22 years of exile in the countryside for writing to expose corruption. Not until Tiananmen did he question the values of the Party and sought only to expose individual wrongdoing. Individuals could be corrupt, but the Party was sacrosanct.

Lucian W. Pye. China: Erratic State, Frustrated Society. Foreign Affairs, Fall, 1990. Available at


Another true story - Bao Tong 鲍彤 was the policy secretary to Zhao Ziyang, the CCP General Secretary whose lack of opposition to the students in Tian’anmen Square in 1989 led to his downfall.  Zhao remained under house arrest until his death;  as a confidant, Bao has the same fate. Bao held a variety of senior positions in the CCP, but his confinement is still based entirely on political convenience. His arrest, trial, and jailing for eight years was based on "revealing state secrets and counter-revolutionary propagandizing.” When released from prison, his family was forced to move from their Beijing apartment to one that could more easily be watched, and phone calls and visits to Bao remain restricted until now. He does have limited ability to send out essays and opinion pieces to the west – only.  

Here is the kicker.  Bao, writing in 2015 in a New York Times op-ed about the Xi Jinping anticorruption campaign –

I want to say two things. First, as long as China travels on the road charted by Deng Xiaoping, it will not fundamentally end corruption. “Slaying tigers and swatting flies” is not a root-and-branch cure; it can’t even alleviate the worst symptoms. Tigers roam wild, and flies cover the sun: You can attack 100 or 1,000 of them, and it won’t change the essential fact of a corrupt road.  But I remain an optimist, because if Chinese leaders are willing to abandon the Deng Xiaoping road, then there is hope.

Bao Tong. How Deng Xiaoping Helped Create a Corrupt China.  New York Times op-ed, June 3, 2015.


This man’s life and that of his family have been destroyed by political infighting. He has been a prisoner of conscience in his own apartment for more than twenty-five years. He sees the current path of Chinese politics as fatally flawed. In the New York Times he has no political rationale for tempering his words. How can he remain an optimist about the future in China?  Maybe hope is all that Bao has left; or maybe there is a distinction from a western perspective, a Chineseness, to understand.


How can you trust?

We must put trust in some others some of the time. How do we decide to have sufficient faith in others to trust them? Pointedly, where can Chinese faith in leaders and optimistic views of authority come from? Faith in leaders requires an ability to trust in a person, a group membership or a cause. We see such trust in action every day - trust in a family member, a fellow member of a club or religion, or even a stranger when in a momentary crisis.

Stanford economics professor Avner Greif explored “trust at a distance” in early China and medieval Europe by referring to particularized trust in a clan or lineage group and generalized trust in a government that can enforce laws and punish wrongdoers. Generalized trust, what we can refer to as trust at a distance, requires a level of social capital, including law and enforceability of law. Trust is partly transferred to government as being able to stand between parties in a transaction.  If you can’t always trust your partner, you can trust the government to help make things right.

Avner Greif and Guido Tabellini. Development, Culture, And Institutions: Cultural and Institutional Bifurcation: China and Europe Compared. American Economic Review: Papers & Proceedings 2010, 100:2, 1–10. Available at


Trust of strangers at a distance – an ability to do generalized trust - is characteristic of social capital. There is no history of generalized trust in China, and we have seen there is no social capital outside the family or clan network in China. Trust is quite local and particularized.

But Chinese trust in the central government and mistrust of the village is not of the same character as localized trust vs trust at a distance. Pye and others have noted there is a sort of fantasy belief in the goodness of the central government. China is big and diverse and few have loyalty beyond their local network. As a result society is something of an immovable object. Farms and farmers live on and the government imposes what it can. Pye in the Erratic State article –

One secret of the unity of China has been a conspiracy of make-believe, which masks the strengths and limitations of both the state and society. The Chinese state, both imperial and communist, has always pretended to omnipotence, but in reality its policy-implementing authority has been surprisingly limited. Chinese society for its part has gone along with the pretense of official omnipotence while following its own lead and making almost no demands on the government. Rulers and subjects have thus tended to keep their distance from each other while pretending to be harmoniously close.

How can we understand the aphorism at the beginning of this article? The central government is our benefactor?


Optimistic and Pessimistic Views of the World

It seems that political philosophy in China and the west could hardly be more different – thousands of years of authoritarianism and particularized trust on the one hand and two thousand years of gradual progression toward more individualism on the other. Only particularized trust in the one and gradual availability of generalized trust in the other.

Americans go to China and find too many things that just don’t make any sense. Complicated and deep relationships in business and government and ability to do deals with little or no paperwork. No sports or politics worth considering.

On the other side, Chinese see American thinking as hopelessly simple and naïve, our obsession with guns just frightening, our level of care for each other barbaric, our sports and politics full of sound and fury signifying nothing.


Thomas Metzger – Chinese optimism and western pessimism

Both sides think the other is …well, crazy and perhaps immoral.

Intellectual historian Thomas Metzger suggests that Chinese and Americans are both right – the other side is crazy and immoral. Some of the American and Chinese failure to understand each other is based in epistemology – what we can know about the world. Certainly, if we see the world differently, we will act differently and understand morality differently.  

By epistemology, I just refer to the … philosophical ideas in a culture used to distinguish between reliable ideas (“truth,”“knowledge”) and unreliable or false ones.

Thomas Metzger. Some Ancient Roots of Modern Chinese Thought. Early China, vol. 11/12, 1985-87, pages 61-117, page 64.  Available at


Metzger says that in the axial age civilizations, China alone developed a fundamental optimism about human perfectibility and the ability of benevolent leadership to transform society.

After all, leaders from ancient times model their behavior on the perfection and regularity seen in the heavens. This view of morality evolved during the Eastern Zhou dynasty, long before Confucius. (Chinese Confucianism is also the only one of the wisdom traditions to eschew discussion of the spiritual in favor of the humane and practical. The Christian view of morality is still based largely on Augustine’s original sin).

In A Cloud Across the Pacific Metzger undertook to compare political philosophy in the west with that in China.  His method was to compare the theories of six Chinese philosophers with the theories of John Stuart Mill, John Dunn, Frederick Hayek, John Rawls, and Richard Rorty. This seems an impossible task on its face – comparing different philosophies within one culture, over time, and then across cultures. But Metzger has insights that allow us to see how Chinese and Americans – the west, really - both see the other as shallow, immoral, and decadent.

He suggests that political philosophies – democracy, liberalism,  authoritarianism, socialism, harmony – all are attempts to define legitimate governance in terms of deeper cultural beliefs about human value and human dignity. Even in ancient times, government had to take the people into account to some extent, else revolts and uprisings.

This is not a new idea. Philosophers and political scientists all see human dignity as a shared human goal, regardless of political or economic system. Cultures devise different social and political institutions to affirm dignity. Some countries seem to perform that task better than others. But it helps to remember that democracy, especially American democracy, is only one way of realizing human dignity. There are others. I discuss this more in a following section Civilization State and Freedom.

Thomas Metzger. A Cloud Across the Pacific: Essays on the Clash between Chinese and Western Political Theories Today  Chinese University Press, 2006. 


Metzger finds that western philosophers, influenced by the Greeks and Descartes and Hume, tend to see Confucian optimism as backward (Ancient Roots page 64). A proper western view is more skeptical of human nature and power.

Metzger’s view of epistemological differences has plenty of support among Chinese and western observers. Guy Alitto, professor of history and east Asian languages at the University of Chicago, suggests that the philosophical differences push western philosophy toward a pessimistic view of human nature and negative liberty, and Chinese philosophy toward a Mencian optimistic view of human nature and positive liberty.

Guy Alitto. The Meaning of Freedom:  Yan Fu and the Origins of Chinese Liberalism (review). China Review International 18:2, September 19, 2011, page 195.  Available at


David Keightley – the oracle bones guy - saw the same optimism. He saw optimism in Neolithic inscriptions and carvings – the different roles of hero and protagonist in literature, the “justice of the universe” in China, or the willingness to trust in leaders. Keightley sees continuity with the present in this “radical world optimism.” As he said,

 It is probably truer for China than for most parts of the world that as the Neolithic twig was bent the modern tree has inclined.

David Keightley. Early Civilization in China: Reflections on How It Became Chinese in Heritage of China: Contemporary Perspectives on Chinese Civilization, edited by Paul S. Ropp, ed., University of California Press, 1990, pp.15-54, page 5. Available at


Discourse 1 and Discourse 2

Metzger posits two world views in A Cloud Across the Pacific  – eastern epistemological optimism (which he calls discourse 1) and western epistemological pessimism (discourse 2).

Discourse 1 contains a moral-political optimism about human moral powers and the ability of institutions to reflect human goodness. There is optimism about the power of human understanding, usefulness of education, and the feasibility of large scale projects to improve the human condition. Metzger on optimistic epistemology and truth -

An “optimistic” one uses looser standards confidently to accept a larger range of ideas as reliable ….

As Ci Jiwei notes in a review, this discourse considers that human selfishness can be overcome, and the ability of a select few incorrigible leaders to reform and perfect society is possible.    Metzger and Ci sees this as characteristic of the east, of China, over the centuries. 

My impression—it is no more than an impression, for I have not carried out the kind of empirical study that a firmer conclusion would require—is that discourse #1 is fairly representative of modern Chinese thinking in general and political thinking in particular.

Ci Jiwei.  What is in the cloud? A critical engagement with Thomas Metzger on "The clash between Chinese and western political theories." Boundary 2, 2007  34:3, p. 61-86, p 84. Available at


Discourse 2, characteristic of the west, is a generally skeptical view of human and institutional possibilities. Metzger –

What I call a “pessimistic epistemology” is one using strict standards, such as Descartes’ “clear and distinct ideas” cautiously to reject a large number of ideas as unreliable. 

In the west, the Socratic quest for certainty means that all views are subject to question and correction, and hence contains a conservative view of the benefits of action. There is a predilection for serious, not pro forma, evaluation of results in the real world. The pessimism – lack of faith in the possibility of a common definition of the Good, or trust in leaders to define the Good, is referred to by Alasdair MacIntyre as a gradual process of moral decline; other philosophers refer to this skepticism as characteristic of modernity.



Box –

What are modern western values?  A few ideas


Self criticism

Disinterested search for truth

Separation of church and state

Rule of law

Equality before the law

Freedom of conscience, expression, thought

Human rights

Liberal democracy

From debate at Intelligence Squared, nd

How well can any one of these work in an honor society or a relationship society?  Did they work in the Mafia? In medieval Christianity? So how do we understand Taiwan, Singapore, Hong Kong, Japan, South Korea? This civil society and democracy stuff are by no means harmonious. How well are these values working in America now? How much of America is a “modern western” country?


The eastern optimism described by Metzger can legitimize most any government, since leaders are presumed to be “the best and the brightest.” Ci finds in the optimism an explanation for the historical lack of “moral darkness” in Chinese literature – and certainly an explanation for the comfort level with the concept of “positive energy” in writing and public speaking.

Positive energy in speaking and writing is not just a CCP invention although it fits the world view. Optimism about the moral and intellectual ability of leaders fits quite nicely with top-down control of authoritarian government. One is reminded of the American Marine mottos -  the few, the proud and semper fi.  Government officials are the elite and always loyal. CCP most certainly sees itself as an elite – and, in fact, as a family.


How the Differences Manifest

Metzger found significant philosophical disagreement between the Chinese view and the western view on four elements – global vision, individual freedom, the view of history, and the usefulness of knowledge as an agent of change. While the six philosophers on each side may have very different individual  perspectives on many issues, Metzger sees the western side united in its fealty to what he calls the “Great Western Modern Epistemological Revolution” (GWMER) that helped create democracies and liberalism.

Origins of the GWMER are in Greek and Roman political philosophy, and the turn toward individualism and skepticism about rulers’ use of power. The GWMER sees knowledge as fundamentally incomplete, not perfectible, and leadership as subject to the Lord Acton provision about power. One can always ask why, and expect an answer. Governance requires checks and balances and rule of law for fairness.  

Metzger contrasts this with the perspective in China. Knowledge is always incomplete, but at least theoretically can be perfected, and leaders should generally be regarded as virtuous and trustworthy. Governance requires a moral elite, including a far seeing top leader, for a sense of harmony. The moral elite, and the leader in particular, have access to the best knowledge, and can act accordingly. Moral truth comes from one’s leader, so there is no need to worry about conflicts of reason or interest.  One need not ask why. The elite have already considered the topic.

Whether one accepts or rejects the GWMER lies at the heart of larger conflicts about truth, justice, and the good. Basically this is a question about the ability of leaders to perform benevolently and wisely. That is clearly not the case in the west.

Differences in acceptance or rejection of the GWMER show themselves in three ways, Metzger says.


  1. Chinese thinkers are more forgiving toward state monopoly power; western thinkers want to use individual rights to limit the power of the state. This is not simply a theoretical view. We see this in the absolute preference, today, of Chinese for the large, and the state, over the small, and the private. Chinese will always trust a doctor from a large state hospital over a doctor working in a private clinic. Doctors in China are significantly underpaid. At a government hospital, I once asked a well-known medical specialist why he did not open his own clinic, and make a great deal more money. “No one would come.” Reputation is important, but cultural values persist. Who wants a doctor who is also a businessman? In traditional culture, business is the lowest of the four professions, after scholar, official, and farmer. The businessman is obviously self-interested, not a good trait in a family and relationship-oriented society and not a good trait in a medical provider. 


  1. Chinese thinkers are suspicious of an autonomous civil society, outside the control of the state; western thinkers are committed to a marketplace of ideas and see the necessity of an intermediary between the family and the state. We can almost call this a definition – no civil society, no stable democracy; no democracy, no civil society. Leaders in China are expected to promote a view of what is good for society, using their superior perspective on needs and capabilities. This is unlike democratic theory, which wants alternative views competing and waiting in the wings for the next election.


There has never been an established alternate view of the good in China - not under the emperors, and not since 1949.  While Confucian scholars did serve such a role in government, the Confucians never established a school, an institute, a political party, that stood – not in opposition – but in contradistinction – to the ruler. Correctives to the ruler were always an individual choice and an individual action.

In China now the CCP cuts down any burgeoning civil movements at the core, just as with imperial rule in the past. Definition of the Good is a government prerogative. 

There was a moment of democratic thought after 1911 and prior to 1949. Frank Dikotter, author of Mao’s Great Famine, tells us that the People’s Republic was born in chains -

In many parts of Asia, the Republic of China was seen as a beacon of democracy, not least because of its sustained efforts to separate powers and establish an independent judicial system and promote the rule of law. Freedom of speech may have been curtailed by local strongmen, but Ta Kung Pao, China’s most important newspaper before 1949, regularly lambasted Chiang. Freedom of association was vigorously defended and led to a thriving civil society, with endless associations set up independently from the government, from imposing chambers of commerce to student unions.

China, before 1949, was more closely integrated into the global community than it is now. Several bilingual lawyers became judges at the International Court of Justice in The Hague, while educated professionals were able to match their foreign peers in many other fields, ranging from avionics to zoology. But ordinary people, too, were familiar with the world beyond their community, as illustrated magazines and radio programs disseminated information about every aspect of the modern world, whether new agricultural techniques or the fluctuating price of silk on the international market. Freedom of religion was taken for granted.

The third distinction –

  1. Chinese thinkers are optimistic about the ability of education to elevate and correct; western thinkers, he says, are less optimistic about the effects of education and the objectivity of knowledge. Education and learning have been highly honored in China since before Confucius; in the US, it seems we are at the unfortunate level of, “My ignorance is just as good as your expertise.”


The Confucian idea is that more education, more experience should make one more humane and more benevolent. We know from experience of American politicians that that is not the case.  There are plenty of doctors and PhDs in Congress whose lack of benevolence has never been questioned.

Political leaders in China go through an extended vetting process, whether the imperial exams of dynastic times or Party scrutiny now. This does not ensure virtuous leaders, by any means; but it does succeed in creating leaders who fail to want to ‘run government just like a business.’ Even when a government official does operate as a sole practitioner there is usually some public good benefitting.


An American example – Haidt on liberals and conservatives

It is wise not to make too strong a case for the incommensurability of Chinese and western moral views as Metzger describes. After all, Marxism is one of those western imports so derided by Mr. Xi right now.

At the end of the Qing, and in the Republic era, many Chinese intellectuals sought modernization from western ideas. Confucianism is now rightly understood as compatible with democracy and at least some human rights. But Metzger’s distinctions are useful, in the same way that Jonathan Haidt clarified liberal and conservative values by describing moral themes of fairness, avoiding harm, loyalty, sanctity, and respect for tradition.

Haidt says morality for American liberals focuses mostly on questions of fairness and avoiding harm. American conservatives pay attention to those, but consider loyalty, sanctity, and respect for tradition far more than liberals do.  There is a gulf in understanding the world that we see as a moral gulf. Liberals tend to be optimistic that fairness and avoidance of harm suffice as moral values. Other values – loyalty, sanctity, tradition – are not so necessary in a modern world. Conservatives tend to be pessimistic about the ability of fairness and avoidance of harm to be defined in ways they sanction and in any case, are insufficient justification for morality.

These two moralities are not incommensurable, but they do lead to different policy proposals. Haidt sees problems for the US if we are unable to credit the value of all five moral principles. Not that we can all agree on their relative value in any one policy, but we must acknowledge the morality of others’ moral views.

Professor of philosophy Li Chenyang makes a similar point about morality in China –

In this tradition pluralism has no place. The problem between Confucian and democratic values is that both sets of values are worthwhile. On the one hand, such democratic values as liberty, equality, and pluralism are desirable; and on the other, so are Confucian values like the family, duty, loyalty, and unity. Confucian values are as cherishable as democratic values. Traditional Confucian virtues such as loyalty, filial piety, paternalism, and unity are good values and ought to be retained. Just because Confucian virtues are in conflict with some democratic values, that does not mean they are less good or less valuable. The real strength of Confucianism is not in being or becoming democratic, but in the traditional virtues that are not democratic. It is a simple-minded fallacious inference that, since democracy is good, anything that is undemocratic must be bad. An argument can be made that in the United States and throughout the democratic West, healthy society has been threatened precisely by the diminishing of traditional values similar to these undemocratic Confucian values. Scholars like Samuel Huntington have made much the same mistake in thinking that because democratic values are good, undemocratic or non-democratic Confucian values must be abandoned or superseded.

Li Chenyang.  Confucian Value and Democratic Value.  Journal of Value Inquiry 31:1997.  Available at


Neither discourse #1 nor discourse #2 can be considered “correct,” but they are useful as reminders of a different world view. Stephen Angle makes the point clearly –

Imagine an Aristotelian giving money away to a poor person. He judges his own action to be magnanimous. If a Confucian were to observe this action, though, he might conclude that the Aristotelian had violated socio-ethical norms, or li. Assuming that other Confucians agreed, the Aristotelian’s conduct could be held up as a negative example to be used in teaching young Confucians. In and of itself, however, the Confucian’s judgment would give the Aristotelian no reason to change his conduct, since “lacking in li” is not a category in the language by which he judges conduct. This begins to suggest that Aristotelians and Confucians may assess behavior, intentions, and character traits in different terms.

Stephen Angle.  Pluralism in Practice: Incommensurability and Constraints on Change in Ethical Discourses. Varieties of Ethical Reflection, Michael Barnhart, ed.  Lexington, 2002.  Abstract. Available at


Ci Jiwei - Is the Optimism Irrational?

Is Chinese optimism about leaders rational? Is optimism just an act?

Epistemological optimism can be seen as a rationale for the lack of civil society – a loyal opposition - in Chinese political life. According to this view national leaders, whether the emperor or Party secretary, have the interests of the people at heart. It is only underlings who are corrupt, incompetent, or venal. In any case, central government leaders will act as they see fit to enhance the well-being of all the people. Remember the saying quoted above –

“the Center is our benefactor, the province is our relative, the county is a good person, the township is an evil person and the village is our enemy” 

O’Brien, KJ & Li, L. 1995, ‘The Politics of Lodging Complaints in Rural China’, The China Quarterly, 143, 756–83. Available at


In any case there is no other reasonable choice in an authoritarian regime. Belief in leaders is the “pay to play” cost for all in Chinese culture. You might as well believe in the goodness of leaders. There is nothing else to do.

In the US in late 2021 there are stories about Chinese power shortages and the real estate bubble collapse of Evergrande and other developers. Is the Chinese internet ablaze with commentary? No. It is too dangerous. No wechat conversation is safe from CCP, and to point out problems is evidence of disloyalty. 

So then one sees the rationale behind positive energy in speeches and writing, and the warning against judging without knowing all the facts. Ci Jiwei on pronouncements from Party leaders on matters of culture, domestic or foreign policy, ethics, truth and justice -

When one encounters an official appeal to objective truth, universally valid truth, laws of historical development, science … one knows, but surely, that that this is not an invitation for discussion of the epistemic merits of the case in question, but a conversation stopper …. To respond to such an appeal with query is to misconstrue an official speech act and commit a category mistake.   (Ci, page 77)

Speech is then devalued.  The minimally sophisticated Chinese knows that speech is performance, not promise. 

The optimistic view is otherwise irrational says political philosopher Ci Jiwei. Chinese have had millennia to judge for themselves whether leaders can be trusted to be moral exemplars, a la Confucian principles. Chinese cannot possibly see leaders unconstrained by law or a morality outside the political system and think that leaders will act in Confucian benevolence. 

Ci supports Metzger’s concept of epistemological optimism in a general way, but he sees its current formulation as not just faith in leaders but also theatrical and ideological use of language.

Perhaps middle school students can believe in the power of positive energy to transform society, but past that, people must be mouthing ideas they have been taught to mimic.

Ci Jiwei. Moral China in the Age of Reform. Cambridge University Press, 2014.


Belief in the ability of either Confucianism or Communism to bring about a semblance of datong, the Great Unity, must be considered ridiculous. And yet, the semblance of belief persists in teaching, in government pronouncements, in the refusal to properly monitor behavior and work in progress at every level.  It is as if, “People always try to do the best they can, trust them.” Uncovering of moral failure is always a shock. 

The optimism is a necessity within CCP. I do know many – let me say, scores – of Chinese government people at several levels who do the best they can every day. They are honest, committed excellent public servants. But the system requires commitment to an optimism that cannot be justified. Leaders should be trusted.

There is a rationale for the trust. One never knows from whom, or from how high up, a particular command originates and no single person can have all the facts, so prudence requires a commitment to go along to get along.  

Commitment requires a utopian belief that serves only to justify the status quo of governance and rulers.  It is surface optimism.  It is a sort of don’t ask, don’t tell. It is groupthink.

In 2018 I spent a week with two of my government friends.  Both spoke excellent English, spent time in the US, and had very good jobs in China that would give them access to internal CCP news. They were looking to acquaint their daughter with the idea of going to school in the US. We talked about Xinjiang when stories of internment camps and deeply authoritarian techniques of repression were daily news fare. “Everything is all right in Xinjiang,” they both told me. “No problems.”


Performative Declamation

In public discourse, then, one sees the role of speech is not necessarily to communicate.  It is common - in school, in meetings in university or government – for all participants to be expected to say something regarding the topic at hand.  But opinions and ideas are not what is sought. What is sought is a form of acknowledgement, of agreement, what Geramie Barme at the China Center of the University of Australia calls performative declamation.  Speech is political theater, and this is true of teaching faculty as well as government representatives.   Per Ci -

This is the case even when, sometimes especially when, these discourses invoke some notion of truth; here, strikingly, the very employment of the discourse of truth is nonepistemic. To be a competent participant in Chinese political culture is to have learned how to relate to official discourses of truth. When one encounters an official appeal to objective truth (keguan zhenli), universally valid truth (pubian zhenli), laws of historical development (lishi guilü), science (kexue) in the broad sense of the true and the correct, and so on, one knows, pretheoretically, that this is not an invitation for discussion of the epistemic merits of the case in question but a conversation stopper, with varying degrees of risk involved if one reacts publicly as if it were such an invitation. To respond to such an appeal with an epistemic challenge or even query is to misconstrue the official speech act and commit a category mistake. To do so knowingly rather than naïvely is to commit a political mistake.

Ci Jiwei.  What is in the Cloud?  A Critical Engagement with Thomas Metzger on “The Clash Between Chinese and Western Political Theories.”  Boundary 2, 34:3(2007),pp. 61-86.  Page 69.  Available at


Ci says that someone who speaks according to the prescribed ideas is not necessarily lying if they say something they do not believe. Everyone understands the speaker is just comporting themselves in the manner necessary to … let us say, harmony. Lu Xing makes a similar point in her Rhetoric book – that “lying” is such a restrictive word.  If harmony is truly more important than justice (Li Zehou) then what matter a little liberty with language in performance?  But performance moves too quickly away from a western notion of truth and evidence. Sometimes you can see the lack of moral freedom in that performance. More of “that was then, this is now.”

Lu Xing. Rhetoric in Ancient China, Fifth to Third Century BCE – A Comparison with Classical Greek Rhetoric.  University of South Carolina Press, 1998.


Speech is strategic, even at the very top level. In the early 1990s Jiang Zemin excoriated Perry Link and Andrew Nathan, authors of the Tiananmen papers, as working for the CIA.  Link says that it doesn’t matter whether Jiang believed that or not. Truth or falsity, belief or non-belief, was not at issue. What Jiang was doing is providing a tool, establishing a meme, that underlings could use in policy formulation.  This was policy guidance issued as performative declamation. Geremie Barme at Australian National University and founder of the China in the World program, calls the official language “translated” Chinese.  This is not truly CCP speaking for all Chinese people, as it so often claims, but a carefully chosen translated Chinese that suits CCP purposes.

One is reminded of a comment by Natan Sharansky

I was a loyal Soviet citizen until the age of twenty. What it meant to be a loyal citizen was to say what you were supposed to say, to read what you were permitted to read, to vote the way you were told to vote, and at the same time, to know that it was all a lie.

Natan Sharansky. Cited in Douglas Murray Hoover Institute interview, November 23, 2020. Available at


So which is it? Optimism or Ideology?

Ci is probably right that Metzger’s Chinese optimism is now more ideological than epistemological. Optimism is easier to understand as a coping mechanism for the harshness of CCP  political control. In private with a trusted friend many Chinese officials will express negative opinions about individual leaders or policy. But the optimism is present in discourse, nevertheless, and we should understand how it informs policy, even if we understand it as strategic.

Some current Chinese intellectuals fear that western democracy, with its disorder and inability to define the Good, is not compatible with a harmonious integration of society. CCP members echo this opinion all the time. They may be right. Metaphorically, too much light makes the CCP go blind. As I have been told, morality and truth are defined by CCP.

Thinking long term, Metzger is not optimistic about achieving a shared understanding with the west.  He agrees with the view of John Mearsheimer,  that the rise of China has a good chance of not being a peaceful one with respect to the west. 


Western Barbarism – how can you trust people you don’t know?

The Chinese problem with democracy is that there is no one in charge; and in America many of the people who are sort-of in charge now are uniquely unqualified by experience. Inability to define the Good can be seen as a reason for western, or at least American, government as unable to define a national path on education, environmental protection, economic development, health care, or housing.  What policy does emerge is seldom bold, and political leaders are seldom at the forefront of change.

Without a path, without trusted leadership, one can see how some Chinese philosophy and at least some Chinese people can see the west as barbaric, a bit like the barbarians who attacked villages four thousand years ago. And there is nothing in Chinese history that suggests the Good should be defined by anyone other than the leader. In the west, we see Chinese government willingness to define the Good – socialist core values,  let us say – only as justification for censorship or arrest of dissidents.  Freedom to think, we believe, includes defining the Good for ourselves, as inexperienced or wrong-headed we might be. 


The Better Path to Harmony

Of course relationship is a more trusted path to harmony. A key part of human development, the ability to be harmonious, is education.

In school, then, rote learning is still part of the program.  In a manner similar to preparation for imperial examinations, students learn what is in the book. Western science and technology can be imported whole, because they ask no philosophical questions. Danger lies in history – unless it can be rewritten, which it is – almost no Chinese students know the famous “tank man” photograph – and in philosophy and psychology and literature and political science.  Political science is easy to control – it is defined as Marxism studies which all students are required to take in high school and college.  Marxist study is at the foundation of graduate programs in rhetoric and philosophy.

And teachers, just as in the old imperial days, are honored as purveyors of the truth. Chinese students are inclined to believe what they are told, rather than ask the why question. Why would a teacher, an educated – perhaps, learned - academic, tell them something that is not the truth? Again, this is not a new phenomenon. The tightly controlled education system built memorization and repetition into the curriculum, to the exclusion of debate, from the Han Dynasty on. But after a decade or two of instruction, one has little choice but to believe what one is told. The only choice is to be optimistic - the student does not conceive of an alternative view. 

Don Munro, at the very end of The Concept of Man in Early China, reminds us –

The Chinese theory of learning assumes that people are innately capable of learning from models. This learning can occur unintentionally, through the unconscious imitation of those around one ... Or it can occur intentionally, through the purposive attempt to duplicate the attitude or conduct of a teacher, scholar-official, or ancestor.

The doctrine breathed life over the years into endless variations on the theme that man is perfectible through education; and whatever its philosophical weaknesses, it helped to maintain some of the most lasting and effective forms of political control in human history.

Don Munro. The Concept of Man in Early China. Series: Michigan Classics In Chinese Studies (Book 6).  U of M Center for Chinese Studies (October 3, 2001), page 182.


This last sentence of Munro’s book should clarify optimism about the value of education to improve one.  Education is critical to self-cultivation; but education is also political.  In 2018, Chinese students in and out of China are well-aware of the political use of education. When it comes to education in China, you’d better believe in it.

Thus in the absence of being told what to think, we see the Chinese unwillingness to proclaim on a subject without “knowing all the facts,” a position that is practically absurd to a western perspective, which holds that “it would be irresponsible not to speculate.” This reflects the Confucian admonition in Analects 13.3 (Zi Lu 3) that the junzi does not comment on matters he does not understand. But one can never know all the facts, even why your kid was crying this morning.  So – what reason for China to build on and occupy shoals in the South China Sea? What rationale for funding a new canal through Nicaragua? We cannot comment without knowing all the facts.   On what basis would one offer an alternative view to those of the leaders?  It is an added bonus that this tactic, when it works to stifle questions, is of immense convenience to the Chinese government. 

Chinese place great value on educated leaders and their ability to deliver harmony, in a paternalistic fashion, notes Metzger.  Leaders should approximate the superior education and moral views of the junzi, the Confucian scholar-gentleman. It is telling that most Politburo Standing Committee members have advanced academic degrees (even if phony) and when Chinese decry venality and corruption within local government, they still express faith in those central government leaders to both deliver justice and maintain harmony – even in the face of all evidence to the contrary.

American elected leaders are not expected to be automatically virtuous, at any level, and we institute checks, including that of civil society, to help watch them.

In an honor society it is tough to monitor virtue or honesty. If one is permitted to ask questions, there may not be an answer. If there is an answer, it might be misleading. But if there is an answer, it is what can and should be accepted as true. We do have to consider that sometimes that is better than the ongoing confusion provided by Fox News and lunatic social media.


Next: Lack of Trust and Lack of Communication