The Civilization State and Freedom   What do you mean, Chinese lack freedom?

Try reciting the Emma Lazarus poem when you are thousands of miles from home, in a group of friends who, in their deepest wish, would return to the US with you. Tomorrow you can get on the plane. For them it is forbidden.  “… Yearning to breathe free …”  Can you do it without a shudder and a tear? I couldn’t.

This section gets a little deep in political and moral psychology – not really my area. I’ve done quite a bit of reading, and I hope what follows will be sufficiently clear. The ideas are important. The usual warning - this is a bit long.

The work of Joseph Chan on moral autonomy and Ci Jiwei on moral freedom are necessary reading for anyone wishing to understand the why behind what they see in China. In particular, Chan’s book Confucian Perfectionism and article Moral Autonomy, Civil Liberties and Confucianism and Ci’s book Moral China in the Age of Reform are my sources here.

In prior sections I referred to China as a civilization-state, rather than a nation.This is Lucian Pye's term from his 1990 Foreign Affairs article China: Erratic State, Frustrated Society and I think it fits well. China tends to respond as a civilization rather than as a state to internal problems or provocation from outside. (You remember FBI director Christopher Wray describing the "whole-of-state" threat posed by CCP to American business and government. Compliance of Chinese people with that posture is the civilization threat idea).

Now New China is the term for China since 1949, when the old ways of thinking and the past were discarded in favor of the new ways and the future. New China struggled against the west, struggled against the Japanese, struggled to emerge victorious against Guomindang, and continues to struggle to achieve the future.

Now New China led by CCP must struggle against the Chinese farmer and apartment dwellers in competition for land. The struggle is a bit one-sided. The government owns all land, except for farmer land, and despite protests, there is really very little that stands in the way of the government doing as it wishes.

But there is a different struggle that is shared by all Chinese, in and out of the government and in and out of CCP.  The struggle is as old as China, it is a part of Chineseness, and it is fundamental to the feelings of insecurity, victimhood, and mystery that mold the Chinese character. It is the struggle for proper expression of moral freedom. 


Sections to follow -

Moral What? 


Getting to moral thinking

The twin problems - order and agency   

What is freedom for? 

Agency as freedom and agency as identification 

When you have all the personal freedom and none of the moral freedom  

The good old days

That was then, this is now

Getting past consumption and the pressure  

No moral freedom means less personal responsibility

Tradeoffs and experience in making choices

The experience of making choices

An added benefit to moral freedom  

Misunderstanding of the Confucian idea  

A summary – agency, freedom, identification, moral strength rights and democracy

Moral freedom in foreign relations    



Moral What?

Freedom is so much a part of American ideology that we have a difficult time saying what freedom means. What is freedom, anyway? Is it voting, or guns, or free speech? Is it spending as much money as you wish on political candidates?  Is it shopping and extremely low taxes? Those things might characterize freedom. But why do we want it at all?  Probably few Americans have thought to ask the question. 

I want to provide answers as developed by Chinese political philosophers and show how their analyses help understand day to day experience in China now, and what that means for the future in China … and perhaps the US. First some brief notes on autonomy and characteristics of morality.



We might say that freedom means autonomy – back to my image of the American Marlboro Man. You remember – often pictured alone, on a horse in the open west, unbounded and not responsible to anyone. His smoking is his alone. He certainly seems autonomous – no constraints, no boss, no ties. Is that all freedom, and autonomy, mean? What does it mean for someone to be autonomous?

Autonomy, political and moral freedom are topics of intense discussion among Chinese philosophers now. Ci Jiwei, professor of philosophy at the University of Hong Kong addresses personal freedom and the lack of moral freedom in his 2015 Moral China in the Age of Reform. His colleague Joseph Chan describes in detail how to apply Confucian values to modern ideas of freedom in his 2014 book Confucian Perfectionism.

I am concerned here with moral freedom – the freedom to make moral choices. Joseph Chan defines four elements of individual moral autonomy. At least one or two of these must obtain if one is to be morally autonomous, and therefore free -


Individuals are autonomous if they are in some sense masters of their own lives. Individuals are morally autonomous if they are in some sense masters of their moral lives. But what does it mean for me to be a master of my own moral life? I suggest that it may mean one or more of the following elements:

  1. the voluntary endorsement of morality morality requires lack of coercion
  2. a reflective engagement in moral life morality requires thoughtful consideration, rather than simply obedience to some external command or standard. This is what makes a person autonomous, and provides dignity. This requires practice, learning, and reflection. There must be an ability to stand independent of others in this regard. One must be able to stand apart from what is common.
  3. morality as self-legislation - This is the Kantian perspective – one only obeys a law that one gives oneself. And

  4. morality as the radical free expression of the individual’s will. Morality is unbounded by consideration of others. I, alone, decide.

Joseph Chan. Moral Autonomy, Civil Liberties, and Confucianism. Philosophy East and West 52:3, pages 281-310. Page 282. Available at


Chan says the first two of these four elements are in keeping with a classical Confucian moral philosophy. This morality requires thoughtful voluntary engagement with moral questions of the day. A person can be considered morally autonomous with the first two of these four conditions.

The latter two elements are a step too far for Confucianism, and, certainly, for any virtue ethic – Christianity, the virtue ethic of Aristotle and Alasdair MacIntyre. Our archetype American, the Marlboro Man, owes nothing to anyone and decides all for himself. He is individually sovereign. Those are the Kantian conditions. Such a man cannot be situated thoughtfully in community – Confucian or Christian. None of Chan’s four elements apply to mainland Chinese now.


Getting to moral thinking

Chan in the same article -

… a successful moral life requires the moral agent to be capable of reflective understanding, which in turn requires a kind of moral learning that emphasizes thinking, reflection, extension and imagination, and dynamic deliberation. These qualities of the mind are difficult to develop in an environment where no one is allowed to challenge the received wisdom, and where no falsity has a chance to be heard and rejected by better arguments. Instead, thinking, reflection, and so on prosper in an environment that encourages a certain degree of open-mindedness, not blind dogmatism. Banning opposite views or false beliefs does not help people to see the truth more clearly, but merely encourages unreflective acceptance of received views and makes people less capable of reflective understanding. It is only through thorough exposition and criticism of false doctrines that doubts and mistaken thinking can be completely dispelled. Only by this means can people gain a more genuine and firm understanding of the ethical truth.

The understanding is that Chinese lack the individual moral freedom now found in the west. We see this lack of freedom on the street and in public speech and action every day. It is not simply CCP censorship of speech and thought and association. It is public coarseness, imitation of language of leaders, lack of concern for those outside one’s network, even lack of civility and a civil society. The CCP will ruthlessly suppress anyone promoting the dangerous western concepts of human rights. The “thinking, reflection and dynamic consideration” that Chan sees as necessary to moral development is essentially outlawed. As a minor example, my science and technology university in China offered no courses in logic, philosophy, ethics, or psychology. All irrelevant to producing good loyal producers.

DeTocqueville was describing neither literati in China nor CCP, but this seems right on -

Suppose a nation stands apart from the rest of mankind: independently of certain general wants inherent in the human race, it will also have wants and interests peculiar to itself: certain opinions of censure or approbation forthwith arise in the community, which are peculiar to itself, and which are styled honor by the members of that community. Now suppose that in this same nation a caste arises, which, in its turn, stands apart from all the other classes, and contracts certain peculiar wants, which give rise in their turn to special opinions. The honor of this caste, composed of a medley of the peculiar notions of the nation, and the still more peculiar notions of the caste, will be as remote as it is possible to conceive from the simple and general opinions of men.

Alexis de Tocqueville. Democracy in America. A Penn State Electronic Classics Series Publication, p 700. Available at


DeTocqueville is describing an honor society. We can understand this passage as describing CCP, which most certainly sees itself – with some good reason – as an elite. This is not the description of a people that senses itself free.  


The twin problems – order and agency

For most of human history bonds of obligation, to ruler, to local potentate, to family and clan defined the boundaries of individual thought and action. Not until the Enlightenment did concepts of rights, and then individualism, become part of the definition of human dignity in the west. And agency – the desire to see that one is personally valued – is an important value everywhere. With rights come ideas of moral freedom – the ability to make moral decisions for oneself with the conditions Chan explained above.

Now all societies have to parse the twin challenges of preserving social order and encouraging a sense of personal agency – an ability to see that one’s personhood is valued by others. Societies – and governments – must permit people to make some decisions freely and at the same time maintain order on a daily basis. There must be some personal liberty to think and act, however minimal.

This means keep the peace – harmony – but also allow people to express themselves – become fully human, as Confucians would say. Becoming fully human is more than deciding where to go for lunch. It also involves choices about what to read, what to write, how to express oneself most fully. Authoritarian governments want to control thinking and writing and expressing oneself fully. This is China now.

Chan and Ci are by no means alone in this concern for moral freedom. Haiyan Lee, in The Stranger and the Chinese Moral Imagination, Arthur Kleinman, in Deep China - The Moral Life of the Person, and Yan Yunxiang, in the The Individualization of Chinese Society have all expressed concern for the confusion confronting Chinese in a modernizing society.

Western societies have to parse the same challenges, but adapted over a period of two or three centuries. China is giving itself a few decades, and that is clearly not enough, based on culture and the lived stories of Chinese today. The theme from the self-strengthening movement of the 1860s was “Chinese learning as essence, Western learning for application.” That still motivates CCP. Preserve Chinese culture - Chinese civilization - against the decadent western ideas of civil society and freedom.  But western ideas still seep in.

Modernization shifts the balance of power in favor of society and a sense of freedom over government and a sense of order. Order and freedom are in constant tension, but in the west there exist means of working out some harmony – voting, law, regulations, lawsuits and media and customs and practices.

Perhaps the only society that cannot parse this challenge is North Korea – all property and all lives still belong to the state. But the modern need to achieve both freedom and order is a problem in Chinese society.

In dynastic China the lives of the people belonged to the emperor. He was a father figure, but more than that – he had power of life and death over all. A lack of personal freedom in the past did not prevent Chinese from developing an extraordinarily rich culture, or maintaining political domination in East Asia, or even technological innovation for more than a thousand years. Ci says that freedom to shop and travel and conduct business affairs is available since the opening up after 1978. This includes the freedom to own* land, to move within China, even to leave China. But this freedom is not accompanied by a personal sense of being free.

*individual Chinese do not own property in the same sense as we understand in the US. The government owns all land in China other than farmer land. What is called ownership is akin to a long term lease arrangement.


Ci says that Chinese have always lacked a sense of the value of freedom - that freedom is not available as a value, a sense of personal protection against others and the state, as an expression of agency. No one in China says – without understanding the potential negative consequences - I will do this because freedom is important, and this is my expression. Personal freedom is permitted in most arenas, although no one knows when that might be put in jeopardy, even for purchases of luxury goods or creation of artwork. Freedom is not used as a justification for action. Permission is used.

An example here might help. From Chinese anthropologist Yan Yunxiang in The Individualization of the Family in Rural China – on raising children -

In contemporary Western societies, let’s say in American society, parents also invest a lot in their children, particularly in education and then send them to extracurricular programs to make them well-rounded, increase their future competitiveness, and so on. While this seems similar to China, there’s a difference. The difference is that while doing all of this, American parents still consider their individual happiness as the goal. They are doing all of this for their children as a part of a pursuit of their own individual happiness. They would say, “I have raised a perfect child. I have boosted my child’s position, all under the condition that I love to do this.” Otherwise they can choose to do something else. By contrast, in China it is a kind of imperative. You have no choice; it is part of your moral duty to sacrifice yourself for a bigger goal. That bigger goal could be defined as a nation state or as socialism during the Maoist period. Now it is being redefined as a modern, happy, extended family, with the focus being the third generation – the grandchildren.

This is a distinction from western discourse.

Yan explains more in YouTube videos -  and


On the street, Chinese probably have more freedom than Americans do – to run red lights, to drive the wrong way down the street, to urinate or defecate in public, to block cars in parking garages, to drive cars on the sidewalk, to cheat in school and in business practices and collude to defeat competitors. The government seems unable to enforce pollution laws against grossly polluting small trucks, driven by farmers or relatively poor people. 

Kindergarten teachers proudly show off superb artwork done “by the students” when a kid only signs his name to a drawing done by the teacher herself. We don’t need to see all these activities as serious moral issues – but they do confound norms of behavior, norms about lying, violation of which only encourages more people to do the same thing. It is the broken windows theory of moral decay.

The government is afraid to intrude on the small truck pollution problem, for example, because more order is seen as decreasing freedom. This is true, of course. Chinese cherish what freedom they have and don’t see the tradeoff as readily as we do. It is not a common calculation to see benefits for all from a slight loss in personal freedom.  

Some will object to this characterization and use the example of people’s cooperation in defeating the covid-19 virus by wearing masks and following quarantine orders. We should remember these are not choices made freely, but under threat.

Order and freedom have to be negotiated. How do governments do it? Ci Jiwei says there are two ways, broadly defined. Both involve how agency is promoted in the culture and the government.


What is freedom for?

We value freedom because it provides agency – the ability to act according to one’s own sense of the good, to choose for oneself the proper path. The sense of personal agency in the world is part of dignity, the fundamental human value.

Agency has two dimensions. One can act for oneself, personal agency – do the laundry, or make lunch. Choosing to act for oneself, personal agency – that is the American Marlboro Man. In our idealized caricature, he engages no one else to do for him. But in real human society, even the Marlboro Man must make choices for others to represent his interests. He must designate a representative - an agent - to act for him in cooking food, making a saddle or governing the province. He – and we - depend on others for much of our environment – for governance and road safety and political leadership. We need agents to act for us in many things. 

We can express personal agency through monetary exchange for many things.

Monetary exchange cannot work for more important ways of expressing dignity – choosing leaders, choosing what to think, what to write or speak, how to worship. These are our expressions of moral agency. How governments structure that agency is key.

Governments and societies address the problem of human dignity in different ways. Ci defines two means of expressing moral agency - agency as freedom and agency as identification. (No government can always use agency as freedom or agency as identification. All governments require a mix of both. But the tendency in the US, for example, is to let people express agency through freedom. The tendency in China has been to express agency through identification).


Agency as freedom and agency as identification

Agency can be expressed through freedom, as in voting and voice; or it can be expressed through identification, that is, identification with a leader or a cause.

Agency as freedom is something we understand easily.  Americans, in particular, perceive themselves as free. We may not always get what we want, but we feel that our voice is heard.

Agency through identification takes a moment, but it is the sense of agency we feel when a leader expresses our hopes and fears, wishes and desires. We can feel powerful when an agent operates on our behalf – hence identification with strongman leaders or religious figures. How else to explain the rise of otherwise despicable pigs in 2016 in America?

Agency through identification has been the primary mode of expressing human dignity through most of history. It is a feeling of belonging to the great leader or the great cause. In a real sense the leader is “speaking for us.” In China, one can see the concept in how individuals defined their location in dynastic times. There was, of course, no term “China.” People defined themselves as belonging to the Great Ming or the Great Qing.  This was dignity through identification with the majestic empire. In the Cultural Revolution, millions of young Chinese were happy to express themselves in fanatic support for Mao Zedong. They identified with the leader, and gave the leader agency to express their sense of self.

The positive and negative aspects of liberty as described by Isaiah Berlin apply on a different level of analysis. Freedom to and freedom from are not Ci’s concern. Both negative and positive freedom are available in China. Chinese can be left alone, and they can form associations to accomplish group tasks.  But in all that, Ci contends, Chinese do not, can not, talk of their actions as those of freedom; nor do they experience themselves as free. Freedom is not a common term to describe action. Freedom is not a publicly recognized value and personal entitlement.

Occasionally, some of my Chinese government students would ask about places to go or things to do in Chicago. After I described some choices, they would ask me to choose for them.  “Sui bian. As you wish,” I would say, “It’s a free country” in that offhand manner we sometimes use. That often got a small  laugh, and it was only much later that I understood why. The laugh was not over some grand political comment on China and America, but the personal sense of freedom that, perhaps, could not be expressed even 7,000 miles from home. They were asking me to decide because in that context I was the leader.

Recently, the daughter of a friend completed her PhD in history, highly ranked in her top rated school, and applied for a teaching position at a nearby university. In the interviews and in the rankings she was ranked number one of the three candidates. By all accounts, she was a lock for the position - academically. In the final ranking, done in a secret process by the university dean and two associates, she came in third.  By every available account, this was the fault of the woman – by relying on her excellence and her list of publications, she failed to bribe the dean, or other officials, to secure the job. This was clearly a failure due to corruption – but one also understands this a failure of moral freedom, the freedom to do what is clearly right in favor of some sordid value dictated by some higher-up leader.  At least two of the final voters in the rankings were only doing as they were told they must do. In reality, the voters did not need to be told what to do. They had already intued the wishes of the leader, and would not deviate, whatever their own views and an objective reality.

Both of these examples show the limits of moral freedom. People do not feel free to think as they wish, write or speak as they wish. They may have a great deal of personal freedom to move and shop and travel where they wish, but more fundamental freedoms – moral freedoms – are limited.

Personal freedom can be available with agency as freedom and with agency as identification.

Moral freedom is limited with agency as identification. Moral freedom is my concern here.


When you have all the personal freedom and none of the moral freedom

Ci Jiwei contends that moral freedom, the freedom to choose which agent and the manner in which that agent serves one’s understanding of the Good, has never been a part of Chinese culture, and is not now. Moreover, what is lacking in Chinese culture is the value of freedom – the ability to define the astounding changes of the last forty years as an expansion of freedom, rather than just an expansion of the ability to consume. If one doesn’t experience freedom to choose, one loses the sense of its value.

Of course many Chinese understand the restrictions on their thought, speaking, writing and worshiping and chafe under the lack of moral freedom. This understanding is of little value in living day to day. Personal attempts to exercise moral freedom are efficiently erased by the tens of thousands of censors and neighborhood watchers, not to mention police and chengguan.

So even if Chinese attempt to speak, write, associate or worship as they wish, their attempts are thwarted. Chinese, Ci Jiwei says, cannot personally internalize the discipline to make moral choices and to regard oneself as a moral agent. They get no practice in doing so.

Without the practice of making choices for oneself, one fails to learn how to do it. Ci is obviously speaking in broad generalities here, but the perception fits my experience. An example follows. 


Our government students in Chicago were all required to undertake a capstone project, often an evaluation of some public policy problem, in the US or in China. This could be an infrastructure problem or a regulatory or program problem. In that project and in prior courses, students developed alternatives to evaluate using technical criteria of their own choosing.

Very often, students were unable to make choices about a recommended project or policy. This was not due to lack of technical skills, understanding of the problem, or even some difficulty with English. They were, in a sense, paralyzed – no choice could be made without consultation from a leader, whose authority would point to the proper and moral, direction.  What is true, what is right, what is the good, is determined from above, not for oneself. 

These were student projects. But these government students still felt that freedom to choose, as Milton Friedman might have said, was unavailable. The intense loyalty to a leader, as ingrained in Chinese culture as a desire for harmony, is almost incomprehensible to westerners. Loyalty to leaders allows China to accomplish things in short order that American can take years – decades, in the case of some infrastructure improvements – to accomplish. There isn’t much sign of that changing even as China modernizes and even “westernizes.” As of 2021, the push from the top in China is greater and greater control from the core of CCP, Xi Jinping himself.

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

When many others in the world have that freedom it is difficult for the Chinese government to say Chinese cannot have it. But for people to have moral freedom and use it would be death to the CCP.  Sam Crane suggests that Chinese history and philosophy have taught him that the greatest danger to the moral freedom required to live a good Confucian life is the tyrannical abuse of totalitarian power.

Sam Crane.  Further to a Critique of "The China Model."  Useless Tree blog, December 9, 2015.  Available at


What Chinese are only partly permitted to have is described by Thomas Merton in Thoughts in Solitude (1954) -

In an age when totalitarianism has striven, in every way, to devaluate and degrade the human person, we hope it is right to demand a hearing for any and every sane reaction in the favor of man's inalienable solitude and his interior freedom ….  [S]ociety depends for its existence on the inviolable personal solitude of its members. Society, to merit its name, must be made up not of numbers of mechanical units, but of persons.  To be a person implies responsibility and freedom, and both these imply a certain interior solitude, a sense of personal integrity, a sense of one's own reality and one's ability to give himself to society - or to refuse that gift.


For Chinese, when the ability to express oneself through moral freedom is unavailable, an obvious outlet is to express oneself through consumption – to shop.


The good old days

At one point, agency through identification with a charismatic leader – Mao, for one – was possible. Or even identification with a moral tradition, in Confucianism. It would be possible to have agency through identification with charismatic leaders, or leaders who convey a sense of moral integrity (cf. Confucius).  This could provide legitimacy as much as voting does. You remember students waving the Little Red Book.

(n.b., In 2009 the Little Red Book was available in bookstores in Shanghai in English and Chinese. But it was in the kids book section, along with copies of How to Draw a Horse and Calvin and Hobbes. That is probably not true today. The bookstore is likely gone, too.)

Agency through identification with a Cause means that one does not challenge the Cause or the leaders. There cannot be an appeal to natural law, or a higher law, or another sense of the Good. Hence the Chinese saying, “even a bad law is still a law.” 


That was then, this is now

There is no good identification with leaders who are corrupt. The Xi anti-corruption campaign is a desperate attempt to retain a sense of legitimacy, since the Cause - communism - no longer motivates, religion is out of the question (except the CCP is now attempting to rejuvenate Confucian values, albeit from the top, rather than bottom up), getting rich is just crony capitalism, nationalism is dangerous, and there is no motivating moral value or goal. 

Young Chinese, particularly those with advanced education and exposure to the world, can feel lost in this environment – there are dangers to expressing oneself other than through consumerism. 

One can compare this with an American suburban sense of anomie – rootlessness.  As Ci Jiwei says, “Under the spell of postmodern nihilism, freedom has come to mean ‘freedom from the good – from aspiring to the good, from any obligation to pursue the good’ (Ci, Moral China p 200).

I am reminded of a YouTube video of an (American) youth asking us to watch him bang his head into a street sign, thereby bending the sign.  His screen name is Wreckless. Chinese would fail to find the element of the good in that action.

Belief in communism as a path, and leaders as exemplars of moral virtue, is no longer feasible. Agency through identification is a failure now. Agency through freedom – expression of oneself through voting or voice – is not available either. So personal agency must find other ways of expression in China.

This expression of self manifests in different ways than in the west. This, Ci says, is at the bottom of the Chinese compulsion to consume, to design and purchase to excess – think of the extraordinary marble and glass hotel lobbies, or the beautiful work in lighting design. Or lavish spending on luxury brands. As evidence, Ci notes – Those who are free and understand themselves as free do not behave as if they were propelled from behind by an irresistible force. 

Ci Jiwei. Moral China in the Age of Reform, Cambridge University Press, 2015, page 45.

There are other explanations for the compulsion to conspicuous consumption as Ci describes it. We can think of base motives of the newly rich, the self-importance of the government official, gifts as guanxi and bribery, and the lack of suitable outlets for investment in a financially constrained economy – but I think Ci gets to a deeper truth that we see all the time in China. The lack of commonly understood norms of social behavior is what Ci sees as evidence for a moral crisis.

Xi Jinping and the CCP agree with Ci Jiwei on this point.


Getting past consumption and the pressure – giving up

What Mr. Xi would not agree with is that the source of this moral crisis is in CCP itself. The morality imposed by CCP, including its contradictions over time and poor example from leader-exemplars, has had the effect of destroying local moralities. In particular, CCP worked hard to eliminate Confucian morality described as backward and counter-revolutionary. Revolutionary morality should replace it.

China is a large country, with many distinct ethnic and cultural groups.  There is no single moral doctrine to which all Chinese have ever subscribed, but a sort of Confucian utilitarianism – dare I say it, a version of deTocquevillian “self-interest, rightly understood” – functioned well in historical China – even into the 1960s. 

CCP destroyed that, with its purge of Confucianism and local village practices said to preserve oppression, and elimination of religious practice. Richard Madsen notes that self-interest could not be invoked in decision-making, even as it is always understood to be part of the calculus –

Unlike the Americans deTocqueville described, the peasants of Chen village did not use the utilitarian individualistic paradigm of moral discourse to guide and justify their actions – they did not enjoy invoking the principle of self-interest rightly understood. Thus, since self-interest calculations inevitably did play a major part in most of their decisions, they were … often less moral than their moral discourse indicated. Instead of a utilitarian individualistic paradigm for moral discourse, they tended to use one form of the classic Confucian tradition. … Practically none of them had ever read the works of Confucius, and most of them were not even clear about who Confucius was and when he lived.  Yet I believe that the basic structure of their discourse about public morality fit the fundamental pattern used throughout the centuries by the moralists of China’s venerable Confucian tradition.

Richard Madsen.  Morality and Power in a Chinese Village. University of California Press, 1986.


Now young Chinese find themselves under extraordinary pressure. There is the pressure from ancestors to succeed, do well financially and honor the family. That has always been there. But now there is demand to marry well and provide grandchildren, and to do that in middle class memes is to buy an apartment and a car first. Real estate prices in cities are far beyond the ability of any but the highest paid to afford. Good schools are only in places with high real estate prices, just as in the US.

A 2020 Lincoln Institute study on Housing Affordability in Chinese Cities found that a thirty-city average of housing price to annual income was 7.2. In the big cities the ratio was much higher – 14 to 17 times annual income. Other studies show even higher ratios in big cities – up to 40 or 50 times annual income. For reference, we usually think an affordable price-income ratio in the US is about 2.6. 

The chart cited below from the New York Times tells you all you need to know about pressure on young Chinese to buy, marry, reproduce

But there is more. People in their twenties cannot afford a 30% down payment on an apartment. Parents, grandparents and other relatives chip in to provide the down payment. Often that includes a room for the parents to reside as well. There are significant benefits – the new grandparents will provide baby care, cooking, shopping and household care while the new parents work – but the implication in a one-child society is that the kids will take care of their own child plus four grandparents and maybe some great-grandparents. And for some, work 996.

It is a tough gig. No wonder the lying flat movement has emerged. Modern young Chinese can feel trapped, financially, emotionally, and morally. One is reminded of the last scene in the Kevin Costner movie No Way Out. Costner and young Chinese can both feel there is no way out other than to give up or lie flat. This is nihilism. I will do what I must, and no more.   


No moral freedom means less personal responsibility

Ci says that the kind of freedom that is lacking creates two problems in China. First is the ability to use moral language to determine what is right or proper. Moral language cannot be a resource for Chinese, when morality is determined by leaders and leaders lack moral legitimacy. Leaders never say, “we are doing this because it is the right thing to do.” What you hear is, “we are doing this because (we have determined) that it is good for you.”

Second, he sees no ability to use the language of freedom to limit power – freedom is not available as a right. As a consequence, there are no rights to use freedom as a value in expression, or the press, regardless of what might be promised in the Chinese constitution. The experience of freedom, the value of freedom, the sense of being free, must be constructed by people making daily decisions – it cannot be promised or promoted by a constitution. It is a cultural construct, not a government permission. One is reminded of the Ronald Reagan retort to Mikhail Gorbachev when Gorbachev told Reagan that USSR has freedoms written into their constitution also. Reagan reminded Gorbachev that the Russian constitution told the people what freedoms they have; the American constitution told the government what freedoms it has. So, too, in China.


Tradeoffs and experience in making choices

No country can use either agency as freedom or agency as identification all the time. We are thinking of general cultural tendencies. Democracies tend to use agency as freedom – provide as much moral freedom as feasible under the constraints of order. Authoritarian governments tend to use agency as identification – all are to look to the leader as exemplar and order will take priority over freedom.

In democracies agency and order are seen as opposite ends of a spectrum – that to have more order, or perhaps, more harmony, one must give up some individual agency. The customary way to talk about this in the US is the tradeoff of freedom for security. There is a tension between a sense of agency, acting according to one’s own wishes, and security. To get more of one we must give up some of the other, and that is a constant source of contention in law and legislation. There is freedom to carry guns, and the freedom to be safe from being killed.

In the US we see this tradeoff now in proposals to ban people coming to the US, or in rights to carry guns. We have vehement disagreements about the tradeoffs; but we have some common language of rights to use in the argument. And, to the point, we can make tradeoffs in one arena because fundamentally we are confident in our ability to make good choices about the Good (individually) and that we will be able to publicly reconsider that choice at some time in the future or exercise our ability to choose on other matters later. This is a sort of confidence in moral abilities and availability of choices. One can conceive of obtaining greater agency, greater expressive ability, if legislation is later subjected to control or limitation.

Moral freedom does not mean the ability to make choices about fairness or harm, or helping the poor or not. It is not defined by which choices are made. It is having the experience of making significant choices for oneself, beyond buying a dress or a car.  It is about experience in making choices that greatly affect ourselves and others. It is experience in being a social being, and the self-cultivation that Confucius recommended. Andrew Kipnis, in a review of Ci –

By freedom, Ci does not mean the simple absence of political or social constraint but rather personal internalization of the discipline necessary both to make moral choices and to regard oneself as a moral agent….  Ci argues that members of a society are considered free to the extent that they are able to see themselves as moral subjects with the ability to make attributions about right and wrong and to see other members of their society as also able to make these attributions. This sense of “agency through freedom” is not a given but must be imposed and inculcated by the wider society: “it is only when freedom serves as a mode of subjection that it can safely serve also as a moral resource and as a right”.  In other words, the sense of agency through freedom comes from a process of “subjection through freedom,” a process of being made subject to higher authority.


This higher authority could be religion, natural law, or community values. But all these have been denigrated in China in the last 70 years.

The problem for Chinese, for modern China, is then how to inculcate a sense of freedom that they see as necessary to their personal worth. They see others, notably in the west, making choices all the time about what is the good – what should government spend money on, what road to build, who to vote for in governance, what is permissible to think and to say in public.  Even if Chinese do not, can not, articulate the sense of a hole, a lancunae, in their lives, it exists apart from their recognition.  There is a voice that seeks to be heard.

Young, modern Chinese want the voice even as they shy away from a commitment to democracy. Democracy is out of the question. Voice through means other than voting is highly restricted. But, pointedly, this moral freedom is precisely what Confucius proposed, as a means of becoming fully human – the practice of moral reasoning.

Andrew B. Kipnis.  Modernity and the Chinese Moral Crisis. China Journal 75 (2015). Pages 121-122.  Available at


The experience of making choices

Recently CCP has been promoting its “democratic centralism” as real democracy - Xi Jinping says China's 'democratic' political system is a 'great creation' that holds key to international success.

His claim has some bite in efficacy – about 5,000 recorded coronavirus deaths in China against nearly 800,000 in the US. Some observe that Americans have the “freedom to die.”

No doubt Xi sees “democracy” as a keyword in promotion of the CCP international agenda. But the Chinese democracy that can be described is not the real democracy, to paraphrase the opening line of the Dao De Jing.

The government is not going to give Chinese much choice in making moral decisions, and so without that practice, there is no confidence about the ability to make moral choices for oneself. 

Democracy in China now does not mean expressing one’s will.  There is some voting for promotions and selection of leaders, but it is a prearranged set of candidates, mostly within CCP organizations or heavily supervised by CCP, and the outcome is preordained. CCP now promotes China as a democratic country, with a better version of democracy than anywhere in the west.

In China, though, voting is an expression of solidarity, not individual choice. Despite what is promised in the Chinese constitution, ability to run for office is severely constrained. And of course, the ability to promote ideas or policies other than those of CCP is cause for being jailed.

The population has thousands of years of history in following a centralized leadership to which people render unconditional loyalty. There is a paternalistic quality to voting, expressing the “epistemological optimism” that political philosopher Thomas Metzger describes. The key difference with voting in liberal regimes is that individual liberty is valued. If individual liberty is not valued, then voters do not feel free to exercise their vote as they see fit. The Chinese freedom is that propounded by Rousseau - “Whoever refuses to obey the general will will be forced to do so by the entire body; this means merely that he will be forced to be free.” The general will is, of course, the will of CCP.

Thomas Metzger.  Some Ancient Roots of Modern Chinese Thought: This-Worldliness, Epistemological Optimism, Doctrinality, and the Emergence of Reflexivity in the Eastern Chou.  Early China 11/12   1985-87.  (pp. 61-117).  Available at


An added benefit to moral freedom

When people experience agency as freedom, and are accustomed to that feeling they relate very differently to the mechanisms of social control.  Ci, p. 50 -

… they will act in socially expected ways under the description of freedom and therefore will take initiative and pleasure in doing so.  And because they derive pleasure, and indeed a sense of identity and self-worth, from what they regard as exercises in freedom, they will dispense with much of the need for external supervision and enforcement.  Thus, the idea of liberal government consists essentially in creating and maintaining conditions that render plausible the interpretation of individual conduct in terms of freedom. 


Thus, Americans stop at stop lights at 2:00 AM and pay their taxes and stand in line because they not only feel free, but take some pleasure in the conformance with the group as an expression of freedom. Americans will even tell a stranger to get back in line, or wait their turn, which would never happen in China. And, of course, American feel free to complain.

What these traits are, is of course, the physical manifestations of a civil society. One could say that the guarantee of individual freedoms in the US provide the freedom to conform, obey the rules of an organization or policies of a government because in obeying, Americans do not feel they are giving up their own freedom.

The value of freedom thus controls our behavior at the same time as it gives us agency. That feeling of freedom is what demands consideration of responsibility at the same time. Because we value freedom, we must also value responsibility. This is the sense of, “none of us is free unless we are all free.” We might say that freedom – in the US – is an individual value but collectively realized. Agency through freedom accomplishes both tasks of government – providing for individual agency and for social order. That sense of corresponding responsibility is what I think Ci finds missing in China.

In China, Ci says these dimensions of promoting individual agency and establishing social order are seen as orthogonal - independent – one solves the freedom and agency problem separately from the order or harmony problem. This creates an insoluble problem for Chinese, since the government is the sole source for definition of the Good, and individuals get no practice at having to make such choices. Any restriction on personal freedom is seen as a taking away rather than part of a solution to a common problem.

Americans don’t have much experience in confronting the trolley problem – fortunately – but Chinese really don’t get any experience at all. When confronted with a moral choice, Chinese have much less experience to rely on. No experience in having to decide whether to build the expressway or not, or increase taxes for schools, or choose one leader over another.  It is astonishing how intelligent Chinese will simply defer to leadership when asked an opinion about something that could be perceived as political. 

How to see this in daily life? One sees it, constantly, everywhere. Order, harmony, is not only the Confucian ideal, but a deeply held Chinese desire. Conflict is to be avoided; peace is sometimes more precious than rectification of wrong.  It would be fair to say that most Chinese subscribe to this view. At some level, harmony is more important than justice (Li Zehou). Essentially, that is what Hobbes argued as well. Security is most important, and an authoritarian government can provide security. 

There are certainly Chinese who volunteer to assist in disaster recovery, and social service provision of all kinds. In the aftermath of the Sichuan earthquake in 2008, thousands of young Chinese volunteered to help.  In 2020 many Chinese volunteered to help in the virus lockdowns. In 2021 CCP is “encouraging” large businesses to increase donations for social purposes. It feels like poor sportsmanship to criticize Chinese volunteer efforts, but much volunteering is done under significant pressure. A good deal of volunteering in China is done “because I was asked to do it” or “my entire department is going.”


Misunderstanding of the Confucian idea 

As Confucius noted, the ability to become fully human – a junzi, an educated and moral person – requires the practice of benevolence, of reciprocity, and observation of the rituals of humane daily life. Zhang Qianfang, professor of philosophy at Peking University, describes the difference between western and Chinese views on human dignity, and concludes -

I argue that the cultivation of personal virtues through common moral practice seems to be necessary for holding a society together and bringing about social harmony and cooperative actions.

In a modern society, this cultivation through practice is what one obtains by daily interactions in civil society, in a society of strangers. Tu Weiming and many other Confucian scholars see the first two elements of autonomy, as defined by Joseph Chan above, as necessary for Confucian moral autonomy – voluntary endorsement of morality and thoughtful reflection. Neither is feasible without access to information and the ability to communicate with others. Tu, for one, has said the conditions for Confucianism to flourish are best met in a democratic environment with freedoms to think, write, speak, and associate.

A Confucian governing philosophy that demands the ruler take care of his people can descend into despotism if there is too much care, too much paternalism, to the detriment of dignity. Sometimes, we in the west consider government action as immoral or lacking in respect for people – that the government is harming individuals by protecting them from actions detrimental to their well-being – so, bike helmets and anti-smoking laws and seat belts in cars. But this is in fact the CCP argument for internet censorship, media censorship of all kinds, repression of protest and freedom of speech.  “It is for your own good.” Pointedly, it is CCP, not the individual, deciding what is the good. In the US, such restrictions on personal freedom usually only take place after extensive argument and public discussion.

Zhang Qianfang. Human Dignity in Classical Chinese Philosophy. Palgrave Macmillan, 2016, page 9.

Lack of moral freedom also means that rulers are free to do as they wish without fear of consequence. There are no constraints on government or party action – no free press, no ability to sue for damages, no real ability to organize in protest. Some examples of authoritarian despotism masked as “for your own good” –


Chu Jian, a vice president of Zhejiang University, one of the nation’s top universities, was put in jail for three years on charges of corruption, bribery, misuse of public funds.

Chu was the founder of Supcon, an important information technology supplier.  He was the president of Supcon at the same time as he was a university vice president. There was a tacit agreement that funds invested in Supcon by the university would garner a share of any returns, which by 2014, were substantial.  But there was no partnership agreement, no formal arrangements as to who owns what. As is common in this case, as was the case with township-village enterprises in the early 1980s, there was no agreement between Supcon and the university, or Chu and the university, as to the sharing of revenues.  At some point, I surmise, someone powerful enough in the university felt that Chu was getting too good a deal, and wrote a letter. The letter was sufficient to put Chu in jail for three years, even after the Huzhou court found insufficient evidence – a rarity in China - and hundreds of employees of Supcon and dozens of respected scientists pleaded with the government to reconsider the evidence, of which there was … well, either none, if we are using truth-based standards, or plenty, if we can make up the rules as we go along.  More on Chu’s case here.


Another acquaintance of mine is a prosecutor in Dalian who has been forced to prosecute many party members on corruption-like charges, but – as she admits - without any evidence. Her job, her career, is on the line though, at each trial. She must proceed.  She continues, depressed and embarrassed at her participation.  But – this is what lack of moral freedom does – she has no choice.


Another example - The dean of our business school became a victim. We had shared meals and conversations and talked about business deals. He was detained for conduct that would appear to be minor infractions, really standard operating procedure in universities across China and not criminal in any way. On his own initiative but with tacit approval of the university, the dean developed a sort of junior college, part of ZUST, to which hundreds of students paid tuition. This was a way for high school graduates who could not meet ZUST entry standards to obtain a two year degree, not quite a ZUST diploma, but a certificate. 

The tuition funds went into the business school account, rather than the university account, as was standard. There were no rules stating otherwise. There was no evidence that the dean, an already wealthy man, had personally received any of the money. He had no need to remain as dean, taking on that complicated role, or be involved with the university at all. 

The jiwei found this depositing of funds to be irregular. A  solution would have been to transfer the funds to the proper account. This was at worst an accounting irregularity, easily correctable. Occasionally in CCP discipline, leniency can be shown to a miscreant who confesses to his crimes, but severity is shown to the unrepentant. The dean would not confess to any crime, since he had not committed any. 

The general idea among the dean’s friends and colleagues is that he was targeted by a former party leader who lost face years prior in an academic power battle with the dean.

There was no evidence of anything that could be called a crime. Defendants are found guilty about 99% of the time in Chinese courts. The district jianchayuan was happy to make its own political capital by nabbing a “fly,” in the tiger and fly terms. The fly served 7.5 years. Some game.  He was released in November of 2021. He looks older, thinner, but healthy enough. He would like to get out.


A summary – agency, freedom, identification, moral strength rights and democracy

Chinese say that Americans walk freely and talk freely. This is not always given as a compliment, but it is true. Chinese walk and talk carefully. Especially now, there is always someone watching. Even on Wechat, the ubiquitous Chinese version of zoom, text, phone, and payment system, there is always someone listening or reading. China is nearing panopticon status.

Americans feel themselves to be free, and therefore are free to be conformist as they wish. Minor restrictions on freedom – stop lights and queues – don’t feel like impositions on freedom.* The tradeoff is understood. We pay our taxes because we understand that taxes are price we pay for civilization. Those who take undue interest in defeating the government for the sake of

*In late 2021, I should probably acknowledge the earnest and sometimes violent response of some Americans to restrictions related to the coronavirus. Moral freedoms may not be at risk in the US, but democracy clearly is.  

defeating the government are seen as outside the norm. An individual who thinks this way is, in fact, closer to being Chinese in their thinking about agency as freedom and the fear of trading some freedom for order.

Chinese can press unrelentingly for their individual advantage in any situation, and use their individual agency, either personal or relational, whenever possible – driving, standing in line, using relationship to get into a better school, a promotion, or a monetary gain.  It is the way.

A way to think about the independence of these two dimensions of freedom and order is to see harmony, the deep cultural meme, as something for all Chinese to abide by; but personal agency, getting what one wants, is for me and my family. I am reminded of Mike Royko, the legendary Chicago newsman, who contrasted the City of Chicago motto – urbs in horto, City in a Garden, a sort of harmonious Eden, with what he saw in political grasping – ubi est mea, meaning, “where’s mine?”

Alasdair MacIntyre, the preeminent virtue ethicist of our time, has said that the central doctrine of modern liberalism is the thesis that questions about the good life for man or the ends of human life are to be regarded from the public standpoint as systematically unsettlable. This is the Isaiah Berlin view as well, with regard to incommensurable goods. Government just can’t make those choices for people.

In China however, when the Zhejiang Province coast is threatened by tsunami, no one questions the right – and wisdom – of government forced relocations away from the danger. In the US, public security forces plead with people to leave their homes for a couple of days, and find themselves subject to lawsuits over false arrest and civil rights violations.  

Of course there are multiple viewpoints on the incommensurability of goods, and the practical matter of protecting life in a natural disaster. One can see MacIntyre’s point that this personal sovereignty is a moral disaster, or one can see the failure of agreement on the Good as characteristic of the marketplace of ideas. Either way, western pessimism about government leadership is characteristic of modernity. Chinese see that pessimism in our democracy as an indicator of moral relativism. 

Thomas Metzger.  Some Ancient Roots of Modern Chinese Thought: This-Worldliness, Epistemological Optimism, Doctrinality, and the Emergence of Reflexivity in the Eastern Chou.  Early China 11/12   1985-87.  (pp. 61-117).  Available at


Perry Link, esteemed translator of modern Chinese literature, including co-author of the Tian’anmen Papers and the personal story of Fang Lizhi, the astrophysicist who fled to the US Embassy in 1989, summarized Chineseness thus –

What does it mean to be Chinese?  A strong tradition in premodern China held that it meant thinking, behaving, and living in a society in accord with heaven-sanctioned principles exemplifying the best way to be human. Other peoples could learn this Chineseness, and they could also become civilized, but they could never rival China in either defining propriety or drawing people into accordance with it…. To be Chinese still means to exhibit proper behavior and to be part of a civilization that has primacy in the world.

Perry Link.  What It Means to Be Chinese.  Foreign Affairs, May/June 2015


Perhaps a way to see a lack of agency-as-freedom is to consider punching someone in the face. Americans say, my right to swing my fist stops at the other person’s nose. We trade off the rights of one for the rights of the other. In China, the act of punching someone in the face is forbidden. Harmony will not allow it. The moral freedom to hit someone else is not allowed, and it is not a matter of self-legislation to not do it. In China, a person does not have the opportunity to learn moral choices for oneself.  In both countries, one might get arrested. But in the US, the puncher made a poor moral choice. In China, the person “caused trouble,” or “created a disturbance,” or otherwise acted against the interests of the state. Personal rights are not violated; it is the state that is harmed. 

Agency as freedom holds people as responsible for their actions as well as providing space for choices.That sense of choices – that real sense of “breathing free,” as cited on the Statue of Liberty – is what is lacking in China. “Americans know how to enjoy their lives” is a comment I heard from time to time over the years from my Chinese government students. At first, I heard this as a comment on the ability to take vacations, or play sports or have family time at home. But in the context, that never registered quite right. Now I think I understand what was being expressed – it is that space of ability to make choices that provides a sense of freedom, and a sense of agency, and a sense of human dignity. That is not to say that one might necessarily make different choices if one felt more “free.” It is the sense of being able to make the choice that is critical – to feel free. That freedom has two consequences.

First, it provides a personal confidence in decision-making. That, too, is seen by Chinese as an American characteristic. Vast overconfidence, in fact.

Second, Americans have the great luxury, in democracy and rule of law, of not having to pay attention (at least until recent years). The words of a leader’s latest speech need not be analyzed. Relationships do not need to be parsed. In those ways, Americans know how to enjoy their lives.

Chinese society has always been characterized by its obligations – to family, to ancestors, to clan, to rulers. That sense of agency through identification is harder to maintain in a world in which individual rights have become dominant. In China, for many people, there is still a sense not of freedom but only obligation to do the next thing, whether that thing is go to college, get married, have a child.

The sense of obligation is reinforced socially and by government.  Socially, we have the negative stereotype of “leftover women,” educated and smart professional women who have transgressed the boundaries and now cannot find a husband, both because their own standards are too high and men’s requirements are too low. Or, the ability of products to gain a surprisingly advantage by being supported or promoted by government – government support conveys almost a sense of obligation. In 2015, when the government suggested that buying stocks was patriotic, volumes and new account openings surged.  Or, the demand from Chinese consulates in America, or bureaus of overseas Chinese, that students in America express love for the party and make nationalistic statements in class and outside.  Often, students are willing to comply – only partly because they understand that someone might be, is always, watching them.  One cannot feel free when one is thinking that one is always watched.  That creepy feeling is a constant.

No one can ever accuse Mr. Xi of being immoral. When morality is determined by leaders, such an idea makes no sense.  One can obey the leader, or not. To choose one way keeps you on the path, the Way, the Way of the government. To choose the other is to obey a higher calling, or a different calling, and the government cannot abide that.  Hence the rather intense prohibitions in the Chinese constitution on acting not in the interests of the state.  In a conflict between freedom and order, order must necessarily dominate for harmony to obtain.  And hence the ability, and willingness, of the government to direct otherwise “private” companies to return money to investors, or shareholders, or bondholders even when the legal documents do not require such action.  Rights cannot be allowed to take precedence over order.  This is an age-old problem in Chinese society. 

Such a value of freedom (as a moral resource) is a weapon of self-assertion and self-defense vis-à-vis political authority, and thus its introduction will entail a profound change .. in the relations of power…. But until this happens, Chinese society will continue to suffer from a deep contradiction: the current political arrangement is incompatible with an officially sanctioned, full-fledged value of freedom, and yet, unless such a value is developed, China will not be able effectively to meet its dual need for agency and order under its new social and economic circumstances.

Ci Jiwei. Moral China in the Age of Reform Cambridge University Press, 2014, page 57.


Agency through freedom requires the society to provide sufficient space for an individual to gain experience in making moral choices. Moral reasoning, in other words, cannot be developed without practice; this point is made by Confucius and Alasdair MacIntyre, as well.  Failing that, the self discipline that results cannot develop, and Chinese society will lack that critical feature necessary to a fully modern society. The practice of freedom as a value requires that people be able to say, “I will not do this, not because I fear punishment by the state, but because it is not the right thing to do.” Without such a feeling for people generally, neither civility nor civil society can develop –

“… morality can be entrusted to neither the market nor the state. Rather, it is civil society that can and should sustain moral proximity, wherein the face to face is cultivated by individuals qua individuals and wherein rules and sanctions are a matter of negotiation rather than imposition.”

Haiyan Lee. The Stranger and the Chinese Moral Imagination.  Stanford University Press, 2014, page 29.


Agency through identification is no longer readily available to Chinese, despite Mr. Xi as core of the CCP and the adulation poured on him by the CCP Propaganda Office and related bureaus. There is no exemplar authority figure. Even Mr. Xi’s Party purification will not result in a re-confirming of people’s belief in the Party. Christianity, even Buddhism, are unavailable. When Chinese students, particularly those who have been most exposed to the west, express the feeling of being lost, or adrift or confused about meaning in life, or demonstrate their ability to consume but not reason morally, this is the quandary they are in.

Ci sees western hopes for more freedom in China as completely misunderstanding the nature of the difficulty. The culture does not have a concept of agency as freedom, only agency as identification. To promote change is to demand a change in deep cultural ideas. At the same time, he sees a modern China as needing such change if a permanent moral crisis – not to say a political crisis – is to be avoided.  Village morality will just not do, in a society of strangers.  Chinese, he says, must find a way to incorporate agency as freedom to simultaneously solve issues of personal agency and social order.  Rights, human and civil, must be incorporated, but that will not come easily.   The kind of freedom that is required is the freedom to self-legislate, to self-regulate, to observe moral norms, without feeling a loss of freedom – that I obey this rule, this law, this practice, not because the government tells me to do so, but because I feel it is the right thing to do, and I make the choice.  This is, in fact, Confucian self-cultivation – learning to be fully human. But – tellingly – Ci notes that even Confucius did not do away with the exemplar, the junzi, the moral leader as the model to follow.  Self-cultivation, yes – but moral power, he says, does not originate in the individual, but only as the individual interprets the path of the exemplary leader.  In this lack, he says, there was no Protestant Reformation in China. 

The original concept of government legitimacy in China is the mandate of heaven.  Heaven hears as the people hear, sees as the people see, and the state is responsible for the welfare of the people.  Inability to prosper, whether due to flood, famine, or invasion, is cause to consider the mandate lost.  Today, one sees continuation of this idea in economic development as the sole rationale for CCP rule; if GDP is not growing, the CCP has lost legitimacy.  The CCP has the truth, and Chinese on the street know this.  Morality is identical with politics.  If asked, what is the role of the government, Chinese pretty uniformly answer, “to grow GDP.”   Try asking Americans what the role of their government is.


An example of how moral freedom doesn’t work in the business world -

Let’s say you have set up a WFOE in China to manufacture a critical chemical. The composition of the chemical and its method of manufacture are trade secrets. You have resisted the demands of your Chinese customers to set up a joint venture in China. You have resisted the demands of your Chinese customers to license your technology to a Chinese entity. The only Chinese persons with access to your technology are your Chinese employees. Since those employees are insiders, not outsiders, your technology is safe. Right? Unfortunately, the answer is no.

What can happen to the Chinese employees of your WFOE in China is exactly what allegedly happened to the Chinese employees of Huawei’s U.S. subsidiary. The local Chinese government will give your employees a detailed list of exactly what your employees must take from the WFOE and the timeframe in which they must complete the task. Though your Chinese employees may formally work for your WFOE, the Chinese government is essentially their ultimate “boss,” in the same way Huawei China is alleged to have been the ultimate boss of the employees of their U.S. subsidiary.

What though if your WFOE employee is an honest person and resists following the local government’s instructions? Or perhaps the employee is not so honest but resists simply because he or she does not want to risk losing his or her job if caught. The local government responds: your spouse works as a nurse in the local hospital and it would be too bad if she lost her job. Your father lives on a pension from the local government and it would be too bad if he lost his pension. Your daughter is applying for admission to the local high school and it would be too bad if she is denied entry. On the other hand, if you provide what we [the local government] have requested, we will ensure none of this happens. Moreover, you and your family will receive benefits. If you lose your job, we will find you another job. Don’t worry about it. Just do what you are told and help YOUR country. The pressure to comply is overwhelming and your Chinese employee complies. Your employee really has no choice.

This is the practice in China. Most WFOE managers in IP sensitive industries with whom I have worked in China understand this and so they do not even try to control their employees on IP because they know who is their real boss. They instead set up a costly system in which none of their Chinese employees is given  access to the WFOE’s IP sensitive information. This makes operations difficult and oftentimes the system’s rules are violated and access to IP is granted. When that happens, the technology gets taken because the pressure from the government never stops, in the same way the pressure from Huawei China is alleged to have never stopped against Huawei’s . U.S. employees. This is what is often meant by “forced technology transfer.”

Steve Dickinson. The Huawei Indictments are the New Normal. China Law Blog. January 30, 2109. Available at


Moral freedom in foreign relations

Moral freedom has implications for Chinese foreign relations.

The civilization state, as described by Lucian Pye, cannot allow moral freedom as freedom of expression. So it is the mainland Chinese government that responds to perceived slights – a western business calling Taiwan a nation – rather than letting a market response speak for itself. And, reflecting two thousand years of China as the center of the world, the most sophisticated empire in the world, due respect and tribute from all other nations, it is the Chinese government that feels empowered to express surprise, disappointment, and anger at perceived slights to the Chinese people, whose feelings were hurt by some western oversight. The government must speak for all Chinese.  It is the government, and its leaders, who define morality for all.  When one reads Chinese political speech – from any leader at any level – one is surprised at the melded sense of universal entitlement to instruct the world in proper (Chinese) moral behavior, and at the same time express pain and sorrow at the injustices dealt to the Chinese people by the … well, the barbarians, if you must pry.

Thus we have more to learn from China as a civilization than we do from China as a state. Those who respond eagerly to CCP pronouncements about cooperation, development, and promoting the interests of other nations must rethink. Those who think Chinese economic growth will bring democracy and transparency must learn first from history. Fundamentally, modern Chinese society bears more weight of the 5000 years of culture than we realize, and modernism is not necessarily more than a blip on the Chinese sense of cultural dominance. If politics in China were to change significantly, China would get a version of “modernism with Chinese characteristics” that would look like modernism on the surface, but fundamentally different in the expression of freedom.

With respect for elders and leaders, and stress on the importance of history and deep understanding, along with ever-present mystery and struggle in daily life, one understands that Chineseness has a far different relationship to power than we are accustomed to in the west.  Chinese respect power, whether for good or ill; in the west, particularly in America, we mistrust power even as we see it as necessary. Part of this is Metzger’s epistemological categories – Chinese optimism and western epistemological pessimism; part is Chinese deference to authority and western individualism as a challenge to  authority.  Power in China has always been relatively unconstrained.  Morality is the morality of the family, and clan, and community.  It does not serve as a constraint on behavior with the outsider.  There is not now, has never been, and may not be, any strong concept of rule of law that binds leadership. To misunderstand Chinese respect for power is a fundamental error. To succeed in foreign relations or business in China, one must forget notions of equality and fair-mindedness, and learn to get, retain, and use power.  

Andrew Nathan, professor of political science at Columbia, suggests that the future will continue to hold three foreign relations tasks for Chinese rulers – economic development, ensuring territorial integrity, and establishing a sense of national identity.  The CCP needs to work on all three to forge the nation-state out of an ancient sense of cultural identity, even though that identity includes a sense of cultural primacy.  The first two tasks are well under way.  The third, a sense of national identity, can only come when the shared China story can be told.  This is not the Chinese Dream that Xi Jinping has been promoting.  His Chinese Dream is a stronger China, but the national identity must be constructed by the people, and constructed with a sense of agency as freedom – the ability to make moral choices. And it is not what the American Dream seems to have become, a suburban house, car, and big paying job.  It is what the American Dream once was – full expression of human dignity, not only in choice of job or place to live, but in full expression of moral agency – choosing the good for oneself, and choosing agents to help realize that good.  It is the fullest expression of human dignity.  Confucius would approve.

China's Foreign Policy: The Historical Legacy and the Current Challenge.  Asia for Educators, Weatherhead East Asian Institute at Columbia University. Notes drawn from Andrew J. Nathan and Robert S. Ross, The Great Wall and the Empty Fortress: China’s Search for Security (New York: W.W. Norton, 1997.  Available at,

Metzger again, p 24 -

Yet one should not hastily assume that Chinese political thought is backward. In fact, it grapples with a problem not yet resolved by any society: finding the proper balance between the various free markets, the role of the state working with technical and cultural elites, and the cultivation through education of what Hayek called the "ethos" of a society. The way of achieving this threefold balance, moreover, will vary depending on cultural traditions. Thus it is far from obvious that any primarily Western paradigm or concept of political rationality will be adopted by the Chinese as the key to this problem.

Thomas Metzger. The Western Concept of the Civil Society in the Context of Chinese History.   Available at


Within China the sense of Chinese cultural primacy is salient. One of my Chinese government students in Chicago was the leader of the international program at my university in China.   She worked very hard to bring in foreign university exchange programs and foreign teachers. She is smart and cosmopolitan and thoughtful. And through all her travels and negotiations with foreign schools, she kept on her desktop a newspaper clipping, just a cutout of a headline, probably to some unremarkable story. But the headline was, Its Our Time. And I think she never forgot that.