Moral Freedom and Nihilism    What, me worry?

 This is the seventh post on civil society in China now

 When you make the rules and then act as judge and jury, its hard to do the wrong thing. So, for CCP - If CCP does it, it must be the right thing to do. A couple of my government students, and another good friend, were judges. I was impressed, but I found out later that until recently being a judge did not necessarily have much to do with attending law school, and still less with balancing of rights. Justice is not blind, and sometimes it doesn’t even squint very much. Judges only nominally work for the government. They work for CCP.

Sections to follow –

Morality and nationalism  

Can Xi do it?  

The lesson from CPSU

E pluribus – what?


The promises from history  

On The Street, Ability to Trust Depends On Freedom As A Value

Moral Freedom And Civil Society 


In The Music Man Robert Preston told us there’s big trouble, moral trouble, in River City. Xi Jinping also knows there is big trouble and promotes it almost as well. We know the surface troubles written up in the media – debt, unbalanced GDP, environment, population aging, health care and pensions. Deeper than these are the moral troubles. There’s trouble for CCP everywhere – not only government and business, but in language and arts and entertainment and romantic relationships with foreigners. The real danger can come anywhere you find Chinese trying to think for themselves.

This moral crisis has been festering for more than thirty years, and reported on in both the Chinese and the US press.  Certainly corruption in government, but also lying and cheating in business, plagiarism in schools, fake degrees and fake certification by the government of those fake degrees, complete ignoring of others in distress, bribery and sale of government offices and poisoned air, land, water and food have become daily fare. 

Of course we cannot be describing all Chinese. As I noted at the beginning of this volume, we are only referencing tendencies. Of the hundreds of Chinese government officials I had as students over a period of eight years in Chicago, I do not know of one who has been involved in any episode of cheating or improper behavior in their job in China.

The moral unfreedom story is a Chinese story as much as it is a CCP story. The historical Chinese expectation is that leaders will provide a moral example. Sometimes that works, but being a moral exemplar is a tough gig. CCP corruption and venality and heavy-handedness in dealing with the people have convinced too many people that probity of leaders is one of the old values to be jettisoned. It can seem like the wild west.

On the street, Chinese don’t trust other Chinese. Much vaunted harmony is an illusion. There are fighting and yelling matches over seemingly insignificant issues. It is not quite the war of all against all, but it is often not civil.

Many consumer products are not trusted, with good reason. Even now many western products are considered superior, or at least, safer, despite the international political upheavals of the last decade. Such products may be preferred even if made in China because they obtained an import imprimatur from the FDA, USDA, or similar regulatory body that is perceived – even post virus - to do its job well and without corruption.

Values promoted by CCP are derided, not for their lack of wisdom but for the hypocrisy of the messenger. The latest version is Core Socialist Values, coming out of the 18th Party Congress in 2012, the beginning of Xi’s term as Party leader.


Core socialist values

Who can argue with core socialist values like freedom and justice?

The 12 values, written in 24 Chinese characters, are the national values of prosperity, democracy, civility and harmony; the social values of freedom, equality, justice and the rule of law; and the individual values of patriotism, dedication, integrity and friendship.    

It would be reasonable to see these as CCP performative declamation – speech not meant to persuade, but to suggest a solidarity and devotion to an ethic that does not really exist.



CCP rightly sees the moral crisis as threatening to its survival. Denigration of CCP, its policies or leaders is interpreted as part of the crisis. No authoritarian government can long stand open mocking of its policies or leader. Now those who openly joke about or mock leaders can end up in jail or simply disappeared. The admonitions of Document No. 9 from the CCP General Office in 2013 are still a good guide to Xi’s intentions. Warning No. 6 - Promoting historical nihilism, trying to undermine the history of the CCP and of New China. In other words, humor is in the eye of Xi, the beholder.

When Xi Jinping was made General Secretary his portfolio was principally to address this moral crisis and purify CCP and the Chinese people. There is a conundrum. The Party demands loyalty and obedience at the same time as governance demands some truth and fairness. From two decades ago, a popular saying –

If we don’t root out corruption, the country will perish; if we do root out corruption, the Party will perish

Perry Link, 2002.  The Anaconda in the Chandelier.  New York Review of Books, April 11, 2002.


Xi has personally taken on the role of untying the Gordian Knot

Geremie Barme at Australian National University summarizes the anxiety within CCP about its own legitimacy and the moral crisis in the  2014 China Yearbook: Shared Destiny. Xi is xidada, Big Daddy Xi, now the core of CCP and in street terms The Man charged with righting the ship of state and charting its course to world leadership. From the 2014 Yearbook, Barme’s Under One Heaven -

… why is the mainland media presenting him more as primus than China’s primus inter pares? …. Some might reason that under Xi Jinping China is not witnessing a revived personality cult, indeed, the popularity of Big Daddy Xi still lacks the hysteria and adulation achieved by the Mao cult in the 1960s, but signs of what German thinkers once called the Führerprinzip (a belief that certain gifted men are born to rule; that they deserve unswerving loyalty; and, that they take absolute responsibility for their leadership) are in evidence…. This is hardly surprising in a country where the Crown Jurist of the Third Reich Carl Schmitt enjoys considerable prestige among left-leaning thinkers.

There seems little question in late 2021 that Xi will elevate himself in 2022 to a level above Deng and just slightly lower than Mao (perhaps). He has full control of this third incarnation of CCP and Chinese rejuvenation. (The first 30 years were Mao’s, resurrecting China from oppression. The second 30 were Deng’s, establishing China in the world; the third belong to Xi, making China great again).


Morality and nationalism

In modern China, where is morality to come from? The Confucian ideal of exemplary leaders as role models is out. Too many counterexamples – other than for Mr. Xi himself. He is now, after all, the core of CCP.

A return to morality via religion is obviously out.

Virtue ethics via Confucianism was part of “old thinking,” discredited for a long time. It has been brought out of confinement as part of a new cultural China, for both domestic and international consumption. But Confucianism according to CCP does not fit with the understandings of the people. Too much “respect your leader and follow obediently.” Too much “do as I say, not as I do.”

CCP wants to tell a China story that can convey a sense of morality. After all, CCP claims to speak for all Chinese, so it only makes sense that it could formulate a national identity, a moral view for all. CCP nationalism is the path – a confounding of patriotism and nationalism with faith in CCP. From this melding will come morality as dictated by CCP.

Two contradictions - one lies in whether a national story can be imposed from above. Another contradiction lies in linking a national story simultaneously to morality, patriotism and loyalty to CCP. It is a tall order. But nationalism is the way forward for CCP legitimacy. Wolf warrior diplomacy, conquering free speech and democracy in Hong Kong, threats to Taiwan – all can be seen as part of sustaining CCP legitimacy, particularly if the world reacts negatively. China as victim is a time-honored Chinese patriotic theme. It is even in the extended preamble to the Chinese Constitution.


Can Xi do it?

By 2021 the anticorruption campaign has done a fair job of addressing CCP corruption. The general population wholeheartedly approves, but the problem for the larger society remains. Per the quote above, corruption will be the death of either CCP or national rejuvenation. More than anything else, Party legitimacy is at stake.


The lesson from CPSU

CCP has spent decades parsing the collapse of the Soviet Communist Party, CPSU. Two principal conclusions are loss of faith in the party and corruption within. Xi is quite clear on the need to address both, and quite clear on his own personal role in salvation. In the Soviet Communist Party, Xi said, there was not a single real man to resist ultimate collapse. Xi will save China.

By way of unification and purification Xi wants CCP to tell The China Story to Chinese and to the world. Of course there is far more than one Chinese story. Even today there is barely one China. Legitimacy for middle class Chinese in Hangzhou is not the same as legitimacy for poor farmers in Guizhou.


E pluribus – what?

China is big, old, diverse, stratified by class and location and dialects and local cultures. Tibet only became part of PRC in the 1950s. Xinjiang and Qinghai became part of the Qing dynasty in the 18th century but remain restive. The Chinese story has always been local and family oriented. There just isn’t one national story to tell.

I can’t do justice to Chinese diversity here. Two lines on a map  can convey some impression.

The Aihui–Tengchong Line is one very simple way to see division in China. The imaginary line divides China into two equal areas. About 95% of the population lives in the eastern half. The western half of the land has 5% of the population and a large restive Muslim and Tibetan population.

Aihui–Tengchong Line


Another division is the Qinling-Huaihe Line used by geographers to divide north and south China. Very roughly, the line runs east-west midway between the Yellow River and the Yangtze River. The south gets lots of rain and is cut by many rivers; the north is dry and in need of water. Historically, the north was the cradle of Chinese civilization; now most GDP comes from the south, where Shanghai, Hangzhou, Shenzhen, Guangzhou, Chongqing and Hong Kong are located.


Metaphorically, the south grows rice and people eat rice with every meal; the north grows wheat and corn and people eat noodles. Notably, buildings in the north have heat in the winter. Buildings in the south, usually not.

Even though everyone can read standard Chinese, many dialects remain unintelligible to others; religious conflicts in the west are divisive; even though Xi has declared an end to poverty in China, by my count there remain at least 600 million Chinese whose ability to achieve modernity, not to say xiaokang, the moderately successful society, is still and will remain a Chinese dream.

There are wonderful China stories to tell. There are also the China stories CCP does not want told, and unfortunately Xi’s aggressive actions only bring those stories back from memory.



Reasonably, the historic default position is the tendency is to cut government some slack – we are Chinese and this is China. This is the way things work. Leaders will do the right thing. Fighting city hall is madness. Despite the millions of murders and lives destroyed in execution of landlords, the Great Famine, the Cultural Revolution, and various purges, we have to look forward. Most Chinese know little or nothing of those events in any case.

What people can remember is farmland essentially stolen from farmers by real estate developers in conjunction with the government, terrible air and water and ground pollution, and beatings, threats, jailing and sometimes killings of those who protest or seek justice.

If Chinese cannot express themselves without fear, cannot fight injustice or clamor for what they want, what is a reasonable response?

In the terms proposed by Ci Jiwei, agency through freedom is impossible and agency through identification with a leader or a cause has been shown to be a fraud (see the post on Civilization State and Freedom).

There are two responses to moral unfreedom. One was described in the previous section – the frenzied consumerism as a way of expressing oneself. A second way of responding, not independent of the first, is a nihilism about life, work and the future.

One sees this is the current fad for “lying flat”  – young Chinese frustrated with excessive demands at work and little prospect of life changing for the better are choosing to simply respond to orders and not seek to develop themselves. Think of it as a cohort of people choosing a life work slowdown or working to rule.  David Bandurski of the China Media Project, writing in a Brookings piece -

For China’s young workers, the pressure to forge ahead and innovate is compounded by the pressure to consume. Before the new millennium, Chinese were culturally savers, and consuming on credit was exceptionally rare. It was generally supposed that conspicuous consumption was something unsuited to China’s national conditions. Over the past decade, however, these assumptions have been turned upside-down. Chinese can now be counted among the world’s most conspicuous consumers….. But as consumption has become a perceived necessity, a form of psychological reprieve from the pressures of work, and even a patriotic duty, some young Chinese have buckled under the immense pressure to keep up…. For young people struggling under the weight of both extreme competition and its would-be reward, the empty promise of consumerism, it can seem that there is no escape from exploitation. And in a society where more open forms of protest, such as labor activism, are quickly suppressed, they have found release, if not relief, in online expression. The “lying flat”movement ….

David Bandurski. China Media Project. The ‘lying flat’ movement standing in the way of China’s innovation drive.  September 7, 2021. Available at  


In Civilization State and Freedom I presented Ci Jiwei’s argument for Chinese nihilism. What Bandurski is describing is just that – nihilism about the prospects without moral freedom and a reaction against only choices as ability to work and consume.

If Chinese are not permitted to remember the past or comment on the future, what is left? In Moral China in the Age of Reform Ci observes that retaining human dignity is a fundamental goal for us all, and that we find dignity through agency – how we impact the world or feel respected by the world. As I noted in Civilization State, Ci sees the modern Chinese moral problem in how to express individual agency.

There cannot be agency as freedom, in which people find agency and dignity is their ability to express their thoughts, write what they wish, meet with whomever they want. The other choice is to find agency and ultimately human dignity in identification with a leader or a cause, like CCP or rejuvenation of the Chinese people. In today’s China agency through identification seems ridiculous.

What is left? Ci sees a nihilism in much of Chinese society now.

Ci Jiwei posits three dimensions in which the current nihilism is manifest – decline in belief in communism as an ideal; abandonment of belief in altruism and collectivism; and pursuit of a hedonism, in pleasure and consumer goods.

One sees all three dimensions of decline in daily life.  Communism was originally supposed to transfer power from corrupt rulers and capitalists to the masses. But capitalists and intellectuals are now explicitly promoted as party members in the 1982 constitution; with this, and promotion of big business  generally, there is almost non-existence of belief in communism. More to the point, most of the 100,000,000 CCP members are at least nominally middle class.  CCP is the bourgeoisie.


The promises from history

Xi Jinping remarked on the thirty year cycles of CCP history.  From founding in 1921 to takeover in 1949 (with a few years added for consolidation of gains) was the period of revolution. Mao promised then (and repeatedly) that the ultimate goal of CCP was a democratic China with free speech, free media, rule of law and one-man-one-vote election of leaders. The second thirty years from 1950 to 1980 was transition from feudalism and capitalism to the basics of the socialist state. The third thirty years from 1980 to 2010, or let us say 2012 when Xi took power, was emergence of China as a world power. The next thirty years to 2049 (hundredth anniversary of founding of “new China”) will mark remaking of the world in the Chinese image, returning China to its historical position as zhongguo – the central states of the Wei and Yellow river valleys, yes, but also the center of the universe.

Certainly some Chinese are fond of this meme, but many don’t find a dignified role for themselves in this historical whitewashing. I don’t want to be a cog in a machine, whether socialist or capitalist. The CCP Constitution says China is in the early stages of socialism and will remain there for a hundred years (to 2049, if one is measuring) after which time … well, datong or some form of harmonious life will emerge. Lots of Chinese don’t want to wait that long.

“To get rich is glorious” is not a direct Deng Xiaoping quote.  It is illustrative of the Deng reforms and the “Age of Ambition” that Evan Osnos describes in his book. People took to the idea but that was then and this is now. To the extent Chinese remember or know of the struggles and mass killings of the first thirty years, and then Tian’anmen and Tibet and Xinjiang, now the pressures of consumption and 996 and a collapsing real estate market, the exalted history and future are hollow.  Without an ability to find agency in freedom or identification with a cause, there is a general decline of belief in public morality. One can’t easily find meaning for oneself. One can only rely on oneself, and personal goals are all that matters.

At work people still need to adhere to  the party line – the mass line as it is called. Building the future, positive energy, advancing the cause of the great Chinese people. Ci Jiwei tells us that while there is some benefit to this understanding of the world, it is ultimately a false premise -

People live in two worlds, then, an internal and external world. In the external world, people mimic the truth and meanings provided to them, adherence to which is critical for continued employment and promotions if in government, state owned businesses, or academic world. People go through motions of assent. The internal world of belief and meaning is starved, however.  

The conflict easily leads to a nihilism, in which there is no meaning – one could compare it with the postmodern theories of literature. In China, nihilism has led to a guilt-free pursuit of wealth and pleasure … (Ci, page 26)  

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

As Ci says, the result is a vacuum of belief and meaning. The conflict easily leads to a nihilism, in which there is no meaning – one could compare it with the postmodern theories of literature. In China, nihilism has led to a guilt-free or meaning-free pursuit of wealth and pleasure for some who can afford it.

The shared moral order is no more. Any corrupt CCP leader is a poster child for nihilism and harmony is an empty word.

Lucian Pye –

This distinctively Chinese relationship between the state and society was sustained by a shared belief in a moral order, the upholding of which gave the government legitimacy, and the existence of which gave the people security and peace. Although most traditional societies had comparable moral orders, elsewhere the process of modernization involved transitions to political orders based on competing economic and social interests.

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


On the street, ability to trust depends on freedom as a value

Ci Jiwei says that the distinction – agency through freedom and agency through identification - should not be framed in terms of more freedom or less. On the street, day to day freedom to consume, to make decisions about one’s path in life, is as equal in China as in any western country. The crucial distinction, Ci says, is that the value of freedom – freedom as a right – has no purchase in China.  Freedom is not available as a way of projecting self in the world. 

In a conflict, someone experiencing agency through freedom feels free to express his views and need not fear the guanxi or the power of the other. He experiences his actions as free actions, not controlled or monitored by others. A person who experiences such freedom is free to trust others. Someone who experiences agency through identification with a leader is always subject to the fear that another person is a better or more powerful follower. A person's actions must be self-censored, and trusting others can be risky until you know their status as a follower.

To invoke A.C. Graham’s apt characterization of western and eastern philosophy, ‘the crucial question for all of them [was] not the Western philosopher’s “What is the truth?” but “Where is the Way [Dao]?” – the Way to order the state and conduct personal life.’  In China, the Way can only be the government’s way.   

Yuri Pines and Gideon Shelach. ‘Using the Past to Serve the Present’: Comparative Perspectives on Chinese and Western Theories of the Origins of the State. Page 130. In Shaul Shaked, ed., Genesis and Regeneration: Essays on Conceptions of Origins. Jerusalem: The Israel Academy of Science and Humanities, 2005. pp. 127-163. Available at


Moral freedom and civil society

Moral freedom in the west has an added benefit – it is the means by which the society enforces some norms of behavior. This is Pye’s progression from civility to social capital to civil society. It is the way of introducing a sense of shame in an otherwise highly individualized culture. But the civility that must be prior to civil society – the extension of Confucian benevolence and reciprocity to strangers – cannot develop when strangers are in fear of each other.

Shame functioned in a stronger way in China when China was a village society. When everyone knows everyone else untoward acts more clearly reflected on the individual – and his family, and his ancestors. If there were no sense of shame, and no civil society, social cohesion would be lost.  Shame was the glue. 

But now this is a most serious problem within China. When business and social affairs were conducted within the family, or clan, or at most, within the village, a sense of shame was easy to instill.  Uncivil actions reflected not only on the individual, but on parents and ancestors.  Shame was a form of social control.

In “modern” China, with business conducted over provinces and oceans – the same sense of shame is no longer available as a social control. What shame accrues to cheating the foreigner?  (Actually, cheating the foreigner is sometimes seen as a good thing. China wins! Chinese get revenge on the waiguoren for a hundred years of shame.)  And there is little shame in hurting other Chinese, who may be far away and in any case are not part of the family or clan or business network. Preserving the family business, preserving the family sense of face, is paramount.  Caveat emptor is the rule in libertarian, individualist China. 

As Xi Jinping and other leaders have acknowledged, the moral compass is missing. So, sell products that are defective, milk that kills babies, use waste oil in making food, do whatever you want to make money, because money is the only thing that matters, and there is no local network to provide a sense of shame in doing the wrong thing. This is understood at the highest levels of the Chinese Communist Party, and hence the purification campaign for Party members and for all Chinese.   Get rid of the evil western ideas that are polluting Chinese and the CCP.

Some of what we in the west see as lying is really attributable to the lack of proper divisions in society as proposed by Plato. Corruption in government and business is expected in a relationship society. In one leader there can be both government rule and profit seeking. Truly, one hand washes the other.

The two systems – guardians and traders – are really quite distinct in moral values. I discussed the Jane Jacobs perspective from her book Systems of Survival in the section Lack of Trust and Lack of Communication.  Avoiding a mixing of the moral syndromes is not simply for convenience. It is a fundamental and universal moral issue. The con man in The Music Man was able to dodge the reckoning.  Mr. Xi hopes he can do the same for China.


Next:  Failures of Civilty and Social Capital in China Now