Lack of trust and lack of communication    See, hear, speak no evil

This is the fifth post in the series on civil society in China now

I could never get Chinese government officials in my classes to ask questions in class. I could never get my Chinese undergrads to ask, either. They all knew – asking questions can be dangerous.

Civil society has prerequisites of civility and social capital. There is something of a progression of faithfulness, from civility - agreement on norms of behavior with strangers and colleagues to social capital - ability to trust at a distance to accomplish tasks - to a civil society in which groups can organize to influence or change government. This makes sense. Any society, even a group of thieves, has spoken and unspoken rules and norms of behavior. That same den of thieves can only pull off the really big jobs if they can find others to trust at a distance.

All societies require some civility and social capital. Chinese civility and social capital are much greater within family and networks than with strangers. The government actively suppresses civil society organization.

We discussed lack of civil society in the first couple posts in this series. Now I want to discuss lack of ability to communicate and lack of trust. They are intimately tied together. If we cannot communicate, we cannot trust. If we cannot trust, we cannot communicate.

Sections following –


Civility necessary to social capital

Social capital is the trust necessary to civil society

Trust is both cause and effect

When communication fails, mystery is preserved 

Meiyou wenti  

Playing the game 

Trust, optimism and pessimism – how to trust in a modern society?  

How to do trust at a distance in a relationship society?

The cross cultural paradox  

In society at large - who ya gonna call?   

  • When organizing is forbidden
  • Power is mostly unseen

In government - leaders must develop relationships quickly  

  • How to be a modern Chinese government official
  • An example of trust failure – powerful government guardians sometimes become businessmen
  • Lack of communication is built in
  • A test for trust and communication

What is to be done?  



Civility necessary to social capital

Civility consists in observation of the formal and informal rules of communication – holding a door, standing in queue, responding appropriately, following the rituals. Observation of the rituals – the rites – is important in any organization or society. It is the way a person signals membership in a community. It is the way people bond and signal respect for others.

Civility only requires acknowledgement of the other. It doesn’t necessarily require verbal communication. Social capital is impossible without communication.

Both require some level of trust, at base the feeling that one will not be harmed by interaction with the other. No one thinks someone holding a door open will suddenly close the door as we walk through.

I want to point out how lack of civility leads to a brittle civil culture. I am not writing about lack of smiles or greetings on the street or pushing one’s way into the bus or onto the already crammed subway car before people inside can get out, although those, too, are indicative of lack of civility. This is about response by government to citizens and relations within government.

Civil brittleness is more of a problem in the US than it is in China. We need civility for civil society to function.

Chinese haven’t had civility on the street, and don’t miss it, although the brittleness manifests itself similarly in both countries. The question in China is whether modern China can continue to suppress civility, social capital, and the desire to speak, write, and associate freely.


Social capital is the trust necessary to civil society

Respect for the other is a minimum requirement for cooperation. When individual dignity is respected people may move to cooperate in accomplishing tasks. That is social capital.  Fukuyama’s definition of social capital is a good one -

Social capital is an instantiated informal norm that promotes cooperation between individuals. In the economic sphere it reduces transaction costs, and in the political sphere it promotes the kind of associational life that is necessary for the success of limited government and modern democracy…. (It) is often a byproduct of religion, tradition, shared historical experience, and other types of cultural norms.

Fukuyama, Francis, Social Capital and Civil Society (April 2000). Available at SSRN: or

I like my own definition as well – social capital is that which allows transformation of the intangible – plans or ideas – into the tangible – buildings or programs or businesses. Social capital reduces transaction costs in business and government. That is how Chinese businesses have been able to grow dramatically. Within the family, within the network, social capital can be very high.


Trust is both cause and effect

Trust is complicated. Throughout the world levels of trust vary with respect to those inside the family and outside the family, but nations do exhibit different level of trust in neighbors, strangers, foreigners, and those of a different religion or ethnic group.

In particular, one can make a distinction between individual trust and organizational trust. As expressed in surveys, “trust in government” is ill-defined. One need not trust in the government if one can trust in someone in the government.

This is the rationale for guanxi in Chinese relations. There may be little trust in government as an organization, but there can be great trust in the relationship one has with someone in a particular government organization.

A very minor example – one of my government students had returned to Dalian. She bought a new car, and as happens in the US, she did not have the proper sticker on the car when she drove it off the lot. The dealer was supposed to provide that, it would come in a week or two, but in the meantime, she had no permanent sticker. She got a traffic ticket for not having a sticker.  She was angry about the ignorance of the policeman. In the US and in China, we might just pay the ticket rather than try to interact with the system. My student had no reason to trust the Dalian police department, but she knew a particular supervisor.

We drove immediately to the police station, she went in and made her case. She emerged triumphant in about 15 minutes. She was no doubt right in her argument, and perhaps she did not need to use her guanxi to fix the ticket. The point is that trust in her guanxi is what motivated her to act, to fix what might otherwise be unfixable or at least difficult to correct.

Some kinds of trust work just fine in China. There is general  trust that the government will protect the value of the yuan. The government worries about inflation just as the government does in the US. The government worries a great deal about food shortages and spikes in food prices, and acts to prevent them.

Other forms of trust are less robust – in the good graces of the police, in the security that wages earned will be paid, in the value of property rights in land and apartments and businesses, in the quality of food and health care products.

It was reasonable to place trust in those with wealth and power (if you were sufficiently removed from immediate envelopment). That is less so, now. In 2015 the government promoted buying stocks as a patriotic effort, only to see the market collapse and many life savings lost. For more than a decade now, banks have promoted as safe “wealth management products” (WMP) that pay at higher interest rates and invest in relatively undefined real estate projects. That trust is now at an end as some WMP become very shaky investments. Some Chinese real estate developers are enormous businesses, and people so trusted them that they paid for apartments not even built. Now, Evergrande. I think it is a useful observation that real estate agents in China do not have a fiduciary duty to represent either seller or buyer. They only represent themselves.

In many cases we can see failures of trust as moral failures – failure to protect those under our care, failure to disclose what should be disclosed for making informed decisions. The anger of farmers at theft of their land for government sponsored real estate development is well known. When the trust in relationship fails, it is felt as a deep violation and the response can be violent.

Sometimes rage is all one can manage when feeling personally violated. So violence against doctors in China has become a significant problem. Doctors are expected to cure patients. At the same time, information to families can be sparse or medicines inadequate. When cures do not happen, patients or their families may strike out in futility at what they see as failure of the government to provide. Some hospitals now provide police on hospital floors. The Pregnant Women’s Hospital in Hangzhou had locked down floors in 2012. There can be instances of what we term malpractice but failures of trust and communication are more typical. In any case there are not good procedures for recourse.


When communication fails, mystery is preserved

Communication failures are endemic in Chinese society.  Mystery and secrets are always lurking behind any discussion.

Communication is power, and there is often no reason for me to give you that power of knowing. That is what Sunzi said in the Art of War. One consequence of maintaining mystery and power is the inability of subordinates to ask questions – see Sunzi in The Art of War 11:37 and 38 –

37- It is important for a general to be calm and remote, upright and disciplined, and be able to mystify his men's eyes and ears, keeping them ignorant. 

38 - He changes his methods and plans, keeping them from knowing. He changes his campsites and takes circuitous routes, keeping them from anticipating. 

Sunzi is not alone in promoting lack of trust and lack of communication.  As I described in the book section No Questions

Lucian Pye cites Han Feizi, paramount Legalist whose writing was influential on the Qin Shi Huang, the first emperor. Self-interest, Han advised, should always be hidden.

A further problem in a society in which self-interest must be masked and people pretend to selflessness is that people never feel they know where others really stand. Everybody knows of course that people have hidden interests. There exists, therefore, considerable suspicion about hidden agendas and real motives. From ordinary social relations to international politics, inordinate attention is given to determining the real position of others. Are they potentially friends or foes? Stratagems abound, but they have to be followed with the greatest care because of the danger of causing the other party to "lose face," which is the grievous pain people experience when their masks are stripped away.

Lucian W. Pye.  China: Erratic State, Frustrated Society.  Foreign Affairs Magazine, Fall 1990, page 20.


Meiyou wenti

“Meiyou wenti” has always been one of my favorite phrases in Chinese. It can mean “no problem,” as we say when we do a small favor. It can also mean “no questions,” the implication being a question is either impertinent or unpolitic. Either way, an answer that is provided is not likely to be one worthy of trust. If you have to ask, then you shouldn’t.

Mystery operates internally within CCP, in governance, in hospitals dealing with patients, in universities dealing with students and faculty.  It is as much a constant as struggle.  Secrets are a constant of life.  Secrets are only secrets if one cannot ask “why?” But fitting with the hierarchy of leadership, and unquestioned respect for elders, asking questions is just not done.

There is face risk in asking questions.  To ask is to entertain at least one of three ideas, all bad –

  • The person providing the information may not have explained it clearly, resulting in a loss of face for the explainer
  • The person receiving the information may not have understood completely at once, resulting in a loss of face for the recipient.
  • The need to ask a question implies that one does not already know the answer – possibly deadly in competitive organization games

It is a tough world.

Asking “why” is the most useful question in English. In negotiation, we see the asking as means to ascertain motives or intentions of the other side, possibly leading to better understanding and more creative bargaining. In China, the most common answer to “why” is infuriating to a westerner. “Why?” “No why.” 

Meiyou wenti “No why” can mean “I don’t know.” It can also mean “That is politically not a good question for you to ask, or for me to answer,” but most often, the meaning is, “It is not worth my time to talk with you, and why should I give you power that comes with knowing.”  

Communication in China is always strategic, reminding us of Sunzi.  Even doctors communicating with patients are unsure of the power, the guanxi, that may lie on the patient side. Doctors – and families – are often unsure of whether bad news should be delivered or not. University of Pennsylvania Sinologist Paul Goldin notes –

“Formlessness ” - another term that resonates with the philosophy of Laozi and allied traditions -  is a code word for avoiding any type of committed formation until the enemy has already disclosed his intentions.

Paul Goldin. The Theme of the Primacy of the Situation in Classical Chinese Philosophy and Rhetoric.  Available at   Page 16 


Mystery is always the better choice in human relations.  “Why should I tell you?” This is potentially fatal to business transactions with western counterparties, when one side assumes openness and free exchange of information. Information is always difficult to obtain in China, unless one has an obvious and government supported need.  Xi Jinping wants to open the financial sector to western investment, while clamping down hard on any disclosures or criticism of CCP or government actions.  Investigative journalism can be dangerous. Despite pronouncements to the contrary, sunshine laws are not going to contribute to due diligence anytime soon. 


Playing the game – Red Roulette

Chinese are adept at decoding communication, whether verbal or physical. One learns to play the game early in life, and with hard work and luck the western problems of poor communication and trust need not impair success. Key relationships are of utmost importance. One can ride the guanxi surfboard for years, but there is always knowledge that the surf can break.

Perhaps the most celebrated case at the end of 2021 is that of Whitney Duan. Her ex-husband Desmond Shum wrote the best seller Red Roulette: An Insider's Story of Wealth, Power, Corruption and Vengeance in Today's China. Duan and Shum rode the biggest waves of China go-go development in the late 1990s and early 2000s.  They developed enormous real estate projects and were on close terms with leaders at the highest level of CCP – Wen Jiabao and his family, for one instance. They became fabulously wealthy – billionaire class. Money was no barrier in providing gifts and demonstrating wealth as a way of attracting investors and trust.

Duan and Shum got divorced in 2017 and Shum and their son moved to England. Duan stayed in China. Her fortune alone was worth billions of dollars.

Duan was disappeared – that is the accepted written construction in China – in 2017 and was not heard from for four years. She has not been charged with any crime. She apparently was on the wrong side of the Xi Jinping-Zhang Zemin factional infighting. Shum described his wife as “political roadkill” or collateral damage in the high level political fighting. As we know from the Thirty-Six Stratagems - Stomp the grass the scare the snake, or point at the mulberry tree while cursing the locust tree. Zhang,, beware!

Duan called Shum in September 2021, days before his book was to be published, asking him to not let it go to print. Duan was told what to say and it seemed clear her handlers were in the room with her on the call. She was far too late for that request, but that was her only contact with Shum and their son in more than four years. Shum said the call contained veiled threats to himself and their son.

To date, no one knows where she is or under what conditions she is kept. Some opined that when she was first disappeared, she would be beaten and perhaps given drugs to destroy her mind. The latter seems not to have happened. She remains a ghost, nevertheless.

The Whitney Duan story is by no means unique, except perhaps in total financial terms. There is always a fear that the wrong turn in relationships can spell a fall from grace. But one never can be sure from which direction a threat can come.


Trust, optimism and pessimism – how to trust in a modern society?

In the article Faith and Trust I discussed Thomas Metzger’s idea of western epistemological pessimism and Chinese epistemological optimism. Briefly, Metzger argues that Chinese report high trust in the central government even though term limits, checks and balances, rule of law and free media are unavailable to check unruly ambition and lying. He sees this optimism as deep in Chinese culture, a part of willing deference to benevolent power.    

Ci Jiwei says Chinese optimism may have some historical basis, but modern Chinese would be crazy to assume leaders are only seeking the well-being of the people. The reported optimism is politically generated.  CCP works hard to promote itself as the paternalistic overseer, in keeping with ancient Chinese tradition. And for most Chinese, the central government is sufficiently remote that some trust is affordable. The other rationale is that there is no other option. When forces unknown control outcomes, one may as well be optimistic. To do otherwise is nihilism. 


How to do trust at a distance in a relationship society?

Modern impersonal societies are seen to suffer from a loss of trust in individuals and in institutions. Such a loss need not be intentional. In a modern society, there is just only so much time. Any one issue is seen as enormously complex and can be understood from many perspectives. Entrenched interest groups with professional staff can argue opposite sides of any issue. We get information from many sources. We get differing opinions from acknowledged experts. We get people posting authoritatively online who have no knowledge whatsoever. We get people on social media who lie and make up facts for their own purposes. Leaders – even experts – are not necessarily better informed. We easily get to an excessive politicization of daily life. How are we to trust? Communication takes time. How much communication can we afford?

The cross cultural paradox

The Chinese imperative to not offend leads to an astonishing double paradox in political behavior between Chinese and Americans, Pye writes. American politicians operating in a democratic political culture, often discount what is said publicly.  Speech can be “only for political purposes,” or “directed at constituents.”  It is in the face to face meeting where real bargaining can take place.  

Chinese leaders, operating in an authoritarian political culture, have an opposite understanding. In a secret society, face to face meetings are where hypocrisy rules. One should – perhaps, must – tell the other side what it wants to hear, so that relations go smoothly. Real information is conveyed between the lines or in an outside venue when attention can be paid to code words and subtle indicators.    

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


In society at large - who ya gonna call?

We can think of a “broken windows” theory of lack of social capital – or, better, broken civility. Not so much about crime and punishment but those elements of daily life that contribute to brittleness when unaddressed – garbage piled up, excessive noise from contractors or neighbors, water leaks or potholes that go unfixed, police harassment.

For some larger issues there is no one to talk to in government about a solution.

Minor issues lie unaddressed. Within China a society that has learned that government does little or nothing for them, there is little reason to contact the government about minor conditions that need addressing – the concrete block that falls off a truck into the street, blocking traffic, the gaping hole in the sidewalk or street, the trees that have overgrown to block the street sign.  “Not my job.” 

One of my favorites is the camera used on expressways to catch speeders. That is common on expressways. What is unusual is the use of floodlights to illuminate for the camera at night – floodlights directed at drivers, at their eyes, blinding and so bright that regular sign postings, in addition to traffic, are unviewable for a few moments while driving through the lighting. But it doesn’t matter – who would there be to complain to? If someone complains, what matter?  There is no contact number on a sign somewhere. This is not a temporary installation glitch – the floodlight misdirection lasted for months in some cases and years in others in my experience.  Who would contact the government to report the blinding problem?

A new, fairly expensive housing development was being built next to our own residential complex in Hangzhou. The developer must have acquired the land very inexpensively – the land was all hills, fairly steep, and not deep soil – mostly rock.  Construction called for pile driving for each of dozens of  buildings. In the hills, the noise carried for a mile – and there were thousands of people living within 200 yards. The pile driving was constant, sunup to sundown, six days a week, an hour off for lunch. Anyone trying to sleep during the day was out of luck. Complaints?  None organized. People would only shrug and hope that the pile driving would be over this year, or maybe next year. This is more than a broken-windows sort of problem, but the same lethargy in complaints was more clearly defined. “What can I do?” was the universal attitude. The developer must have been powerful, with strong Yuhang district connections. Complaints would be ignored, at best; at worst, one might be tossed in jail or beaten for something like, “obstruction of state priorities,” or “picking quarrels and provoking trouble.”  

What no citizen wants is to be disappeared or harmonized.

Item - Chinese do not have practice at interacting with strangers outside of commercial transactions. On the street, minor interactions - bumping into someone, approaching each other on the sidewalk, holding doors for the next person - don't usually elicit a "whoops, sorry," or "pardon me." Words are not exchanged. Similarly for greetings on the street to strangers. We might nod or say hi to someone approaching. That is not the custom.

Item – In a multicultural situation, we all tend to associate with  those whom we might find more civil or more trusting or at least those with whom we can communicate well. A recent study on the "bamboo ceiling" suggests that east Asians tend to associate more with people from their own culture than is the case for south Asians or Latinos or Whites, and as a result are seen less in leadership roles in multiethnic societies.

Item - There are avenues of protest and information for residents to complain directly to local governments (district or county or city or province or even Beijing), and these sometimes work pretty well. But this sort of protest or complaint –xinfang (petitioning) is the term for the process of protest - is usually an individual effort. Group efforts are crushed pretty quickly. When threats to use xinfang don’t work well, the local police or local thugs are sent to dissuade protesters from actually filing a complaint.


   - When organizing is forbidden

From the perspective of civil society, this is a serious detriment. There is little possibility to develop the trust among outsiders, the social capital, that comes from organizing with others in a common cause. One can see the entire purpose of severe controls on meetings of people in groups is to limit the development of social capital.

Even the dance groups that meet every night in the park or square are comprised of people from one - at most two - residential communities.  There is little exchange in those events anyway. (Some will protest that there are evening dance events that attract young and old people, people just walking by, even foreigners. That is true – and has nothing to do with anything larger than personal benefit.)  But, as we remember from Document No. 9, civil society is one of those evils with which the west is trying to destroy China.

Lucian Pye.  Civility, Social Capital, and Civil Society: Three Powerful Concepts for Explaining Asia.  Journal of Interdisciplinary History XXIX:4 (Spring, 1999), 763-782, Page 764.  Available at


   - Power is mostly unseen

On the surface in China, life looks very much as it does in the US – parents take kids to school, pick them up, drive or bike to work, go to the shopping mall and watch movies or go out to eat with friends. 

But ideology is always lurking, not far beneath the surface.  The CCP remembers the fate of the Soviet Communist Party in 1991, and is determined not to make the same mistakes. Fall of the Soviet Union has been studied and researched intensively at the highest levels within China. A main reason for dissolution of CPSU is given as loss of trust in leaders; but corruption is most certainly an important factor. For CCP, this fear of moral decay is palpable.

Mr. Xi is not wrong to emphasize the anti-corruption campaign, to reign in the worst of the violations of party members against the people. The “Jiang Zemin faction” running from Jiang’s time as General Secretary through the end of the Hu Jintao era was  known as a hotbed of corruption. Desmond Shum’s book Red Roulette describes the corruption and vengeance in high level dealings during the Hu era – not as excesses, but typical of how the system works.

Failures of trust are built in to the system. One must always be watching one’s back. The internal contradiction for Xi Jinping is in punishing the cultural practice of a relationship society - what was standard operating procedure last year, and for the last twenty years, is suddenly now considered illegal and a violation of Party discipline. Loyalty is suddenly contingent – to what or whom am I being loyal?

This sounds like a fatal system flaw that should cause collapse. Why would modern Chinese tolerate this?

What saves the Party today is that the middle class population of China is roughly 250,000,000.  CCP membership is about 100,000,000, and with some dual memberships in families, let us speculate that there are roughly 60,000,000 households in which the CCP is the ultimate guarantor of an iron rice bowl.  A recent paper finds that among urban middle class wage earners, 59% were employed by party or government or SOE. Each household consists of three or four people, and maybe some grandparents, and the CCP-member family breadwinner may also take care of a brother or sister or two.

There are only about 10,000,000 government officials covered by the civil service law, but nearly all are CCP members and they are the heart of government management. Other CCP members work in state owned enterprises (some of which are the largest businesses in China, in banks and utilities and construction) and in private businesses. It is fair to say that CCP provides jobs and family support for about the same number of Chinese who are middle class. To a first approximation the CCP is the middle class. Certainly not all middle and upper class people are CCP, and some CCP members are poor. But the overlap is significantly to the advantage of the Party, since loss of CCP legitimacy threatens the loss of tens of millions of middle class jobs. In a nice twist on Marxist theory, the CCP is the bourgeoisie. A comfortable life can compensate for the loss of some moral freedom, usually barely noticed.  From the paper cited above –

Middle-class interests are therefore likely dominated by the concerns of a salaried middle class similar to that found in, say, Japan …. These interests are likely to emphasize growth of wages and benefits, security of employment, and good job opportunities. Moreover, given that a fairly large share of China’s middle class is state-sponsored, that is, employed by party, government or state-owned units, its concerns are disproportionately tied to the state.

If civil society were to emerge in China, it would have to come from this educated middle class population. But here, again, we find repetition of patterns from long ago. As William Rowe observed of the late Qing, the interpenetration of the state and social elites made it difficult to define a “civic power” that might act in opposition to the state. For CCP members and for the Chinese middle class, l’etat, c’est moi. 

(Someone might remember the tens of millions of employees laid off in the late 1990s as part of government and SOE restructuring. That came off without too much social disruption (not counting some long jail sentences for protest leaders).  The government has the iron fist. But northeast provinces, like Liaoning, are still suffering (in 2021) under the burden of pension promises made to workers who “retired” ten or twenty years early. A family member in China receives a small pension from a remnant of his state-owned employer in Hubei, dissolved about  twenty years ago. He was about 35 years old at the time.  The costs to the government of mass layoffs is substantial; and more to the point, the early 1990s economic conditions, and political conditions, are not what they are today.  That was then, this is now. The economy is far more integrated and China wants to be an example to the world. The Chinese middle class is not going to shoot itself in the foot by making too strong claims about civil society.) 


In government - leaders must develop relationships quickly

Confucian values, as universal as they are, are fundamentally village values, in which shame acts as a deterrent to poor behavior. But modern society requires interaction with strangers.

CCP policy has been to move leaders around every few years, to prevent too much relationship, too much guanxi, in the absence of the ability to control behavior with law and lawsuits and free press and public attention. Frequent relocation of CCP leaders can work to control corruption although the imperial experience was that the center had to keep sending guardians to watch the guardians sent previously. But it also means that leaders are among strangers, strangers who want to curry favor, and in two years, or three, the leader might well have moved on, so what harm in helping the locals, particularly if I can also help myself?  It is the Chinese version of the American financial industry excuse for unethical behavior – in two years, IBG, YBG – I’ll be gone, you’ll be gone. 

Hence Mr. Xi’s anti-corruption campaign and the simultaneous focus on party purity. It is not enough to punish the obvious bad guys. That old village sentiment, the sense of shame – or at least, fear - needs to be resuscitated in the CCP.  Shame only works when one is willing to feel shame, or if there were trust.

This is a tall order. CCP is built on relationships rather than rule of law. China has been a relationship society for thousands of years. The closer one is to power the more benefits one can obtain through those relationships.

In addition, power is meant to be exercised. There is no point to being powerful – what does it mean to be powerful – if one cannot bring about change, and for the last twenty years that has meant economic development. Until a few years ago, growth in GDP during their term was one of the ways to evaluate local leaders when being considered for advancement.

In most circumstances, Chinese are satisfied with leaders exercising power. But modernism creates relations among strangers, and high modernist planning creates demands for big projects that can generate big profits, and CCP is unable – not just unwilling - to subject party members to rule of law and regulation. The CCP will always remain above the law, even if individual members at lower levels are occasionally subject to it, and end up in jail for life. This lack of control by officials then leads to citizen dissatisfaction when local officials overreach.


  - How to be a modern Chinese government official

Here is the CCP internal contradiction. The relationship society, combined with no rule of law and no free media, and human propensity for greed, means that the rationale for any project, particularly construction, is always subject to uncertainty about origins. Is this project part of a national plan, or a lower level leader’s desire to get rich? That cannot be known, and cannot be asked; or if known, the information cannot be shared. If your department is required to provide a permit for a project, you don’t know with whose plans you are cooperating by saying yes. It is a form of don’t ask, don’t tell.

Of course responsible professionals ask for and receive information needed for plan and project and program approvals. It is nevertheless the case that intrusions from outside can alter,  stop or promote plans or programs.

I was part of an urban planning project in a county of Sichuan that required a new bridge to cross the river. A bridge was  already under construction – foundations at one end were in.  A new county leader came in. He didn’t like the location of the bridge, and required that we move the bridge about 200 meters – purely on his whim. In the US, this would be an outrageous request, and the engineers and planners and media would be in an uproar. The bridge was moved. With no communication to the public, there was no uproar.

It is then impossible for a district leader, or a county vice mayor, to simply refer all proposals for development over to the appropriate government administrative departments for approval. Professional staff can act, but even they must be careful. Following the prescribed formal process can be dangerous. In the relationship society, the department head will look for guidance from his leader, the vice-mayor. But the vice-mayor may not have equivalent power or guanxi of someone else, a business owner or a retired leader inserting himself into the process.  Regulations do operate, and by no means are all projects subject to corruption.  But leaders who want to move up in the Party hierarchy need to show results, even if those measures are less salient than they were a few years ago.

Confucius told us 2500 years ago that written laws and regulations only create incentives for people to get around them. Still true, everywhere.  But lack of written laws and regulations accomplishes the same result.   

The internal contradiction is written into the Chinese Civil Servant Law -

Article 54 - Where a civil servant, when performing official duties, deems that there is something wrong with the decision or order of his superior, he may make a suggestion on correcting or canceling the said decision or order. Where the superior refuses to change the decision or order, or requires immediate performance, the civil servant concerned shall fulfill the decision or order. The superior shall be responsible for the consequences of the performance of duties, and the civil servant shall not be subject to any liability. However, where a civil servant fulfills any decision or order that is obviously illegal, he shall be subject to the corresponding liabilities according to law.

The last two sentences say it all, and put a civil servant in the “that which is forbidden is mandatory” realm, particularly when behavior under loosely written laws can be judged illegal at a whim. In these circumstances, if you don’t obey, you are insubordinate; if you do obey, you are acting illegally. Have a nice day.


   - An example of trust failure – powerful government guardians sometimes become businessmen

A contradiction - lack of separation of business and government functions in China causes corruption. Not just “can result in,” but causes corruption. There is no way around it. Plato’s guardian and trader syndromes are not just convenient. They describe different ways of making a living, one focused on community and one focused on self, and one cannot easily reconcile the two. Mixing the two will create opportunities for self-dealing, anywhere, anytime. 

Jane Jacobs focused on the differences in her book, Systems of Survival.  Mixing of the two systems, those focused on guarding society and those focused on trading in society, creates monstrous moral hybrids – she mentions Nazi efficiency in killing. James Scott makes similar if less dangerous points in Seeing Like a State. He recounts the use of scientific, one-crop industrial forestry in Prussia that eventually succumbed to disease and blight because of lack of supporting vegetation and likely nutrients and diversity of foliage. The US has plenty of its own examples – private prisons, regulatory capture of Washington by Wall Street. But de Tocqueville commented on the lack of necessary relation between wealth and power in the US.  (Democracy in America, page 624).  In China, the mixing of the two is built in. One must figuratively serve both God and mammon. One frequently hears the phrase “rich and powerful” in China, in reference to a leader.  The “and” is usually superfluous. With power comes wealth. 

The Jane Jacobs listing of trader and guardian precepts is illuminating. They are clearly distinct moralities.

One system is the Guardian Moral Syndrome and contains 15 precepts, like “Shun Trading,” and “Adhere to Tradition.” This system arose primarily to satisfy the needs of organizing and managing territories. It became the code for warriors, governments, religions, and some private organizations.

The other system is the Commercial Moral Syndrome and also is made of 15 principles like “Shun Force,” and “Compete.” It came into being to support human activities around trade and the production of goods.

Moral precepts


Guardian Syndrome

Commercial Syndrome

  • Shun trading
  • Exert prowess
  • Be obedient and disciplined
  • Adhere to tradition
  • Respect hierarchy
  • Be loyal
  • Take vengeance
  • Deceive for the sake of the task
  • Make rich use of leisure
  • Be ostentatious
  • Dispense largesse
  • Be exclusive
  • Show fortitude
  • Be fatalistic
  • Treasure honor
  • Shun force
  • Compete
  • Be efficient
  • Be open to inventiveness and novelty
  • Use initiative and enterprise
  • Come to voluntary agreements
  • Respect contracts
  • Dissent for the sake of the task
  • Be industrious
  • Be thrifty
  • Invest for productive purposes
  • Collaborate easily with strangers and aliens
  • Promote comfort and convenience
  • Be optimistic
  • Be honest


With no rule of law and lax oversight there is little incentive to behave in a manner true to one’s moral syndrome – guardian or trader. Benevolence and humaneness are not functional concepts outside of the village and the network.  So, use of underhanded techniques and force are always available, in business relations  and within government. This is the moral decay that Xi Jinping is trying to arrest with the public part of the anti-corruption program. 

The Confucian concept is that virtuous leaders will be role models for people, who will then follow and become virtuous themselves.  Pointedly, Chinese civil servants are prohibited from having side jobs during their tenure working for the government. The potential conflict of interest is too salient.

Xi is working hard to promote rencai – talented and virtuous leaders who are also unquestionably “red.”  But the leaders of the last decades were mostly rencai when they start out. But sometimes leaders are threatened if they refuse to take bribes. One doubts the usefulness of Xi’s crusade in a semi-modern China. 


  - Lack of communication is built in

Xi cannot change the way students are taught or government departments relate to each other. That is too deep, even for him.

Lucian Pye –

China’s distinctive state-society relationship has contributed to the peculiar rhythm of its politics. The factional struggles within the elite have produced not the Western pendulum swings between left and right, liberal and conservative, but an up-and-down motion of centralizing and decentralizing, of tightening and loosening the state’s penetration of society. The vast majority of the population live as peasants in some five million hamlets and villages with their own largely self-contained social and political systems. They see the workings of government as much like the weather, to be thanked when favorable and cursed when bad. The urban population is not organized into interests, but rather is made up of strata or segments, such as the intellectuals and technocrats, industrial workers, managers, service people, entertainers, journalists, owners of small enterprises and the like.

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


In my experience, this is right. There seems little communication outside the relatively tight boundaries of one’s school or job. I suppose that is typical in the US as well, but the lack of diversity in contacts seems greater in China. A very minor example – within the university there are very few interdisciplinary programs. For both faculty and students, architects and engineers do not cross paths anywhere; nor do business students and engineers. Courses of study are determined in Beijing, so there is limited room for exploration outside the prescribed program. I am familiar with undergrad curricula for urban planners, civil engineers, and business majors. There are few electives. There are no urban planning students in engineering courses, and vice versa. There are no engineering students in courses outside their major. If it were permitted, why would anyone want to do that?

In government planning, urban planners do not have strong relations with transportation planners. Communication is poor. Another very minor example – I worked on urban planning projects in three provinces. Each plan included a scenic overlook or major park or shopping district for which some temporary parking would make sense – to look at the scenery, check on entrances, or pick up or drop off passengers. Otherwise, big traffic congestion results. I always suggested showing such temporary parking on the plans, but I was always told that was not the planner’s job.  The traffic engineers did that. The traffic engineers never did, though.

Later I found out why things worked that way. Urban planners ultimately report to the Planning Ministry in Beijing. Traffic and transportation engineers report to the Construction Ministry. The bosses in Beijing were different, so coordination across disciplines even at the local level was just not necessary. Everyone had their own job to do.

A similar example comes from development economist Scott Rozelle in his book Invisible China: How the Urban-Rural Divide Threatens China's Rise. Rozelle has worked with kids and families in rural China for more than thirty years. Among his findings are that anemia is a significant hindrance to kid’s ability to learn. This was easily solved with a vitamin pill each day, but the Ministry of Education was not interested in providing assistance. The Health Ministry should do that. Rozelle resorted to doing the experiment, giving some kids a vitamin pill. When their learning scores went up, then the Education Ministry became interested. This was in Shaanxi Province. But when he went to Gansu Province, another poor and rural province, he was stopped and told “That is in Sha’anxi. That doesn’t work in Gansu.”

There is something of a good ending to Rozelle’s story. A national nutritious lunch program was launched a year later for 26 million kids. But provinces wouldn’t do it on their own. He needed a vice premier to buy in first.


  - A test for trust and communication

The real system test will come when Xi can no longer lead, whether due to health problems or death or some grave internal miscalculation that encourages the leaders-in-waiting. I said there can be great internal organizational trust in CCP. That is true, but the horizontal trust always relies on vertical trust in protection from someone above. In 2021, Xi has declined to groom any successor. He has installed provincial and central officials that are loyal to him … for now. He has enemies now, evidenced by the rumored attacks on his life and the changes in his Zhongnanhai guard detail. As Xi has grabbed more and more control over CCP and Chinese life, trust has become personalized in Xi, rather than in the CCP system. It is, as we sometimes say in a different context, Xi who must be obeyed.

CCP is a relationship organization, just as is Chinese society now and in all of the ancient past. There is no rule of law; there is no succession plan in the CCP or the Chinese constitution; the constitutions contain no ranking or ordering of the importance of ministries or departments. The numbering of Politburo Standing Committee members (No. 1 is Xi, No. 2 is Li Keqiang, and so on) has no real relevance past the number 2 – and now, maybe no relevance past the No. 1. All systems operate on a sort of general agreement to trust in leadership from above.

If Xi is no longer in control, what happens? There was a sort of negotiated general agreement on succession following Deng. Jiang Zemin came into power in June of 1989 following the Tian’anmen massacre and reluctantly gave up power in 2002 after two full five year terms in favor of Hu Jintao, who stayed two full terms and then relinquished power. Xi has upset that regularity of succession.

Xi’s cohort is the last of the sons of Long March descendants. Whomever succeeds Xi will not have that “Red DNA” badge to assist in fostering trust and reliance. The closest possible relationship to Mao will be a grandchild of a Long March survivor, and the linkage is wearing thin.

I have said modern Chinese are unlikely to upset the CCP apple cart since it would have potential to upset millions of CCP jobs, not to mention the economy generally. I have said that deference to power has ancient roots. Nevertheless, in a system with shaky roots and rules, the scramble for power can embolden many.

Jonathan Spence describes the potential Xi successor situation in The Search for Modern China -

We can see how often the Chinese people, operating in difficult or even desperate circumstances, seized their own fate and threw themselves against the power of the state… We can see how in 1644, again in 1911, and then again in 1949, disillusion with the present and a certain nostalgia for the past could combine with a passionate hope for the future to bring the old order crashing down, opening the way for an uncertain passage to the new.

A nasty scramble for power at the end of Xi seems quite feasible.


What is to be done?

The anti-corruption campaign addresses symptoms, not causes. The relationship society with no rule of law is thousands of years old. Culture and CCP ideology will be unchanged. But as with any ideology, the leadership must promote its own truth, and fight – violently if necessary – against those with a different version of truth.

At the same time, the CCP has shown itself to be a remarkably flexible organization in the last seven decades, able to accommodate great change in a short span of time, if necessary for CCP survival. My doubts – with deference to Martin King Whyte in The Myth of the Social Volcano - are whether there remains sufficient flexibility in a world of citizens no longer content to be treated as without moral dignity. Middle class CCP members develop middle class aspirations to be heard and respected. But middle class CCP members also need to be loyal and obey leaders. It will be interesting to see how this contradiction among the people plays out. Mao said it in 1957 -

In our country, the contradiction between the working class and the national bourgeoisie comes under the category of contradictions among the people. By and large, the class struggle between the two is a class struggle within the ranks of the people, because the Chinese national bourgeoisie has a dual character. In the period of the bourgeois-democratic revolution, it had both a revolutionary and a conciliationist side to its character. In the period of the socialist revolution, exploitation of the working class for profit constitutes one side of the character of the national bourgeoisie, while its support of the Constitution and its willingness to accept socialist transformation constitute the other.

Mao Zedong. On The Correct Handling Of Contradictions Among The People.  Speech at the 11th Session of the Supreme State Conference, February 27, 1957. Mao edited then published June 19, 1957. Available at


As I noted in the article on Civilization and Society the loss of dignity from loss of moral freedom is only experienced directly by a few in the society. We might say the losses of moral freedom are experienced by a few, and even then, only at some marginal times. But societies are complex, and in complex organizations, small changes can have great outcomes. As Marx noted of capitalism, it seems that the CCP may contain the seeds of its own destruction. Fear can work for a long time, generations, but at some point it can fail as a force for stability.  

CCP fears of student uprisings like those at Tian’anmen in June 1989 have abated, but a modern society cannot resist rumblings of dissatisfied people. Within China, middle class people can simply look away when they are only listening to local news. But it is hard not to be a bit embarrassed when foreign news is pointing fingers and people know the truth is out there, but they don’t have access to it. As long as the foreigners can be seen as anti-China, rather than as anti-oppression, the game can go on. But someday the tide may turn.

I am reminded of Christopher Hitchens, in a reference to religious ideology, but equally applicable to political ideology and the CCP.  Hitchens quoted the last paragraph of Camus’ The Plague.  After the city of Oran has been crushed in two years of death and decay from the plague, it seems that the disease is itself dying. 

Finally Oran is free again, and the terror is over, Hitchens says.  But the rats are still down there, in the sewers, still carrying and incubating those bacilli, and they are waiting their chance ... and one day those sewers will send their rats up again, to die in a free city

For the CCP, the rats are the moral freedom described by Ci Jiwei – not freedom to shop where one wishes, but the ability to decide the Good for oneself.  One must be always on guard, to struggle in fear against the bacilli of free thinking and free discussion. Civility and social capital in the wrong places are the vanguard of decline of CCP.

One can see a major reason for CCP to want to eliminate Taiwan as a free, democratic society, other than the usual stated reasons.  Taiwan is Chinese, with Chinese enjoying those freedoms that some middle class mainlanders, CCP members or not, would like to experience. Taiwan is more than a thorn in the side of CCP. It is the existential threat, only a hundred miles offshore, with the same basic language and major investors in mainland business. It is 24 million people to the mainland’s 1400 million, but it is an attractive nuisance nonetheless. It is just a bit further from the mainland than Cuba is from the US, but with far greater implications for the moral freedoms of free speech, writing, and assembly.  Right now, the rats are close by, in Taiwan.


Next: Between Family and State - the center cannot hold