Similar and different – an occasional reflection

As huge economies with large and diverse populations, occupying about the same land area at about the same range of latitudes, China and the US have many similarities.  Similarities extend to many elements of culture and institutions, good and bad.  The similarities are often surprising; the differences confuse us, but may be a source of new perspectives. 


Domestic and foreign affairs in 2018 – Xi, CCP, DJT, GOP – Part 4 of 5


Harmony and Trust -  civility, social capital, civil society

I want to discuss how these three features of modern society – civility, social capital, and civil society – are now similar in Mr. Xi’s China under CCP domination and Mr. Trump’s US, under GOP domination.  This is by no means a extended look, although this piece is longer than I intended.

Guo jin min tui is the Chinese phrase that expresses policy cycles over centuries – the state advances, the private retreats.  When the state is strong, the room for private initiative declines.  Both Mr. Xi and Mr. Trump would do well to consider the implications in this aphorism.  Both are putting private ideas and private investment and the future of their societies at risk, despite their proclamations to the contrary.  Lucian Pye told us how that works, more than thirty years ago. 

Lucian Pye is the go-to guy for insight into Asian political thought and interstate relations. Pye taught at MIT for 35 years, and described how Asian cultures – particularly Chinese – differ from the west in their ideas about civility, social capital, and civil society, all of which require trust.  Comparing my experience with Pye’s writings, I find him a superbly insightful messenger on civility, social capital, and civil society.  His book, The Mandarin and the Cadre: China's Political Cultures should be required reading for any China watcher.  Failing that, these articles will help -

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

International Relations in Asia: Culture, Nation, and State   Sigur Center for Asian Studies, George Washington University,  July, 1998.

 Civility, Social Capital, and Civil Society: Three Powerful Concepts for Explaining Asia  Journal of Interdisciplinary History, 29:4 (Spring, 1999).   


Pye provides about as succinct a definition as is  possible for each concept –

Every society has its rules of civility that ensure social order, thereby forming an integrated functioning society and preventing confusion, disorder, and anarchy.  These are norms of behavior within the family and social network, and in the west, including strangers.  These norms engender trust within the closest set of relationships a person has.

Social capital … testifies to the critical level of trust among the members of a society that makes collective action possible. Social capital builds upon the norms of civility; it is the next step up in the development of a democratic political culture.  Social capital is that level of trust that allows a group to accomplish tasks – whether complete a school project or start a business.

Finally, civil society consists of the diverse autonomous interest groups that can exert pressure on the state. The creation of a civil society is critical for the effective performance of democracy.   Civil society is the missing link for democratic governance in much of the world.  Pointedly, civil society here does not mean singing clubs, but the ability to organize to exert pressure on the state.  It can encompass free media, the Church, non-government organizations, community organizations, chambers of commerce, or professional organizations.

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


With apologies to Pye – and Chinese - for gross oversimplification in a short post, let me characterize some differences between western (let us say, American) notions with those in China: civility in China does not extend outside the family and social  network; social capital must include a sense of good intentions between strangers, and this is absent; and civil society, the ability to organize and protest and seek redress, is also absent.  In America now, there are operating similarities in these notions between Trump and GOP and those of Xi and CCP. 


Harmony and Trust in China Now

The melding of Confucian values and Leninist ideology creates an extraordinarily powerful doctrine for controlling human relations.  Traditional respect for leaders melds with an ideology in which truth comes only from leaders. Confucian values are quite strong with regard to familial and friend relations, but have rather little to say about relations with strangers.  A communist ideology promotes secrecy and mistrust of the outsiders of any stripe. Civility, social capital, and civil society in China reflect this potent mix.  (The particular mix explains why Chinese culture is sui generis, even in Asia, but that is another post).

Into this cultural climate comes Mr. Xi, with a personal mandate to purify CCP and the Chinese people - eliminate corruption and traditional disregard for others, and deter elements of modernity that distract from the socialist path.  Let’s see what he does.


Civility – harmonious norms in relations among family and friends – is a paramount value in all of Chinese culture.  Mr. Xi and CCP are perfectly in sync with Chinese culture in that respect, although the informality of young, modern Chinese with respect to elders and leaders is a serious concern - hence a rationale for Xi’s increased scrutiny of the internet.  But neither traditional Chinese culture nor communist values look sympathetically on the stranger, the outsider.  For traditional values, the stranger is outside the network; for communist values, the stranger is outside the ideology.  The stranger is the barbarian, and in historical China, the stranger is the tribal invader, the Japanese, the western imperialist.

One can see how a turning inward and a nationalism easily evolve.  Cultural lack of clarity in how to be civil toward outsiders leads to lack of respect for outsiders generally, even within the country. Mr. Xi wants to reverse that cultural tradition, and focuses attention on Chinese behaving as members of the superior culture.  Mr. Xi also has a rationale for encouraging nationalism, by way of drawing attention from declining economic prospects and shifting blame to foreigners.  That is working pretty well within China; but the anticorruption campaign promotes mistrust within the everyday working networks - colleagues in academic departments and in government bureaus and on the street.  That loss of civility within government, within universities, among colleagues, is reminiscent of the Cultural Revolution, a time of fear to which no one wants to return.

All governments seek harmony in some form.  The harmony that matters most in China is stability for CCP; but Xi is severely damaging civility, a sense of trust within CCP.  He seeks to reduce corruption in CCP, and mistrust in society generally.  There is logic in his program – too much corruption is certainly damaging to social capital, the ability to get things done.  His methods, though, destroy social capital within CCP and punish any attempts to organize civil society.  He is the most ham-handed leader in China since Mao. 

Mr. Xi is destroying the relationship bonds that have made Chinese government function, and function well, albeit with a high level of corruption. Since 2014, 120 officials at the vice provincial governor or vice minister level have been charged with corruption offenses, and hundreds more below that level.  In a recent paper, Peter Lorentzen and Xi Lu find that the anti-corruption crackdown is, on the one hand, an attempt to remove the most egregiously corrupt officials from office, to the goal of ensuring CCP legitimacy; on the other hand, no official with home, workplace, or school ties to Xi has been investigated.  See Peter Lorentzen and Xi Lu, Personal Ties, Meritocracy, and China's Anti-Corruption Campaign

Now, everyone watches what they say on wechat. The government can certainly listen.  Businesspeople, even highly successful ones (see Wang Jianlin post) cannot speak their minds even outside China.  Chinese students in the US are monitored by fellow students for loyalty to China – which means, loyalty to CCP.  Many proclaim the environment the worst for suspicion and intrigue since the Cultural Revolution.  Civility among colleagues is heavily damaged.  And when traditional norms of in-group trust are broken, social capital – the ability to perform group tasks – is damaged.


Social capital - Avner Greif at Stanford makes the argument that long distance trust – as in, business trust across boundaries, or political trust across distance and levels of government - can be accounted for in one of two main ways – personalized trust, in family, clan, religious brethren, or long standing personal relations; and generalized trust, in rule of law and courts.  Generalized trust, trust in strangers and law, is the indicator of modernity.  Particularized trust is tribal, insular, ancient, and a marker for lack of social capital outside the network.  CCP has always been an organization of particularized trust.  See Avner Greif and Guido Tabellini.: The Clan and the City: Sustaining Cooperation in China and Europe

My own definition of social capital is that which allows conversion of the intangible – ideas and hopes and plans – into the tangible – projects and ventures and programs.  Trust is the glue and the grease. Trust in family and friends is easy; trust in strangers is hard. The lack of social capital in stranger relations is a marker for a system of hierarchical relations that require guanxi – personal relations of friendship and obligation - and the necessity of making deals rather than written contracts.  Generalized trust comes only with modernity.  Generalized trust requires rule of law, and enforcement.  Despite past proclamations, Mr. Xi and CCP can never get to rule of law.  It is – in a word – foreign.


And so we come to civil society – the ability to challenge the state or form independent public affairs interest groups.  In China now, there exists no social bonding across towns, provinces, professions or businesses in ways that could challenge the state. The state will not tolerate competition for truth or power. As Lucian Pye notes, the lack of civil society gives leadership an enormous scope for bold action.  Government, even business, can misbehave with some impunity. Checks and balances are absent, enforcement of law is spotty, and courts are directed by CCP.   What stands in place of civil society are the bonds of relationship, accompanied by a hole in which independent thinking, writing, and acting must be deposited.

In Chinese society, the civility and social capital that do exist cannot serve as a basis for a civil society of social action. That has long been the case, clans and lineage groups and western NGO notwithstanding.  Long distance trade across the silk roads was not conducted between a widely separated buyer and seller, but through a series of short-haul transactions between people who had a personal relationship.

Then, as now, civil society cannot embrace social action. The Chinese government has always made sure of that.

For a while under Hu Jintao, China opened a bit to more individual expression, and social action of limited extent was feasible. My Chinese government students in 2004 through 2009 were intensely interested in the phenomena of civil society and non-government organization.  Now, under Mr. Xi, heavier policing of the internet makes organized protest quite futile, and NGO suspect, unless run by the government.  Not much interest in civil society from Chinese government students anymore.

With the anti-corruption campaign Mr. Xi is seeking to restructure social relations in government, if not in China entirely. Make no mistake, the anti-corruption campaign is generally popular, as it catches some egregious examples of abuse of authority.  The campaign is highly disruptive nevertheless.  Xi’s system now, the Party system of control, does not acknowledge the community of CCP members whose lives and careers have depended on the age-old relationship society that has been the hallmark of Chinese practice.  If nothing else, CCP members see themselves – somewhat rightly – as a community of elites.  What was standard operating practice in governance for decades is suddenly illegal – without clarity as to what boundaries have suddenly been crossed.  

Mr. Xi wants officials to live by the rules when rules are unclear.  Two local leaders in one county or district can demand different outcomes from the same subordinate and there is no regulatory means of adjudicating such demands.  China has no other system for getting work accomplished and no civil society institutions – free media, courts, ethical practices office – to hear appeal.  I have friends in Wuhan, both in the local land bureau, who have been required to approve projects that they know to be illegal or at least out of conformance with plans.  To approve is to be subject to discipline; to not approve is to be subject to discipline.  I have a friend in Tianjin, a judge, who feels embarrassed, if not ashamed, at rulings that must be issued regardless of the facts of the case.  Kafkaesque is one word.  Required doublethink is another.

Mr. Xi’s program to purify CCP and the Chinese people cannot succeed by 2022.  He chooses to remain in office after that, hoping that his messianic program can work.  But it cannot.  For Mr. Xi’s program to work, he needs ability for Chinese to trust at a distance, in the absence of guanxi.  He needs a civil society, a society of generalized trust.  He can’t get there from where he starts.


Harmony and Trust in America Now

Pye reminds us that all three social concepts are necessary to democracy –

These three concepts are the key building blocks for democratic theory. Civility involves the most general norms of personal interaction; social capital determines the potential for reaching community and national goals collectively, and civil society provides the critical basis for the articulation and aggregation of interests essential for pluralistic democracy. The particular civility norms of a country either facilitate or impede the accumulation of social capital. The amount of social capital amassed by a society sets the stage for the emergence of a healthy civil society, which in its turn provides the dynamics for democratic politics.


In the US, harmony has never been part of our concept of stability.  But stability does require civility in protest, in contention, and some element of social capital – trust in good intentions. The US is an outwardly contentious society.  But contention cannot mean abandonment of civility in discourse, the destruction of social capital, the generalized trust that permits contention without aggression.  And it certainly cannot mean abandonment of Christian (or Confucian) principles - The Cruelty is the Point.  Pye tells us that when civility totally breaks down, society ceases to exist.  Someone should remind Trump and his minions … unless, perhaps ironically, they are all in thrall to Mr. Putin, for whom destruction of these values in America is absolutely tantamount to political victory for authoritarian states everywhere.  Pluralistic democracy, Pye reminds us, requires an especially high level of civility particularly when it involves rival moral concepts, like abortion, immigration, civil rights and care for the less fortunate.

Into this cultural climate comes Mr. Trump, with a personal mandate to enrich himself and family, enrich the oligarchs, and for the proles, eliminate elements of modernity that distract from the radical sovereign individual path that they incongruously seem to support.   


Civility is not a word used in conjunction with either Trump or the GOP at this point.  Bragging about sexual assault, joking about those with disabilities, threats to political opponents and journalists, drowning the government in the bathtub, refusing to honor one’s oath by screening federal judges or, lately, even showing up for work in the lame duck session – a day does not go by without egregious assaults on our sense of civility in the society and in congress. 

Our current dear leader thrives on lack of civility, on unclarity, on chaos, which to him provides a sort of personal stability, a sense of control, that allows him to seek personal – rather than national - advantage.  And civility is not a hallmark of Trump – or extreme Republican – discourse.  Trust of Trump is now out of the question, domestically and internationally.


If social capital is the ability to get things done, then Trump fails dramatically in economic development. The tariffs, the closing of TPP, the threats to allies and trade partners – what businesses will invest in such an environment? Rather than make progress on real problems – infrastructure, immigration policy, Chinese IP theft, education or health care – we will have lost at least four years of potential progress by 2020.  We are going backwards, not forwards.  Trump is the most ham-handed leader in American history, domestically and internationally. And to think I would have said W, just two years ago.    

But the US has been a society of generalized trust, of civil society, of trust at a distance.  Surveys do show that generalized trust, and trust in institutions, has been falling for 40 years or more.  But we have had some sense that the air will get cleaner, the food will be safe to eat, laws will be enforced with some sense of fairness, and the media checks its sources and seeks to present truth, as best as it can be known.  There are plenty of missteps, but American social capital, generalized trust, is still high enough for democracy to work, if we let it.  


Trump assaults civil society every day - encourages mistrust of government, expertise, the news media, and other political figures. To be sure, his lunatic charges are either ravings or made up stories, but they damage nevertheless.  His race-baiting is well-known. When the population cannot tell truth from fiction, and leaders erase the distinction, thereby democracy dies.   Fake news is a particularly dangerous idea in a modern democracy, which must rely on national media for necessary information about the world.  It is destructive of the social capital, the generalized trust in institutions that has evolved over generations.  Republican voters, particularly primary voters, seem to have retreated into a tribal mode in which the stranger is not to be trusted, and is in fact an enemy (cf. immigrants or Muslims). There can be no civility with those who are outside the mental village and no generalized trust. The outsiders are perhaps not quite fully human. How else to account for belittling the disabled, demeaning migrants, separating kids from parents?  In this, Trump and the modern Republican party resembles Xi and CCP rather well.  Both seek to restructure social relations in a more ideological and “pure” direction.

Unfortunately, the Republican Party has been an enthusiastic participant in destruction of core values – ironic for the party that wears morality on its sleeve.  Leaders have abandoned a commitment to democracy, to clarity, to the Constitution, and past practices, unwritten agreement, common decency, has been swept away. One could say that The Guardrails Have Failed.  Andrew Sullivan discusses what happens  if Americans stop trusting the system.   What is left is rule by ideological power in the Republican party.  Krugman - If these people don’t regard themselves as servants of the law first, partisans second, if they won’t subordinate their political goals to their duty to preserve the system, laws become meaningless and only power matters.

Trump trusts no one outside his family (how Chinese of him!), and violates the trust of staff and advisors and foreign leaders, all in pursuit of a superior reality existing in his own barbarian mind. Tribal barely fits to describe the situation. Better is  kakistocracy – rule by the worst.  And like the enemies created by Mr. Xi, Trump is setting himself up for problems later – Bloomberg – Trump's Insults Will Have Consequences  - By deliberately offending the people he works with, the president has set himself up for failure.  For his program to work, he needs a system of particularized trust, in which civil society is of no consequenceDespite his best efforts, he cannot get there from where he starts.

We hope that is true. Otherwise, we might remember T.S. Eliot on the end of the world, not with a bang, but a whimper. Adam Serwer in the Atlantic -  But often there is no single event that heralds the end of the rule of law, but a slow, imperceptible erosion of the safeguards against political abuse of state power.

There can be no modernity without interaction with strangers. There can be no democracy in a diverse society without generalized trust.  Xi and Trump are the champions of unforced errors.  Retreat into a premodern world of autarky and nationalism is a future that some Chinese policy hawks and American isolationists find appealing. Mr. Xi and CCP have to carefully parse how much modernity he will allow. Trump and the GOP have the same problem.  For both, generalized trust, the stuff of social capital and civil society, must be throttled.  In the US, we hear the whimpers every day now.


Coming: part 5 – the anarchic international system