The Magazine


Nov 6, 1995, Vol. 1, No. 08 • By CHARLES HORNER
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Now, the Chinese, as we know, were inventors of the state, and when their state was working, it worked powerfully. In modern times especially, when the country was beset by foreign enemies, the need for a strong state was unquestioned by Chinese, whatever their political affliation. But now, with a worldwide trend against the growth of state power, fuelled in part by the (temporary?) collapse of great-power rivalry, it is hard to see the Chinese state as the solitary manifestation of a countertrend. Indeed, by every measure, it has become weaker these past several years, as it has swallowed a stiff dose of capitalism's creative destruction.

But for the Chinese, there is nothing startling here. Consider one set of examples. Back in the 13th century, when an extraordinary economic boom was creating unprecedented new wealth (this is the same country whose wealth astounded Marco Polo when he visited it in the late 1200s, let us remember), there was careful consideration of the longer-term meaning of this efflorescence. In the preceding century, a host of foreign and domestic problems had provoked thoroughgoing debate about an appropriate government response. On one side were advocates of enlarging the government's role in the economy, setting up the government in competition with private merchants and traders, and, in general, refilling the emperor's coffers by more astute fiscal and administrative interventions. On the other side were scholar/officials, known even then as "the Conservatives," who argued that the bureaucracy was already bloated, that government interventions sopped up wealth and did not create it, and that, in any event, reliance on the enlargement of government rather than on the cultivation of individuals would prove destructive. Should the poor be made dependent on the state, the better to control them, or should they be encouraged to become independent of the state, more reliant on their own efforts and on the efforts of local notables?

The Conservatives did not fare at all well at the beginning of this debate. But, as some students of Chinese history have recently come to argue, the debates of those times established an outer boundary for governmental intervention, a boundary which later dynasties were reluctant to cross. There was also set in motion a spirited habit of individual charitable and educational initiatives that continued across the centuries.

This is not in keeping with the image of "oriental despotism," as developed for us by European philosophers. It certainly does not track with our experience of Chinese totalitarianism, post-1949. But, on the other hand, it surely reminds us that China's powerful strand of traditional thought -- Confucian values, if you like -- is no impenetrable smokescreen, and that Confucian values are not, in and of themselves, an excuse for high-handed authoritarianism or denial of social and political rights.

Not so long ago, it was obligatory to distinguish between the traditional and the modern in those parts of the world coming to grips with the onslaught of the West. Throughout most of our century, the argument for the centralization of national power in the state seemed almost self-evident, as the world lived through world wars and a cold war. But that argument seems less relevant now, when the trinity of entrepreneurial expansion, technological advance, and post power-bloc politics is grinding down "big government" everywhere.

As this happens, we have rediscovered our own older thoughts about "civil society." We should surely marshal them against regimes in the world that still refuse to accord human beings their proper due. But we will make as much progress by encouraging them to enter into an argument with their own inherited wisdom, even as we continue polemical exchanges with them about ours.

Charles Horner is adjunct fellow in Asian studies at the Hudson Institute.