"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

The Importance Of Discipline–Lessons From China

Culture matters. An article in The Atlantic (Keliher and Wu 4.8.15) describes China’s attempt to reform the Communist Party.  Its President, Xi Jinping, not only wants to find and prosecute those ranking members guilty of corruption, but to change the culture of the entire 90 million member organization.

Xi has… embarked on an apparent effort, unprecedented in the modern world, to transform the people who make up the state, rather than the structure of the state itself. He appears to be betting that transforming the moral character of officials will enable him to leave intact the institutional structure of the one-party state… Xi is mindful of the precedents of China’s imperial past, and is turning to the example of centuries-ago rulers for inspiration on how to discipline a large, unwieldy, and unaccountable bureaucracy.


The initial reaction from American observers has been two-fold.  On the one hand they applaud Chinese leaders for their direct and uncompromising approach to eliminating a social ill that undermines capitalism, erodes faith in government, and makes trade and investment difficult.  On the other, they criticize China’s authoritarianism and willingness to compromise civil rights for social harmony. 

Most telling of all is their sense that China once again has trumped America.  The swift, autocratic, and implacable commitment to major social and economic reforms has enabled China’s rapid rise to power. The country’s ability to mobilize enormous financial resources for impossibly ambitious infrastructure projects (e.g. Three Gorges dam) and to cloture debate and deter civil disobedience in the interests of social harmony and economic progress are impressive.  It is hard to argue with the Chinese government’s longstanding commitment to reducing poverty first and only second to encourage and protect civil liberties.  Chinese leaders understand that the free flow of information is essential for intellectual and economic development, and that as the country becomes even more competitive, individual freedoms will necessarily follow.  Their job is to manage this transformation.

Yet Xi’s desire to reform the Party is not only practical but moral.

he writings of Xunzi, a second-century B.C. Confucian thinker, help explain Xi’s reforms in this context. Xunzi held that good government involved more than just applying laws and meting out punishments. Because it is ultimately human beings who issue judgments and enforce regulations, it is necessary to have good, upright people holding office. Should each official cultivate righteousness in himself and let morality guide his actions and decisions, a well-ordered state and society will naturally result. It’s not that Xunzi rejected the importance of institutions, only that he saw them as secondary to the people running them.


Individuals, said Xunzi, must have the integrity to act responsibly to family and state; and political leaders, responsible for the well-being of many, assume an even greater moral burden.

Underlying Confucianism – or an essential element of it – is discipline, the ability to limit and control one’s own desires for the benefit of the larger community. Confucianism and Communism together blend authority, respect, community values, individual responsibility, and universal goals. It is no surprise that Chinese students are so disciplined and hard-working; nor that millions of Chinese have followed government initiatives to improve productivity and economic performance; or that there is so little labor or civil unrest.

Western critics are quick to bash.  There is no unrest in China because of a deeply-undemocratic and despotic rule, a police state, and little or no respect for individual values. Yet, as Xi has understood, one needs only a quick glance at history to see that such complementarity – the governance of strong rulers and the Confucian obedience of the rules – that the situation is not so simple.  American politicians can only stand idly by as the ‘authoritarian’ Chinese trump American democrats every time.  Never more was the contrast so stark.  America is more divided, divisive, and contentious than it ever was, while China, in the pursuit of excellence, wants none of it.

A few years ago a friend of mine hosted a high school Chinese student, sponsored by a cross-cultural exchange program financed by a wealthy alumnus. Before the program began, the school distributed an informational package on what to expect from your Chinese guest. Don’t be surprised, the brochure advised, if your Chinese student focuses almost exclusively on schoolwork and seems to show no interest either in you or in American culture.

Nothing could have been more accurate. Every hosting family reported the same thing – they rarely saw their student who was squirreled away studying all evenings and weekends. Many parents resented this exclusion and voluntary isolation.  “All they do is take”, said one woman. “They could care less about America.”

Of course she was right.  Wang Tsu, the student housed with my friend told him as much. He had a very clear and well-defined plan.  He would get top grades, score high on the SATs, go to an Ivy League university, get an MBA, and return to China to support his honorable parents and to work for the country. No one in the family was surprised that Wang achieved all of his goals.

Image result for images china 19th century dutiful son

Of course the Chinese students were here to take.  The culture of America was incidental to the top-tier education they sought and needed.  They had discipline.  The temporal delights of a free, open, and liberated society were only distractions and held no interest whatsoever.

Reaction to the ‘Tiger Mom’ phenomenon has been as conflicted as that concerning Xi’s reform of the Communist Party.  On the one hand, American mothers feel that Amy Chua’s unremitting discipline of her children in the pursuit of excellence was harsh and one-dimensional.  The cite ‘multiple intelligences’, self-esteem, inclusiveness, cooperative learning, and other educational theories that valued the whole child and his uniqueness.

Image result for images tiger mom

On the other hand, these same mothers are at their wit’s end trying to get their children to buckle down, work hard, and spare nothing in the pursuit of Harvard.  They understand that the disproportionate success of Jews and Asians in America has at least something to do with a family insistence of learning, respect, and above all discipline.

Of course all the hundreds of millions of Han Chinese are not disciplined and respectful; but most at least in part subscribe to the core Confucian values of respect, discipline, and personal honor.  Xi is only trying to restore those core values to the Communist Party whose members have fallen too far off the path.  His actions are applauded not only because most Chinese have suffered in one way or another from the corrosive effects of corruption, but because they understand how moral principles must underlie both state and family.

There has been an often acrimonious political debate in the United States about the importance of moral values, individual responsibility, and adherence to majority cultural norms in dysfunctional communities.  Those on the left downplay such values, preferring to focus on institutionalized and persistent racism, the legacy of slavery, and the importance of the State as guarantor of civil rights and social well-being.  Those on the right observe that after years of paternalistic progressive public programs, nothing has changed; and nothing will until communities and individuals assume responsibility for their actions. Discipline, respect, industriousness, and honesty must be restored.

Image result for black preacher images

In China there is no such debate.  Few people doubt the essential nature of moral integrity and adherence to classic moral and ethical principles.  Progress is simply not possible without a strong moral foundation.

No civilization has prospered without such values and principles.  Cato the Elder taught future Roman leaders not only rhetoric, mathematics, and philosophy; but the importance of integrity, compassion, valor, honor, and discipline.  Regardless of the internecine and territorial wars in England, the Holy Roman Empire, Spain, and the Vatican, there was always a place for respect for King, Country, and Pope; valor, chivalry, and courage.

Image result for images cato the elder

Our own Declaration of Independence, Constitution, and Bill of Rights enshrine these virtues.  Jefferson made it very clear that ‘the pursuit of happiness’ was only possible within a moral framework which valued the rights of the community as well as individual enterprise. The principles of Christian faith as well as those of the Enlightenment have provided the foundation for our democracy.

Image result for images thomas jefferson

While Communist Party leader Xi insists on the restoration of Confucian values, American ‘progressive’ leaders are surprisingly reticent about their Judeo-Christian moral heritage. In their minds the worlds of socio-economic progress and moral rectitude are divorced and unrelated. All that is required is an infusion of public funds.  The only preeminent value seems to be ‘diversity’.

Many Chinese critics have said that cultural values alone are not sufficient for social reform.  Institutions form the architecture for any society, and China is no different.

Can cultural reforms substitute for institutional reforms? Many China-watchers and even some within the party see the current government as doomed without the latter. The most progressive calls are for an independent judiciary and making officials more accountable to the people by, for instance giving individuals the ability to sue the state or introducing democratic elections—two scenarios that pose a direct threat to the authority and legitimacy of the Communist Party.

The issue here is not either-or; it is both.  Unfortunately the United States seems to be focused on neither.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.