Can China move away from a 'small society mentality' and build a sustainable big society?

Capitalist and socialist societies are faced with the same universal conflict between power and self-interest on the one hand, and fairness and justice on the other. As socialism seeks to reclaim the “better angels of our nature”, as mentioned by former US President Abraham Lincoln, the contemporary mass society that results may be a worthy alternative to a democratic system on the point of collapse. But can China achieve this goal?
People walk past photos of Chinese President Xi Jinping at the Museum of the Communist Party of China in Beijing, China, on 3 March 2023. (Greg Baker/AFP)
People walk past photos of Chinese President Xi Jinping at the Museum of the Communist Party of China in Beijing, China, on 3 March 2023. (Greg Baker/AFP)

In late March 2023, the second Summit for Democracy attempted to chart the direction and future of our turbulent world. Although the domestic governance systems of the 121 participants are very different, they all adhere to the concept of democracy. Even the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), which was the object of innuendo at the Summit, has insisted that it is democratic and, better still, that China is a “whole-process people’s democracy”.

All this seems to suggest that the concept of democracy is unfaltering, and it is that which gives the US, which is the paragon of democracies, the dominant position, and renders the CCP regime reactive in global politics. While the CCP has made remarkable achievements in various areas in recent decades, including significant progress in many universal values, it has been muted by the liberalist discourse.

However, not only is the common parlance on democracy versus authoritarianism misleading, but it also masks the real issues and destroys the constructive nature of contemporary global politics.

The primitive tribal society in us

The ascendancy of Western liberal democracy that marked “the end of history”, according to liberal scholar Francis Fukuyama, is considered “the miracle of Western civilisation” by Friedrich Hayek.

A miracle is something that is impossible but has happened, and labelling liberal democracy and capitalism as a miracle is not an exaggeration. Evolving through the ages, humans have spent 99.9% of their time in small societies with the tribe as the basic unit. During these 200,000 to 300,000 years of primitive human society, human nature and instincts were shaped. In contrast, there have only been several thousand years of civilisation. Contemporary civilisation, marked by the emergence of capitalism, has only existed for a few hundred years.

Pedestrians cross an intersection in Times Square in New York, US, on 13 April 2023. (Tim Eastman/Bloomberg)
Pedestrians cross an intersection in Times Square in New York, US, on 13 April 2023. (Tim Eastman/Bloomberg)

The small family and tribal society, linked through blood ties, is a melting pot that cultivated human nature and the basic characteristics of humans today, including the attitudes towards and affiliation with others, instinctive behavioural differences towards kin and outsiders, distinct love and hate for friend and foe, fear of the unknown, concept of hierarchy, desire for power, and sense of security. The instinctive human psychology and behaviour are in line with the development of the hunter-gatherer and the subsequent agrarian societies in the natural economy.

... the “miracle of Western civilisation” is the set of ideas and systems developed in the West to overcome the small society’s limitations and create the big society in order to adapt to big machine production.

Building Western big society with capitalism

The rise of capitalism has fundamentally altered the people’s way of life by evolving the small tribal society to the big mass society that is increasingly market-dependent. The division of labour is characterised by cooperation among strangers that is unrestricted by differences in location, ethnicity, religion, language or culture.

However, human ethics developed in the small society is unable to meet modernisation’s requirements. Hence, the “miracle of Western civilisation” is the set of ideas and systems developed in the West to overcome the small society’s limitations and create the big society in order to adapt to big machine production.

The modern market economy is innovative and requires the individual’s autonomy and agency. This has given rise to ideologies and systems of ethics that centre on the individual, including liberty, human rights, the rule of law, the spirit of contract, rationality, and the scientific spirit.

People walk by the New York Stock Exchange (NYSE) on 21 April 2023 in New York City, US. (Spencer Platt/Getty Images/AFP)
People walk by the New York Stock Exchange (NYSE) on 21 April 2023 in New York City, US. (Spencer Platt/Getty Images/AFP)

Democracy has come about much more recently as a by-product of individualism. It is indeed a miracle that this entire system forms the brand new basis upon which human relationships are established to ensure the division of labour and cooperation between strangers.

Socialism and the small society

Peter Drucker, Hayek and other liberal scholars believed that socialism is the essence of small society, that it attempts to restore the particularism of old ethics and interpersonal relationships as well as the old system that is based upon the small society. Yet, as a counteraction to history, it is bound to fail and is destined to result in either political dictatorships or poorly developed economies.

However, liberal scholars have overlooked another set of human instincts that are cultivated in the primitive small society, namely the ethics of fairness, mutual assistance, altruism and self-sacrifice, which are vital to the survival of the family and the tribe. These instincts have been suppressed by capitalism, and socialism seeks to reclaim them, upon which to establish a contemporary socialist big society.

Both the capitalist and socialist big societies are faced with the same universal conflict between power and self-interest on the one hand, and fairness and justice on the other. While having more power and focusing on self-interest would clearly result in individual gain, the collective gain from upholding societal fairness and justice does not clearly benefit any individuals.  

People ride bicycles and scooters on a street during morning rush hour, in Beijing, China, 20 April 2023. (Tingshu Wang/Reuters)
People ride bicycles and scooters on a street during morning rush hour, in Beijing, China, 20 April 2023. (Tingshu Wang/Reuters)

While the problem of free-riding does not exist in the tribal society underpinned by blood ties and close social relations when one performs an act of public service to one's kin, it is problematic in the big society of strangers, often resulting in moral degeneration, systemic degradation and a reversion to the small society behaviours.

The notion of "public" here is, in fact, private, because the nation is family as expressed by its Chinese rendering: 国家 (guojia, literally country-home).

China stuck in small society mentality

The conventional solution to this is hereditary monarchy (家天下), which is the logical extension of the small society or paternalism. This is exemplified by tribes, kingdoms, empires, and even some modern nation-states where the rulers’ paternal authority extends over all their subjects and people.

The notion of "public" here is, in fact, private, because the nation is family as expressed by its Chinese rendering: 国家 (guojia, literally country-home). The idea of “a community with a shared future for mankind” (人类命运共同体) is noble but in practice, it is nationalism, and it is the small society’s familiar patterns of behaviour such as hegemony, factionalism and hierarchy that would prevail.

This is not subject to human will, and it is why China has repeatedly vowed since Mao's time never to be a hegemon or a superpower, while other countries are increasingly unconvinced. No matter how sincere the Chinese feel themselves to be, such a statement which goes against human nature feels insincere.

Democracies' regression to primitive instincts

The modern market economy requires labour as a factor of production, and the mobility of labour enables the market to efficiently allocate the workforce. As a result, the protection of individual liberty and human rights has gained currency.

... the democratic system mires in divisions and gridlock, prompting a regression to primitive instincts in a vicious cycle.

People walk at a shopping street in Beijing, China, 15 April 2023. (Tingshu Wang/Reuters)
People walk at a shopping street in Beijing, China, 15 April 2023. (Tingshu Wang/Reuters)

Slavery could not give rise to capitalism and instead resulted in the US Civil War. This irreconcilable conflict is also the reason for the emerging bourgeoisie’s demand for civil rights from the feudal ruling class. After the bourgeoisie ended the patriarchal feudal system, democracy became the safeguard for the new order.

However, democracy needs to be upheld by the ethics, behaviour and institutions that underpin the belief that “the world belongs to all” (天下为公). Without a vigilant guardianship of power and authority, public-spirited actions that go beyond traditional social relations run into the problem of free-riding.

Capitalism legitimises self-interests, promotes individualism and amplifies the problem of free-riding. Established in small primitive societies, the instincts to distinguish between ingroup and outgroup as well as for affiliation, transform into vigorous identity politics through competition in a democracy.

Consequently, the democratic system mires in divisions and gridlock, prompting a regression to primitive instincts in a vicious cycle. This is the cause of the crisis in democracies today, which is putting an end to Hayek’s “miracle”. Biden’s Summit for Democracy, a show of blind faith in the thrall of democracy, fails to address the root cause of this crisis.

... authoritarianism has resulted in post-war developmental states in East Asia, leveraging the paternalistic power of the state to pursue nationalist objectives.

Big society under authoritarianism

The modern “authoritarianism” that is targeted by the Summit is secularised imperial power or patriarchy, even though its objectives are national development or rejuvenation. While the big society developed democratically may be a miracle, the same cannot be said of the big society developed under an authoritarian system

Big society developed under authoritarianism retains much of the small society’s culture, values and behaviours, but without the close relationships of the family and the mutual responsibilities of its members. In addition, as it lacks the accountability inherent in democratic elections, authoritarian rulers can easily degenerate into tyrants.

Participants are seen on the screen as US President Joe Biden delivers remarks during a virtual Summit for Democracy, which he is hosting from an auditorium on the White House campus in Washington, US, 29 March 2023. (Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)
Participants are seen on the screen as US President Joe Biden delivers remarks during a virtual Summit for Democracy, which he is hosting from an auditorium on the White House campus in Washington, US, 29 March 2023. (Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)

However, in the intense global competition for modernisation, authoritarianism has resulted in post-war developmental states in East Asia, leveraging the paternalistic power of the state to pursue nationalist objectives. They thus also have sustained a big society that is required by the modern market economy, achieving astonishing success that has improved the lives of millions, and demonstrating unexpected responsiveness to popular sentiments in their policies. This is an “inconvenient truth” to the organisers of the Summit for Democracy, which they can only ignore.

Competition for modernity: democracy vs authoritarianism 

In other words, the differences between democracy and authoritarianism are not convincingly construed as a confrontation between the righteous and the evil. Rather, it is a competition for modernity. While both sides boast successful examples, they both are vulnerable to corrosion by the dual force of human nature. With the myth of “the end of history” shattered, we are far from a conclusion on which system will eventually prevail.

Due to its short history, it is unclear whether contemporary democracy could triumph over the legacy of small society. The psychological foundations of democracy are fragile. Identity politics, the vestige of the small society, has gained currency through legitimate democratic competition and is doing damage to democracy, causing it to regress towards the primitive small society.

Meanwhile, the authoritarian big society has, right from the start, possessed the operational characteristics of the primitive small society. From this perspective, democracy and authoritarianism are rather similar, with neither being able to claim righteousness nor be labelled evil.

The worshipping of power is the fundamental reason why China has yet to establish a modern and just society for all.

China's worshipping of power a problem

While Biden has insisted that democracy is the best system to solve the main problems humanity faces today, he has also admitted that “democracy is hard”, mentioning racial discrimination and hate crimes.

US President Joe Biden delivers remarks during a virtual Summit for Democracy, which he is hosting from an auditorium on the White House campus in Washington, US, 29 March 2023. (Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)
US President Joe Biden delivers remarks during a virtual Summit for Democracy, which he is hosting from an auditorium on the White House campus in Washington, US, 29 March 2023. (Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)

The CCP’s recent intensification of its anti-corruption efforts, regardless of whether it is attributable to power struggle, reveals that systemic reforms are far from effective. Despite more than a decade of system-wide reforms, the culture of “no desire to be corrupt” has not taken root and the society remains pessimistic about tackling corruption.

The biggest reason for this is that the process of systemic reforms is accompanied by substantial recentralisation of power that puts the rule of man above the rule of law. In fact, this power distribution is the root cause of the culture of corruption because those in power feel emboldened and secure.

While this feeling appears illusory in the long run, it is very real at the moment. In a moment of weakness, those in power easily succumb to temptations and take the path of no return. When the powerful are surrounded by sycophants who wish to take advantage of the power relations, the culture of power can neutralise any law or institutions, not to mention the values of integrity. Consequently, society falls from grace, with the degradation of law and regression of human nature.

The worshipping of power is the fundamental reason why China has yet to establish a modern and just society for all. Power consumes all and corrupts all. The concentration of power in the hands of party secretaries at all levels and locales makes it impossible to “cage power in institutions” as Xi Jinping hopes. In this respect, there is much the CPC can learn from the democracies.

The common challenge is to create a system that can sustain big society human traits while reducing or even eliminating those of the small society.

Adaptability to unknown the key

This era is characterised by the uncertain and even unknowable future. As it is impossible to have a blueprint for the future, Dogmatism, whether Liberalist or Marxist, will doom its believers. Realistically, what politics can do is to stick to principles and common human values while constantly adapting to whatever circumstances that come along.

People visit the Museum of the Communist Party of China in Beijing, China, on 3 March 2023. (Greg Baker/AFP)
People visit the Museum of the Communist Party of China in Beijing, China, on 3 March 2023. (Greg Baker/AFP)

To a large extent, the Summit for Democracy is the product of ideological dogmatism. Although “21st Century Marxism” (21世纪的马克思主义) may be similarly dogmatic, the CCP’s policies for the “two centenaries” (两个百年) are formulated with specific goals and implementation plans. This ability is currently lacking in democracies.

While the Summit for Democracy may have scored some superficial points, Chinese authoritarianism may actually be the one making steady progress despite being vilely labelled.

Today’s era is one in which advocacy for liberal democracy gains much resonance while that for Marxism finds limited audience. Therefore, it may be easier for the CCP to get down to earth to get more things done. And that is China’s advantage that democracies can emulate.

Similarly, innovation has been the shortcoming of China’s system in this era of disruptive innovation economy, and China can learn much from the West, including the core ideas of liberalism, such as freedom, human rights, the rule of law, equal opportunities etc., that undergird its economic dynamism.

The common challenge is to create a system that can sustain big society human traits while reducing or even eliminating those of the small society.

This article was first published in Lianhe Zaobao as “民主峰会的是非”.

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