How to build a society of trust in China

Zheng Yongnian says a severe lack of social trust in China is fostered by a loss of traditional rules and norms, as well as a lack of modern universal laws. This explains why, when in trouble, most Chinese people avoid seeking legal remedy, preferring to turn to their social connections (关系 guanxi) instead. He argues that focusing on people, giving autonomy to social groups and improving the rule of law are key to rebuilding that trust.
China today faces a lack of social trust. (iStock)
China today faces a lack of social trust. (iStock)

China today is facing a crisis of social distrust. A climate of distrust pervades relations between entities, social groups, people, and between governments and their people. An erosion of trust also exists within entities, governments, organisations, and even families. Distrust is pervasive and omnipresent.

A society’s level of distrust can be compared between societies and over time. In China’s case, one should not think of early Chinese society as a high-trust society. Indeed, any mention of a trust crisis inevitably invites some to cast blame on the reform and opening up (改革开放 gaige kaifang) policy. In truth, Westerners who came into contact with early modern China already found different levels and mechanisms of social trust between the Eastern and Western worlds.

A society is more than just a community of interests; it is also a community of trust.

Since Montesquieu wrote his famous treatise The Spirit of the Laws, Western discourse on trust and the trust-building process in the West have emphasised the “natural order” governing relations and things, which presupposes trust between social stakeholders. A society is more than just a community of interests; it is also a community of trust. The Western legal tradition is partly shaped by the natural order of laws; in turn, it also works to maintain this order.

On the contrary, the traditional Chinese rules of ritual propriety (礼 li) and law (法 fa) were established by the ruling class for social control and exercised top-down. Because top-down control lacks the natural order that underpins bottom-up initiatives, a crisis of social trust could easily ensue.

How natural order is linked to social trust is no doubt debatable. Even the Western legal system did not emerge as “naturally” as some have theorised; instead, it was conceived to serve the interests of the ruling class, and was very much enforced top-down. For sure, a situation where one exercises control over another will provoke a crisis of trust.

The foundations of social trust

So how does social trust emerge and evolve? One can only approach this question from a comparative perspective of four aspects: 

First, Kant’s “moral law”. This is the foundation and root of social trust. It stems from a religious, philosophical or national spirit, and is the historical legacy of a state or nation.

Second, social community. Whether in primitive societies ruled by direct face-to-face relations, the diverse forms of local communities during pre-modern times, or the massive communities such as modern-day nation-states, the structure of social community is ever-changing. Every community is governed by a comprehensive set of rules and norms, formal or informal, without which a community cannot exist.

Third, prescriptive laws. The law can direct and encourage certain behaviours within a community by setting down the rules of conduct. Different civilisations and societies are governed by different behavioural norms. Social actors espousing different norms may end up in conflict when they interact. This is why the level of trust is higher in homogeneous societies such as Japan and South Korea, and lower in ethnically diverse or immigrant societies. Globalisation has become the cause of growing correlation between the occurrence of social conflict and low social trust, given that population flow often hampers the formation of trust between different groups.

Fourth, punitive laws. These are laws that punish nonconformity with the rules of conduct by making those who breach the rules pay for their deviant conduct. Punishment, in turn, deters rule-breaking. Punitive laws may therefore be seen in the light of “imposed” social trust, in that even if people loathe them, so long as their behaviour fits the norm, it’s considered predictable, and the punitive law would carry some degree of credibility. 

Traditional “ritual propriety” has evolved into modern “party discipline”

In the case of China, “ritual propriety” and “law” were by tradition, not universal but community-specific.

Ritual propriety, according to Fei Hsiao-Tung (or Fei Xiaotong), a well-respected anthropologist and sociologist, is stratified by social class. In ancient China, the emperor and the four occupation-based social classes — gentry scholars (士 shi), peasant farmers (农 nong), artisans and craftsmen (工 gong) and merchants and traders (商 shang) — must each observe the set of ritual propriety peculiar to them.

Despite this rigid social stratification, no strict legal or customary prohibitions prevented individuals from moving to a different social class. This occupational mobility was however, not matched by flexibility of ritual propriety. A person moving into a new social class must observe the ritual propriety of that class. The same stratification applied to the law. The written law of ancient China was overwhelmingly penal in nature. That is, the imperial law was always a penal code governing only commoners, and did not apply to the gentry class (刑不上大夫 xing bushang daifu).

social classes
China's concept of social classes is well entrenched. (Internet)

In this sense, China will never produce “law” in the Western sense, where positive law is, in many ways, derived from “God (divine law)” and “natural law”. Both “God” and “nature” are located within a general metaphysical framework which gives them universality. Thus, Westerners could easily switch their mindsets from “all men are equal before God” to “all men are equal before the law”. This, however, does not mean that they enjoy true equality, as the law carries completely different significance to people of different social strata.

Chinese culture stresses particularity. In the language of today, this boils down to “realism” because the real world is unequal. Based on this reality, different communities within Chinese society establish their own rules of ritual propriety. A typical example is “family discipline” (家法 jia fa) in traditional China, where every family enforces its own discipline based on the family’s principles and needs. This tradition has continued to thrive.

Although modern-day China adopts a similar Western concept of law emphasising equality of all before the law, at least in theory, it has not been able to forgo ritual propriety, which is perceived as a positive cultural practice in Chinese tradition. But having served as the guide for the behaviour of the gentry or ruling class for several thousand years, ritual propriety is not entirely worthless. One would have a hard time imagining the gentry class devoid of ritual propriety.

Even today, when in trouble, most Chinese people would rather avoid seeking legal remedy, preferring to turn to their social connections (关系 guanxi). This is a behavioural tendency shaped by deep-seated factors.

Today, ritual propriety has evolved into party discipline. In China, no one would object to the rationality of party discipline, or imagine a ruling party without enforcing party-specific discipline. Party discipline is the ruling party’s de facto law. This is why in China, we hear of the term “intra-party regulations“ (党内法规 dangnei fagui).

The West finds these “laws” baffling. Nonetheless, whether party discipline or intra-party regulations, each is critical for the development of the ruling party. If they are incompatible with the universally applicable national laws, party bylaws will encumber the formation of social trust. Indeed, because both party discipline and intra-party regulations are punitive and designed to exert control, the behaviour prescribed by the disciplinary rules and regulations is unlikely to be otherwise willing acts. Some party members tremble at the mere mention of party discipline or intra-party regulations, and these nervous sentiments could easily spread from within the party to the entire society.

Even today, when in trouble, most Chinese people would rather avoid seeking legal remedy, preferring to turn to their social connections (关系 guanxi). This is a behavioural tendency shaped by deep-seated factors.

Discipline is a big part of Chinese society. People's Liberation Army (PLA) soldiers march in formation past Tiananmen Square during a rehearsal before a military parade marking the 70th founding anniversary of the People's Republic of China on October 1, 2019. (Jason Lee/REUTERS)

The high degree of secularity in the contemporary era also attenuates social trust. Over-secularisation pushes the Chinese society — where Kantian moral law is effectively absent — toward being more interest-driven than ethics-focused. As the socioeconomic structure changes and there is more social mobility, ritual propriety in the traditional sense can no longer operate, not to mention that such rules of propriety are long destroyed.

Moreover, every political and social movement since the May Fourth Movement has impaired the so-called traditional “feudal ethics and code of conduct” (封建礼教 fengjian lijiao). The concept of “class” (阶级 jieji) was introduced to manage relations within the social hierarchy. In other words, it was engineered to annihilate trust within the same social stratum or between different strata — an attempt to provoke conflict.

Historically, fuelling distrust between social classes such as between landlords and farmers, the bourgeoisie and the proletariat, and the government and its people, was the most common approach taken by modern revolutionaries. This is why class is a notion in political culture, and manifests itself in different ways at different stages of the political process, at times even when pursuing democracy.

Societies without trust cannot be sustained 

Trust varies in degree in different societies, and trust must exist for any society to endure. Development has given China the social and economic capital to generate new social trust. Unfortunately, the emergent factors of trust in the Chinese society are offset by human factors.

Without the needed autonomy for a civil society to take shape, social groups lack the means and space to develop their own ritual propriety.

A manifest example is the development of China’s civil society. Although trust is a Western concept, it is not unique to the West. It is a result of capital flow, industrialisation and urbanisation; in other words, it’s an inevitable outcome of social development. When traditional communities break up, new communities come up. China’s rapid growth since the reform and opening up has also spawned the birth of civil society, especially in the more developed regions.

Often, when a new community forms, its emergence is over-politicised as a threat to the ruling regime and clamped down upon. In this way, how could the moral laws of businesses, workers, farmers and intellectuals evolve and grow? These communities are made up of scattered individuals, or “atomised” individuals, as put forth by philosopher and political theorist Hannah Arendt. So where can they find their moral grounding? Morality cannot sprout from individuals. It stems from serving the purpose of a community.

Back to the question of ritual propriety. Without the needed autonomy for civil society to take shape, social groups lack the means and space to develop their own ritual propriety. And without rules of propriety to shape and reinforce ethical conduct, the society will not be able to evolve the mechanisms and rules for exercising self-discipline.

People matter

Building social trust in China requires revisiting the notion of “people”. People are also the core of modern Western society. We speak of people-centredness because people constitute society. People may be treated unequally in the real world, but human nature will drive us to pursue equality.

The quest for equality, however, is a long-drawn process, even in the Western world. It never ends. Seeking equality requires striking the right balance between hierarchy in reality and equality in principle. Hierarchy and equality can never fully reconcile with each other, but the tension between them generates a drive for social progress. Suppressing such tension can only lead to greater inequality and less social trust.

social order
Human nature drives the pursuit of equality, which is a long-drawn process. (SPH)

If one party’s control over another does not foster trust, the “natural” factors influencing social development must be identified and exploited to engender the “natural” mechanisms for trust-building. Control mechanisms are necessary for any society, but they need not be designed around political needs; instead, they could be fashioned in a way that obeys the natural order of social development, with lower costs and greater efficiency.

Given the increasingly secular society, no one will expect highly disciplined communities such as the early European nobility or Japanese samurai to emerge. But people expect to live in a rule-based world. The imperial examination system of ancient China fostered meritocracy, but it was also important for tempering the rise of social groups similar to the European nobility while promoting the gentry class of scholar-bureaucrats. Ritual propriety are the rules and norms governing the scholar class, and they form the basis of trust within the scholar class as well as with other social classes.

Autonomy helps to build social trust

A modern version of ritual propriety could be developed if social groups enjoy a certain level of autonomy. For instance, just as the ruling party has its own party discipline and intra-party regulations, should businesses, farmers and intellectuals also be entitled to their own laws and regulations?

More importantly, autonomy is integral to building a law-based society in China. The rules and norms (or ritual propriety) of social groups may not necessarily conflict with the law. Party discipline, for instance, does not necessarily have to clash with national laws. The problem is, due to incongruity, laws in China is not applied in a comprehensive and ubiquitous manner. This is seen in the incompatibilities between party discipline and national laws.

The contemporary Chinese society is well-placed to adopt both community norms and universal laws. Increasing industrialisation, urbanisation, commercialisation and social mobility require universal laws to serve as the code of conduct for the society at large; similarly, social development also creates demand for social groups to have their own rules and norms. Creating community norms and crafting universal laws should be parallel efforts. The rule of law, in a broad sense, includes both dimensions, and not only written laws.

In conclusion, the rule of law is essential in that it’s the institutional basis for building social trust and the last line of defence against the collapse of trust. Simply put, it’s a vital protective device that guards against the crisis of social trust. In today’s China, to “start with the rule of law” suits the ruling party’s needs. Certainly, it agrees with the natural order of social development.