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Non-Partisanship of Traditional Chinese Politics
By Yuzhong Zhai
2012-03-26 11:57:37
Translation from Chinese by Sherwin Lu (incl. quotations from classics)

EDITOR’S NOTE: This is a sequel to “Chinese Civilization Has Its Own Logic of Development.
Western democracy has been founded on domination over and exploitation of both its unprivileged citizens and foreign nations by a handful of privileged predators (slave owners in ancient Greece and Rome, and monopoly capitalists in modern times). There has never been real “check and balance” between the privileged dominators and the unprivileged underdogs, while the “check and balance” between the alternating No.1 and No. 2 dominating groups, or group alliances (see The Way towards Future: Chinese & Western social evolution patterns compared), have been actually that between different strategies for maintaining their domination over and exploitation of the majority, their difference in strategy only stemming from their partisan, but always privileged, interests. Once the exploited peoples both at home and abroad rise against their domination to press for less unequal sharing of social wealth, the “check and balance” democracy would show its true colors as merely a political soap opera, as is currently revealing itself to more and more people in the U.S. and in the world.
When a mechanism with “check and balance” between the governed and the governing is added to the traditional Chinese non-partisan government, and to social production relations as well, on all levels – from grass-roots production units all the way up through international relationships, that would be true democracy serving the interests of all people, not just a few.


Merit-Based Ranking System
The inner logic in the development of the Chinese civilization, and hence the pattern of its political institution, has been different from that of Western nation-states.
To understand Chinese politics, it is necessary to be aware that classical Chinese political theories paid due attention to social stratification resulting from individual differences and, in tackling the issue of social justice, i.e., equality among people, started from an acknowledgment of the existing REALITY of social inequality, while in contrast Western tradition started from the IDEA of equality but often ended in even greater inequality in real life.
From inequality to equality, or “equality through inequality” (惟齐非齐) – this is the key to understanding classical Chinese politics; otherwise one would stumble into the mistaken view of it as “feudalistic hierarchical tyranny”. The idea to achieve “equality through inequality” originally meant to be non-uniformity in administering punishments, i.e., unequal punishments, to ensure equality and justice. (《尚书·吕刑》)
This idea was later extended to cover the whole political arena by Xunzi (荀子) in the later Warring States period, by which he convincingly argued that only when limited social resources were distributed according to a certain ranking system could lasting social stability be guaranteed. In the Chinese worldview, human individuals were not like mutually identical atoms in mechanistic social view but were parts of the integrated whole of the society.
Based on the idea of “equality through inequality”, Xunzi further proposed one of “integration through differentiation” (明分使群), meaning that the society as an integrated body of human individuals needs to conscientiously work out a mechanism of social stratification so as to bring about an effective division of work and avoid hurting each other. He said: “Without a king to command his ministers, without a superior to manage the inferiors, disasters would incessantly crop up as a result of everybody doing what he wishes. People like and dislike the same kinds of things and when there is not enough to meet their needs, fights would happen. What are needed by one person are produced by people from all walks, because nobody is capable enough to be skillful in every trade and engaged simultaneously in all occupations. Therefore people would get into difficult situations if everybody lives all alone instead of depending on one another. But if living together without each person’s status being clearly defined, fights will definitely occur. Getting into difficult situations is a misfortune and fighting with each other a disaster. To avoid misfortunes and prevent disasters, nothing is more important than to define everybody’s status so as to join people together as a social group.” (《荀子·富国篇》)
Then Xunzi pointed out the harmfulness of “equality” and criticized Mohist ideas related to the issue of equality, especially those of “no pleasure-seeking” (非乐) and “economization” (节用) . He argued that Mohist ideas would not facilitate social management but on the contrary would plunge the society into poverty and chaos, as he said, “Were Mozi ever in charge of all-under-heaven or of one state, he would downsize his underlings and official staff, push for such hard work as to share with the common folks the same drudgery for same credits. If so, the king would not be powerful enough to administer rewards and punishments, and thus the virtuous and capable would not be promoted while the unworthy and incapable not demoted, and thus the officials’ positions would not match their qualifications. If so, resources would not be properly used and unexpected occurrences not properly responded to; favorable climatic conditions would be missed, geographical advantages wasted, and popular support lost, so that all under heaven would suffer as in hell.” (《荀子·富国篇》)
The idea of “equality through inequality” was further expounded by Guanzi, who pointed out the importance of a ranking title system to the distribution of social resources and realization of social justice and harmony. He said: All individuals cannot be placed in an equally distinguished position. If so, things would be difficult to deal with, which would be a great disservice to public interests. Without a few people in superior positions, the common people would not be able to manage themselves. Therefore, distinguishing people by their ranks makes it possible to know the order of precedence and ways of handling relations between the superior and the inferior in managing all affairs. (《管子·乘马第五》)
In traditional China, a person’s rank was mainly represented by his title-matching costume. There is a special passage in Guanzi discussing the relationship between the ranking system and the distribution of social resources: People’s costume styles, food, housing, means of transportation, and allowed number of servants when they are living, and their caskets and tombs after death should all match their respective titles and official salaries, irrespective of their family background and personal wealth (《管子·立政第四》).
Dong Zhongshu (董仲舒) further pointed out that the propriety system established by the sages was meant to “distinguish between the superior and the inferior as represented by the different costumes they wear, and different positions they hold in the imperial court, and by the order of precedence from the senior to the junior, so that people would show humility toward each other instead of fighting – this is the way to unite all people as one. (《春秋繁露·服制》)
In ancient Chinese political life, “equality through inequality” was embodied mainly in the distinction between different titles symbolizing people’s different social statuses, which were based on their varying contributions to the society (“[The title is a] reward for one’s contributions.” -- 《汉书·百官公卿表序》). And the distribution of limited social resources in accordance with people’s different contributions as represented by the ranking order was institutionalized in traditional China as the Social Merit System.

Non-Partisan Politics
The ultimate purpose for positioning the whole population in a ranking order was to realize equality between persons with unequal qualities and worthiness so as to eliminate internal conflicts in a maximum degree and bring about social order and peace. In contrast to Western philosophical tradition of binary opposition, the Chinese used to have the whole picture in view and pay more attention to harmony within the society. On the structural level, there was a three-in-one unity between the political, cultural-educational and military authorities, without a Western-style church as an independent institution responsible for social education nor independent military leaders as often existed in Western history. Classical Chinese politics were opposed to partisanship and to monopoly and dividing up of state power by large interest groups as seen in the West, but instead advocated a non-partisan political life which aimed at balancing in a neutral way between the interests of different social classes and establishing an impartial government that represented the interests of the whole population.
It is said that in 1065 bc Jizi (箕子), King Zhou’s () minister, gave King Wu of Zhou (周武王) the following advice about statecraft, which won the attention of later statesmen throughout history: “With no partisanship for selfish interests allowed, the king’s good grace would reach far and wide and his administration be smooth and stable. ” (“无偏无党,王道荡荡” , 《尚书·洪范》) Of this, Liu Xiang (刘向) of Western Han provided a detailed explanation of this quote from The Classic of History: “It stands for the non-partisan spirit. In ancient times, Emperor Yao upheld this spirit. Though in the supreme position as the Son of Heaven with access to all wealth under heaven, he passed on his throne to the worthy Sun instead of his own offspring. He relinquished all under heaven as if giving away a pair of shoes… The Book of Changes says ‘To practice non-partisanship in managing public affairs under heaven is the highest virtue. If practiced at one place, it will be emulated somewhere else; then it will win the support of all people and become a model for later generations to follow. When ministers stick to the non-partisan spirit, they would not pursue self-interests at their official jobs, nor seek their own material benefits in managing public affairs; nor favor one’s own relatives in handling legal matters, nor discriminate against personal enemies in recommending candidates for official positions.’ ” (《说苑·至公篇》)
Almost all ancient Chinese sages shared the same faith that the emergence of partisan groups in politics would be a threat to the stability of state power, which would even lead to the demise of a state. The Duke of Zhou listed it as one of seven failures in state management (《逸周书·大开武解第二十七》). In a history book sponsored by King Mu of Zhou (周穆王) recording successes and failures of previous rulers, there are several cases illustrating the demise of states brought about by partisan politics. Here are three of them:
 If two sons of the king are equally favored and powerful, the state is destined to ruin. In old times the state of Yiju (义渠) had two sons by different mothers, both in high positions. When later the ruler was sick, his ministers split into two factions engaging in internal strife, which finally destroyed the tribe. (《逸周书·史记解第六十一》)
If the ministers are all smart and capable but in discord while serving the same ruler, it would be very dangerous. In the past, the state of Nan (南氏) had two equally powerful ministers and the ruler could not stop their factional activities. Finally the state was split up. (Ibid.)
Formerly, the state of Youguo (有果氏) tended to willfully dismiss and replace ministers so that discord and factional strife grew between old and new ministers, some of them ganging up secretly with foreign forces, which led to the final destruction of the state. (Ibid.)
It is worth noting that traditional Chinese political process did not only guard against political interest groups but also against commercial interest groups and that restraint on political factions serving commercial interests played an important role in preventing the rise of capitalism in China. One major reason for Sanghongyang (桑弘羊), Emperor Wu of Han’s finance minister, to insist on government monopoly of salt and iron businesses was to prevent big interest groups from controlling major natural resources and fostering political factions (“绝并兼” , “离朋党” -- 《盐铁论·复古第六》).
In the view of our ancient sages, to buy political power with capital cannot be justified politically. Accordingly, the contemporary Western system which was designed for dividing up spoils among big business predators lacks minimum moral foundation. Guanzi discussed in detail about government being corrupted by super rich businessmen in collaboration with partisan officials: “If the ruler loves wealth and is bent on aquiring it, then he has to offer something else for exchange. What does he have to offer then? Nothing but high official positions or noble titles with big salaries. Then unworthy persons would wield power from the above. And then worthy ones would not be willing to be their subordinates; wise ones would not give advices; those with good faith not to make agreements with them; and the courageous not to die for them. This is the same as offering the country for sacrifice… If the ruler loves partisan talking, then ministers would engage in factional activities, raking up opponents’ faults while burying their merits. Then he would not know about the true situation. And then those ganging together would be active and the non-partisan officials be edged out. The result would be no distinction between the worthy and the unworthy, would be contention and disorder, and danger to the ruler…” (《管子·立政九败解第六十五》)
Obviously the author meant that non-partisan neutral politics was the guarantee for distinction between the worthy and unworthy and for establishing a foundational political order.

The Dream about Democracy and Equality
In contrast, Western tradition since the times of ancient Athens has always tolerated partisan politics. Solon’s reforms did not mean to eliminate but on the contrary to maintain the order of partisan politics. People were forced to take sides; if not doing so, they would be deprived of their citizenship. (Aristotle: athenaion politeia) This would be beyond people’s comprehension in traditional China.
In the past century, Chinese intellectuals have habitually neglected the differences between the East and the West in the way of thinking, in socio-political formation and in cultural tradition. For instance, the election of the nation’s top leader by the people has been a goal of Chinese liberal democrats, but they seem to have ignored that the Chinese do not cherish a supernatural world in their mind as Western religious believers do and therefore Chinese political leaders need also take charge of social moral education besides their political duties while Western-style election may help find the politically faithful but not the morally worthy leader – the Pope was actually not chosen through general election.
The situation in China had never been so favorable to the implementation of American-style democracy as after the victorious War of Resistance against Japan. Internally, both the Communist Party sustained by its own armed forces and the third force (the democratic parties) demanded democracy. The latter’s mantras – “Democratize politics” and ”Nationalize armed forces” -- were especially attractive to contemporary Chinese liberal intellectuals: The first one was aimed at political tyranny and meant for the KMT to yield part of its power while the second targeted at separatist regimes suportted by armed forces and meant for the CPC to yield its arms. But reality showed that they meant nothing at all – the third force could not exert any decisive influence on the political situation, only barely maintaining a feeble existence in the limited space between the battling KMT and CPC. Though the constitutional movement of that time was pandered to by both Jiang Jieshi and Mao Zedong, it attracted people only as a Western-style castle in the air. Just as an activist in the movement frankly admitted later, the participants in this movement “behaved just like a group of famine refugees discussing what delicacies to prepare for the next day’s dinner but not thinking about how to fill the stomach instantly.” (邓野:《联合政府与一党训政——1944~1946年间的国共政争》,社会科学文献出版社,2003年,第35~36页。)
Internationally, U.S. President Truman issued a statement on China policy on Dec. 25, 1945 calling for the KMT to end its one-party political tutelage and establish a democratic government. He sent General Marshall to China especially for this purpose, i.e., to mediate between the KMT and the CPC with a view to transplanting the U.S. two-party mechanism into China. But Marshall was not aware that in China, where political and military authority had never been separable, without its own arms no political organization could be a real opposition party. But as the idea of armed opposition does not fit the American pattern for democracy, he was certainly doomed to failure.
The Chinese attach importance to the integration of the whole society, without any notion of the democracy as advocated in the West, nor any individualistic sense of citizenship as promoted in Western city-states or democracies. Equality in classical Chinese politics was based on an acknowledgment of the unequal reality.
After the 1949 revolution, in view of the complex international and domestic situation, Mao Zedong became very much concerned about the emergence of a new privileged class in China, which triggered in him absolute equalitarian ideas. No one can deny Mao’s good intention as demonstrated in the following passage, which Mao rewrote himself in person, in CPC’s 1964 classical political document entitled On Khrushchev’s Phony Communism and Its Historical Lessons for the World: Comment on the Open Letter of the Central Committee of the CPSU (IX): “The members of this privileged stratum have converted the function of serving the masses into the privilege of dominating them. They are abusing their powers over the means of production and of livelihood for the private benefit of their small clique. The members of this privileged stratum appropriate the fruits of the Soviet people’s labor and pocket incomes that are dozens or even a hundred times those of the average Soviet worker and peasant. They not only secure high incomes in the form of high salaries, high awards, high royalties and a great variety of personal subsidies, but also use their privileged position to appropriate public property by graft and bribery. Completely divorced from the working people of the Soviet Union, they live the parasitical and decadent life of the bourgeoisie.” (Eng. Trans.) Mao’s insightfulness has again been testified to by today’s reality.
What was Mao’s strategy for preventing this from re-happening in China? He meant to initiate a “politically democratic” national mechanism modeled after the “soldiers committee” as had been first established in the Red Army during its Jinggangshan period. That was why he revisited the Jinggang mountains in 1965. In the same year, The PLA abolished the military rank system. One year later, Mao launched the Great Cultural Revolution. Unfortunately, it did not end in the realization of greater equality but in social chaos and political failure. After that, the privileged stratum stormed back with even greater vengeance, as manifested in the widespread corruption of today, which is still a headache to the CPC.
Currently it seems that Chinese nationals have reached some unwritten consensus, i.e., that only Western-style democracy can guarantee clean politics. Hence China’s liberal democrats are still following the same old path taken by the third force in mid-20th century, without adding anything new. Cries for freedom, democracy and constitutional government are once again resounding throughout the old nation, or even louder than ever before.

No one can really predict the future, nor can we foretell which way the 21st-century China will go, but we should not ignore the historic momentum of her tradition that has started and run its 5000-year course with a sweeping force. No matter whether one likes or hates it, no one can afford to disregard it, because this momentum is immanent in a long-established and time-tested civilization, and is a living force in reality all the time. No matter how successful the Western government model has been, how brilliant its achievements, no one can guarantee that it can be wholly transplanted on China’s soil without disastrous consequences. Unfortunately, few Chinese scholars do not base their political theory on the presumption that the traditional Chinese political system was backward and that it is destined to be replaced by a modern Western one.

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