The animosity between the Chinese and Australian authorities is heating up, so we Westerners need to understand some of Chinese culture and politics. I do not have all the answers, but some 10 years of working and teaching on China have taught me about three traits that I hope might be of use to my fellow Australians in their interactions with the Chinese. Be aware that my Chinese friends find my descriptions hopelessly simplistic.
One, the individual IS the collective in China. Two, Chinese politics makes an absolute distinction between Chinese and anything else. Three, one can currently only be friends with the Chinese government if one is totally submissive on the issue of personal insults to its leaders (the rest is negotiable).
These three traits sound simple, but they are not easy to understand because ‘we’ are entirely different. We are individuals and don’t even know what ‘a collective’ means. We have shades of us and them, allowing for strangers to become part of us in a matter of just a few years. And our political commentators continuously insult politicians, both at home and abroad, without this being important for friendship between countries.
Let me attempt to explain these Chinese traits by sketching the kind of pressures that gave rise to them. The first two traits should become clear via a stylised story that very roughly tells you where Chinese collectivist culture comes from. Please ‘zoom into’ the story before you ‘zoom out’ again and consider what you might have learned from an Australian perspective.
How ‘I’ became ‘the collective’
Imagine you live in a village far away from the centers of power in your country. You and the entire village are simple peasants growing rice or wheat. You live and die in that village, as have your ancestors you worship for many generations. Tax collectors, bandits, rains, tradesmen, etc., come and go over the centuries. The one constant is that the whole village is held responsible for their dealings with the authorities. You are co-responsible for the taxes of the whole village, for delivering warriors when needed, and for following the law as a village. That collective responsibility is absolute and involves life and death.
So if your neighbour’s son goes to the imperial court and severely embarrasses the emperor, for instance by rebelling, it is not merely he who is killed, but you and your entire village are killed as well. Mild insults mean the neighbour’s son is killed. Bad insults will mean he and his family are killed. Severe transgressions mean its over for the whole village: it is raised to the ground, with the imperial forces leaving placards on the ruins of the village as a lesson to all other villages as to why this one was raised to the ground.
This is not just theory to you. Over the centuries, you have seen this happen to several villages in the region, so you believe it. You have no doubt as the supposed transgressions are plastered on the ruins of the villages destroyed by vengeful imperial troops: authority has made you aware of your collective responsibility.
Now, think of your relation to your neighbour’s children in such an environment. Do you see them as strangers and that their upbringing is none of your business? Or do you think their upbringing is entirely your business because they may get you and your own family killed if they behave poorly? The latter, obviously. Worse, your neighbour looks at you in the same way: you and your children are a liability to your neighbour as much as he is to you. So you watch each other very carefully, particularly for opinions and behaviour considered badly by authority. Similarly do you watch them contribute to the taxes by the village, the religious observances, and anything else.
In the first generation of such interaction you still have some individuality. You have your actual opinions and your own culture but hide them from your neighbour. After 10 generations though, any difference is washed out except the family ancestors which are unique to your family. Otherwise, you have become a totally uniform culture with your neighbours, with the few individuals who cannot control themselves expelled from the village over the generation. Or killed: if there is a particularly uncontrolled person in the village, the villagers have no hesitation killing him and then berating his mother and father for having raised such a menace to the village.
The self-censoring behaviour is entirely normalised and ingrained after 10 generations. You no longer wonder why it is that you feel responsible for the village, you just do. Indeed, you are the village at all times. You have no idea why you automatically fall in line with changes in the direction of authority, you just do. Your relation with authority has become one where you have pinned all your hopes and morality on them.
What authority says is good and proper has become your notion of good and proper. So your notion of what is good has co-evolved with whatever authority is: what started as self-censoring became what you saw as good and proper. Anything else would have gotten you killed long ago. Authority feels to you like the mind over the body. You feel as part of one whole making up China. Yet, you still truly feel that morality, so an authority who egregiously behaves badly for some immediate reason doesn’t feel like authority but an imposter and you want to resist it. So authority must appear the embodiment of good, if not the local authority then at least the more powerful distant one.
Within such a culture, rebellion is all or nothing: a total rejection of an authority in favour of a different authority, or no rebellion at all. That is because it IS all or nothing. The village chooses the winning side or gets destroyed, with no middle-ground: by rebelling one becomes an existential threat to authority.
Some examples of traits 1 and 2.
Now, please zoom out from the particulars of the story and consider the mentality I have described from an Australian perspective. What does this mindset mean for how to read the pronouncements of Chinese officials? You must see them as coming from one and the same organism: Chinese officials simply do not do things on their own initiative without checking with higher authority. Chinese journalists do not merely write things without political backing: all action by anything close to power in China has some degree of permission, either implicit or explicit. To do something with serious consequences without permission means you get killed in China, either literally or figuratively.
This also makes Chinese decision making towards new developments slow. The evaluating parts of the entity need to learn what is going on, adopt a position, and then have that position known in the various arms of the single political organism. An open position has real backing though: if a Chinese embassy openly sends a Western government a 14-point grievance, you should see that as a sign that the whole entity has adopted a position that will be hard to shift unless the very top changes its mind.
If you want a quick change of mind, you would need to convince that top because no-one else counts. The idea that the opinion of businessmen matters at such a point is naive: businessmen don’t have their own opinion with which they would dare lobby the top once the collective has taken a clear position. By the time the clear position is reached, all the lobbying is long over.
There are many other implications of the mindset I have described, from the enormous importance of ‘manners’, to the way in which Chinese corruption differs from Western corruption, to how they deal with African countries. But their actions all follow directly from the described relation: individual Chinese do try to do their best for themselves, but they have a very strong shared notion of ‘us’ from which morality comes and which they openly adhere to absolutely. They think of themselves as part of the same body, with a virtuous mind in Beijing. One of their mistakes is that they think Australia works the same.
Note the absolutism in terms of ‘in’ or ‘out’. Chinese politics does not do many shades of grey. There is no such thing as “a bit like us”: one is Chinese and thus is part of the organism, or one is not. The Chinese literally see it like a body, with its clear distinction between the body that responds to the commands of the mind, and everything else. It doesn’t matter what anything outside the body looks like, whether it can speak Chinese, or how it clothes. It is not ‘us’ and that’s the end of it.
Now, of course there are some tiny shades of grey, such as whether one is Hong Kong Chinese or Shanghai Chinese, etc. Yet, very quickly any open differences are resolved in an absolute manner: one rebels or subjugates oneself, and one does both wholeheartedly, totally winning or losing. Right now, the Hong Kong democracy groups are being show what losing means. The same holds for the Uygurs and any rebellious Tibetans: ‘normal’ Chinese absolutism is being enforced on them. Compared to how emperors of old would have treated them, they are getting off lightly, but that is only because they are not seen as a serious threat: the Chinese will think of them as small groups of deviants being reabsorbed into the body, even treated leniently because they are not really Chinese yet. They are reabsorbed for their own benefit, of course, because the whole is noble and being outside of it means one is lost.
The distinction Westerners like to make between ‘the Chinese’ and ‘the communist Party’ is basically a mistake, a fantasy. Whilst of course not every Chinese person is a fan of the Party, it is still seen as the head of the same organism. Why the Party got in power historically is unimportant. It is the head and cannot be separated from the body which it represents. When Westerners make such distinctions they are just seen as stupid.
Now, the third lesson has hopefully also come into view, ie the absolute need of Chinese political leaders to be above critique. What is rather unimportant in the West – that the rest of society adheres to a positive or a negative story about its leaders – is of total importance in China. The body is told the mind needs focus and unity. Chinese political leaders can only allow open flattery. Any open questioning of their competence or, much worse, moral purity, is political kryptonite.
The deeper reason for this is how Chinese politics works at the top: it is a single group playing very subtle games with each other as they are still each other’s rivals.
Chinese politics as a game of Survivor
The best analogy I can think of in the West as to how Chinese politics work is the reality game show “Survivor”. For those who don’t know how that show works, let me sketch.
Imagine a single tropical island on which you put 16 ambitious smart people vying for a single big prize, with every week seeing one contestant being demoted to ‘also-ran’. So over the weeks, the pool of ‘might win’ whittles down from 16 to 1, while the pool ‘can no longer win’ goes from 0 to 15.
Every week, the contestants engage in some tests with the winners of those competency tests being certain of remaining in the pool that could win. So competency matters. Then, at the end of each week, one additional person is voted out of the pool of ‘could still win’ by those still in the potential winner pool. So the politics are entirely internal: only the opinion of the insiders matters. This dynamic means that those within the potential winner pool play alliance games with each other, scheming up to rid themselves of opponents they dislike for some reason, lying and cajoling constantly, but in a way that it is as unnoticed by the other contestants as possible (though they do have to tell all in front of private cameras, for the enjoyment of the tv audience).
In the final round of Survivor, when there are only 2 left in the potential winner pool, those last two themselves are judged by the pool of 14 ‘also-rans’ who already lost, meaning that the winners remain polite to the losers in each round and try to make it appear others voted them out. Hence, Survivor is a game of internal alliances coupled with total insincerity and a bit of a role for competence.
Chinese politics at the top works pretty much the same: the top politicians live in Beijing and are constantly around each other. They judge each others proteges: the game is about whose junior party friends will get promoted to higher ranks and whose junior party friends get demoted. So the top party officials play a constant game of shifting alliances, with positions strengthened when previous rounds were won. Yet, all the time, there is a bit of an implicit voting going on for the top politicians too as they get judged by the entirety of the circles around the top politicians. Competence, money, and popularity matter. So anyone who is too openly ambitious, poor, or arrogant gets voted down very quickly.
Now, in Survivor, as in Chinese top politics, seeming is everything. Open conflict immediately gets resolved by isolating any accuser and voting them out. So the whole game is about forcing opponents into the open, isolating them, and destroying them. The top Chinese officials are absolute masters of this game who are extremely careful with language and outward appearances. Their game lasts decades, not a few months.
What that evolves towards is a system at the top of total outward compliance with a ‘Party line’. Anyone who criticises a higher leader in a noticeable way is killed off immediately. Higher leaders only very implicitly criticise each other via the juniors they help promote, but always using very circumspect wording and arguments. Any open personal criticism is a declaration of war, which is usually settled in a matter of hours in favour of one side. In the West one can run to an open rival, or another country, but in China there are no open rivals and certainly no other countries.
In very volatile periods, a kind of mass disobedience breaks out as lower officials take local opportunities, and the central system breaks down, but any period of stability means this dynamic is restored, leading to a total omerta on personal criticism of the leaders. That omerta then simply spreads out over the entire organism: the highest layer of observed critique is killed off, after which the omerta goes a level further.
In recent decades China has had stability. That has meant the omerta on leadership critique has spread far and wide, such that Chinese top politicians are now only criticised in the very extremities of the Chinese organism and abroad. And Chinese officialdom has become obsessed with those sources of criticism. When the New York Times a few years ago ran negative stories on top leaders in China, huge efforts were made by Chinese secret service agencies to disrupt the NYT website and to prevent a recurrence. The Chinese authorities have so far accepted they cannot force US politicians to toe their line, but they are trying to expand the omerta everywhere they can. What they hated about Hong Kong much more than its democracy was that Hong Kong businesses aired lots of open criticism of the top Chinese leaders, even printing salacious stories on their families.
Which brings us to friends of China. The omerta has reached Australia. It has shown itself on Australian university campuses where Chinese students do their own version of Survivor by enforcing the omerta on Australian shores. By criticising any other Chinese students on twitter if they show the slightest degree of disagreement with the Party line, they are showing their own deference.
The same omerta is now being asked of Australian politicians and higher level journalists. The price of friendship with the current Chinese government is an omerta on critique of its political leaders and anything they decide.
The price for not complying with the omerta is that the Chinese authorities will then want to shield other Chinese away from the ‘perverse’ influences coming from Australia. So no more Chinese students, tourist, and businessmen. Some of the less high-contact forms of trade might still go on for some time, but only if the insults are not loud enough.
So that is what Australia is now facing, in my opinion.