The People in Chinese Political Thought

The following is the text of a short talk I gave at a public gathering organized by HKU students on the street in Admiralty next to Hong Kong government headquarters on October 1, China's National Day.

Much thanks to Tim Li, who translated into Cantonese for me.

The same text is cross-posted on Warp, Weft and Way for comments and discussion here.

The People in Chinese Political Thought

Chris Fraser
October 1, 2014
Admiralty, Hong Kong

Good afternoon. I speak as a professor in the Department of Philosophy at HKU and as a permanent resident of Hong Kong. Hong Kong is my home.

Many of us at HKU are deeply proud of the actions of Hong Kong’s students this week. They have peacefully expressed their political views on issues of profound importance while observing the principles of nonviolent civil disobedience.

This week’s protest is now famous all over the world for the demonstrators’ civility and considerateness. Our young people have set a wonderful example for the entire world.

We should also thank our police for their work the past three days. The violence on Sunday was deplorable. But the conduct of the police since then has been exemplary.

Today is China’s National Day. Let’s celebrate it as participants in the continuing tradition of China’s great civilisation. We are Hong Kong people, but we are also part of China, and we are proud to carry on both our wonderful regional traditions and our broader national ones.

All around us this week, we see banners and hear speeches presenting important, vital ideals from modern, international political discourse. Universal suffrage is one of these. So is open nomination of candidates by the public.

Some people may suggest that these are “Western” ideals, but let me propose that they are not specifically “Western” notions. They are “modern” ones, especially suited to the social and political conditions of the modern world. That is one reason why they appeal to people from all over the world, not only those from Western countries.

So when we are contrasting Chinese traditions with the values and methods shared in many developed liberal democracies today, often the most informative contrast is not “Chinese versus Western.” It is “ancient versus modern.” Just as ancient or traditional Chinese political values or methods may sometimes contrast with today’s, in many cases Western values and methods from earlier times do too.

Still, ancient political values and processes remain relevant. They help us to see where our values come from, and they can remind us of what our values really are. We can learn from them.

This is a week in which the people of Hong Kong — especially the young people — have taken dramatic steps to make their voices heard, out of deep frustration with leaders and a political system that they believe has simply not been listening to them.

In honour of National Day, let me invite you to consider three ideas from traditional Chinese political philosophy about the role of the people in the political process. These ideas are distinct from modern political ideals. They are still far from our ideal of democracy, in which leaders are chosen by the people, from among themselves, to lead on their behalf. But you can see ways in which they are continuous with and support our values today. They help to place this week’s events in a historical and cultural context.

And you can ask yourself whether our leadership meets the standards of ancient Chinese political thinkers, let alone our standards today.

Here is the first idea, from Mengzi 孟子.

Some of you are familiar with Mengzi’s ideal of the leader “caring for the people” 保民 and practicing “benevolent government” 仁政. The leader must take responsibility for the people’s welfare. For Mengzi, the people are “the highest” (民為貴) and the leader’s mandate lies partly in their support.

How do we know how well a leader is fulfilling his responsibility and maintaining his mandate? For Mengzi, the people do not choose their leaders or run their own government. But public approval or disapproval serves as an indicator, or a gauge, of how well the leadership are doing their jobs.

You might argue that public demonstrations such as this week’s are just the sort of thing Mengzi is talking about. When tens of thousands of people pour into the street day after day in frustration, this is a sign that the leader is failing and his mandate is weak.

That’s one idea. Here’s a second one.

In Mozi 墨子, the key to a successful political society is a high degree of unity in values among the people and their leaders. This unity is not achieved by having the people simply accept and follow what their leaders decide. It must be achieved by winning the people’s continued support. And the way to do that, according to Mozi, is for the public to see that the leader’s policies work to benefit society as a whole.

If people see that the leader’s actions do not actually benefit all of society — for example, if they benefit mainly himself and his associates — they will join together to oppose and criticise him. People’s relations with their peers in society are stronger than their relation to the leader. So if the leader does not govern in the public interest, they ally together against him. When they do so, unity of values is lost and the basis for political order breaks down.

The role of the people is crucial. If the leader is effective, they have a responsibility to cooperate with him. But they are also expected to correct him if he makes mistakes. If they find themselves joining together in opposition to his policies, that indicates the leader is not fulfilling his job of taking action to benefit all of society.

Here’s our third big idea.

Zhuangzi 莊子 considers the view that leaders should, by their own values, set norms and standards for the people to follow. The text rejects this, calling it “fake virtue” 欺德. This style of government simply won’t work. It is like trying “to step over the sea” 涉海 or “make a mosquito carry a mountain on its back” 使蚉負山.

The proper approach, according to Zhuangzi, is to govern not by one’s own views, but in a way that is deeply responsive to the people. In the best case, the leader’s actions seem to come not from him, but almost from the people themselves. The key lies in responsiveness and conforming to the people’s own values.

So we have three big ideas here that are relevant to us today.

The first, from Mengzi, is that the people’s support is crucial to the leader’s mandate, and the people’s public response to the leader is an indicator of his performance.

The second, from Mozi, is that both the people and the leadership are responsible for maintaining the unity of values needed for good political order. The people can do their part only if they see the leadership genuinely acting in everyone’s best interests. If not, they can be expected to join together in protest.

The third, from Zhuangzi, is that the key to good government is responsiveness to the people, rather than forcing one’s own standards on them.

So we have a range of sources in the native Chinese tradition of political thought that call for government to answer to the people and that may justify the people’s taking extraordinary steps to force the government to change course when its direction does not conform to their values.

Let’s remind ourselves that the name of our “one country” is the People’s Republic of China. Our government exists, in the words of the CCP slogan, “to serve the people.”

Thank you.

(Photo credit: Jamin Asay.)