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Chinese culture, western philosophies, and government

By Brian Hennessy - posted Tuesday, 13 October 2009

No matter how much westerners may dislike the communist system and its tentacles which infiltrate almost every aspect of daily life in the Middle Kingdom, China’s rise confronts us with an inconvenient truth: maybe this is the best system for governing China at this stage of her development.

China: culture and government

Despite the damage inflicted on the Chinese people by Mao’s post-revolutionary madnesses: (e.g. the Great leap Forward and its man-made famine; and the Cultural Revolution and its and mass distortion of reality and subsequent terrors), historically, when offered a chance to change the system after one of China’s periodic violent transitions of power, the only thing that changed was the guy at the top - the emperor. Culture and government were one and the same. The system always remained intact.

Thousands of years of social conformity, collective thinking, and voluntary isolation from other societies have insulated this civilisation from alternative explanations of reality and cross-cultural influences.


For example, progressive western ideas which altered the previously accepted cultural, political and social landscapes of Europe and her satellite cultures in the new world have always been regarded with suspicion in China simply because they are not Chinese in origin. Cultural chauvinism remains a powerful force in the Middle Kingdom, despite its policy of opening up and reform. Foreign colonial occupiers of China during the 19th century reinforced this attitude.

Although western Marxism was a driving force for change last century, what we see today is the enduring strength of a culture which has always absorbed and then changed foreign invaders whether they were military, cultural, or political. Zhang Zemin’s “Socialism with Chinese characteristics”, is a modern example of this cultural phenomenon. Absorb the idea, then adapt its best features to mainstream Chinese culture. Russia did it the other way around, and failed.

Today’s ruling elite, although collective rather than individual, governs China in a manner not dissimilar to that of its imperial forbears. There has been no fundamental change in the way society operates or is governed. A rigid bureaucratic hierarchy stretching from Beijing to the village continues to run this country. Thank you Confucius.

Thousands of years of cultural strength have conditioned Chinese people to believe that there is no need to tamper with this system which they know has guided China to where she is today. They know its advantages and disadvantages, and have resolved, for now, to stick with the devil they know.

Further, a deeply rooted oriental fatalism sabotages liberating political, social, and religious beliefs which might empower Chinese individuals. China is a culturally bound collective. The only “liberated” people in China today are the rich and powerful who owe more to political patronage than they do to Confucius or western philosophy. There are no gurus or Oprah Winfreys in China. Not yet anyway.

So, in the absence of a clear alternative, and as a result of the continuing struggle for survival, systemic change is a luxury that Chinese people are not yet prepared to countenance. Other matters have a higher priority. Matters such as food, education, and healthcare for the masses; and more money for government officers and the middle-class.


Systemic change might put these priorities at risk.

The West: a comparison

Like them or not, new ideas got a hearing in the west and helped raise the consciousness of the western masses. The more rational explanations of reality among them eventually underpinned various movements for change. Unlike China, violent revolution in the west often resulted in systemic change. Change that had no loyalty to culture.

Thus, when hard times afflict the west, there has never been a reversion to historical culturally bound ideas and systems that have had their day, despite the appearance of the occasional demagogue who has the answer to life, the universe and government if only we would vote him into power.

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About the Author

Brian is an Australian author, educator, and psychologist who lived in China for thirteen years. These days he divides his time between both countries.

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