Global Review was honored to conduct an interview with Prof. Dr.van Ess, sinologist and President of the Max Weber Foundation about China, the CPC and their relationship to communism, Confucianism, nationalism and futurism.
Prof. Dr. Hans van Ess
Global Review: Prof. Dr. van Ess, as President of the Max Weber Foundation, Max Weber’s sociology of religion and his views on the emergence of capitalism, Protestant work ethics and Confucianism should be a central concern of yours. In the 1950s Confucianism was seen as an economic and political obstacle to development, today it is an economic success model, although the CPC also uses it politically as a legitimation for its authoritarian system, while Taiwan as a democracy also quotes Master Confucius. Oskar Weggel also made a distinction between Great Confucianism, which no longer existed, and Small Confucianism, which permeated the world of life and education of the Chinese.
Which Confucian elements were then seen as inhibiting development and are now seen as promoting development, and what is real? Is the economic success due to Confucianism or economic policy or a mixture of both?
Prof. Dr. van Ess: The twentieth century in China is indeed marked by very conflicting views of the benefits and harms of Confucianism. At the beginning of the century, Confucianism was seen as an obstacle to modernization because it was believed to cement hierarchical structures in society. The so-called “Five relationships” demanded the unconditional obedience of the subject to his ruler, the son to the father, the woman to the man, the young to the elder, but also of friends to one another. The subordination of women to men was particularly criticized. Supporters of Confucianism then emphasized that this analysis only describes the negative social excesses of Confucianism and that it does not take into account its spiritual dimension. Confucian spirituality emphasizes universal values such as harmony, but also the importance of the work of the individual on his own person. Confucian perseverance, hard work, thrift and the unconditional willingness to learn of the Confucian are important prerequisites for the modernization of China and for the business success of the individual. In Taiwan, philosophers have emphasized the importance of another virtue, namely the loyal criticism that a subject has to exercise against his ruler when something goes wrong. In this respect, one can also recognize democratic values in Confucianism. In Confucianism, obedience is therefore linked to a call for an admonition, which the subject must bring up when he sees that it is necessary. But he has to bring them forward within the framework of what is socially acceptable, radical demands that lead to the rulers losing face, lead to merciless and socially acceptable punishment.
Whether or not Confucianism is the source of economic success is a difficult question to answer. Ultimately, the People’s Republic of China followed an economic development path that was first mapped out by Japan and then Taiwan, Korea and Singapore. All of these countries have focused on supporting and framing the economic freedoms of local companies with planned economy strategies prescribed by the state. The state stipulated that imports should not exceed the financial budget of the countries and that, conversely, capital was brought into the country through consistent export promotion. Traditionally cultural virtues, which I mentioned above, may have helped with this strategic planning.
Global Review: Helmut Schmidt once asked Deng Xiaoping why the CCP was not renaming itself the Confucian Party of China. To what extent is the CCP communist and to what extent Confucian at all?
Prof. Dr. van Ess: The Chinese Communist Party is a communist party, the guidelines of Marxism-Leninism are its objectives. In fact, in the last two decades, the view has increased that Marxism and Leninism, on the one hand, and Confucianism, on the other, are not mutually exclusive, but are actually related to one another. Both emphasized, for example, the importance of the acceptance of political guidelines by the people, for both the moral training of the cadres is the central mechanism through which government policy can be carried to the people. Many Chinese believe that the Hegelian doctrine of thesis, antithesis and synthesis could only arise in German idealism because Leibniz and his correspondence with the Jesuit mission fed it with originally Chinese ideas. But in the end the state structure of democratic centralism established by the CPC is based on pure Stalinism. Historical explanatory models are all colored Marxist, the Chinese have a lot of Marxism in their heads because of their schooling, often without noticing it. I hardly see any real Confucian influence.
Global Review: At the time of the Ming Dynasty, when the Muslim eunuch admiral Zheng He sailed on sea, China was well on the way to becoming a maritime and trading power. At the same time, it is debated today whether it was the barbarian invasion or Confucian officials who feared a disruption of the heavenly order of feudalism due to trade and put an end to this development? What role did merchants, businessmen, economics, and the military play in Confucian teachings? Was there a Confucian economic theory or approaches to it or comparable writings like Sun Tse’s „The Art of War“?
Prof. Dr. van Ess: It is controversial whether China was organized in a feudal way. According to Marxist-Leninist theory, China must of course be viewed as a feudal state, but actually the introduction of a bureaucratic system abolished the feudal system in China as early as 221 BC.. Since then there have been no feudal lords, at least according to the theory, unlike in feudalism, the elite was recruited from a group of people selected according to the principles of meritocracy within the framework of an examination system. This is the opposite of feudalism. The elite of the Ming Dynasty actually seem to have feared that traders could build up an uncontrollable power over the state and cause its damage. Traders were traditionally considered to be the lowest social class, similar to the way it was in ancient Rome, where the landowners, disguised as „arable farmers“, were seen as an important social class because they provided the state and the people with food on the one hand and were easier to tax on the other as traders. Officials who came from Confucian-educated merchant families have therefore for a long time tried everything to hide the family’s profession. The rhetoric remained that way until the end of the Empire in 1911, however, at the turn of the end of the Ming dynasty to the foreign rule of the Manchurian Qing dynasty in the seventeenth century, despite this resentment, a strong class of merchants emerged from which the Chinese elite actually came . These merchants were ideally impregnated with Confucian values. There were already economic texts that were read in ancient China, but the “art of war” is unlikely to have been one of them. It is interesting that the Communist Party of China is trying today to tie in with this tradition of the “Confucian merchants” in order to curb pure profit maximization.
Global Review: How do you explain the fact that Chinese-born Southeast Asians essentially dominate and control the economies of Southeast Asia and are also seen as „the Jews of Asia“? Confucianism, secret societies and triads or what is the explanation for them?
Prof. Dr. van Ess: This phenomenon is probably due to the strong family ties that the entrepreneurial families in Southeast Asia hold together, but also with their home communities in the People’s Republic of China and Taiwan. Secret societies may play a role, but more important are the international networks that these families maintain and with which members support one another. The more provincial natives often do not have anything comparable to offer – and here the comparison with the Jews of the premodern era, which many Chinese actually draw themselves, may be appropriate.
Global Review: Under Hu Jintao it seemed that more Confucian elements were emphasized again with the „harmonious society“. Under Xi Jinping it seems that Marxism is now being increasingly emphasized again. Especially in a strange hybrid form of a“Chinese dream”, which appears to be based on the American dream and exceptionalism and then, by means of the national rejuvenation, makes apparently moderated borrowings from the historical materialism of communism, in which the CPC and China have a teleological historical mission and foreseeing. Is this impression correct?
Prof. Dr. van Ess: It is probably too early to judge the reign of Xi Jinping, but in fact it seems that there is more emphasis on Marxism today than in Hu Jintao’s time. The Confucian-like slogan of the „Harmonious Society“ issued by Hu Jintao was strongly related to the social upheaval caused by the capitalist imbalances the CP allowed to advance the country. Xi Jinping initially strongly supported the International Confucianism Association, an organization closely linked to the Communist Party since Jiang Zemin’s time, but my preliminary impression is that the leadership has concerns that the party’s socialist base may be in this way in the long run could hollow out. That would be dangerous for them. The “Chinese dream” has taken the place of the “Harmonious Society” because it signals to the Chinese citizen that they should no longer only support the rise of the country without being angry about injustices, but that they should also participate. Of course, the CP is of the opinion that it has the historic mission of bringing the country back to where it was before colonialism, namely at the top of the world.
Global Review: Were the Chinese Communists actually internationalist communists or more nationalist communists? In the times of Mao and Stalin, the idea of abolishing the Soviet Union and the People’s Republic of China as nation states and merging them into a communist mega-Soviet Union never arose. How do you see the role of nationalism in the CCP?
Prof. Dr. van Ess: The proletarian knows no fatherland. This also applies to socialist China. Nevertheless, even Mao did not want to accept the supremacy of the Soviet Union. Nationalism is a negative word in China, in its place one speaks of patriotism, the pride in one’s own country. Mao said that the Chinese were like a “blank sheet of paper” on which any ideology could be written – including that of socialism. But he lived from the guidelines of Chinese culture, which can be found in almost every place in the country. This is an element that is used by the state propaganda and falls on fertile soil in the population. The Chinese see themselves as members of the world’s only ancient cultural nation that has persisted since ancient times. In this respect, it is very easy to hear Chinese people at home railing against their own government. But if you take on this ranting as a foreigner, it is easy to get astonished, because then you question the justification of Chinese pride in your own country from outside.
Nationalist resentments are moods that the CP is very careful with, because if you let them free space, there is always the risk that they can get out of control. You don’t play with nationalism. Of course, this has nothing to do with justifying territorial claims with recourse to one’s own history.
Global Review: In his book „The China Mirage“ James Bradley quotes a letter from Mao to the US President in 1944 as follows:
“China must industrialize. This can be done … only by free enterprise and with the aid of foreign capital. Chinese and American interests are correlated and similar. They fit together, economically and politically… The United States would find us more cooperative than the Kuomintang. We will not be afraid of democratic American influence – we will welcome it. „
To what extent were Mao and the CPC in general an advocate of a communist economic system or did they see the economy only as a means for industrialization and the rise of the nation, and since the USA did not allied with them, but only the Soviet Union, they chose the planned economy and not capitalism? Was that meant seriously or just a trick? Were only Deng Xiaoping and Liu Shaoqi the “capitalist roaders”?
Prof. Dr. Van Ess: No, it is controversial how much Mao really understood about socialist theory, but socialism had a considerable attraction in the 1930s and 1940s, not only for Mao Zedong, but also for men like Chiang Kai-shek who sent one of his sons to Moscow to study. And ultimately the American New Deal and Hitler’s national “socialism” were descendants of similar ideas. The free development of capitalism is a construct of the 1950s, when the USA had finished the war. A statement from 1944 cannot be interpreted as suggesting that Mao was actually striving for capitalism as a model of society. Deng Xiaoping and Liu Shaoqi were also committed to socialist ideals. That they shouldn’t have been is cultural revolutionary propaganda. The fact that one could experiment with capitalist elements within the framework of state socialism is a thought that many Chinese communists were open to. That fits with the Marxist ideology, because it is obvious that a successful socialism needs catching up capitalism, so to speak, in order for the theory to work again.
Global Review: The CCP is officially in a capitalist transition phase that supposedly still has the ultimate goal of socialism. In view of the emerging AI and the social bonus system, some foreign companies are already complaining that the CCP wants to set some indicative economic and ecological target goals in addition to party cells in the companies. Rudi Dutschke discussed the possibility of a new planned economy in view of the new computer technologies with Eastern European left oppositionists in 1968. While Dutschke was very euphoric, the Eastern European left dissidents refused, because they only feared an escalation of the already non-functioning planned economy of the Comecon and of the surveillance state. Under the socialist president of Chile, Salvador Allende, a cybernetics consultant was hired before the advent of the Internet, who set up a computer network Cybersync, which attempted the state planning of the largest 400 nationalized companies in an economic plan, especially with worker participation. The new school of thought of the 2010s, the accelerationists, refer to this Chilean cybernetic Cybersync experiment in their manifesto for accelerationism, whose central computer was viewed and destroyed by as a “communist devil machine” after the military coup under the neoliberal agenda of Pinochet, Milton Friedmann and his e Chicagaoboys. An old idea of a new planned economy comes to life here, which wants to revive AI, big data and computer networks with cybernetic algorithms. How likely do you think it is that the CCP could pursue such a cybernetic socialism with Chinese characters as the ultimate goal?
Prof. Dr. van Ess: For the CCP, artificial intelligence is only a means to an end, not the end itself. It can operate with elements such as the social vredit system, which is partly based on AI, because the Chinese population is brought up to be very technology-friendly in the old socialist tradition. The support of the population has been great so far, because individually perceived injustices are widespread in society and many people hope that the computer will put their own life performance in perspective. Computer technology is seen as an objectifying element.
Global Review: What about the Chinese opposition in exile and in China? As representatives told us, this has changed. In addition to the now aged wall of democracy and 1989 veterans, some of whom have already died, the ban of the Democratic Party of China in 1998 and after they lost an important leader with the death of Liu Xiaobo and his Charta 2008, the fundamentally religious Falungong, exile oligarchs like Guo Wengui, whom many consider to be Chinese Trump, and the young Hong Kong revolutionaries joined them. How do you assess the potential and chances of a new opposition movement in China – also in view of Trump’s trade war and new surveillance techniques?
Prof. Dr. Van Ess: To be honest, I don’t see any Chinese opposition at the moment that can operate successfully from abroad. Everything that stirs is viewed by the CP as being controlled by the CIA and is combated. This also applies to the movement in Hong Kong, which is believed to have been a large-scale US / British attempt to stop the progressive integration of Hong Kong into the Chinese system and, ideally, to cause unrest in China itself. We have seen how the protagonists of the Tian’anmen movement ended, but also the Falungong movement. They emigrated to the USA or other Western countries, some of them were able to raise their voices again, but in China they have sunk into insignificance. In China itself, I also don’t know how an opposition movement could arise at the moment.
The failure of its economic policy model, from which it derives its legitimation, could be dangerous for the regime. I understand the authoritarian measures of Xi Jinping as an admission by the CP that the development path of the Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao era cannot be continued in this way and that the Chinese population must be sworn in to accept lower growth rates, because otherwise the social consensus would be lost, which the CP has so far supported. Such a shift from a policy that has long been able to promise that prosperity will continue to grow, to slower or even stagnant development is not easy to achieve.
Still, I think it is better for the West to focus on changes in China in a more cooperative than a confrontational way. If Western states are able to propose reforms to China that the leadership itself sees as helpful because they can reduce the enormous burden of responsibility that weighs on them, that will bring more than confrontation. In a confrontational situation, the CP still manages to get large parts of its own population behind it.
Global Review: With the transition from an authoritarian 1-party dictatorship of the collective leadership, a 1-man dictatorship for life time under Xi Jinping, including the ideology of the Xi thoughts and the social credit system, seems to be developing as a neototalitarian system. Is this happening without resistance, or are there internal party countercurrents or resistance that could slow down or reverse this development?
Prof. Dr. Van Ess: Whether Xi Jingping will actually become a dictator for life time remains to be seen. Dictators usually rule for life because they have no other option and live in fear of facing certain punishment after they step down. This is not the case with Xi Jinping, even if there is certainly one wing of the party among the supporters of Bo Xilai, who was defeated in the 2011/12 power struggle, that hates him. Perhaps there is also more resistance within the party. However, this does not seem to be so big that Xi Jinping would have something to fear directly if he resigned. He is much more respected. I can be wrong about that, but in my opinion, Xi Jinping will be carefully considering where to go during a third term in office. He is 67 years old today, and by the end of his second term as general secretary in 2022 he will be 69 – Jiang Zemin was 76 at the same time. During a third term of office it will have be seen whether the party has built a successor or not. I would leave the social credit system out of these considerations.
Global Review: In its elite recruitment, the CCP seemed to be moving from loyal party veterans to natural scientists and, most recently, more open-minded, cosmopolitan academics. What are the special features of today’s elite recruitment by the CCP and is this trend declining under Xi? To what extent can criticism or new ideas be introduced within the elite?
Prof. Dr. Van Ess: Even before Xi Jinping, no publicly relevant criticism was exercised or tolerated within an elite that was independent of the party. I don’t see any difference. The leadership of the CCP in the past consisted largely of engineers, but today there are indeed social scientists like Prime Minister Li Keqiang. The CCP has over 80 million members, including intellectuals from all fields. There is of course dissent within the party. It is possible as long as certain taboos and the basic Marxist-Leninist consensus are preserved.
Global Review: In addition to the goal of becoming a military power on par with the USA by 2049, China now also seems to want to see itself as a global ecological, prosperity and health power. To what extent is this realistic and will the Chinese system perhaps also be as attractive worldwide as the West and the USA have been so far?
Prof. Dr. Van Ess: The latter is of course the CP’s hope. Basically, however, the Chinese leadership would like to follow a basic mood among the Chinese people who worry about the state of the environment when their own health is obviously affected. Efforts have been made for a long time to reduce air pollution because every Chinese city dweller knows that this is a problem for them – and in a completely different form than in the West, whose large cities Chinese tourists perceive as climatic health resorts. In the case of Covid-19, China did not initially shine, but then benefited from the failings of Western governments – including the German ones – in the perception of its own population. In this respect, it could well be that China is at least on par with the West on some points in the system competition. But there are still enough areas in which China is still a developing country, which, by the way,is how the Chinese government also perceives it. Ultimately, it is up to the West to position itself sensibly and not wait for China to pass it by. For the West, however, this also means considering whether its governments really want to orient their economic policy action in the long term to the opinion of NGOs, as is increasingly the case today. In China, this will certainly not happen in the foreseeable future, because the opinion there is that the political elite understands the consequences of their actions better than outsiders do.
Global Review: For the new world power, it still needs time until 2049, the 100th anniversary of the founding of the PR China, to reach the United States. Whether China wants or can do this remains a controversial question, with Kishore Mahbubani of the opinion that China is more of a new kind of evolutionary superpower without military dominance and more on the holistic teachings of Mao (guerrilla tactics and permanent revolution) and Daoism (evolutionary force of the water and the soft power), Confucius (contempt for the military and harmonious society) and Sun Tses (avoid war by using 8 agents, only wage war if you know yourself and the enemy and can win the war) , while John Mearsheimer and his offensive realism see this as Far Eastern and esoteric wisdom chatter and are more of the opinion that China will copy the US as a world power in military and other matters like any rising superpower, will not become a soft power superpower, but rather want to become a hard power superpower. Which position are you more inclined to?
Prof. Dr. Van Ess: China will think carefully about when to take military action and avoid doing so where possible, because it believes that the status quo works for its own country. All this has little to do with holism and esotericism, rather with a realistic assessment of its possibilities. But there are certain boundaries. You could just see that in Hong Kong. Many Western journalists wrote in the summer of 2019 as if they could hardly wait for the moment when China’s military would use gun violence against the demonstrations. These expectations were disappointed. Instead came the National Security Act, about which the West is loudly complaining but cannot do anything about it because the PRC has not obviously violated international law (and even if it had done that, nothing could be done). Should Taiwan declare its independence and change the constitution (the Taiwanese government still sees itself as the legitimate government of China according to its own constitution) or go a step too far on the way, then a massive military reaction would ensue despite all the Daoist worldview . Also in the island dispute with Japan and in the South China Sea or in the territorial conflict with India, armed conflict is only worthwhile if the other side obviously wants it. The military as the main pillar of the regime, despite Confucius, is not despised. Every communist leader since Mao Zedong heads the Central Military Commission. For Deng Xiaoping, this was the only important office he held after he left all other offices. That’s not to say that one would embark on a military adventure just to please generals. Of course, China is trying to catch up with the US on a military level as far as it is economically possible.
Global Review: Do you know what happened to the statue of Confucius, which was placed on Tiananmen Square near the Mao picture? She disappeared overnight and then it was said she was being overworked.
Prof. Dr. van Ess: The statue has been brought to the National Museum, it stands outside in a niche, not far from its previous location – but no longer so close to Mao Zedong and only visible to those interested.