Let Us Hope That Deng's Death Will Mean a New Dawn for Despotism in That Vast Country

By Worsthorne, Peregrine | The Spectator, March 1, 1997 | Go to article overview

Let Us Hope That Deng's Death Will Mean a New Dawn for Despotism in That Vast Country


Worsthorne, Peregrine, The Spectator


Hopes that China might now travel down the path of freedom seem to me not only idle - because they have no chance of being fulfilled - but also undesirable, because it would be hell on earth if they were fulfilled. It is bad enough to have 250 million or so Americans all claiming the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, all doing their own thing and letting it all hang out, each creating his own ethical code and religion, without also adding to that already dangerously large hotchpotch of individualisms 1.2 billion more Chinese doing the same. One human rightsobsessed superpower determined to transform mankind in that image is quite enough. Two would be too much of a good thing.

Ideally, therefore, the American superpower needs to be balanced by another upholding different ideas of human advance, based not so much on rights as on duties, believing not so much in the importance of freedom as in the even greater importance of order. For order has just as much to contribute to civilisation as freedom. Sadly that truth has been rendered incredible in the 20th century by two countries, Germany and Russia, whose barbarous tyrannies brought it into disrepute. China to date has done no better. But what a blessing it would be if in the 21st century China emerged as a civilised despotism, thereby making it credible again. Surely that should be our hope, not that China renounces totalitarianism and embraces democracy but that she transforms totalitarianism, under the shadow of which civilisation withers, into authoritarianism, under which, as often as not, it prospers mightily.

Foolishly, however, many in the West hope for more than that. They hope that China will replace Marx with John Stuart Mill, one Western transplant for another, the consequences of which, in a country of China's immense size and population, would almost certainly be to fall out of a repressive frying-pan into an anarchic fire. My hope is that her rulers will look for guidance instead to the philosophy of their country's own Confucius, whose conservative teachings did so much to civilise the old imperial autocracy, not by challenging it but by inculcating in its officials a gentlemanly code of conduct. A civilised polity, he taught, depends less on the quality of the autocrat who gives the orders than on the quality of those charged with responsibility for carrying them out. First take care of the imperial civil servants (i.e. mandarins) and the emperor will take care of himself. That was the central tenet of the Confucian creed: autocracy tempered by a politics of good manners and honourable behaviour.

Not a bad way forward for China today. The post-Marxist Communist Party paramount chief would remain in charge in Beijing - as the emperor had done before him - but the regional Communist officials would slowly but surely start adapting his centralised commands to local conditions, to the state of public opinion on the spot, as the imperial officials used to do in the old days. Travelling in rural China 18 months ago, I was struck by the extent to which this is already happening. …

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