Let the National Sentiments Withstand the Test of Reason
A strong national cohesion is an embodiment of a high level of mutual identification among its members. How to improve Chinese nation’s cohesion? This question involves the ration of its cohesion and centrifugal force. In other words, it is a question of how to ensure the centripetal force always exceeds the centrifugal force.
Unperceived Centrifugal Force
Four factors can be summarized as the engines of Chinese nation’s cohesion: closed geographical location, unceasing history, resilient culture and effective policies of unification. All these make China a world leader in the process of nation-building.
Francis Fukuyama claims that the modern government has three institutional pillars: bureaucracy, the rule of law, and accountability mechanisms. Bureaucracy refers to the administrative state. Although China boasted the most full-grown modern state in the world as early as in the Qin Dynasty, the rule of law and the democratic responsibility were underdeveloped at that time. As one single pillar cannot support a strong state, let alone a sound national mechanism, the power-dominated political mechanism will end up with solidification. For a state retaining its system, even if it has the basic cohesion, it may generate a strong centrifugal force due to the lack of a reliable guarantee of power.
Since ancient times, the Chinese national cohesion has been focused on the political structure, its vigor and effectiveness astounding the rest of the world. But it doesn’t perform so well in specific details: for individual members, they often have little awareness of the power; for members of a group, deficiencies exist in the refined institutional arrangements such as the mechanism of group interests and the distribution of political power among ethnic groups. This makes those endowed with little power lack of national identity and some ordinary people fail to develop a strong national consciousness. Today, seldom do those Chinese who immigrate to foreign countries realize that this is a challenge to identity, so they never experience the same emotional shock as people have in religious conversion for the Chinese national identity is mainly a people’s recognition of the national high-level power structure.
Under the traditional national identity mechanism, one is believed to be for the state as long as he isn’t against it. Therefore, individual members and ethnic groups can lead their own ways of life with little political coercion: throughout the history, individual members were often satisfied with their own necessities of life, they never fought against the government unless they could tolerate no more. That brings a solid social basis for a stable political order; group members were happy with the geographical convenience and led a carefree life as they were used to: the northern nomads travel around for water grass to feed their animals; the southern nation live an agricultural life on their farming lands, heading out in the morning and back in the evening for a good harvest - a harmony of nature described by the legalist Liang Zhiping.
As the driving force of national cohesion is rooted in the mechanism alienating the political power security and the daily life, on the one hand, the cultural habit developed by political forces form a strong cohesion; on the other, because of the state power is alienated from the daily situation of individual members and ethnic groups, it entails an unperceived centrifugal force.
The Confucian tradition, which profoundly affects the Chinese people, highlights "In success, one tries to let others be benefited". This is an ideal of life to "benefit all". Zhang Zai once said "one should stand between the sky and the ground, strive for people's life, pass down the old wisdom, and make the world peace". The lofty ideals in his quote inspire gentlemen, and is conducive to the national talent selection required to form a national senior elite ruling group.
But such a great ideal seems to exclude the ordinary people. Consequently, they are easy to be alienated from the elites, but bury themselves in a life crammed with trivial matters. The state would still be in order if such life is maintained normal; if messed up by political power, the state would be chaotic. This is not a matter of patriotism because no national consciousness involves. How can there be any chance for a national idea to take root in a boring daily life? For such a long time, Chinese people tend to believe that the survival of the ethnic group is greater than that of the individual, so does the challenges facing them and corresponding solutions. Such set thinking in Chinese political life indicates that the political identity issue can be interpreted as the senior elites decide everything.
According to the study of ethnologists, in shaping the Chinese nation's cohesion, intermarriage plays a key role as it integrates different nations, which can be seen in the widespread story of Princess Wencheng of Tang Dynasty marrying the Tibetan king Songtsen Gampo. In fact, it is a universal way to seek union through marriage. But what did the royal intermarriage miss? The answer is the intermarriage between ordinary people in different ethnic groups. This is particularly important for multi-ethnic countries. If there is no universal intermarriage between ethnic groups, they usually draw a clear-cut line to distinguish one from the other, so a harmonious relationship is difficult to establish. Therefore, although in the past intermarriage was made between those high-ranking groups, there is nothing happened between the public, no wonder it is difficult to promote the integration between or among groups. In this regard, more efforts should be made to enhance their recognition of the state.
The political unification is a solution to the national high-level institutional arrangements, but the allocation of administrative resources and the making of social policy couldn’t support such arrangements. Why? That is because the state and society were two completely different things in the ancient Chinese governance structure.
China's ancient power structure has three components: imperial power, official power, and gentry power. In their book "Imperia Power and Gentry Power", Wu Han and Fei Xiaotong point out that the emperor controls the supreme power of the state, the officials have the executive power, and gentries, or squires, govern the grassroots society. As the imperial power cannot reach directly to the village under the unified system, its maximal control can only sprawl to the county. Areas under the county level are basically managed by squires. The so-called squires are people who have accepted the ideologies and unified power system of the state, some of which have even participated in the national examination and been empowered. Therefore, the imperial power reaches the countryside through the gentry power. Indeed, this is just a relative division. What I am trying to say is that it is mainly through the power of the official group or quasi-official group that the unified political system plays a political role in promoting national cohesion. The gentry power and the grassroots society it affects are not necessarily incorporated into the same mechanism. Therefore, the problem about the basic centrifugal force of national identity hasn’t been solved effectively.
How does the squires govern the grassroot society? They resort to natural authority. A Chinese old saying goes like this: "I eat salt more than you eat rice; I walk cross bridges more than you walk on roads." This shows the effectiveness of natural authority, which is important. In natural authority, the influence of the political power is rather weak while the social rules are powerful. That is the difference between the natural authority and political authority. In ancient China, when the state power alienates from the grassroots society, the potential centrifugal force will be lurking around. Once the society is out of control, this force will subvert the state. That is the cause of the dynasty change throughout China's history.
A State of “Ours” or “Yours”?
What needs to be analyzed here is how to deal with the tension between two poles: the high-level power and the grass-roots society to ensure that the Chinese nation retains its cohesive force source and refuses the centrifugal effect.
Three questions need to be analyzed: social cohesion, political cohesion, and socio-political centrifugal force.
Ancient Chinese states cohere mainly through two political forces: the state power as driving force and the imperial examination system as the cohesive force. The state power, arranged by a set of complex institutions, encourages both individuals and ethnic groups to recognize the state; the imperial examination system selects elites of the whole society, especially those from the grassroots, and help recruit them into the national power system. The synergy of the two is the strongest force which shapes the ancient Chinese socio-political cohesion.
We can be proud to say that throughout the ancient history, no country can parallel China in the trails and efforts made to attract social elites. Surely, there is also a fatal flaw, that is, the resources of social elite, especially those from the grassroots, are drained just for the sake of the central government. Consequently, the vacancies are filled in by unqualified local tyrants and evil gentry. It seems that the authority of organizations with state power are guaranteed. But the resources for the society, especially the grass-roots society to operate are scarce.
The state manages the power less effective than the grassroots. The grassroots society is maintained by the natural order: the authority of the elderly and that of the local tyrants and evil gentry. The grassroots society becomes an enclave out of the direct control of the state, and its management is shockingly poor. Bullies in villages replace the state power and play a necessary role as the social coercive force. This results in a structural distortion which alienate the elites and the public. Although it can be said that a channel for the social mobility for grassroots elites exists in ancient Chinese society, few of them come back to the grassroots once they ascend to the top. Therefore, it is not possible to form a strong convection between the state and society to promote a benign socio-political order.
The boundary between the officials and the people is a severe problem. Even worse is the boundary between the officials.
In the late Qing Dynasty, the five million Manchu people controlled 400 million Chinese Han people. The Qing rulers should have had shared their power with the Han people to win their support and recognition. But they didn’t. In May 1911, people could feel the coming of the Wuchang uprising, triggered by the establishment of royal cabinet. At that time, Han officials took up almost three-fifths of the posts of the government. But the newly-established royal cabinet, composed of thirteen members, appointed only four Han officials. Worried about the usual personnel arrangement, a Han minister said to a high-ranking Manchu official: “If we do not reform as time requires, I don’t know whether our government can last long.” Surprisingly, the Manchu official replied: “Our government?” Hearing it, the Han official quickly changed “our” to “your". This shows that the authorities held their powers tight in their own hands. In a system refusing to share its power, an “outsider” is no more than a lackey, even if he is entitled by the state. In this case, how could the socio-political centrifugal power not exceed the centripetal force?
The division of “yours” and “ours” makes a clear demarcation line between the ruler and the ruled, because of which elites refuse to recognize the state with heart and soul. Once the society is in a turmoil, they may turn their back on it and become a devastating force strong enough to overthrow the state.
The revolution started from the late Qing Dynasty breaks down the group structure by extensively mobilizing those being ruled. Such political mobilization based on class conflict has changed the traditional Chinese political structure. As major participants of this mobilization are the "masses of workers and peasants", they then become a new elite group are after winning the power. Since then, China's elite and the public enter a highly complex restructuring process. But overall, there is no fundamental change in the traditional relationship between the elites and the public.
The cohesion of the Chinese nation is still dependent on the politics. What has changed dramatically is the modern nation-state’s way of political mobilization. State power, as it was, is still exclusive to the upper class; and the centrifugal force of the state still mainly comes from the lower classes.
At present, China still boasts a strong social cohesion, which is a recognized fact. Sentiment relation is a decisive factor to maintain such a cohesion. However, as the public are increasingly aware of modern politics, it is difficult to realize an overall state recognition merely through emotional factors and the political drive.
How to tackle the separation of sentiment and reason?
In contemporary China, to strengthen the national cohesion, we must deal with the separation of sentiment and reason.
For the construction of a modern nation, sentiment is one driving force while reason is the other. It would be perfect when they combine. But in most cases, it not possible. Citizens from different modern nation-states with different conditions will at odds with each other in terms of national recognition: for a Chinese who is emotionally attached to his nation but rationally regards US as a freer place with higher income, he may choose to immigrate. Some netizens criticize immigrants to the United States as non-patriots, which seems to be reasonable from the sentimental perspective, but not the case from the rational standpoint, because his sentimental attachment may not change, but it is the rational weight of the advantages and disadvantages that brings him to his decision. Theoretically, a person's cultural patriotism or cultural nationalism may never change wherever he goes, but his economic interests, political preferences and lifestyle change with his living places.
Sentiment comes from lifestyle and life experience. During one’s youth time, the peoples and things familiar to him are deeply buried in his heart. So deep the emotion is that it never changes with time. But the rational side always encourage him to immigrate to a better place if his own country provides unpleasant economic and political life. Immigration never happens in a large-scale, it is only limited to a few elites and their relatives. But if too many elites move out, the number of talents in the country will significantly decrease, which will expose its survival crisis to the rest of the world.
Since the emotion and reason may separate from each other, there must be a tension in-between. It is more than desirable if we combine them together while improving the national cohesion; if not, it is also good if we can strengthen the sentimental power but not ignoring the rational consideration. If the emotional factors suppress rational judgments, or the other way around, then the cohesive mechanism is easy to collapse.
The strong national cohesion or internal identity of a modern state needs the combination of the traditional emotional cohesion with the modern rational national cohesion. When the emotional basis remains unchanged and the rational judgment is strengthened, the national cohesive mechanism will be at its best with double support. If a person's national identity suffers from an emotion and reason division he clearly realizes that his own country cannot offer him a comfortable, free, rich life, then he will separate his recognition of his motherland from that of his nationality, and choose a place to live rationally. In this regard, his motherland and country are separated. This is the special structure of modern national cohesion.
"Let the national sentiments withstand the test of reason”, that is a distinctive feature of modern national cohesion."
Member of the Academic Committee of ZMT
Professor from the Department of Political Science, Tsinghua University
Changjiang Distinguished Professor
Note: This is an article from Social Science Weekly, 2017.5.18, No. 006
Abstract: The strong cohesion of the Chinese people indicates a high level of their mutual identification with each other. But, why is contemporary China plagued by so many complaints? That is a question involving the ratio of the nation’s cohesion and the centrifugal force.