China, as Barry Li disclaims in the very first sentence of this excerpt, does indeed have a “poor record” on human rights. Li doesn’t expound further on particular issues, as neither will I. Plenty of journalists and articles elsewhere explain what has been done or denied to certain people, particularly those of ethnic minorities and those with political agendas not favourable towards the CCP. Likely Li doesn’t want to be blacklisted as a trouble maker in his home country; it is certainly clear that Li is side-stepping discussing sensitive topics, leaving “a few blanks” as he has previously called it. In any case, his purpose of raising this topic is to share an insight from the ‘new’ Chinese perspective about living life under a government with absolute rule.
His point is thus: the Chinese people have lived with over 2000 years with a supreme leader: the ‘ordinary’ people “cannot care less” who is in charge, as long as the country functions and most people are given their human rights. During the years of the Famine (1958-61), and many years following, the “only human right that was relevant” was the right to food. Without food, Li simply states, there can be no other human rights. Once this period was over, the new human right that seems to be of core interest to the Chinese people in Li’s opinion, is the right to make money. To the Chinese, money is the “one value system… that unite[s] the country”, and the “only cultural bond for the entire country is the economy.”
Politics seemingly play little part in the lives of ordinary Chinese. Through centuries of imperial rule where family conflicts makes Game of Thrones look tame, the Chinese people were happy with whatever leader best offered them peaceful lives. When democracy was introduced to China with the founding of the Republic of China by Sun Zhongshan, the Chinese people “thought of him as just another emperor, and they could live with that.” The same occurred with Mao Zedong, who was often worshipped like a god. Democracy, to the conservatives in the early 1900s, was crazy; almost undermining their ingrained Confucian “duty simply to obey”. At the core of Confucian philosophy is obedience – “As children, we must obey our fathers. As wives, we must obey our husbands. As people, we must obey our Rulers.” Li suggests that this might sound “oppressive” to a Western reader, but to me it sounds almost biblical, which is the foundation of many Western legal systems, despite the rising number of atheists and non-Christians in those countries. And the Bible certainly has many oppressive sounding passages that ask for further reading and invariably debate. So is the principal of obedience in Confucianism, that is these days promoted by the Chinese Communist Party, in essence really that different from the Bible’s message of obedience that underpins Western government and judicial systems?
Li suggests that the idea of communism – the utopian equal distribution of wealth – particularly appealed to those with nothing. With problems within the Republic leadership and foreign invasion occurring, solutions to China’s problems offered by the Communist Party gained them quick popularity. For the last thirty years though, the ideology vacuum caused by the death of Chairman Mao has not been filled; instead those who are not one of the 87 million Communist Party members perhaps subscribe to a ‘realist’ outlook on life, with Li boldly saying that in China “democracy is not as relevant as the distribution of social wealth”.
Photo taken in The Muslim Quarter, Xi’an, February 2017