China’s Great Wall Within: Confucius vs. Mao

Updated on November 2, 2019
FJG de La Guadalupe profile image

The author studied Economics at the Eisenhower School in Washington DC and Strategy at the Army's School of Advanced Military Studies.

Confucius v. Mao

Recent news programs show numerous economics experts stating how President Trump’s trade war with China will end up as a victory for China. Some experts assert China’s long game strategy can wait the United States out and gain an advantage. For China, the assumption goes, the future is never sacrificed for the present, while Americans are impulsive, care little for lessons from the past (history), and will gladly sacrifice the future for short term gain.

Although, socially, this assumption could be entertained, it could be a mistake to believe such an assumption in Sino-American trade and political relations. The reason for the apprehension is that China presently exists under a contradiction of social and therefore economic thought. The contradiction is between the historical culture of the Chinese people, represented by its ‘First Citizen’ Confucius and the culture of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) represented by the ‘Chairman’, Mao Zedong. It’s important to learn about this contradiction and how it drives Chinese decision-making today.

Many of you, the readers, already understand that the citizens of China do not make socio-political decisions via a representative or even a pseudo-representative system. This ability clearly resides within the socio-political structure of the CCP. In the opening of this article, it was stated that a major contradiction in China was due to the culture imparted by Confucius and the new order brought about by Mao Zedong. Let’s look at this distinction to better understand the role of culture and its contradiction in China.

Confucius attempted to create virtuous citizens for the state of China. Mao also wanted a similar result, but in his quest for this, Mao created class warfare amongst the Chinese; something Confucius argued against. Confucius wanted people to work to improve their standing in society from where they found themselves through virtuous efforts and good government, in turn, would be held to account by this informed and dedicated civic citizen.

Mao felt different; his class warfare effort aligned him with the much more populous proletariat. He also understood, when the time came, he would not have to be accountable to this poor and powerless base. Although both wanted to establish social order, they wanted to achieve it in different ways. Confucius, as stated earlier, wanted to make the ideal citizen. Confucius taught that good citizens led to good governance. For him, it was about the ‘ideal’ man to make society prosper. In contrast, for Mao, it was about the ‘ideal’ government. The measure of a man is not the man, but rather the society, the government. Mao believed that the ‘ideal’ government was necessary to control man. Not a new idea; a very Hobbesian view that was closely knitted into Marxism and later into unique Chinese Communism (Maoism). Strangely, the CCP came to embrace Confucius mostly due to a malevolent motive.

Confucius taught that it was a citizen’s civic duty to acquiesce his will to the government to allow society to become safer and as a result society as a whole prospers. The CCP saw how useful such teaching was to put in line their vast, mostly uneducated, population. The CCP could have never imagined in their wildest dreams that Confucius’ own words could be used to manipulate its people. Deceitful; yes, but very effective and in the CCP it’s all about the end result.

So, not different from how the Bible is misused by the unscrupulous to bring people to heel, the CCP used Confucius’ teachings and writings, actually seen by Mao as backward and anti-revolutionary, as another tool to bring the people under their control. Liberal CCP leaders came to the realization that Confucius could actually be useful after all. He could serve as an antidote against their overthrow. They effectively weaponized Confucian thought.

The fall of the Soviet Union was famously (or infamously) called the End of History. Communist China not only replaced the Soviet Union as the greatest communist state, but it also inherited its fears of conspiracy and looming collapse. As a result, the CCP sees economic growth and political stability as essential to its existence and prosperity. This reality has led China to put aside its individual cultural patience for one that like the West necessitates short term achievements. One can point to an incredible number of shortsighted policy decisions in the West. However, the CCP has been making their fair share of shortsighted decisions which in time could serve as an existential threat to the party and the people of China.

Can any policy be more shortsighted than the one-child policy? This population death trap will lessen the cheap labor that has allowed China to become the world’s factory and, as a result, helped create history’s greatest economic wealth creation. China will enter the Middle Income Trap much sooner than they should and it will lessen the productivity that population growth brings with innovation. Recent statistics in the last few years are already showing the signs of a slowdown.

Second, China has constructed beyond its housing and commercial needs. This has created both a housing and real estate bubble that like the housing bubble in the United States in the early 2000s could likewise bring down their economy.

Third, according to Bloomberg News, debt is exploding in China while its economy slows. Along with the looming housing and real estate crisis, the accompanying debt crisis can lead to a market freeze in borrowing leading China and the rest of the globe on a downward economic spiral.

Fourth, its interference with Hong Kong and Macau seems to be damaging a really good thing for China. China’s One Country, Two Systems principle preserved the economical juggernauts that are Hong Kong and Macau without mainland China ever doing anything. China’s recent heavy-handed tactics will probably sour future domestic and foreign investments. Fifth, there’s growing competition in places like India and the Philippines which could become viable replacements for China’s manufacturing capabilities.

Lastly, China’s command economy will most likely not be able to anticipate and keep up with market forces. There are just too many factors to plan against, act to, and react to. It is very possible that market-driven economies will outperform China’s economy and China will slowly start falling back and lose its economic power and influence it has worked so hard for.

The trade war between the United States and China should not be seen as a casus belli contrary to what too many pundits attempt to claim. For China, it’s part of more of a struggle for its true cultural identity. It is said that Confucius is in the heart of the people while Mao is in their minds. It’s not so important whether China acts with the long or short the term in mind, but rather, will their policies serve to provide China the long-lasting economic success it desires. Alas, China. Welcome to the shortsighted liberal Western socio-economic and socio-political theater. Ironically, CCP, the acronym for the Chinese Communist Party could also serve as the Chinese Confucian Party at some point in the future, it is about survival, is it not?

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    © 2019 Fernando Guadalupe Jimenez

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