The following is drawn from a university professor who has spent nine years in China. From my perspective it is always fascinating to hear the testimony of what it is like to live in a society that has not known Christianity and which has no God but the political leadership, where Caesar is God, and no gods, no ethics, and no general sense of how life should be lived apart from scrambling for money. When there is nothing else but Mammon and tyranny, this is what it is like. (Francis Fukuyama writes more generally about the corrosive effects of tyranny on social cohesion).
In a way, I sympathize with Chairman Xi’s emphasis on rule of law because in my experience laws/rules/norms are simply ignored. They are ignored quietly so as not to embarrass the enforcer, however, frequently, the enforcer knows rules or laws are being ignored but so long as the breaker is not egregious, both parties continue to exist in a state of blissful ignorance. Honesty without force is not normal but an outlier. Lying is utterly common, but telling the truth revolutionary.
I rationalize the silent contempt for the existing rules and laws within China as people not respecting the method for creating and establishing the rules and laws. Rather than confronting the system, a superior, or try good faith attempts to change something, they choose a type of quiet subversion by just ignoring the rule or law. This quickly spreads to virtually every facet of behavior as everything can be rationalized in a myriad of ways. Before coming to China, I had this idea that China was rigid which in some ways it is, but in reality it is brutally chaotic because there are no rules it is the pure rule of the jungle with unconstrained might imposing their will and all others ignoring laws to behave as they see fit with no sense of morality or respect for right.
I had a lawyer tell me about the corruption crackdown, and even most convicted of crimes, that people referred to them as “unlucky”. As he noted, there was almost no concept of justice even if people recognized the person had done what they were accused of having done. The discipline stemmed not from their behavior but they were cannon fodder for some game chosen by a higher authority.
China wrestles with these issues like clockwork every few years after a tragic incident goes viral. A common one is when someone is run over by a car and pedestrians just step over the body until a family member finds the body. The video goes viral, prompts a week of hand wringing, and then censors step in to talk about Confucianism and how the economy is growing. There is no innate value given to human life as precious.
A friend of mine in China who is a Christian missionary, told me a story about a time he was invited to speak at the local English corner they had in the apartment development where locals would get together hopefully with foreigners and practice English. He was asked to speak on what is the meaning of life, perfect for a part time missionary. He said he knew what people would say having lived in China for sometime but even so was stunned at how deeply and rigidly held the belief that making money was the entire meaning of life. There was no value system. There was no exogenously held right or wrong, only whether you made money. With apologies to a bastardized Dostoevsky, with money as God, all is permissible.
I could talk at length about that what I have observed, but I am not a human rights expert and what type of cultural changes or evolution it engenders. However, while the well known cases draw attention, these attitudes and responses set the tone for a culture where individuals, respect, and truth mean nothing.
This has impacted my broader thinking in that executive space (thinking of the United States but also applicable elsewhere) is that laws need to be enforced consistently not at the whim of the superior. If the law exists it should be enforced and consistent, otherwise it should be removed. Currently, the United States is going further and further in a direction where laws are applied inconsistently shifting from varying enforcement regimes under different executives. Law is not law if the government can choose whether to enforce it. Law has become the whimsy of sovereigns prone to political fancy.
and much later in the article, after a discussion of the openness of the USA to immigration, he continues:
Conversely, China is a rising power but probably more importantly is a deeply illiberal, expansionist, authoritarian, police state opposed to human rights, democracy, free trade, and rule of law. Just as we need to consider the state, speed, and direction of change in the United States, China has been deeply illiberal authoritarian for many years, is becoming increasingly illiberal, and is accelerating the pace of change towards greater control. It both puzzles and concerns me having lived in China for nearly a decade as a public employee to hear Polyanna statements from China “experts” in the United States who talk about the opening and reform of China or refuse to consider the values being promoted. I was left mouth agape once when someone I would consider a liberal internationalist who values human rights informed me he was focused on business and would leave those other issues aside. The values represented by China cannot be divorced from its rise and influence.
The rise of China represents a clear and explicit threat not to the United States but to the entirety of liberal democracy, human rights, and open international markets. We see the world slowly being divided into China supported authoritarian regimes of various stripes that support its creeping illiberalism across a range of areas. The tragedy of modern American foreign policy is the history of active ignorance and refusal to actively confront the Chinese norm or legal violations. The Trump administration is utterly incapable of defending the values and assembling the coalition that would respond to American leadership as they face even greater threats from China….
The concern is not over Chinese access to technology to facilitate economic development for a liberal open state. The concern is over the use of technology to facilitate human rights violations and further cement closed markets. That is a threat for which neither the United States or any other democracy loving country should apologize for.
I should note that I like many other am concerned about the level of government surveillance on citizenry. However, equating Beijing to Washington in many of these specific issues is simply non-sensical authoritarian apologetics. Let me just briefly run through some of the enormous differences. First, some have argued tech firms gather data which is true but does not distinguish what happens to the data. Unlike China, the US government does not have free access to all electronic data. Second, China uses control over electronic communication in vastly draconian cyber dystopia ways compared to the wide range of opinions that are allowed online in the rest of the world. By simple comparison, Winnie the Pooh is censored in China while in the United States the debate is over whether some information should be restricted that is deemed inaccurate. It is nothing less than authoritarian apologetics to attempt to equate the two in any serious manner.