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The “Public Sphere:” Rights without Obligations

The most influential Chinese sociologist of the 20th century, Fei Xiaotong (1910–2005), started his book Earthbound China (Fei 1992) with a complaint about selfishness among the Chinese as the inclination of every one of them, to “sweep the snow from his own doorsteps” only (Fei 1992: 60). At first sight there is nothing surprising about this statement, and European rural traditions contain very similar admonitions. Fei, however, pointed out that in China this folk rule reveals an egocentric ethical defect that is not typical merely of peasant life but can be encountered among city dwellers just the same as in the countryside as a common Chinese selfishness.

Fei argued his point most strikingly with the example of the canals in the beautiful town of Suzhou near Shanghai, familiar to many tourists, and sometimes referred to as the Venice of China. There he deplored the custom of throwing garbage and what else a family may want to get rid of into the water next to their dwelling place thereby recklessly contributing to creating a health hazard, not to mention the damage done to the environment and the sad loss of beauty (Fei 1992: 60).

Fei did not publish his critical remarks for people outside China, who may be reading it in translation decades later. He wrote it as a sociologist for his fellow Chinese, inviting them in 1948, when the Chinese original of his text first became available, to reflect about structural and cultural foundations of their behavioural preferences. He wanted them to look at their own traditions from a new perspective before Communism took over the country, and long before those ethical defects were discussed as a threat to the environment.

Sixty-six years later, in 2014, a colleague in the United States contributed the following from his own experience: “I remember visiting someone in Guiyang. He and his family lived on the top floor of a nondescript building. As I climbed the concrete, rough stairs that were totally dusty and dirty, I was struck by the fact that no one seemed to take care of this public sphere. Then I entered the spacious apartment of my friend and was suddenly in a private realm of luxury and refinement, clearly indicative of someone who is very wealthy. Exquisite carpets, fine paintings and antiques, a good library and great furniture were an overwhelming contrast to what I had just seen in climbing the stairs. That and the unkempt exterior of the building, again the public sphere, drove home the point that the Chinese don’t give a damn about that realm. What counts is the immediate personal area. I am sure you had similar experiences. Incidentally, I think the Chinese mania of surrounding everything by walls and fences deserves sociological attention as well.”1 These remarks suggest that what Fei observed decades ago is still current as an ethic of exclusivity and does not appear to have undergone much change under the impact of the policies of “The New China” since 1949.

In comparing the two cultures, China and the West, the question arises, if and how the alternative ethic of universality comes about as a result of socialization in Europe and America. In the past there was a tradition of responsibility toward a public realm instilled into most Westerners in early childhood education: A mother in the Occident may try to better her pre-schooler during his or her unruly age by repeating two admonitions: If you were to behave like this outside our home, what would people think of you? And: Just imagine what the result would be if everybody were to do that? Admittedly, today Western countries are home to a variety of diverse styles of family education and the simplification implied in our illustration applies even less to the present than it did to past conditions.

But still the comparison confirms the differences: To the Chinese family unknown persons outside the home – the Western mother’s public “everybody” – do not matter much. The people beyond the confinements of our residence are “none of our business” as long as they are neither relatives nor friends. If we are Chinese, we feel the duty to help our kin and close contemporaries and try hard to please our ancestors. Otherwise we politely ignore strangers and stay out of trouble, and that is it. This is, admittedly, a simplification. Yet, unless we simplify things here temporarily, we cannot arrive at a comparison. Later in this book, more nuances will be introduced.

The ancient and virtually unchanged worship in China of the ancestors of one’s own family as gods or saints raises the question of how religious ideas impact social conditions. We will come back to that in the chapters on religion. With regard to the clan of origin, strong expectation in the direction of conformity and solidarity were – and are – expected. At the same time, being a member if this or that particular kinship group, also causes a sense of calling, and potentially creates the courage to be different from members of other families.

In terms of Simmel’s thinking (Helle 2013: 100f.) China is ambivalent as having powerful forces toward conformity at work, but at the same time making creative modern developments possible. The latter may occur against the background of placing the belief in having something unique to contribute to the family context. The conviction of the uniqueness of one’s own kinship group serves as a justification for an exclusive ethic as the position of the majority of the Chinese. But there are minorities of representatives of a universalistic ethic in China as well, referring back all the way to Mozi, to a particular version of Christianity, to the global proletarian movement, or to other sources.

Fei points out that the apparent selfishness of the majority in dealing with the public sphere seems hard to understand on the surface, since Chinese people are usually responsible husbands and wives, fathers and mothers, sons and daughters, devoted caretakers of their adult and often aging parents, not to mention their closeness to their siblings and good friends. Chinese are, generally speaking, far from being ethically inferior to members of other cultural traditions, and far from being selfish on the level of individual conduct. The selfishness Fei complains about is thus not that of the person but rather it is the selfishness of the kinship unit. It is the familistic selfishness that today becomes a threat to the environment.

According to Fei, one reason for this is the absence of moral obligations toward anything like the public sphere. Whatever does not belong to a specific person or family, what is therefore not acknowledged as clearly being part of their respective sphere of interest, control and influence is public in the sense “that everyone can take advantage of it,” or, in other words, “one can have rights without obligations” (ibid: 60). This then would explain the behaviour toward the snow as well as the attitude toward the garbage and the environment. It would, if Fei’s observations are valid, have the potential of explaining numerous differences in comparing China to the West.

Having been a student in London, and having had the experience of being treated as a foreigner outside his home country, Fei reacts angrily to prejudices against Chinese who visit other cultures. He knows better than most of his compatriots what he is writing about in this respect. In Fei’s experience, Chinese have been tied to the stereotype of “corruption and incompetence” (ibid: 61) in the West. He explains those labels not with individual shortcomings of this or that Chinese person, but instead with the relative insignificance attributed in China to “each person’s service to, and responsibility for, the public welfare” (ibid: 61). What is being labelled negatively by Westerners therefore should – according to Fei – not be the person but the culture he or she comes from as it is reflected in that person’s conduct.

Of course there is loyalty in China, but it is not devoted to an abstract collective, for instance to the contemporaries sharing a common environment; rather it is tied to a person or a group of persons to whom one feels close because they are well known as relatives or friends. Fei points out that “a great many Westerners are impressed by the business achievements of the overseas Chinese in Southeast Asia… When it comes to managing their family’s business, they show greater aptitude than people from any other country” (ibid.). But again, we are dealing with a “family business.”

In the West there is a tradition of loyalty not only to family owned companies but also to large corporations. At the end of March 2014 German media criticized the chief executive of the electronic company named after the Siemens family, which obviously has outgrown the dimensions of a family business a long time ago. The Siemens manager was verbally attacked for having travelled to Moscow to negotiate a large business deal with president Putin of Russia while most Western countries were shunning away from any contacts with Putin, because he provoked the crisis in Ukraine.

In an interview the businessman referred to 160 years of Siemens history. He defended his sense of loyalty toward that corporation. In his view it followed from that to be his duty to help it flourish and to enable it to give jobs to its employees by selling railway cars to Russia. Such a notion of loyalty to an organization is precisely what Fei finds missing in China. There, he writes, loyalty can only be based on close personal ties.

The consequences of this traditional ethical position in China not only impact the environment and the relationships between an employee and the organization he or she works for, but in addition they have far reaching effects that Western observers tend to simplify as corruption. In the absence of a majority culture of a universalistic ethic severe problems arise in China in everyday interaction in the “public sphere,” as the following examples illustrate.

Case 1: A first year student in an m.a. program is left by her boyfriend. In her despair she takes an overdose of sleeping pills in an attempt to commit suicide. Another girl, her room-mate, notices that and quickly two female class mates rush their suicidal friend to the emergency room off campus in a taxi. There nothing is being done until money is paid! The young ladies cannot bring up the required amount, so one of them must ask her boyfriend for financial help to finally initiate emergency treatment.

Case 2: A young man is injured in a traffic accident, the driver disappears. Classmates take the man in severe pain to a hospital. It is the evening of the moon festival, so hospital staff is reduced. No treatment can be started until a “present” in cash to the physician in charge can be made by the father of one of the helping class-mates.

When I asked my students in alarm, if these where exceptional cases, I was assured, they were quite normal in China. It seems that running a hospital, short of implying ethical obligations comparable to public service, is primarily becoming a business. As the culture of a universalistic ethic appears to be on the retreat worldwide, this trend may increasingly become global.

Looking back at these examples of what from a Western perspective appears to be individual selfishness in the “public sphere” illustrates the fact that the absence of a universalistic ethic is not a personal or individual problem but a lingering threat that is imbedded in one culture and may be in the process of quietly entering the other. Accordingly, Fei draws the conclusion that the implicit defect is not political or ethical but instead sociological: Fei writes “if we want to discuss the problem of selfishness, we have to take into consideration the pattern of the entire social structure” (ibid.). The task at hand, i.e. explaining selfishness as a threat, can thus be seen as a challenge directed specifically at sociology, not merely at philosophy, religion, or ethics.

Two Types of Personal Association

In order to further help the Western observer understand Chinese society, Fei distinguishes between (a) the family sphere where people acquire by marriage – or have by birth – membership in only one social group, versus (b) the organizational context where they tend to have multiple memberships. What comes as a surprise to the Westerner is the fact, that in China distant relatives and the group of close-knit college friends are both counted as belonging to the “organizational” context. This is so because in both modes of association the persons involved are dealing with close personal relationships as foundations for mutually recognized membership. This applies to what Fei calls (in Chinese) the family mode, where a unique membership is required (jiatinggeju 家庭格局) as it does to the organizational mode, where multiple memberships are normal (tuantigeju 团体格局), (ibid: 62).

In addition, in his comparison of cultures Fei points out that the boundaries of families are distinct in the West whereas in China they are blurred. He remarks jokingly that in China, if you invite a friend and add the words “bring the whole family” you will not know how many people may come (ibid.). It would be similar to extending an invitation in the West with the words “bring all your relatives.” In the West, when the host invites his guest to bring his family, it is simple: He means that person’s spouse and children, because they are the new family which the couple founded when they got married.

In China by contrast the family is “eternal,” like in the West a nation, a church, or a corporation: It loses old members due to death (or desertion) and acquires new ones when a son finds a wife and as a result, new members are added by marriage and by birth (or adoption). The Chinese family visibly (not only in theory) consists of three or more generations in day to day interaction, not to speak of the ancestors in the beyond.

Fei compares the, as it were, one-dimensional structure of the familistic social ties, to throwing a stone into a lake and watching the many concentric circles it creates, moving further and further away from the point where the stone hit the water (ibid: 62f.). The individual is in the center; some of his or her relatives are closer, some are more remote, but they all somehow belong to that person’s unique circle of relatives and friends. He or she is not, as in Simmel’s writings, positioned at the intersection of several social circles. Rather each individual determines the character of the specific circle existing around him or her.

Indeed, in China people have close relationships with friends outside their families and they of course feel loyalty to them, but not – as in the case of the chief executive of the German Siemens Company – as loyalty via an organization, but rather on a non-public person-to-person basis. In the Chinese cultural tradition such extra-familial loyalties are typically fashioned after a family relationship: A close friend from college may be considered an adoptive brother, a group of girls who are classmates from high school may define each other as sisters, closely watching their ages as basis for hierarchical difference, and addressing each other as older sister (姐姐) or little sister (妹妹).

As a consequence – and this comes as a surprise to many Westerners – the Chinese government’s one-child-policy from 1980 to 2015 (which at the beginning of 2016 changed to a “two-children-policy”) had little or no effect on the Chinese proneness to apply family models to patterns of non-family behaviour. If any change has occurred, that policy may even have increased the inclination to call someone “my brother” in the absence of any family connection.

The Chinese social reality is thus fundamentally person oriented. That means in this case that someone is emotionally close and feels and practices loyalty on the basis of real or “defined” kinship ties as well as on the basis of very personal friendships. In contrast to the West, a Chinese normally would not feel loyalty toward an organization or to an unfamiliar person, merely on the basis of sharing with him or her the membership in the same “organization” as an abstract idea of solidarity. Why is that so?

In the evolution of Western civilization, it took a number of steps from ancient Greek philosophy via religious developments to the imperatives of rationality. Simmel describes the process thus: “When the stoics later demanded, as an ethical goal, to be in harmony with the general supreme reason of the world [Weltvernunft], when the Christian ethic depicted the same as a realization of God’s Kingdom on Earth, then we have to search for the founder of these objective moral principles in Plato, who for the first time cut loose the absolute good from the entanglement with human subjectivity, be it egotistical or altruistic, and who placed that highest objective idea into the center of the world orbit” (Simmel 1983: 154). It is one of the striking theses of Fei Xiaotong that this turn toward objective moral principles, which Simmel attributes to Plato, never happened in China (Fei 1953: 26).

The consequences of potential allegiance to rational ethical imperatives transcending immediate kinship interests are these: In the Oriental cultural tradition Fei introduces two types of personal association for what in the West appears rather as subtypes of primary group relationships. Loyalty is legitimised in China as personal closeness. By contrast, relationships in the West with the emotional distance normally required in organizations need a rational objective basis for justifying their existence and continuation in loyalty.

But since according to Fei what Simmel described as placing the “highest objective idea into the center of the world orbit” never happened in China, there is no cultural foundation for rationally based reliable relationships in the contexts of what Western sociology calls secondary groups. The absence of those foundations tends to create situations inside large scale organizations which to the Western observer – for lack of any better way of understanding them – smell of corruption.

Personalization of Law

Since spectacular advancements usually come at a price, we can conclude that the West suffered the loss of some valuable components of its cultural tradition in exchange for its turn toward objective moral principles. In the East on the other hand it seems that the absence of “that highest objective idea” helped China maintain value positions – for better or for worse – that have been lost in occidental quarters. We can observe in this context that in the Chinese tradition, loyalty toward a person is regarded as being more important than obedience to an abstract rule. We will come back to that later in the context of obligations a son has toward his father even if faced with illegal paternal behaviour. The priority of loyalty to a person rather than to a principle obviously has private as well as political implications.

In the Western “private” sphere, if a father is tired of arguing with his smart offspring about the appropriateness of a given rule he wants the youngster to obey, he may personalize the rule in question by saying: “I want you not to do this, because if you did, it would make your mother sad.” In the realm of politics in China – normally considered to be “public” in the West – the personalization of a law works in a similar way even outside the family, because you certainly do not want to make your emperor (or party chief) sad, let alone angry! Looking at it this way, it may be regarded as almost legitimate if in past centuries the oriental monarch had someone executed for causing him to be in a bad mood. The threat, “you had better not make me angry at you!” even rings in the background of the 1793 letter of Emperor Qianlong to King George iii of England, which we will encounter here in the chapter on the Opium Wars.

An event that occurred in the 18th century may serve us as additional illustration of the personalistic approach to public rule. It preceded the Macartney Mission (1793–1794) and is referred to in British colonial history as the Flint Affair, because it was related to the supercargo and leading manager James Flint of the British East India Company who was fluent in Chinese. His frustration with the corruption and unreliability of Chinese commercial partners in the city of Guangzhou (Canton) prompted him in 1750 to write a petition directly to the emperor. The severe accusations against Chinese business men shocked Emperor Qianlong and he promised, if those allegations turned out to be true, to severely punish the Chinese merchant suspects.

An investigation found the accusations correct. The ensuing punishment of the Chinese merchants appeared cruel but seemed justified in the Chinese culture context. However, after that had taken place, the Chinese translators, whom the British East India Company had trained to know some English, and who assisted Flint in producing a written version of his complaints in Chinese, were executed for being instrumental in making the Emperor angry and embarrassed. For the same reason Flint was imprisoned in Macao from 1759 to 1762.

All this is difficult or impossible to understand from a Western legal perspective. It can only be made vaguely plausible against the background of the absence, as we saw above, of the rational abstract concept of the objective good, to which Simmel and Fei refer in their analysis. In our introduction above we have seen Max Weber describe these Western achievements: There was teaching about government and law in many cultures, but only in the West was it based on a rational construction of concepts and on the systematic coherence of Aristotle’s teaching. The legal system of Ancient Rome determines the continental European law in France, Germany and other countries till this day. But Ancient Rome had no impact on China, and there the legal system is based on different evolutionary steps.

Back to the problem of familistic behaviour that must be seen as threatening to the environment! Beginning with the widespread feeling among Chinese persons that in the public sphere there are rights available without any obligations, we have identified two different “problems” in China: The absence of the tradition of a universalistic ethic and the absence of an objective legal system that is perceived as valid independent of any person.

Quite obviously there are other countries in which there are problems with observing rules to protect the environment. This is far from being a typical Chinese difficulty. However, the fact that in China there is a special type of threat to the environment can in part be explained by referring to the familistic tradition of the “selfish” kinship system. The prevalence of an exclusive kinship-based ethic and the absence of a turn toward objective moral principles represent an important theoretical background for explaining that threat.

Cultural evolution has taken different paths in the two regions of the world. In the continuity of this observation, and fortified by observing the development of Chinese culture, it will be shown in the following chapters that China is superior to the West in the way its culture of the intimate sphere2 has been handed down through the generations, whereas the West has become superior to the Orient with regard to rationalizing and organizing what it calls the public sphere.

Personal communication by e-mail.

I avoid here the term “private” because it is meaningful only in confrontation with the term “public.”

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China: Promise or Threat?

A Comparison of Cultures