In the People's Republic
Comrade Chiang Ch'ing
One flaw in a human rights foreign policy is that human rights are not as pervasive as human righteousness, and the self-esteemed revolutionaries who monopolize righteousness in Russia and China will reject American tutelage. But if the Kremlin leaders do it a bit defensively as Europeans once removed, the same cannot be expected of Peking. To rule by virtue of virtuous conduct was a Chinese specialty long before Christianity and Roman law taught us that individuals have immortal souls and civil liberties. Confucian morality stressed duties, not rights, as the glue of social harmony, and individualism is still a dirty word in the People’s Republic. The fact is that the human rights concept, though enshrined in a self-styled universal declaration, is culture-bound. Thus it assumes the rightful supremacy of law and due process over moral teachings, but right-thinking Maoists, who don’t tolerate a legal profession, scorn the letter of the law and exalt Mao’s principles of moral conduct. They view our civil rights as a form of political affluence associated with the property rights of our economic affluence, not something China can use. Chinese individuals relate to state and society in a different way.
The difference between Chinese and Americans is perennially fascinating, almost as fascinating as the difference between men and women, though less tangible and not as easy to investigate. Whether the Chinese can learn anything moral from us, beyond the negative examples they now see in our streets and media, is quite uncertain. Since they have lived crowded longer than we, perhaps we have more to learn from them in both material ecology and personal self-discipline. Buddhism as well as Confucianism taught them that unease and disorder are rooted in human desires, the very things our consumerist advertising and our travel, health, and sex industries try to cultivate. Exciting ourselves as we do in the name of individualism, we have problems that collectivist China hopes to avoid. Yet our individualist faith is central to our culture, and Americans in China who are not mesmerized by culture-shock invariably seek personal intimacies there, hoping to exchange private thoughts, share perspectives, and enjoy a unique experience. To the organizers of China’s new order, such conduct is bourgeois, subversive, and dangerously infectious. But just as the Western competition in the 1890s was to see which explorer could get closest to Lhasa before being thrown out of Tibet, so our present-day visitors to the People’s Republic compete to see who can have the most heart-to-heart exchange with a Chinese person.
Orville Schell visited China in 1975 in a party of twenty Americans aged eighteen to sixty who not only had a two-week tour of Peking, Yenan, Sian, Mao’s birthplace, and Shanghai but also spent a fortnight or so working part time in a Shanghai factory and another period in the fields of the model Tachai Brigade in Shansi. This special opportunity to be with ordinary Chinese, “the masses,” was arranged by the trusted Hinton family (of Putney School in Vermont) who…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.