Chinese Marxist Ethics

Lunli, they call it in these parts, or Gongchanzhuyi daode – ethics or communist moral principles. These are by no means abstract terms, debated by philosophers with little connection to real life. I encounter it day to day in a very concrete fashion.

Here Chinese tradition meets Marxism in a way that continually amazes and bewilders me. To begin with, the dushuren or xuezhe, the intellectual (literally ‘book reading person’) and scholar has a venerable place in Chinese society. The intellectual is simultaneously expected to devote significant time to reading, thinking and writing – whether scholarly works, moral maxims, poetry, or a range of other genres – and to the good of public life. This expectation is embodied in part in the word yiwu, which means both to volunteer and a duty. One volunteers to contribute in some way to the greater good of society, but this is simultaneously a duty or obligation. Although it is manifested as many levels of social relations, for an intellectual it means service in or for the government, or perhaps work that contributes to solving a commonly recognised problem.

Further, the first character in yiwu is yi (义), a significant aspect of Confucianism. Its literal meaning is ‘justice’ or ‘righteousness’, but it also includes ‘human relationships’ and ‘meaning’. Thus, yi involves the intertwining of justice and relationships, in a moral framework of doing good and the understanding of how to do so in a sensible and fit manner. In other words, one must know the underlying reason for such righteousness and not simply follow precepts.

For a scholar, especially a professor, this means that one is engaged and not engaged. Or rather, when one is engaged directly, one longs to be disengaged, to find the tranquillity to think and write and identify the deeper framework. But even in this situation, one does so with the public good always in mind.

By now it should be obvious that the ethics of a scholar are somewhat high.

What about communist moral principles? By now, they have been etched into Chinese culture, distinct and yet meshed with Confucian ideas. A communist is expected to be honest, direct and trustworthy, not concerned with personal gain and focused on the public good.

This morality appears at many levels. For instance, an ethos first developed at Ruijin in the early 1930s – during the first Chinese soviet – focused on providing poor peasants not with communist ideas, but with enough food, clothing, and shelter. They should feel secure (anquan) in life – a fundamental desire of Chinese life. When people find they have such things through the communists, they will flock to join the movement and become revolutionaries.

Or it can be seen in Mao Zedong’s urgings for party members (cadres) after achieving power. In 1949, Mao wrote: ‘I hope that the revolutionary personnel of the whole country will always keep to the style of plain living and hard struggle’. Again, in 1957, he wrote that party members must not lose the revolutionary spirit of wholeheartedly serving the people. Instead, they must ‘persevere in plain living and hard struggle’, ‘maintaining close ties with the masses’.

Chairman (or president) Xi Jinping has been consistently evoking these admonitions from Mao over the last few years, especially in terms of uniting and strengthening the party through the ‘tigers and flies’ anti-corruption campaign – the most thoroughgoing and pervasive in modern Chinese history. As he does so, he and the leadership evoke the deep chords of communist morality.

Already five years ago, a new ‘eight rules’ were promulgated, echoing the ‘eight points for attention’ from 1927. The new eight rules focus on how leaders and party members should reject extravagance and reduce bureaucratic visits, meetings and empty talk. Crucially, the purpose is to strengthen ties between the people and officials, which had been eroded through corruption and power abuse.

That this approach resonates deeply with people shows up in complex surveys, with 80 percent or more of people supporting the measures. Why? Communist morality has become deeply ingrained in Chinese culture and society. If one is a communist, which means a party member, one is expected to live up to these ideals. If one fails, the fall is even greater.

What if you are a Marxist and a scholar? By now it should be obvious that the ethical standards are higher still. The combination of Confucian and Marxist ethics entails an expectation of almost impeccable morality – speaking plainly and directly, being honest, living simply, avoiding any sign of personal gain, and substantially focused on the public good.


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