Commentary Magazine

China Today

To the Editor:

Cultures are always evolving, and it may be difficult or even impossible to determine to what extent developments are influenced by contact with other societies. Charles Horner, in “China on Our Minds” [January], contrasts the analyses of 30 years ago, when “it seemed that the great tradition of China would prove no match for an all-conquering Westernism,” with current observations that tell us about “the spirit of capitalism and Confucianism.”

Mr. Horner is less than optimistic about the future of political liberty in China: “For imagining a democratized China in our age of Western confusion involves conviction and commitment to principle as great as the one which envisioned a Christianized China in an earlier age of Western certitude.” My own experience as a teacher at Hebei Univesity in Baoding, China, during the spring semesters of 1984 and 1989 leads me to believe that China is extremely open to Western ideas, for better or worse.

Marxism is ignored but nevertheless honored in China. I spoke to students and colleagues who dismissed socialism as a failure, but grew defensive when I suggested that the cruelty and violence of Mao’s China and Stalin’s USSR had a common ideological ancestor. Marx teaches only kindness, they said. The Cultural Revolution was an expression of a flaw in the Chinese character, they added, finding it easier to blame their own people than Marx. Indeed, I believe that China’s current love affair with capitalism is merely negative Marxism—a reversal rather than a rejection of the faith China once had in Communism.

Paradoxically, while claiming that economic systems hold the answer to all questions, many Chinese people I spoke to expressed great admiration for Christianity. I would not be surprised if Christianity were one day to become as powerful in China as it is now in South Korea.

George Jochnowitz
College of Staten Island
Staten Island, New York



To the Editor:

Charles Horner again shows a well-focused ability to assess trends . . . in Asia. As in his previous article, “China on the Rise” [December 1992], he is essentially correct in his analysis. . . . Anyone with any experience of current developments in “Greater China” can, like Mr. Horner, perceive the inevitable writing on the wall of history.

In the spring of 1992, I visited China under the auspices of the International Center for Criminal Justice and the Pacific Rim Institute of the American Jewish Committee. As a MeiGuo You Tai (American Jew), I was given extraordinary access to persons and institutions that allowed me a profound . . . look at the rise of neo-Confucianism in China. . . .

Perhaps most relevant in this connection . . . is the Chinese acceptance of business and “capitalism,” going back 5,000 years, which was interrupted for only a single generation under Mao. The Chinese economy is currently experiencing an almost exponential growth, fueled by a basically hardworking, ambitious, and competent workforce. There is an enormous reserve of natural resources that is beginning to be tapped to further this growth (with possible ecological ramifications and accompanying problems). . . .

Let me also point out the relevance to Israel and world Jewry of the rise of China. . . . There is a positive regard for Occidental Jews in China. Young Chinese are taught in Junior Middle School that they are part of 5,000 years of continuity and tradition that is matched only by the You-Tairen who are socially and historically the most like them. Chinese traditionally regard Jews as kindred spirits in the “Custodianship of Ancient Traditions and Continuity.” Thus, the disclosure of secret diplomatic and even military ties between Israel and China dating back to the 1950’s should not have come as a surprise. Beijing and Shanghai currently abound with Israelis who are more than tourists and actually the vanguard of major economic ties between the two nations and peoples. In Shanghai I was even a guest of the Judaic Studies Association and the Center of Israel Studies. . . .

The development of China has reflected the success of the Han ethnic group (94 percent of the current Chinese population) in absorbing and assimilating even their conquerors as well as the triumph of benevolent authoritarian leaders and elites in productively managing titanic . . . populations. The concept of benevolent elites that efficiently manage society is correctly perceived by Mr. Horner as a tempting model for Western intelligentsia, often with their own vision of how they themselves might play such a role. The neo-Confucianism that now permeates Asia has little connection with, or ideological commitment to, the now-defunct Soviet model that China followed in the 1950’s. The current . . . model for China is the popular authoritarian state successfully achieved by Lee Kwan Yew in Singapore. By American standards, Singapore is an often oppressive state which administers swift retribution for perceived criminal violations such as littering, improper hygiene, and drug trafficking. It is also a society that has the support of the majority of its citizens who have essentially traded democratic freedoms and individual prerogatives for safe and clean streets and economic comforts.

But it would be a serious mistake to judge these uniquely Asian manifestations through Americocentric perceptions. . . . During a visit to Shanghai I had the great fortune to meet and discuss the criminal-justice system with the Chief Judge of Shanghai, Li Hai-Qing. . . . His . . . view is that the most basic human right is the right not to have one’s freedom infringed by criminals. . . . He also said that the American system of condemning people to death and then subjecting them to ten or more years of expensive appeals before carrying out the sentence is both barbarically cruel and wasteful. I submit that while this view is essentially Chinese and Asian, it attracts much sympathy and even envy in an America that is subjected to the excesses of crime and social dysfunction. We should also face the objective fact that while we might have strong reservations about the conduct of the Chinese vis-à-vis “human rights,” we are still the nation with the highest number of incarcerated persons on the planet.

I was able to view the reality of prison labor at Shanghai prison, where I toured the prison workshop and observed inmates making cheap sneakers for discount shoe stores in the U.S. and massive rolls of counterfeit worsted wool and Scottish tweed for the British and Irish markets. The reply of the prison staff to a question about the use of prisoners to compete in the world market was that prisoners needed to pay for their own incarceration rather than having it paid for by law-abiding citizens. . . . Transgressions or violations of penal discipline are swiftly and brutally punished. But good behavior, “progress,” and the development of a “good attitude” are just as quickly rewarded. . . .

It would be obtuse and irresponsible to claim that these methods would be worthwhile and practical in an American setting, despite being obviously attractive to many Americans. But does this not also compel us to recognize that many American values and views may be inappropriate and impractical for China and Asia? . . .

The real power one nation has over another is that of making available ideas, values, and concepts that can be productively used by the other society, thereby increasing its susceptibility to further influence. The drawing back of the U.S. after the Tiananmen tragedy, therefore, was a likely error in that it prevented this country from using social, academic, political, and, most effectively, economic means to bolster alternatives to the brutal direction taken by China in 1989. There is an enormous wealth of ideas, values, technology, and resources . . . that beg to be released through the open interaction of the Chinese and American people. The rise of China in the 21st century could easily be linked to a renewal and rise of the U.S. The primary question is, do we have the will and strength of commitment to take advantage of what is readily available?

Max Winkler
Denver, Colorado



Charles Horner writes:

George Jochnowitz’s experience as a visiting teacher in China, repeated many times by others, and reinforced by the experiences of the tens of thousands of Chinese who have studied, and who are studying, in the United States would seem to provide the best corrective to my own circumspection. These exchanges can only help in creating a climate in China more open to modern ideas about political liberty and human rights. Whatever else happens in Sino-American relations, one hopes that they will be multiplied. On the other hand, if there are Chinese who profess, by Mr. Jochnowitz’s own testimony, a high regard for both Marxism and Christianity, that is another reminder of the obstacles to real cross-cultural understanding that still remain.

Of the many points raised by Max Winkler, I would offer a special caution about two. The first is his characterization of the Chinese penal system, based on his brief and controlled access to it. There is, in fact, substantial evidence that the Chinese gulag is as tough and as brutal as its Soviet inspiration. So Mr. Winkler should not believe that he saw anything like the “reality of prison labor” during his visit to Shanghai. As for the relationship between China and Israel, China has indeed had military relations with the Jewish state. It has also exported weapons to Iran, Iraq, and Saudi Arabia. These practices do not reflect high regard for Israelis, Arabs, or Iranians as such, but rather longstanding and characteristically supple Chinese diplomacy.

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