Arnn – Religion and Culture in Communist China: Will Western Civilization Survive in the 21st Century?
Larry P. Arnn
Religion and Culture in Communist China: Will Western Civilization Survive in the 21st Century?
Paper Presented to the National Meeting of The Philadelphia Society, April 24, 1999
The current controversy in Kosovo began, you may not have noticed, in Rwanda. There the
president was presented a man with a severed arm, who recounted the torture he had suffered.
There the president apologized on behalf of our nation for not helping that man. There he stated that
we would get the international system into such a condition as to stop such things in the future. Yet,
as you know, the president is not a practiced hand at international relations. But beginning
especially in Rwanda, he seems to have developed a taste for it.
My topic is not Kosovo or Rwanda, but another part of the world, where our aims are either
utterly obscure, or else they neglect the interest of the United States and strengthen its enemies. It is
China is, as you know, an ally of the United States. America has taken a friendly and trusting
attitude towards China since Nixon visited. In general we have been willing to look right past the
abuses of human rights that are typical of any communist regime and most typical of the most
murderous regime in all of history, that of Chairman Mao.
There are three reasons for this. The first is the Soviets. In the Cold War, that advocate of real
politik Richard Nixon played the China card. Animosity between China and the Soviet Union had
erupted in the late 1950s, when Mao and Kruschev fell to fighting over submarine construction and
purchase and other matters. In the 1970s there were periodic shooting wars along the long border
between the Soviet Union and China. To make an alliance with China was an obvious and a useful
thing for us to do. Nixon, and later Reagan, both used that alliance to good effect in the victory in
the Cold War.
Now that war is over. Russia is in an ambiguous condition, perhaps getting worse, and Russia and
China are formally allied. Meanwhile, China is gaining steadily both economic and military power.
And so the situation is very different today than it was before. Nonetheless the policy of
comradeship with China has been continued and indeed extended.
Our current president has accepted an invitation to visit China on the specific condition that he not
visit Japan on the same journey. This was a very serious step to take. It elevates China into the
position of our chief ally in the region. It abandons the old American strategy of friendship with
peripheral powers, against the incursions of the typically land-based dominance of the major power
in the region.
The second reason for our trust of China, and our tolerance of its cruelty, is the progress it has
made toward a greater respect for the rights of its people. This progress is real, and it should be
acknowledged. There is good news, in the form of economic growth built upon the operation of a
partially private, market-driven economy. But there is also very bad news: in China there is no rule
of law, and there are continued human rights abuses. In China the courts are not independent of the
executive. No branch of government is dependent upon the will of a constitutional majority
including a broad popular representation. The press is a creature of the government. The Party, in
theory and in practice, controls. In China, rights are protected neither in theory nor in practice. It is
a dictatorship in fact. By its own explicit account, this is the proper form of government to secure
human rights as China understands them. Any fundamental change of this form of government
would, in the Chinese view, be unjust.
The Chinese leaders give a very clear account of what they are trying to achieve. They wish to
make China great. They wish to strengthen its military so that it is a world power. Specifically, they
want to be able to fight and defeat the forces of the United States of America, against which China
measures itself in every military paper, and against which it launches every hypothetical attack in
every document of strategy and planning. Specifically it wishes to deny the United States military,
and therefore when it please commercial, access to the East Asian littoral. It wishes to amass
military strength capable of overwhelming our allies in the region. It wishes, in short, to equal our
power, and then perhaps to surpass it.
China has learned many lessons from the people we have defeated. From the Soviets it has learned
that one should not confront the massive free economy of the United States and its friends without a
strong economy of ones own. From Iraq it has learned that one must find some other means of
fighting the United States than exposure of its forces to technical assault. And so it builds its
economy, even going so far as to open it to the world. And so it arms itself, and also its proxies,
with missiles and nuclear weapons capable of reaching the United States. And so it arms itself, and
its proxies, with theatre weapons capable of hitting large aircraft carriers at a distance of hundred of
These aims are clear in Chinese policy, but of course they are not the only aims. Also they wish the
people of China to be more wealthy. They pursue this aim not because it is the right of every man
to keep the bread he earns with the sweat of his own labor, but because it has certain benefits for
the nation. Like Franklin Roosevelt, and unlike James Madison, they will say that people have a
right to a minimum standard of wealthbut not necessarily the right to keep what they earn.
President Jiang Zemin has visited Williamsburg, Virginia and posed for the cameras in the
three-cornered hat. Of course he made the predictable speech in praise of our Founders. But note
the real difference he has, and knows he has, with those great statesmen. In our Revolution, free
markets were not mentioned, nor was it thought that the governments aim was to improve living
standards. Instead, the Founders talked of property rights. Each individual possessed these
property rights, and to fail to protect them was tyranny.
When one puts these arguments together, he is left with something that is strangely compatible with
the rhetoric, and even the means, of the modern bureaucratic state as we know it in America. The
new rulers of China identify themselves as technocrats, as engineers. They are directing a massive
organism. The economy is allowed to run free, but only up to a certain point. The people are not so
much left free to choose, as they are guided and trained. If you let people have incentives, then they
will work harder. But everywhere the state must be ready to provide a check, so that nothing gets
out of hand.
Interestingly, when we tax the Chinese leaders to hasten the "progress" that they are making toward
human rights, they never admit that they share our standard in that regard. Instead, they say that
they must protect the stability of the Chinese system. When, for example, President Clinton made
his famous criticism of China for its human rights abuses on Chinese television, Jiang Zemin gave a
most interesting response:
With regard to the political disturbances in 1989, the Chinese people have long drawn a historical
conclusion. During my visit to the United States last year and also on many international occasions,
I have stated our position that with regard to the political disturbances in 1989, had the Chinese
government not taken the resolute measures then, we could not have enjoyed the stability that we
are enjoying today.
In other words, if a group of people should be foolish as to assemble in Tiananmen Square and
demand their rights, we will shoot them for it. We will do it tomorrow if need be, just as we did it in
And he continued:
China is a socialist country in which its people are masters of the nation. The Chinese people can
elect their own representatives to the people’s congresses through direct or indirect means, and
they can fully express their views and exercise their political rights. In the two decades since the
reform and opening up program was started, the National People’s Congress of China has adopted
more than 320 laws and acts; thus, constantly strengthening the legal protection of the democracy,
fundamental freedoms, and the various rights enjoyed by the Chinese people. Over the past two
decades, another 200 million people in China were lifted out of poverty.
No country’s human rights situation is perfect. Since the founding of new China, the fundamental
changes and the tremendous achievements that have been achieved, that have been scored in the
human rights conditions
In others words, the people of China, under socialist doctrine, are already fully enjoying their rights.
Just like in the United States, there are problems; but the main victories are already won. Under the
doctrine of the state, China has democracy at this moment. Neither he nor President Clinton
mentioned at this meeting the selling of human organs for profit, or the suppressions of freedom of
speech, or the dragging of citizens from their homes when they are caught holding Christian
services, their legs broken in the streets, or their beaten bodies dragged off to prison. He does not
mention the state ownership of the media; the subordination of the courts to party control; the self
propagating status of the Politburo. But these are justified in his answer. He makes no retreat from
them. He asserts them as the rightful prerogative of the state.
President Clinton won fame, some of due him, for his confrontation of Jiang Zemin on Chinese
television. But he did not drive the point home, and he did not contest the adamancy of Zemin, even
though the Chinese president invited him to ask anything further on this point that he might wish.
This little exchange is in fact a microcosm of our relations with China. It was repeated in the recent
visit of the Chinese Premier to Washington, where, in the name of Abraham Lincoln, he asserted
the authority of China to compel Taiwan by force whenever it should please, and where the
president responded by asking the premier publicly for help in gathering information about Chinese
espionage here in the United States.
This weakness is repeated notoriously in our relations with North Korea, where we pay them in
exchange for vague agreements not to produce nuclear weapons and missiles capable of striking us.
Understand that North Korea is a nation where people eat tree bark for sustenance and where it is
imprisonment and maybe death to tune a radio to anything but the official channel. Understand that
North Korea enjoys the assistance of China and also Iran in its nuclear program. Understand that
North Korea violates the agreements it makes with us while it spends our money, and so we send
Bill Perry back again and again to propose to pay additional money. It only needs the president
making the trip himself to resemble Neville Chamberlain going to visit Hitler.
That brings me to the third reason why the United States has been tolerant of Chinese human rights
abuses: culture. China, after all, is a different culture from us. It does not have the tradition either of
faith or reason that we have. And so we should tolerate the differences between them and us. They
are only being Chinese in their form of government. Admittedly, Marxism is a Western
phenomenon, but they have always had communism with Chinese characteristics. And the hybrid
system they are building today is rather like, in some way that commands our progressive faith but
eludes our understanding, the real China, China in its essence, it heritage, its way.
Surely, this argument, like the other two, has some merit. Its strength is inherent in part because it is
reflective of some facts that are real and powerful.
It is a puzzling thing that China, for all her early grandeur, seems to lack the Western tradition of
God, the Maker of man, the disposer of justice, the perfection toward which all human things must
aim, and the grantor of all final rewards. The two strains that have produced Western civilization
are Jerusalem and Athens. But, from China, Jerusalem seems to be missing.
I am not so sure about the status of philosophy in China; here my own ignorance is the obstacle. I
have read the Analects of Confucius, and I find them noble and inspiring in their austere morality.
They have something in common with the ethical thought that is so richly developed in Aristotle and
the Stoics. But in the relation of master and student, there seems to be a larger authority than that
prevailing in the school where Plato and Aristotle were trained. And the connections between moral
and theoretical reasoning and knowledge do not seem the same. But I say this tentatively, and
would emphasize the point that the Analects seem a great and wise piece of writing, expressive of a
moral code fully recognizable in the West.
When East meets West, the barriers of language are great. Two vast cultures have made their
history apart until quite recently, and I for one cannot say with any certainty what bearing this great
history of China has upon modern China. But I do think we have some information on the point that
can be useful to us. We have an example. That example is in the aforementioned little island of
Think for a moment of the story of Taiwan. Sun Yat Sen wrote much of the Three Principles of The
People in Hawaii. He read American political thought, including alas Woodrow Wilson, but
including also the founders themselves. He was deeply under their influence. He proposed a system
of free government for China, and he was at pains to state that this system of freedom would
preserve the best characteristics of Chinese tradition, and even enhance those characteristics. In
this respect he resemble our Founders themselves, who thought that they were advancing our
understanding of the principles of politics, but did not think they were changing their nature.
Sun Yat Sen found a student and a general in Chiang Kai Chek, who was from the south of China.
Chang built a political movement. Its advance was interrupted by the invasion of Japan with
overwhelming power. And he was driven to the north throughout a long war. After that war he and
his army were stranded there on unfavorable ground, locked in battle with Mao, which battle they
lost. They fled the mainland, refugees hunted for their lives.
Under conditions of extreme peril, they devoted labor and precious ships to the conveyance of the
art and literary treasures that are the highest expression of the achievements of the soul of China.
And they are accused of having, amidst these horrible necessities, committed graft. And yet these
treasures can be viewed today, if one has the necessary days and weeks it requires, in Taipei in the
National Palace Museum. They are safe today, as they were when they took them. And they are
the possession today, just as they were when they took them, of the Chinese nation.
This is not the only promise that Chiang and his supporters kept. Chiang and his teacher had also
made a promise to establish the freedom of the people of China. Then he and his heavily armed
band arrived desperate upon a tiny island full of powerless farmers. And today the son of one of
those farmers is the President of the Republic of China. And he was elected to that office in a free
vote. And while that vote was taken, of course, the successors of Mao were firing weapons upon
that island, and threatening nuclear destruction upon Los Angeles, California, in the United States of
On Taiwan, a respect for Chinese culture operates side-by-side with the principles of freedom,
derived very much from the experience and thought of the United States of America. Over on the
mainland, Mao and his henchmen showed the same contempt for the treasures of China as they
showed for the producers of those treasures, the people of China. They brought modernity in the
form of communism. But they brought it in a fashion recognizable throughout the ages as the will of
the despot to work upon others as if they were animals.
So much, then, for Chinese culture as an excuse for despotism in modern China. What of religion?
I have said that in China there is a system of persecution, not only for the Dalai Lama, but for
anyone who would join any church except the official, established, national church. In the speech in
Beijing where Jiang Zemin said that the people of China enjoy their full human rights, he also said
that they enjoy complete freedom of religion. The technical name for this assertion is well known to
students of American politics: it is a lie.
Go, on the other hand, and look at the monument in Taipei where Chiang Kai Chek is buried. You
will see that in his final message to the people of China, General Chiang commends to them the
Christian faith. He died a Christian. Today the elected Taiwanese-born ruler of the Republic of
China is himself a Christian. And yet no one is compelled there either to accept or reject any faith,
including the Christian faith. The people of Taiwan freely voted for Lee Teng-hui despite the fact
that most of them do not share his religion. That great benefit, won here for the first time in all
human history in the United States of America, is the governing principle of the Republic of China
In conclusion, China, like most of the world, has reached a consensus that it must adapt to
modernity in certain respects. Every party and every government both in free and in Communist
China understand that the greatness, the peace, the stability of China require adaptation to the
requirements of modern life.
There are two models for how that adaptation must be made. One of them promotes freedom, as it
really exists, in alliance with, and after the fashion of, our own great country. And that power is
respectful of the ancient traditions and faith of the Chinese people. More than respectful, it is the
preserver of those traditions and that culture in the modern world.
The other model is an aggressive despotism of the kind familiar throughout history both East and
West. But especially in this century it is known. And of course that power is hostile to everything
old and great in China.
After President Clinton spoke on Chinese television, he traveled down to Shanghai, where he was
led to make some remarks about the Republic of China on Taiwan. These remarks were clumsy,
almost stupid. Their effect was to weaken the commitments we made in the Taiwan Relations Act.
In that way, and in 100 others, this president and our government are picking the wrong China.
Both China and we have a massive stake in better policy in America.