The Monopoly of Legitimate Benevolence

By Ts’ang Chung-shu and Jennifer Dodgson

Those who tame crows clip their wings, and they are thus forced to rely on humans for their food. How, then, can the birds be anything but obedient? So too does an intelligent ruler tame his ministers, giving them no choice but to share in his prosperity and no option but to accept the titles he bestows. And if they share in his prosperity and are elevated by his titles, then how can they not surrender to his wishes?

- Han Feizi

The Thucydides trap has become a cottage industry in recent years. Barely a week can go by without a new act of punditry describing the inevitable war that will result from China’s rise and America’s decline. According to the theory, any growing nation will necessarily wish to expand its reach as far as possible, putting it into direct conflict with existing powers.

The problem with this vision of international relations is that it relies upon a specific idea of what power is. In the Anglo-European tradition, a leader is a protector: someone who will defend us from them. This being so, it is only natural that anyone aspiring to power will search for a conflict in which to distinguish himself, and hoping to retain it will be obliged to defeat a continuous succession of challengers. The fact is fundamental to so much modern political theory that it tends to be written into commentators’ arguments unquestioned.

In China, however, power works differently. In China, a leader is whoever can make his followers rich. Under the sway of such a system, the logic of the Thucydides trap collapses. Fighting costs money that could otherwise be put into rewarding partisans, and leaders have no incentive to fight more than is absolutely necessary. Politicians responding to such incentives will take pains to avoid war, not out of inherent virtue or pacifism, but because it is low on their list of performance indicators.

At which assertion, the words “prove it”, naturally form themselves into battle array in the reader’s mind. Very well…

Politics as Theorised by the ‘Ndrangheta (and Others)

In Western political philosophy, the principal threat to human life comes from other humans. The development of political order is an attempt to mitigate this threat. Under such a system, the roles of leader and follower are defined by means of a simple utilitarian calculus: each individual identifies the person that constitutes the greatest threat to him and associates himself with whoever seems able to provide the most effective protection against this threat. Thus, unaffiliated weaker individuals will tend to follow the second most powerful individual in the system at any given time, as a way of hedging against the most powerful actor. The result is continual turnover at the leadership level: an aspiring leader promises protection from the greatest present threat, attracts followers, achieves dominance, gradually comes to be seen as a threat himself, and is replaced in his turn.

The mechanism can be observed in action in the checks-and-balances systems and multiparty democratic arrangements that still prevail among Anglo-European polities. Under this system no one group can remain in power for long, as citizens gradually come to perceive them as having grown overweening and transfer their allegiance to whichever opposition group seems capable of throwing the rascals out.

While this fractious, high-turnover approach to politics frequently appears chaotic, it is in fact the key to stability within those states in which it prevails, preventing the long-run dominance of any particular group. The precise pretext for political conflict at any given moment — left vs. right, rich vs. poor, centre vs. periphery — is unimportant; what matters is merely that it be perpetual. The existence of this unending conflict gives ordinary citizens the ability to shop around between different sources of protection. Thus they are able to keep costs and exploitation to a minimum, by threatening to take their custom to a competitor should membership of their present faction grow too onerous.

The result is a series of nested protection rackets: my party protects me against the opposition, my local representatives protect me against the national elites, and my country protects me against foreign threats. Just as in any protection racket, power is an all-or-nothing game. If the shops in a particular village are paying the ‘Ndrangheta for protection, it is on the assumption that it will prevent other rival groups from posing a threat. Similarly, a state’s authority depends on it being the only authority on its purported territory. The state’s ability to protect its citizens is the sine qua non of its existence; a state unable to prevent other individuals or entities from violating its laws on its own territory loses that territory. This mechanism was theorised by Max Weber as the “monopoly of legitimate violence” and underpins modern international law.

Another Normal

Because the ideas described above are so prevalent and so efficient in describing political thought in the Anglo-European sphere, it can be tempting to see in them a universal model.

In fact, this Chinese system is not merely older, but has historically enjoyed far greater prevalence. It is not unreasonable to regard the Chinese model as the default pattern of political organisation, and the Western version merely an intriguing alternative. In regions traditionally influenced by Chinese political thought, theories concerning the nature of power and the origins of the state have traditionally been based upon Spring and Autumn and Warring States era ideas of human development, which differ significantly from their Western counterparts. Rather than focusing on human threats, the earliest Chinese narratives of state formation emphasise natural risks, notably floods and famines. In these stories, the first states grew out of the incorporation of communities around individuals who had succeeded in developing new techniques in agriculture and flood defence and were willing to share their knowledge. The earliest sovereigns were innovators in farming and hydrology, whose political legitimacy was based on these skills, rather than upon their ability to protect partisans from human threats. They were described as having attracted followers through their technical inventions, with the followers submitting to their rule in exchange for the better livelihood that proximity offered. Just as in the Western model, the decision to sacrifice independence in order to be part of a community that provides significant quality-of-life benefits was a simple, utilitarian calculation.

Under such a system, a leader is the individual who can render the greatest number of people dependent upon the advantages that he can provide, and threats to his power come not from rival offers of protection, but from redistribution networks that escape his control. Thus, the defining quality of statehood is not the monopoly of legitimate violence, but the monopoly of legitimate benevolence.

In the beginning…

The Chinese narratives of state formation that most closely approach those propounded by Western authors are to be found in the Mozi, which describes a primitive state of disorder being replaced by hierarchy and regulated by means of rewards and punishments. In the Mozi version, leaders are chosen based upon their virtue and abilities, with the most able and most virtuous being best-equipped to ensure good public order:

In the days of the ancients, when human life had just begun, in the time when there was no government or penalties (…) the disorder in All-Under-Heaven was like that existing among the wild birds and beasts. It was clear that this disorder was born of the lack of a political leader. This being so, the most worthy and able of all the people was chosen and established as Emperor. (…) When the rulers had all been put in place, the Emperor had an order proclaimed to the hundred surnames, saying, “Everyone who hears of anything good or bad must report it to their superior. What the superior thinks is right, all must consider to be right.”[1]

While this idea of early leaders as legislators and judges does appear elsewhere, only the Mozi relies upon this vision alone. The Shang Jun Shu, for example, describes order enforced by threats as the second stage in the state formation process, rather than the first. While proto-states can be established on the back of a one-off technological innovation, continued technological supremacy is unreliable foundation in the long-term, and will inevitably end up being replaced by the threat of violence.

This idea is also reflected in the Zhuangzi and Han Feizi versions. Both describe the earliest leaders as technical innovators, attracting followers by providing them with practical advantages not available elsewhere. For the author(s) of the Zhuangzi, this is a negative development, provoking a shift away from primitive simplicity and contentment. By contrast, the Han Feizi, in one of its most famous passages, describes technological progress as a decentralised evolutionary process, generating spontaneous political order around the innovator:

In high antiquity, people were few and wild birds and beasts were many, and people had no hope of out-competing the birds and beasts, insects and serpents. There was a sage who dragged together pieces of wood, thus enabling the people to shelter from harm, and the people rejoiced because of him, and made him the king of All-Under-Heaven, calling him “Nest-Builder”. The people ate raw fruits and shellfish, which were rotten and evil-smelling, and bad for their digestion; many fell sick. There was a sage who used a drill and a flint to make fire, and so cooked their raw meat, and the people rejoiced because of him, and made him the king of All-Under-Heaven, and called him “Fire-Maker”. In middle antiquity, when All-Under-Heaven was flooded, Gun and Yu built irrigation channels. In recent times, Jie and Zhou were violent and disorderly, so Tang and Wu waged war against them. Now, if someone built nests out of wood or discovered the use of drills or flints to make fire in the age of the Xia-Hou, he would certainly have been laughed at by Gun and Yu. If someone discovered the use of irrigation channels to control the waters in the ages of Yin and Zhou, he would certainly have been laughed at by Tang and Wu.[2]

Confucian texts describe a similar process, with a leader attracting followers through his exceptional qualities, but tend to frame it first and foremost in terms of individual ethics. The person who displays the highest degree of moral excellence will naturally become a leader, as followers are attracted by his personal virtues. The Analects aphorisms on the use of soft power to govern are well-known, if frustratingly short on detail. More information concerning the precise mechanisms involved can be found in the Mengzi:

There was an individual who claimed to be following in the footsteps of Shennong [T.N. - Shennong was an archetypal innovative agrarian founder, and a god of farming], a certain Xu Xing, who travelled from Chu to Teng. He came to the gates of Duke Wen and said, “I have come from far away, having heard that you, my Lord, are pursuing benevolent government. This being so, I would like to receive from you a parcel of land and become one of your subjects.” Duke Wen gave him a place in which to settle. His followers, of which there were several dozen, wore coarse clothes and hemp sandals, and wove mats to earn their living. Chen Xiang, a follower of Chen Liang, and his younger brother, Xin, came from Song to Teng, carrying their ploughs and ploughshares on their backs. They said, “We have heard that you, my Lord, are exercising government in the manner of the ancient sages, meaning that you too are a sage. We wish to become the subjects of a sage.”[3]

In other words, while it was the moral excellence of the leader that attracted followers, the proof of his personal qualities lay in demonstrations of practical generosity.

While these accounts frame the civilisational process differently and emphasise varying aspects of the transition, they all share a vision of state formation that is dependent upon the provision of quality-of-life advantages by the founders. In the classical texts, this was described in terms of two similar-but-competing concepts: “benevolence” (仁, ren) and “rewards” (赏, shang).[4]

The Directors of the People’s Fate: Rewards and Benevolence

The phenomenon by which the provision of material benefits confers legitimacy upon a leader is described in detail, both in classical and later texts. While ancient thought accommodated a variety of views on the issue, the majority clustered around two principal perspectives: Confucian and Legalist.

Of the two perspectives, the Legalist one is the simplest to describe and to understand. Beginning from the perspective that human nature is essentially self-interested, it argues that the way to channel and control behaviour is through incentives. An aspiring leader should, therefore, offer rewards for those willing to follow him, obey his orders and advance his cause. Should this prove insufficient, he should also be capable of employing violence against anyone who refuses to allow himself to be bought. The greater the rewards and the more severe and reliable the punishments, the larger his domain of influence will be.[5]

In addition to ad hoc rewards and regular civil service salaries, the more economically-minded Legalist authors also recommend the use of stimulus measures to improve the state’s capacity for generosity, and thus boost both its attractiveness to immigrants and the government’s domestic legitimacy. The Guanzi, in particular, goes into great detail concerning the ways in which a ruler can maximise revenues (and thus, public spending), while minimising the effects of taxes and levies.

Rice and the five grains are the directors of the people’s fate, and money their means of exchange. Therefore, the skillful keep tight hold of the means of exchange, and thereby control the directors of the people’s fate. Thus they can take ownership of the people’s labour, and make full use of it. (…) Give to the people, and they will be content, take from them and they will be resentful, such has always been their nature. The ancient kings understood this truth, and therefore made sure that all saw their gifts but that their exactions took place out of sight.

By contrast, Confucian theories require more interpretation on the part of the reader, relying more on metaphysical arguments. In Confucian texts, the fundamental assumption is that human nature tends towards the moral good, and that benevolence is the means by which this moral good is expressed by the dominant party in a superior-inferior relationship. However, Confucius’ own remarks concerning the precise characteristics of benevolent leader are relatively brief and deliberately cryptic, focusing almost entirely on the psychology of the actor. Fortunately, however, we are interested only in observable behaviour, which is far easier to analyse.

The most important clue comes from the Analects, which specifies that “the benevolent individual, as he wishes to be elevated, elevates others”. In other words, it is in helping others to succeed that one becomes successful, and by sharing one’s good fortune that one rises in society. The idea is also referred to in the Mengzi, which sees the distribution of wealth as the defining behaviour of the benevolent. As in the Xu Xing passage quoted above, prospective subjects are shown migrating to a different state attracted by the spiritual qualities of its leader, but also clearly expecting material advantages as a result (land, a home, a propitious environment in which to run a business), rather than merely the privilege of basking in his moral aura.

In other words, a good leader is one whose personal character leads him to share practical advantages with those closest to him. Prospective followers thereby perceive his inner virtue and spontaneously accord him their support, repaying his benevolence with their loyalty (忠, zhong; the corresponding virtue of the subordinate in a hierarchical relationship).

These simple observations lead to an interesting conclusion. While the mentality of the people involved may be radically different, the processes and outcomes implied by the Confucian concept of benevolence are functionally almost identical to those implied by the Legalist doctrine of rewards. A leader provides material benefits and, in return, acquires the support of those who receive them. Whether he does so in a spirit of cynical exploitation or disinterested regard for the moral good, the outcome is the same. Thus, while the authors of the Mengzi and the Shang Jun Shu followed different reasoning processes in recommending that leaders offer practical benefits to lure immigrants to settle in their states, the consequences were identical.[6]

In both cases it is implied that the individual who can display the most generosity will have the greatest number of followers, and thus be the primary candidate for leadership of the state. This hypothesis can be confirmed by observing the role played by practical generosity in deciding the outcome of power struggles between rival groups or individuals.

“Heaven Sees as my People See”: How Redistribution Determines the Outcome of Power Struggles

In the Confucian tradition, the idea that the most virtuous individual would naturally be elevated to a position of leadership came to be associated with the earlier concept of the Mandate of Heaven (天命, tianming). Under this system, Heaven (天, tian) is seen as taking a beneficent interest in human affairs, and particularly in affairs of state. A leader’s position is not determined by heredity or conquest, but by his ability to rule virtuously (which is to say, benevolently) and thus retain Heaven’s continued favour. Thus, popular discontent implies a lack of benevolence on the part of a leader, and, consequently serves as evidence that he has lost the Mandate of Heaven. This being the case, the populace can legitimately take steps to replace him with a better leader. As the Mengzi puts it:

When Yao departed this world and the three years of mourning were over, Shun avoided the son of Yao, going south of the Southern River. But the feudal lords paying their respects did not go to the son of Yao, but to Shun; litigants did not go to the son of Yao, but to Shun; those who sang songs did not sing of the son of Yao, but of Shun. Therefore I say, “It was Heaven’s doing”. It was after this situation emerged that Shun went to the central states and took up the position of Emperor. If he had moved immediately to reside in Yao’s palace and put pressure upon Yao’s son, it would have been an act of usurpation, not having Heaven’s assent. The Great Declaration explains this, saying: “Heaven sees as my people see, Heaven hears as my people hear.”

A leader who failed to demonstrate sufficient benevolence would thus be replaced, in accordance with both the popular will and the will of Heaven.

Legalist authors, by contrast, tended to describe power struggles in purely secular terms, as a competition for control over limited resources. They also went into much greater detail regarding the technical aspects of regime change. The texts provide precise descriptions of strategies employed by leaders to deal with individuals attempting to set up their own redistribution networks and thus threaten the current government (and, simultaneously, inform aspiring leaders exactly how to employ bribery to establish factions of their own). The Shang Jun Shu, for example, mentions the practice of rewarding any official who reported illegal acts on the part of a superior by transferring the property and titles of the informed-upon to the informant.[7] This would have made it almost impossible to offer anyone a greater reward for participating in a conspiracy than he would receive for denouncing it: a direct attack on the exercise of practical generosity as a means of acquiring followers.

Methods for establishing and breaking up private redistribution networks also form one of the central preoccupations of the Han Feizi, which describes regime change in quasi-Darwinian terms. Less skillful leaders are eliminated by more intelligent individuals who have succeeded in attracting a greater number of followers to join their faction; thus the system is effectively designed to fail upwards.

To govern the state it is necessary to eliminate other factions; if factions are not eliminated, they will attract partisans. To control the territory, it is necessary to bestow benefits in the correct manner; if benefits are not bestowed in the correct manner, disorderly individuals will seek to profit. When they make their requests and I grant their wishes, I am lending my enemy an axe. These things cannot be lent to others, for they will be used to attack me later. The Yellow Emperor said that “in one day, superior and subordinate fight a hundred battles”. (…) If a minister has not killed his lord, it is because he does not yet have sufficient partisans.

This can be understood as an amoral equivalent of the Mandate of Heaven concept; the competition for power between existing leaders and ambitious challengers ensures that — whoever wins — the populace acquires a more intelligent and more generous government as a result. As in the Western system of democratic competition system described above, the ability of citizens to withdraw their support from their current leaders and shop around for better ones produces improved government overall:

Ministers distribute the public revenues for the benefit of individuals,and use them to persuade the common people over to their side. By small kindnesses, they take possession of the hundred surnames, until everyone in the courts and courtyards, at the wells and in the markets, is praising them and advancing their cause. Thus they constrain their ruler and achieve their desires. This is called “cultivating the people”. (…) As regards the gaining of prestige through gifts, this is to be prevented absolutely; the opening of the granaries and the distribution of benefits to the people must come from the ruler alone.

As in the above passage, it is repeatedly emphasised that the possession of economic power within a state is, of necessity, a zero-sum game. In much the same way that a Western state depends for its continued legitimacy on its monopoly of the use of violence, a government dependent upon economic redistribution networks for its stability cannot afford to allow rival networks to emerge on its territory. Any district in which the government does not enjoy ultimate control over the distribution of practical advantages is effectively beyond its control. Or, as the Guanzi says:

By taking control of the economic surplus, one may redistribute it to those who do not have enough, and thus the people cannot help but rely upon the central power. (…) The ancient kings knew this,and prevented the people from accumulating surpluses and narrowed the channels by which they could gain exceptional profits. Thus the ability to bestow benefits and to expropriate, the ability to impoverish and to enrich, all resided with the lord alone.

Redistribution vs. Protection: The Salt and Iron Discourses

Compared to economic issues, border defence was of relatively little importance in the minds of ancient thinkers. The clearest expression of the relatively low degree of interest accorded to it is to be found in the Salt and Iron Discourses. This record of an historical debate between Confucian scholars and Legalist officials (Sang Hongyang and others) concerns the conduct of government during the Han Dynasty.

Both sides agreed that protecting and increasing subjects’ livelihoods is central to the government’s role. They were also in accord that the government’s role in the process should be visible to the populace, thus emphasising the link between the government’s ability to further subjects’ economic well-being and its legitimacy. Where they disagreed was on how this should be done. The Confucians demanded that the government discourage or ban the production and trade of high value-added luxury goods while promoting agriculture, thus reinforcing the dependence of the population on the land and its (benevolent) sovereign for their livelihood. The Legalists, on the other hand, argued that since large monopolistic industries must exist in order to provide the goods upon which society had come to depend, they should be kept under the control of the government. While the corporations that controlled these industries had no inherent military or political power, the fact that so many people depended upon them for their livelihoods rendered them liable to become a threat to the state.

Without redistribution by the ruler, among the populace there will be ten thousand competing plutocrats. Some people have enough surplus to last them a hundred years, some do not even have sufficient dregs and chaff to satisfy their hunger. Rewards cannot incentivise those who are already wealthy, and punishments cannot threaten those who are powerful. If factions are not dispersed and profits are not redistributed, government is impossible. (…) In the time of the Emperor Wen, the people were allowed to produce coins, iron and salt. The King of Wu took over control of the salt marshes of Zhang, and the Deng clan monopolised the Western Mountains. All the criminals and opportunists from east of the mountains became partisans in the land of Wu, and the lands of Qin, Yong, Han and Shu came under the influence of the Deng clan.[8]

The two sides’ positions on military issues and border defence are equally interesting. Just as both factions agreed that the promotion of economic well-being was fundamental to the state’s legitimacy, they saw the handling of incursions by the Xiongnu on the Northern border as a serious matter, but not an existential threat. The Confucians felt that the Xiongnu should be won over via displays of the Emperor’s virtue, while the Legalists argued that a strong defence should be mounted, but were willing to compromise and accept a certain level of instability in border regions if the economic means to garrison the frontier were not forthcoming. (Sang Hongyang had earlier introduced the policy of sentencing those found guilty of evading taxes intended to fund the border defences to internal exile in the far Northwest, where they would be obliged to deal with the threat from the Xiongnu on their own account. A neat way of ensuring that the problem would solve itself, it is nevertheless difficult to imagine a leader whose legitimacy depended upon his ability to protect his people taking such a course.)

Crucially, neither party to the debate perceived the inability to fully defend the country’s borders as a challenge to the government’s legitimacy. Needless to say, this is not the position one would expect from government ministers in a state in which legitimacy is founded upon the ability to protect followers from outside threats.

How to Get your Housing Complex Redecorated in Singapore, and Other Pressing Problems: The Monopoly of Legitimate Benevolence Today

Just as Enlightenment-era ideas concerning the development and legitimacy of nation-state governments continue to have a preponderant effect on European and American modes of political thought, the Warring States-era model of the benevolent sovereign continues to influence political thinking to this day.

The benevolent sovereign concept was one of the earliest to spread beyond China’s borders. Among Japan’s earliest historical texts, the Kojiki (c. 712 AD) described Emperor Nintoku as a “sage”, with the word clearly being intended to convey the Chinese implications of the term, referring specifically to a benevolent and technologically advanced ruler.[9] According to the Nihon Shoki (720 AD), Nintoku was the first sovereign to engage in large-scale flood defence works to preserve his subjects’ livelihoods, just as the earliest Chinese leaders were described as having done.

The link between Chinese influence and political thought is even stronger in Korea, where the Joseon Dynasty — having been forced into the position of a Chinese tributary state, and thus heavily exposed to neo-Confucian concepts — began to promote the idea of the semi-legendary founding father Gija (箕子 or Jizi in Chinese) as a model Confucian sage-king. The aim appears to have been to reinforce Korean historical claims, and thus the legitimacy of the state. Unmentioned in Korean texts until the Samguk Sagi (completed in 1145 AD), Gija’s role in disseminating new technologies and Chinese thought among the Korean people was increasingly emphasised as Chinese dominance became a stronger force in internal politics.

In addition to spreading beyond China’s geographical boundaries, the model has also persisted in time, and efficiently explains various idiosyncrasies of modern East Asian politics.

Thus, for example, a tendency to evaluate governments based on economic performance has been observed and measured over time and across the majority of Chinese-influenced states. Chu et al. (2013) used Asian Barometer Survey data to show a strong correlation between positive evaluations of the economy and support for government in the PRC, Vietnam, Singapore, Korea, Japan, Hong Kong, Taiwan and Mongolia, but –crucially — not in Malaysia, Cambodia, Indonesia or Thailand (all of which have historically been subject to far less Chinese influence).

The same tendency explains the prevalence of one-party rule in Chinese-influenced systems, even those with apparently democratic institutions (Japan, Singapore). In Singapore, for example, the ruling People’s Action Party (PAP) has always been frank in basing its continued rule on its strong economic performance, and acknowledging that it will lose power when it is no longer able to assure satisfactory economic growth rates. Conversely, the PAP also occasionally threatens to sanction those constituencies that show insufficient support, by reducing public spending in those districts. As PM Lee Hsien Loong put it: “Why is the opposition ward not treated at least as good as or maybe even better than the PAP ward? (…) The answer is that there has to be a distinction because the PAP wards supported the Government and the policies which delivered these good things.” (Even more evidence for the phenomenon exists in Japan; we summarised much of it here.)

In both the Japanese and the Singaporean cases, the ruling party’s control over economic redistribution channels is self-perpetuating. Having control over redistribution, the ruling party attracts those who wish to benefit from this, whether as recipients of aid or as candidates for political office. Thus it strengthens its financial and human resources, enabling it to further expand its redistribution systems and thereby attract more supporters. Concurrently, the ruling party’s monopoly over these redistribution systems prevents opposition parties from forming economic networks of their own, and thus from providing voters with any proof of their ability to bestow the practical benefits that confer legitimacy. This system only wavers when poor economic conditions prevent the ruling party from providing the advantages to which citizens have become accustomed, as has repeatedly been the case in Japan since the collapse of the bubble economy, leading to revolts against LDP rule in 1993 and 2009.[10]

The need to retain a monopoly over the distribution of advantages also explains the high profile given to affairs of corruption and anti-corruption in Chinese-influenced political systems. Econometric studies have shown that — contrary to normal practice elsewhere — corruption has a positive effect on economic growth in East Asia. This being the case, one would expect governments whose legitimacy depends strongly on economic performance to make no effort to prevent it. In fact, the opposite is true. In countries that were traditionally subject to Chinese cultural influence, governments tend to attach a high level of importance to dealing with the issue, whether by fighting it outright or by attempting to integrate it within the sphere of state control. The time and energy devoted to these battles only makes sense if they are interpreted as governmental struggles for survival against rival economic power networks, rather than being seen as ordinary law-enforcement actions.

Thus, the winner of the 2012 race for power in the PRC had little choice but to embark on an anti-corruption campaign following his victory. The competition had been relatively evenly-matched between the factions involved, with many partisans of the losing groups entitled to remain in office even after Xi Jinping took power. It was thus necessary to minimise the threat they posed, both to his personal control and to national unity, by disrupting their ability to form and consolidate economic power networks of their own— that is to say, by taking a tough line against corruption and “feudalism”. Those who refused to allow themselves to be coopted into the dominant faction had to be jailed or executed, not merely because they broke the law, but because they had the potential to become an independent state-within-a-state. Indeed, Xi has said as much openly, going so far as to quote the Shang Jun Shu to argue that corruption is not merely a social inconvenience or a moral failing, but an existential threat to the nation as a whole:

It has become very clear: it is a matter of life or death for the Party and the nation that our Party should build itself cleanly and by fighting corruption; this is the fundamental lesson to be drawn from history, at all times and in all places (…) We must be relentless in our fight against graft and our promotion of honesty, sounding the alarm whenever corruption and degeneracy arise. We must remember that “a swarm of worms will eat through a wooden board, and one large crack will bring a wall down”.[11]

What now?

The fact that the phenomena described above are present in Chinese-influenced societies regardless of their present regime type — from parliamentary democracy, to soft authoritarian, to one-party communist state — indicates they are not a product of current institutions, but must rather be a continuation of the shared modes of political thought that pre-dated these institutions.

The key to the system’s longevity, particularly in the face of the wholesale importation of foreign institutions in many of the countries in question, appears to lie in its self-regulating nature. Even in the absence of explicit checks and balances, the monopoly of legitimate benevolence forces governments to manage the economy in such a way that it consistently produces a surplus for them to redistribute, thereby justifying their continued rule. Any government that fails in this task too frequently is liable to lose power and be replaced by one that is more competent and better-able to incentivise its supporters. Thus the survival-of-the-fittest principle ensures that every government collapse at the micro level strengthens the body politic at the macro level.

To contact the authors, please email jen@lexikat.com.

1 A somewhat similar version is to be found in the Shang Jun Shu, with the difference that in this case it it is hierarchy that produces virtue, rather than vice versa: “In ancient times — before there were princes and ministers, those above and those below — the people lived ungoverned in disorder. The situation being thus, the sages established distinctions between nobles and commoners, systemised advancements and ranks, set up names and titles, and so distinguished between the proper conduct of princes and of ministers, of those above and those below. The land was vast, the people were many, and there was much to take into account, therefore they divided officials into five groups in order to preserve it. The people were numerous, which created license and evil conduct, so they established laws and systems to evaluate and control them.” However, Shang Yang also refers to the “farmer king” paradigm, as we shall see later on.

2 It is worth noting that this closely resembles a passage in the “Robber Zhi” chapter of the Zhuangzi, with the difference that the author(s) of the Zhuangzi version appear to consider the phenomena cited as random events, rather than evidence of continuous technical progress.

3 Mencius did not agree with Xu Xing’s ideas himself, but the fact that this was considered a reasonable course of action is telling. The Xunzi describes the same process in terms of general principles: “What is a lord? I say: He who can bring people together to create a community. (…) He who skillfully nourishes people and makes them prosper will be cherished by them; he who skillfully organises and governs people will find them docile towards him; he who skillfully establishes and elevates people will see that they rejoice in his presence; and he who provides lands and robes for the people will find that they bring him honour. Whoever applies the four systems will find that All-Under-Heaven flocks to him. This is what is called ‘being able to create a community’.”

4 The precise meaning of the term “reward” and its multifarious synonyms varies in the original texts, implying either a one-off grant of land or titles made in recognition of military success, incentives to immigration, habitual civil service emoluments, or a combination of all three. Other frequently-used terms include: benefits (利, li), favours (惠, hui), emoluments (祿, lu), advancement (爵, jue), profits (益, yi), gifts (賜, ci) etc. This paper favours “reward” purely because the doctrine of rewards and punishments is already a familiar concept.

[5] Historical analysis has tended to focus on the draconian punishments inflicted by Legalist political systems on anyone deemed to be threatening public order, to the detriment of the part played by rewards and other positive incentives in the overall scheme of government. Such has been the effect of subsequent interpretation that the role of rewards in maintaining a stable state has frequently been entirely sidelined by later analysts, with Legalist thought often being equated to rule by terror. The fact remains, however, that even the most sanctions-focused texts do not deny the crucial role played by rewards in the state-building process. The Shang Jun Shu, for example, advises dispensing rewards and punishments at a ratio of one to nine, but at no point do any of the authors argue that rewards can be dispensed with altogether, describing them instead as being crucial for attracting followers and thus reinforcing state power.

[6] The differences between the two schools’ approaches can be summed up as: a) The level of cynicism displayed by those involved: for Legalists, humans are utilitarian by nature, and loyalty to a generous sovereign is a self-interested transaction. Confucian thinkers see the exchange as a spontaneous expression of man’s natural desire for the moral good. b) The existence, or absence of a corresponding threat, should generosity be insufficient on its own to ensure compliance: for Legalists violence is necessary not just to maintain order and deal with ambitious rivals, but also to ensure that followers have no choice but to remain dependent upon a leader’s largesse. Strict Confucian thought maintains that in a perfect state there would be no need for physical compulsion to ensure compliance. c) The approach used to accord priority when distributing benefits: the Confucian tradition argues that those closest (both in social and geographical terms) should receive the first and the greatest benefits, whereas Legalists argue that wealth should be redistributed in whatever way procures maximum utility for the redistributor. The former approach produces a feudal system, while the latter creates a meritocratic bureaucracy. (Xunzi provides an interesting illustration of the practical proximity of the two approaches, despite their proponents’ intense dislike of one another, frequently using legalist reasoning to justify Confucian positions and vice versa.)

7 Duyvendak, in the standard English translation, splits the relevant passage into two independent clauses, thus altering the meaning. We follow Zhu Shiche’s interpretation and read it as: “If, among those tasked with upholding the law and the offices of the state, there are any who do not enact the king’s laws, the penalty is death with no possibility of pardon, extending to the third generation. Any of their subordinates who knew of their offence and informed those above them will themselves avoid punishment and, whether noble or common, inherit their (disgraced) superior’s rank, lands and emoluments.”

8 The arguments given here closely mirror passages from the “Guo Xu” chapter of the Guanzi, cited above.

9 The precise Sino-Japanese phrase used is “謂聖帝世也” — i.e. “[his reign] was called the era of a sage-emperor”.

10 Taiwan and South Korea provide interesting counter-examples to this trend; in both cases a strong authoritarian party relaxed its control and gradually lost its dominance, despite a generally robust economic record. One possible explanation for this could be the presence of a proximate military threat — in the form of the PRC on the one hand and the DPRK on the other. In both Taiwanese and South Korean elections, policy towards the major antagonist tends to feature heavily in public debates. While economic performance generally remains top of voters’ concerns, a not-insignificant proportion of the electorate regularly prioritises cross-strait/cross-border security and foreign relations: 15.2% in Taiwan and 14.3% in South Korea in the most recent general elections. This is not the case in Japan or Singapore, where such military threats as exist are generally perceived as less immediately pressing. Similarly, while it has been argued that Japanese voters’ relative lack of interest in foreign and military issues could stem from the fact that the U.S. alliance has taken much of the responsibility for national defence out of the hands of the national government, this does not explain why Taiwan and South Korea (both of which also enjoy strong alliance commitments) show a much higher degree of popular interest in defence issues, while voters in Singapore (which has no formal alliance) give a relatively low priority to defence strategies in making voting decisions.

11 The quotation can be found in the “Xiu Quan” chapter. The passage in full reads: “If one abandons regulations and standards and defines the good according to one’s private opinions, then degenerate ministers will sell their powers for financial arrangements, and government officials of every rank will fleece the people in secret. The proverb says: ‘A swarm of worms will eat through a wooden board, and one large crack will bring a wall down’. When ministers of state vie to augment their private interests and fail to occupy themselves on the people’s behalf, then those below are divorced from those above. When those below are divorced from those above, there is a crack in the state. When the officials of every rank fleece the people in secret, they are like worms among the people. It follows that states that are worm-riddled and cracked and yet do not collapse are rare in this world. This is why the enlightened ruler relies upon regulations and eradicates private interests, so that the state should not be worm-riddled and cracked.

Doing research on public opinion.

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