Lawrence W. Reed – July 11, 2022
When the author of The Coming Collapse of China, Gordon Chang, predicted the imminent demise of the Chinese Communist Party’s rule two decades ago, he argued that “regimes collapse when people are no longer afraid and think they’re no longer alone.”
Chang’s forecast has yet to materialize. The State that Mao built is still in business. But two facts are worth noting. One: It took the Soviet Union 74 years to implode and disappear, and a year before it happened, few analysts saw it coming. At this moment, the CCP’s reign of terror in Beijing is just 73 years old. In China’s extensive history, seven or eight decades is a mere flash in the pan.
Second, Mao’s CCP is wildly out of step with the Chinese philosophies that long dominated the country’s intellectual and cultural climate, namely, Taoism and Confucianism. If Chang’s prediction eventually proves true, we will someday assess the regime of Mao and his ideological successors as a deadly aberration in Chinese political and ethical thought.
The late Austrian School economist, historian and political theorist Murray Rothbard identified the founder of Taoism, Lao-tzu, as “the first libertarian intellectual.” Wrote Rothbard,
For Lao-tzu the individual and his happiness was the key unit and goal of society. If social institutions hampered the individual’s flowering and his happiness, then those institutions should be reduced or abolished altogether. To the individualist Lao-tzu, government, with its “laws and regulations more numerous than the hairs of an ox,” was a vicious oppressor of the individual, and “more to be feared than fierce tigers…”
After referring to the common experience of mankind with government, Lao-tzu came to this incisive conclusion: “The more artificial taboos and restrictions there are in the world, the more the people are impoverished…. The more that laws and regulations are given prominence, the more thieves and robbers there will be.”
Confucius was a 6th Century B.C. contemporary of Lao-tzu and even more influential over the centuries. For challenging elitist authoritarianism, he was revolutionary in his day. He spoke of the “Mandate of Heaven,” the notion that rulers must exercise power lightly and justly or Heaven would see to it that the people overthrew them. Confucius defended the right of rebellion against tyrants, whereas Mao and his successors brook no dissent and crushed resistance with calculating brutality.
Mao believed that all power “flows from the barrel of a gun”—effectively an exaltation of force and a “might makes right” perspective. By contrast, both Taoism and Confucianism emphasize harmony and mutual respect. The founders of those ancient but enduring philosophies would be horrified to know that a Chinese leader starved and slaughtered 65 million of his countrymen to impose a system cooked up by a degenerate German scribbler named Karl Marx.
Mao’s bloody Cultural Revolution of the 1960s tried to cement his virulent Marxism as the sole ideology of China. His objective was to eliminate the “Four Olds” of custom, culture, habit, and ideas. Lao-tzu and Confucius never called for the violent imposition of their ideas to the exclusion of others.
Traditional Chinese philosophers like Lao-tzu and Confucius were culture-makers. Mao was the ultimate cultural nihilist, an enemy of culture itself. Whereas true culture spontaneously bubbles up among people as they interact, the artificial social arrangements that Mao sought to create in culture’s place were top-down, narcissistic and savage. It represented one maniac’s delusions far more than it reflected consensus or pluralistic institutions.
Even though leaders after Mao drifted from the most extreme and doctrinaire of Maoist ideas and practices, they all staunchly rallied (and still rally) around the one-party, authoritarian state as the locus of wisdom. They tolerate no threat to their monopoly on power. As he enters the second decade of his tenure, the current President of China, Xi Jinping, is ratcheting up oppression as he forms his own cult of personality. He heads an evil autocracy that persecutes minorities, arrogates total power to itself, and suppresses those who dare challenge its barbarity.
The teachings of Lao-tzu and Confucius aimed to achieve humane conditions and a virtuous people. The self-serving propaganda of the CCP is in a completely different league, aimed at maintaining power at seemingly any cost.
Of all the important Chinese philosophers, my personal favorite is Mencius. Born two centuries after Confucius, he is regarded by scholars as nearly the equal of Confucius in his influence. It is, in fact, through the more prolific Mencius that we understand Confucius himself. Mencius interpreted Confucius and took the elder’s teachings to their logical conclusions—to what lovers of liberty today identify as an ancient version of 19th Century “classical liberalism.”
Writing at Libertarianism.org in 2020, Paul Meany explained that Mencius believed individual growth was a very personal thing. It is far better to encourage it than to compel it:
Similarly to Confucius, Mencius believed that the government existed to cultivate a virtuous citizenry. This at first sounds like a recipe for an overbearing authoritarian regime of paternalism, and yet Mencius’ beliefs do not remotely resemble those of a totalitarian. Mencius did not agree with heavy-handed, top-down approaches.
Mencius, writes Meany, held economic views that Adam Smith defended some 2,000 years later. The Chinese philosopher argued against government monopolies and price-fixing. He defended free trade and opposed warfare as a means to national prosperity. He expected government officials to act with fairness, justice and integrity:
Mencius held those in power to strict standards. Like Confucius, Mencius believed leaders ought to be of the highest ethical character, given that their example would filter down to the rest of the population. If leaders did not practice ethical conduct, they could corrupt an entire society. If leaders did not keep clean moral characters or failed to fulfill their duties, it was morally permissible for them to be removed from office and replaced, by force if necessary.
The followers of Taoist and Confucian thought rarely succeeded in securing the kind of minimal and benevolent State they wrote about. Governments are experts at thwarting, at least temporarily, the goals of those who wish to put the State in its proper place. But no Chinese scholar worth his salt would argue that Chinese culture hasn’t been profoundly shaped over the centuries by these two philosophies. Moreover, there can be little doubt that if Lao-tzu, Confucius or Mencius could pronounce judgment on today’s Chinese government, they would express profound contempt. The CCP has surely lost any “mandate” from Heaven if it ever had one.
The day the regime dies is the day when from beyond the grave, great thinking men like Lao-tzu, Confucius and Mencius will smile in unqualified approval.
Originally published at Fee.org. Lawrence W. Reed is FEE’s President Emeritus, Humphreys Family Senior Fellow, and Ron Manners Global Ambassador for Liberty, having served for nearly 11 years as FEE’s president (2008-2019). He is author of the 2020 book, Was Jesus a Socialist? as well as Real Heroes: Incredible True Stories of Courage, Character, and Conviction and Excuse Me, Professor: Challenging the Myths of Progressivism. Follow on LinkedIn and Like his public figure page on Facebook. His website is www.lawrencewreed.com.