Burn the Books: What China’s decision on Google reveals about the PRC

By Carson Thomas Checketts

“When ideas fail, words come in very handy.” – Goethe

Something or someone in the PRC has failed. China’s attempts to attack Google betray a deep discomfort with the PRC’s own decision to ban the worlds leading technology leader from its shores. Perhaps, given Goethe’s insight, it’s fair to say that the PRC’s “ideas” have failed so it is now resorting to all it has left: words. Despite a widely shared international consensus among academics[1] that an industrial revolution remains hollow without a transition to a services and information based economy, China has turned its back on its own modernization. This change has many implications for the world, but perhaps the most significant is that the Google decision shows who really holds the cards in the PRC’s inner circle. It would appear the less educated military may have moved from a position of moderate influence into the inner circle, where their paranoia has apparently convinced China that technology is what ancients called a “Greek gift,” intended to harm rather than enlighten the recipient.

It has been observed that you can gauge the competence and virtue of a nations leaders by evaluating their ability to honor their nations best traditions. Such an evaluation will no doubt be a lightning rod for criticism since very few nations have a precise consensus on who their greatest thinkers and leaders have been. However, working within this framework one may be surprised at just how much consensus there is on which former citizens, presidents and leaders represent the highest caliber of any nations cumulative brain trust. These Sages of the past were able to speak the truth. Not from a myopic perspective limited to their own time and culture, but as “galvanized rods” (Emerson) they spoke the truth of their generation and shed light on their people’s own potential.

As China’s government nears a decision to ban Google it occurred to me that the PRC’s decision may best be evaluated not by Western standards, but by the standards of China’s great philosophers. However, as I worked my way from Confucius to Mao, it became clear that some of China’s greatest philosophers and their works (Mao in particular) were informed by Europe’s greatest minds. As a result, this paper explores a wider take on what both Chinese and European philosophers may say about the Google/China decision.

While it has been almost 40 years since China has produced an internationally respected philosopher, this great nation produced a lion share of our worlds collective wisdom before the PRC came into power. What can be made of this relative “dry spell” in China? After all, the mysticism, depth and power of China’s religious and philosophical culture has long been the fascination of many western minds. People from all over the world travel to China for advanced acupuncture, herbal remedies and to have the worlds best I-Ching oracles lend some sage insight into their lives. Perhaps the PRC’s leadership is simply too old. And not old in a way that seems to lend them the wisdom and insight of their nations rich culture – but old in a way that makes them disconnected and fearful of any of the tools that have lifted modern man from the filth of industrial factories to the height of intellectual and technological prowess. It was the great philosopher and play write Oscar Wilde who stated: “we are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars.”[2] Perhaps it is not too far a stretch to observe that by banning the worlds largest wealth of digital knowledge known to man, China has decided the gutter of 20th century factories are good enough for its people. Such a decision defies not only the extraordinary capabilities of China’s people and potential, but also disregards the prescient insights of its greatest philosophers.

If there were a “Plato of Asia” it would probably be Confucius. Confucius (Kongfuzi/K’ung Fu-Tzu) like Plato represents both the flexibility and stoic nature of his time, his work reflecting both a desire for dedication to social norms and a desire to encourage citizens to educate themselves to attain the highest virtue possible. This dichotomy is replete throughout Confucius’ work which argues on one hand that the virtue of Li requires adaptability to each different situation that confronts an individual, while insisting on the other that “rectification of names” (zhengming, or cheng ming) by the wider society must be enforced in order to “enforce li.” In other words society should choose values, have a means to enforce (or encourage) those values and at the same time remain flexible to “jen” (human heartedness) which is the highest virtue any man can attain. This tension within Confucian philosophy between strict adherence to social norms and independently enlightened people can still be seen in some aspects of Chinese culture. Human-heartedness or Jen (which is also expressed as “ren”) has been interpreted by Professor Liang Sou-ming as spontaneous intuition which results in moral decisions.[3] Confucius was known for his willingness to accept students who were at all stages of their intellectual and personal journeys. The “jen” which he taught was not reserved for a ruling elite, but was presented as something that should be a universal goal for all people. The more authoritarian aspects of Confucius are given less attention and space in his own written work than the broader themes of education and human progress.

In English terms we would consider a state of zhengming as a “state of emergency” that was issued by the government or military when the nation was threatened or chaotic. Confucius states that “If the society were not out of order, I would bother to reform it.”[4] Given China’s decision regarding Google and this insight from Confucius, we may want to consider the degree to which the PRC perceives China as a nation as being “out of order.” But there are other strands of Chinese thought that we must account for before drawing any overly broad conclusions.

Confucian’s ideal of human heartedness was enhanced by one of China’s more recent philosophers, Fung Yu-Lan who lived from 1895-1990. Yu-Lan used almost Hegelian divisions to describe four spheres of life (living). These four spheres include the innocent sphere, utilitarian sphere, moral sphere and the transcendent sphere. Yu-Lan believed that the process of education enabled men to move from one sphere to the next, ultimately reaching for the “transcendent” sphere. Yu-Lan’s system of philosophy is one of the most sophisticated and comprehensive that China has produced. While it remains difficult to ascertain which European philosophers were most influential on Yu-Lan, it’s hard to read Yu-Lan without viewing his fourth sphere as being related to Kant’s transcendental turn. In fact Yu-Lan has been quoted as referring to his own six major works as “the six books at the turning point.”[5] Despite having worked on several Moaist and Marxist projects Yu-Lan’s self-acclaimed metaphysical turning point reads much more like a pre-Marxist expansion of Georg Hegel or Emmanual Kant than it does dialectical materialism. Were Yu-Lan actually persuaded by the Communist party, his four spheres theory would have to be inverted, much the way that Karl Marx inverted Hegel’s phenomenology. In other words, the 4th sphere which represents Yu-Lan’s ideal remains “transcendent.” The only one of his four spheres which could be interpreted to be Marxist would be his second “utilitarian” sphere. This sphere could be seen as an endorsement of dialectic materialism and would probably support a communist form of government. However, in order to account for the hierarchy and propriety of Yu-Lan’s work, this utilitarian sphere or phase of development would be only the second of four steps towards Yu-Lan’s fourth sphere. To put it in more Eureopan parlance, Yu-Lan’s work adopts Hegel subordinating Feurebach and Marx as a “lower” level on mans journey towards virtue. Regarding its applicability to China vs. Google its difficult to ascertain what Yu-Lan would say.

It is the authors opinion that the 21st century is the “virtual century” in both a technological, economic, cultural and ideological sense. The difficulty China faces in banning Google in light of Yu-Lan’s metaphysics is that Yu-Lan seems to adopt Hegel’s preference for enlightened metaphysical philosophy that values man’s quest for knowledge and enlightenment over his thirst for material objects. To the degree that Google and its digital resources can assist Chinese citizens in attaining Yu-Lan’s transcendent fourth sphere of being, keeping Google from Chinese citizens may damage its hope of attaining super-power status. It is of interest that Yu-Lan did serve (however briefly) as a “philosopher-adviser” to Chairman Mao’s wife Jiang Qing (Chiang Ch’ing).[6

While it remains difficult to ascertain the depth of Yu-Lan’s involvement in Mao’s philosophy, certain components of both Yu-Lan’s philosophy as well as Hegel can be seen in Mao’s own thought.

Philosophical historians may wish (with the gift of hindsight) that Mao had read more Yu-Lan and less Confucius and Marx. Perhaps one explanation of Mao’s preference for certain philosophers is that Yu-Lan was a contemporary whose life-span covered a large portion of Mao’s own life. Mao Zedong (Mao Tse-Tung) could be summarized as the first well known dialectic materialist. His preference for Marx, Engels, Lenin and Stalin explains in part why he interpreted a cynical view of Hegel’s work which was the catalyst for Marx and Engel’s project. Since many of the books available to Mao both as a young adult and later in life were provided by Russia, his preference for materialism is perhaps nothing but a historic contingency. Mao was born into a deeply divided and fractured China, and while his philosophy espoused dialectic materialism from Russia and Germany, his own biography reads like a Hegelian or Nietszchean champion of national idealism triumphing over rote materialists. Mao was a gifted philosopher, and if he adopted the official line of Russian dialectics, he also amplified and altered important aspects of it to make substantial contributions to philosophical thought. Mao was more interested in the metaphysical component of dialectics than he was the materialism. In fact, one of his most significant achievements was to interpret Russian dialectics through the perspective of Chinese Daoism. Marx believed that “everything divides into two” (yi fen wei er fen wei erh) but is re-unified in the “unity of opposites.”[7] In this important sense Mao seems to hold metaphysics that resemble Yu-Lan, subordinating material matters to idealistic conceptualizations of reality for pragmatic considerations. This preference is expressed in Mao’s “Let a hundred flowers bloom,” speech and his preference for resolving contradictions by determining the dominant (as opposed to secondary) contradiction. Mao’s evaluative form of critiquing each contradiction that arises implies a human sense of proprietary knowledge that enables distinguishing theories and contradictions correctly. In other words Mao espouses Lenin but walks Hegel. His theory of knowledge reveals his rather enlightened perspective: “Discover truth through practice, and again through practice verify and develop truth. Start from perceptual knowledge; the start from rational knowledge and actively guide revolutionary practice to change both the subjective and the objective world. Practice knowledge, again practice, and again knowledge. This form repeats itself in endless cycles, and with each cycle the content of practice and knowledge rises to a higher level. Such is the whole of dialectical-materialist theory of knowledge, and such is the dialectical-materialist theory of the unity of knowing and doing.”[8]

It remains difficult to understand how Mao would espouse such loyalty to the materialists while his own theory of knowledge clearly surpasses it. Mao’s working-class background can perhaps shed some light as to his preference for focusing on material conditions, but his theory of knowledge has an edge to it that seems to exceed the coordinates of materialism. To the degree that Mao valued materialism he may have more in common with Heidegger than with Marx, or perhaps his work like most great philosophers is a synthesis of both concluding with a Hegelian triumph. Heidegger described the history of the “west” (and in some sense the whole world) as a “gradual estrangement from being.”[9]

Heidegger’s insight allows us to perceive Mao from a slightly different angle where human experience determines the initial coordinates of a theory, but which “rise to a higher level” as Mao claims. With the aid of Heidegger, Mao appears closer to Fung Yu-Lan than he does Confucius. To the degree we are tempted to evaluate his political efforts towards Chinese unification we would be remiss if we didn’t mention Hegel’s theory of history marching towards enlightenment. In short, Mao may be demonstrating a principle acknowledged by the great French philosopher Albert Camus who astutely noted that an individual is the “aggregate of the voices of our whole generation.”[10]

Such an observation makes outsiders wish that China had a few enlightened philosophers on hand to advise it on both Mao’s philosophy and its recent Google decision. Up until this month, China demonstrated at least one “greatness” as defined by Pascal: “A man (nation) does not show his greatness by being at one extremity, but rather by touching both at once.” If we are to look at Google as the embodiment of cutting edge 21st century technology, then it becomes clear that China has quite literally banned the most advanced future developments and has instead reverted to old Marxian materialism. Such a decision cuts against China’s collective history represented by its own philosophers and shows a startling turn away from Mao’s pragmatic philosophy of developing knowledge.

However, since we are here in 2010 and the PRC has chosen to ignore the greatest insights of its former leaders, we may need to turn to one of Europe’s most prolific philosophers to see why the PRC has been unable to accommodate Google. Slavoj Zizek observed in his seminal work the Parallax View that the grandest failure of all communist nations is their “narrative failure.” “The narrative failure, the impossibility of constructing a ‘good story’ which indicates a more fundamental social failure.”[11] In the present case it would appear that the PRC has failed its own people by demonstrating an unwillingness to connect them with the worlds biggest knowledge base. The rather silly fear of pornography and a two decades old picture of a man in front of a tank are not enough to harm or undermine Chinese citizens who have advanced well beyond such mundane material. The PRC’s hyper-vigilance in chopping its people off from wisdom is reminiscent of the worst parts of Confucius (later rejected by Fung Yu-Lan and Mao) who once sarcastically stated: “Men of integrity in my community are different. The father conceals for his son and the son for his father, therein integrity is found.”[12]

From our modern philosophical coordinates it would be fair to observe that the PRC is attempting a Lacanian “short-circuit.” With one hand it claims to be “shielding” its people, while what it really seeks to do is to put their populous into a deep intellectual slumber, to make them subject to material conditions and cut them off from the intellectual ideals that are the engine of any great culture. Poorly educated investors in London and New York are already betting on the “expanded revenue” of Baidu, Google’s rival in China. As an individual who believes in certain historic trends, I am inclined to think these investors bet on the survival of 18th and 19th century dialectic materialism will ultimately wish they had invested elsewhere. Chairman Mao, Confucius, Georg Hegel and Fung Yu-Lan all advocated for the advancement of individual wisdom and knowledge. Something that Google’s departure will undoubtedly make more difficult. Were these philosophers to be betting on a company, it is the opinion of the author they would, today, be buying Google’s stock and chastising the PRC for fearing the only true engine of lasting economic growth: their own people.

Carson Checketts earned his J.D. in 2007, has worked on national political campaigns, Capitol Hill and now works on strategic com
munication and cyber issues.

Guests posts are the opinions of the respective authors and published here to further the discourse on America’s global engagement and do not necessarily reflect the opinion of www.MountainRunner.us.

[1] One of Europe’s most widely respected philosophers Slavoj Zizek describes this transition this way: “The central event of the 20th century is the overthrow of matter. In technology, economics and the politics of nations, wealth in the form of physical resources is steadily declining in value and significance. The powers of mind are everywhere ascendant over the brute force of things.” See: Parallax View p. 179.

[2] See: Oxford Dictionary of Quotations, Second edition 1953 quoting Oscar Wilde, p. 569.

[3] See: “Eastern and Western Civilizations and Their Philosophies,” by Professor Liang Sou-ming, 1922, and “Great Thinkers of the Eastern World,” p. 4.

[4] Id. At 7.

[5] Id. At 149.

[6] Id. At 148. Note, it is also reported that Mr. Fung Yu-Lan was also a member of Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference when he died in 1990.

[7] Id. At 143.

[8] Id at 144.

[9] See: “Time of Need: Forms of Imagination in the Twentieth Century,” William Barrett 1972. P. 53.

[10] Id. p. 52.

[11] See: Parallax View, p. 315.

[12] “Great Thinkers of the Eastern World,” p. 4, also XIII, 18.

2 thoughts on “Burn the Books: What China’s decision on Google reveals about the PRC

  1. The author is among those first who examine the Google vs. China case from the perspective of cultural heritage, instead of big power games or China’s domestic politics. And his reflection of past philosophers—though sometimes a little over-simplifying—adds much to the credibility and beauty of his article. Most importantly, he correctly points out a key issue in China’s materialist mentality over the past 2 decades or so, that China seems to be developing for development’s sake and thus going even farther from a pursuit of the ultimate goal of life.However, there’re a few points I can’t fully agree on. First is his assertion that “the less educated military may have moved from a position of moderate influence into the inner circle.” As I asked some insiders in the diplomatic circle, they told me the fact is just the opposite—the military is actually playing a less dominant role in China’s foreign policy making. This can be seen from the rising influence of such organs of the Foreign Ministry and Finance Ministry. Besides, the military is neither the root nor the strongest supporter of a banning-free-internet access policy.
    Second is his attribution of China’s toughness to Google to China’s leadership’s way of thinking. Age and experience do play an important part in one’s action, yet we can’t point at one single figure or organ and say he or it is responsible for the final decision. In China they call it “collective decision making,” at least among the top 9 standing committee members of the politburo, and each of them represents a different set of interests and values. In the Google case, I’d say the decision is made with a mixture of customary CPC security considerations, national pride, Google’s lack of popularity among those non-elites as well as local business interests—each deserves a separate article to elaborate on. Anyway, what I mean is: it’s not that the Central leadership WANTS to ban its people from knowledge (as they know clearly they couldn’t even if they would), but it’s only an expediency (or, rather, a special case) to demonstrate that the regime (I use it as a neutral term) will not bend before external pressure—this is one of the most important sources of legitimacy for almost every nation, I believe. (Can’t we apply this logic to the currency issue right now?)
    Thirdly, he quoted Slavoj Zizek that “the grandest failure of all communist nations is their ‘narrative failure’.” Yet this is only the surface. What flows beneath is actually a lack of self confidence. Contrary to Marx who predicted socialist revolution will break out first in more developed countries, we see Russia, China and other less developed areas resort to communism consecutively. That means it will take a long time for a “communist” regime to first keep up with the world, and then build their way of development through trials and error. Then finally they can have enough confidence to be true to themselves and to the rest of the world. So it’s more a consideration of diffidence and self-defence than a “narrative clumsiness” that explains many of China’s behavior including its action in the Google case.
    Those said, I still feel much inspired by Carson’s article, especially his sharp words that “While it has been almost 40 years since China has produced an internationally respected philosopher, this great nation produced a lion share of our world’s collective wisdom before the PRC came into power. What can be made of this relative “dry spell” in China?” I think it’s better to put it in a reverse way: Although China produced a lion share of the world’s wisdom, it has been almost 40 years since the last philosopher spoke his mind. In fact, many people in China share the same feeling, and as I observe, there’re more and more people, especially those in their 60s and early 70s, who have begun to reflect on many more profound issues such as the meaning of life and human development. I’m keeping my fingers crossed.

  2. Great guest post! As a firm believer in the importance of understanding others cultural narratives to successful strategic communication (it’s about what they think/perceive, not us), I found this a refreshing and enlightened article on the Google-PRC issue compared to most of the others on other sites.

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