Against refined egoists
a step beyond priggishness
Delighted to welcome many new subscriptions logged in recent weeks…
Of the making of China books there is no end. But were I designing a PRC Politics 101 course today I’d be looking for an extra-special core text.1
I already know what it would be, in fact: John Fitzgerald’s Cadre Country. Beijing Baselines will be drawing heavily on it; not as a Politics 101 text, but as a powerful new platform under the whole topic of the contemporary PRC.
It is a trenchant stocktake of key issues, seeing off a legion of shibboleths. Fitzgerald’s exploration of the political and social gulf between ‘insiders’ and ‘outsiders’ in the PRC is just one key theme.
In this episode—incidentally, no. 26 as we come up to our first anniversary—I offer my translation of
Dou Kelin and He Yanhong, "Abandon refined egoism”, Zhongguo jijian jiancha, 11 June 2022
[窦克林、何焱红：“摒弃精致的利己主义”，中国纪检监察，2022年6月 11日 (in Chinese).]. The original text is included below the translaion
Dou and He are staff writers for the Central Committee for Discipline Inspection (CCDI), the CPC’s ‘highest internal control agency, tasked with enforcing internal rules and regulations and combating corruption and malfeasance in the Party’.
Channelling the Beijing Baselines rubric of ‘new measures of rationality and sincerity in the PRC’, they describe cadre politics in terms of ‘superbly realistic acting skills’. A full expansion of their analysis would in our opinion sit well with Cadre Country’s frame of reference.
Condemning refined egoism (or selfishness), the authors find it in ancient dynasties but in the lockdowns in Shanghai as well.
Dou Kelin And He Yanhong
Abandon refined egoism
Refined egoism refers to making good use of superbly realistic acting skills and high-sounding rationales to subtly embroider and cover up one’s egoism and avarice. Professor Qian Liqun of Peking University’s Department of Chinese has portrayed the refined egoists:
…intelligent, worldly, excellent performers, good at cooperation and even better at achieving their own goals by using the system; once they have power, such people are more harmful than the run of corrupt officials.
Li Si 李思 was an outstanding case in point of refined egoism in the Qin Dynasty. He was, judging by his life trajectory, in avid pursuit of fame and fortune, and skilled at camouflage. When a minor official, he saw that mice in a rice pile were fat and white, roaming about at leisure, while those in the toilet were thin but in a constant state of fear. He thereupon opted to be a fat mouse in the granary. To persuade the King of Qin not to expel guest ministers, he wrote a Letter of Remonstrance against Expelling Guests; in order for the Qin state to avoid a brain drain - and more to the point, to preserve his fledgling career.
Emperor Qin Shihuang died violently in the sand dunes; to maintain his position, the prime ministers Li Si and Zhao Gao colluded in evil acts, forging an imperial decree to force his son Fu Su to die, and replacing him with Hu Hai... Li Si's greedy and selfish nature was concealed throughout his life by his remarkable political talent.
The transformation of the Tang Dynasty from prosperity to decline was intimately related to the refined egoist Li Linfu. Greedy for power, Li was passive-aggressive and cunning. Actively hobnobbing with palace eunuchs and concubines, he channelled Tang Dynasty Emperor Xuanzong’s actions; conforming to the Emperor’s intentions, he was deeply appreciated every time he performed on cue and was eventually appointed prime minister. On ascending the throne, forestalling a fall from power, he framed and smeared dissidents to eliminate them, and brought about demotion for Wei Jian 韦坚, Huangfu Weiming 皇甫惟明, Wang Zhongsi 王忠嗣 and other worthies. Li Shizhi 李适之, another prime minister, resigned in fear. This resort to axing opponents to win dictatorial power gave An Lushan 安禄山, Gao Xianzhi 高仙芝, Ge Shuhan 哥舒翰 and others opportunities to raise their own troops, concealing the hidden danger of the outbreak of the An-Shi Rebellion.
Failing to benefit others, you fail to benefit yourself. Life’s genuine value lies in creating value, in one’s obligations and contributions to society, for others and oneself: meeting the needs of society via one's own activities. Yet nowadays there are those in whose eyes only personal interests exist, and who are unwilling to give or contribute, or even tolerate the slightest loss of their personal interests. Arguing that only a single kind of green vegetable is distributed by the community, there are those who shred cabbages, tossing them into the trash in public; there are those who find doctors and volunteers in the quarantine amenities and demand 90-degree boiling water, just so they can brew filter coffee... With an epidemic raging, their individual selfishness is exposed in these refined pursuits.
Even more sadly, self-interest becomes the sole pursuit of some Party members and officials. Scheming, sophisticated, and adept at concealment, they can only end dismally. Rather than applying their advantages to start businesses, some leading cadres, assuming the halo of ‘scholarly’ officials, frantically pursue power and money. Graduating from prestigious schools, they are entrusted at a young age with heavy responsibilities, but always want to be bigwigs, make fortunes, and use power for personal gain... Since the 18th National Party Congress, some leading cadres have left sobering commentary on the harm of refined egoism that ends with their political fall.
The public is eternal, the private temporary. 'Adhere to separating public and private, putting public first before private, and self-discipline and serving the public' is Article §1 of the Party's Code of Integrity and Self-discipline: all Party members and leading officials at all levels are required to grasp the boundary between public and private, overcoming selfish desires. They must strictly carry out the guidelines’ requirements, internalise a correct view of morality and interests, power, and career, clearly defining public and private, dedicating themselves to the public, and prioritising public above private. Only in this way can we lead a social and folk ethic that honours dedication; with a public, selfless Party and government style forsaking refined selfishness.
Source: China Discipline Inspection and Supervision 2022, Issue 11a.
I’ve indeed done so a few times, first at the Australian Defence Force Academy, where I taught ‘Politics of China’ 1994-99, and Peking U.’s Institute of Sociology, teaching undergrads about ‘Society in Contemporary China’ in 2012-19. My choice at ADFA was Kenneth Lieberthal’s Governing China; my students at Peking U. were from widely differing social and educational backgrounds, so I chose a different sort of text, Barry Barne’s The Elements of Social Theory.