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Mind the gap: Culture and political values

Mind the gap: Culture and political values

Jonathan Sullivan14 Aug 2015Leave a comment

Written by Jonathan Sullivan.

In The Cultural Logic of Politics in Mainland China and Taiwan, the last (posthumous) book published by Duke political scientist Tianjian Shi, Professor Shi argues that rationality is culturally embedded, and that a culturally defined normative rationality shapes people’s choices in social and political life. The crux of Shi’s thesis is that rather than a universal, materialist concept of reality, individual interest calculations are based on ‘socially shared ideas about acceptable and expected behaviour’ (p.2).

Comparing China and Taiwan, two societies that share elements of Confucian cultural heritage, but have developed very different political structures and institutions, Shi argues that the momentous processes of modernization in China and democratization in Taiwan did not cause significant cultural shifts in these societies. Indeed he cites survey data to the effect that these changes reinforced peoples’ commitment to traditional cultural norms, which in turn are associated with greater trust in government, a lower likelihood of confronting the regime and an inclination to define democracy as government by benevolent guardians. Given the resilience, flourishing even, of the CCP and KMT under these changing conditions, it is an argument that should be considered.

Shi carefully uses culture as an independent variable to explain various puzzles relating to trust, political participation and understanding of democracy in China and Taiwan. For instance, why do high numbers of Chinese people evince strong support for the government while saying they want democracy? Or why do many Taiwanese say that their regime is more democratic than they actually want it to be? Two cultural norms are the major focus of Shi’s exposition: orientations towards authority and definitions of self-interest. Using data from the Asian Barometer surveys, he shows how different cultural norms lead people to hold different expectations of government and, by extension, different standards for evaluating government performance.

Although there is no democratic tradition in China, Shi argues that Chinese (and Taiwanese) may understand ‘democracy’ via the idea of minben 民本. In menben doctrine the goal of government is to benefit the people. It differs from western forms of democracy in the means used to achieve this goal, the standards for evaluating it and the associated rights and responsibilities of the people in relation to government. Ultimately, the legitimacy of a government is judged solely by its policy outcomes for the people. Shi argues that a significant proportion of people with traditional cultural ideas have a particular understanding of government based on minben, a kind of ‘guardianship democracy’. In Taiwan this would explain why “despite its authenticity as a [liberal] democracy, the political system in Taiwan is a disappointment to some of its citizens” (p. 9). And in China, traditional norms may serve to underpin the legitimacy of a CCP that styles itself as guardian of the people. If this is right, those seeking to understand ‘authoritarian resilience’ in China would do well to incorporate culture.

However, one wonders how resilient traditional values will continue to be, particularly among the young on both sides of the Strait, who have grown up with rather different norms. For example, the norms associated with internet culture, where there is little deference to authority and obvious scepticism and distrust of government. One wonders how well the idea of guardianship sits with Chinese netizens or Taiwanese student protesters, and their counterparts in Hong Kong. Amid the drama of Taiwan’s Sunflower occupation and curriculum protests, there was an obvious clash of values elicited in the opinion polls of older and younger citizens. Will stability, a key concept for both the KMT and CCP, continue to enjoy such resonance with people if and when their values begin to change? How will parties react if and when support for guardian democracy recedes?

Jonathan Sullivan is Associate Professor in the School of Contemporary Chinese Studies, University of Nottingham. He Tweets @jonlsullivan.

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