3 materialist causes to rethink about “Confucian capitalism” in China


Nowadays, among the public and academic debates about the factors of China’s development, it’s relatively easy to find references somewhat easy on certain aspects of the Confucian heritage.

Some like to use Chinese terms like ” guanxi ” to explain the cultural keys of Chinese development, obviating that the type of inter- family Chinese networks are not at all an exclusive heritage of the country, and not even of Asia.

Others are determined to find in China that “tension” between this world and the other world that Max Weber considered crucial for the development of capitalism, trying to look for a Chinese counterpart of Calvinism, and being deaf to the clear differences between the concept of Chinese and Western religion.

In fact, before coming to China to investigate the social reality empiricaly, my perspective on the issue of economic growth in this country was also more or less culturalist, and I had already formed a number of assumptions about Chinese Buddhism that added up very well in the “Chinese world” I had imagined in my brains.

But as happens to so many idealists who have the troubled idea of making fieldwork and empirical research, as I began to “ask the people”, I stumbled to the importance of a number of materialist factors that had been overlooked during my documentation phase in Pamplona.

So, this time, and non-smear culturalist causes of the problem, but rather with the aim of avoiding cultural determinism, I would like to offer a summary of 3 materialistic factors that, in my opinion, help us to better understand China’s economic development.

1 – Overpopulation:

I know that many academics would twist the gesture only by running into such a “vulgar” aspect, but the overpopulation is a demographic factor of the most decisive in understanding the Chinese economy, and it is the answer for excellence that gives you most of Chinese people, from students to experts, when asked about this issue.

The spectacular Chinese population level serves two vital roles in the economic development of the country:

A) On the one hand, it is a potential of labor and consumption which was open to the global market almost at once at the beginning of the eighties, and has been carefully managed by the Chinese government since. With more than 1300 million people ready to work for half price, and willing to be two months salary in design products abroad, which country is willing to get in trouble with China?

B) On the other hand, China’s rulers have been skillful in “mobilizing” the Chinese population , which has many obstacles to create “spontaneous” social ties beyond kinship, making it compete against itself in a darwinist race for the access to the insufficient public services and infrastructure.

“Don’t be left behind”. That has been the leitmotiv of Chinese students in recent decades, many of which reach up to 100 hours of study per week just to gain access to a decent college and improve their family situation, a phenomenon that can not be understood if we overlook something as crucial as overpopulation.


2- The one-child policy:

Whether it was set up to fit the country’s development goals to the available resources, or whatever reasons given to justify the implementation of the measures of birth control, the truth is that they became a structural factor of the new Chinese society, and a fundamental cause to understanding the economic boom of the “Asian giant.

To understand it’s importance, we have to remember that until the last decades of the last century, China was a country whose agricultural economy was barely above the subsistence level. In fact, the terrible droughts experienced during the sixties, combined with the shortcomings of the economic policies of Mao, made millions die from starvation across the country, and left the nation in abject poverty.

In any case , what is relevant here is that, as many of you know, subsistence farming is often accompanied by the habit of having a greater number of children per couple, which helps ensure the survival of at least a “functional” descendant to be taken care by in retirement.

As pointed by Pierre Bourdieu, having children in developed countries may have become a way of indicating family status, but in today’s China, which lacks a welfare state for most of its population, children remain a vital investment for the future, without which one runs the risk of spending old age in poverty.

Now imagine the stress and pressure that had to suffer the young couples of the eighties when they suddenly realized that the conquest of socialism would not be through cooperation, but on the basis of mutual competition, and that their retirement would remain depending on the level of economic success of their offspring, which would be limited by law, and under severe penalties, to a single child.


3 – Sexual repression :

Although not a strictly material cause, as in the case of the “one-child policy”, I consider that the measures of sexual repression in China are the result of a logic of efficiency in the exploitation of human capital, which derives from the objectives of economic development driven by the country’s elites and embraced by the Chinese families.

It is true that China ‘s cultural heritage has certain elements of chastity that come from Confucianism and Taoism, but current methods of sexual repression that apply to higschools of much of the country have led to a kind of “instrumental puritanism” or “technical Puritanism” somehow peculiar to the Western eye .

Because in China, the imperative of self-repressing sexuality is not justified by religious or moral arguments, but through an explicit logic that participating in love affairs involves the risk of being “left behind” in the race to save personal and family dignity that fuels economic development.

According to the research I did in Wuhan about educational processes in China, these would be some of the most popular corrective slogans appealed by school teachers:

“If you have a girl/boyfriend now, you may later find that one wants you as husband/wife”

“If you entertain with romances now, you ‘ll end up like those people who go down the street sweeping or picking up trash .”

It’s been over a century since Sigmund Freud revealed the important role played by the sexual repression when put the masses to work, and after the Second World War, Herbert Marcuse reminded us again about the risks of ending up caged in a “one-dimensional” society, where instrumental thinking and fascination of technology would undermine critical thinking and exploit the creative potential of “Eros” .

However, it is ironic that, it was not in the nations of Christian heritage, such as the United States or the Soviet Union where the dreaded “one-dimensional man” of Herbert Marcuse finaly prevailed, but it is in China, a country almost alien to the religious sin of coming to the world and being recreated through sex, where is being produced in bulk.

Reflections on the social implications of the 3 introduced factors:

If it turns out that success in channeling sexual energy or “Eros” is crucial when trying to “raise a country “, it is possible that the lifeblood of Protestantism as an engine of industrialization did not reside in that ” tension” between the worldly and otherworldly plane that Max Weber emphasized in relation to the Chinese case, but in its ability to censor access to the playful, the sensual and the sexual, and leaving the professional sphere as the only area of personal and collective affirmation.

However, except for the setting of Max Weber around intra/otherworldly tension, which led him to write a somewhat “extreme” conclusion regarding the development of capitalism in China, I believe that his analysis of the incompatibility between thought Confucian and “cultural requirements” of “rational capitalism” are still valid today, and I think that the current Chinese model has many similarities with the “predatory capitalism” implemented by the officials of the Qin dynasty.

Moreover, in a country with a tradition of authoritarianism as long as China, and an ancient thought in which there is hardly any vestige of democratic ideals, I find it very difficult to aim solely for cultural reasons to explain economic development, specially if we remember the levels of cultural hegemony their political elites used to enjoy, and the abundant occasions in which they have played in creating and destroying cultural elements at will.

Therefore, I think that when we talk about concepts such as “familism”, and we link them to Confucianism for good, we run a great risk of confusing the cultural heritage of a school of thought with the basic impulses that would prevail in any society when being so subdued by the ruling class, that their individuals are barely allowed to generate social or organizational ties beyond kinship.

If anyone has doubts about the latter, I recommend to take a look at the section on Taoism and heterodoxy within Max Weber ‘s famous essay on the religions of China, where we are reminded of the efforts made by the Confucian elite to identify and chase religious brotherhoods as a sinful form of betrayal to family obligations .

In fact, even if it sounds paradoxical, I think that if someone ever tried to develop in China a strong model of citizen “fraternity”, and surpass the atomistic family model, that someone was the often reviled Mao Zedong, although his project ended leaving an even more bereft and vulnerable sociality to the imperatives of the economic race opened in the 80’s.

Between that inter-familiar net of social relations and the “peculiar” sense of citizenship that offers the State, we can still find the social agency of more or less “non-gubernamental” associations, and philosophycal or religious communities, all of which have to assume the logic of domination that benefits the great families of the nation, just as Confucianism did in Imperial China (and may probably do in the next decades).


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