Being China Means Never Having to Say You’re Sorry

Last month, the international law enforcement agency Interpol lost its chief, Meng Hongwei, and set out looking for him. It turns out that Mr. Meng, also a vice minister of public security in China, was arrested by Chinese security personnel upon returning to China (Interpol is headquartered in France). It took nearly two weeks to find out why: Partly in response to Interpol’s demands for information, the internal oversight organ of the Chinese Communist Party announced that Mr. Meng was under investigation for being “possibly involved in illegal activities.” Interpol then received Mr. Meng’s resignation.

Mr. Meng’s trial may not take place for months, but the C.C.P. has essentially already announced its verdict. A lengthy but largely abstract diatribe by the C.C.P. committee of the Ministry of Public Safety explicitly accused Mr. Meng only of taking bribes. Far more incriminating was the implication that he was connected to Zhou Yongkang, a disgraced former member of the Politburo’s Standing Committee, “whose pernicious influence must be resolutely and totally eradicated.”

Mr. Zhou is a known protégé of the former party chief Jiang Zemin, who is thought to be the archenemy of President Xi Jinping, and it was when Mr. Zhou was minister of public security that Mr. Meng was promoted to his last position.

Promptly after Mr. Meng’s arrest, he was replaced by a former subordinate of Mr. Xi’s from when the president was the party chief in Fuzhou, a city in southeastern China.

And so the incident can simply be regarded as one more chapter in the ongoing power struggle at the senior-most levels of the C.C.P., between Mr. Xi and Mr. Jiang — or, as I put it recently, between the head of the Red Aristocrats and the leader of the Plebeians.

Still, people in the non-Chinese media ask, perplexed: Wasn’t the disappearance of Mr. Meng a very clumsy and all-too-public way to dispense with an enemy? He was, after all, one of China’s own leading law enforcement officials, who rose to that rank while Mr. Xi already was China’s president and who was then sent to represent the country as the head of the world’s top law enforcement organization. Is the Chinese government now saying it made a mistake in backing him? Isn’t that a huge loss of face?

The answer is no.

In the pre-Confucian system, shame, or chi (恥), was said to be possessed only by the most courageous. Chi was so important that the statesman Guan Zhong (720-645 B.C.), later much acclaimed by Confucius, said it was one of the four moral foundations of a nation. But Confucianism has been co-opted by China’s ruling class over time, and turned into dogma and tool of thought control. Chi, that inner sense of shame, has been debased to mean merely not having face. Who has face now? The rich and powerful.

China today is rich and powerful; therefore, it has face and simply cannot be embarrassed. The investigation of Mr. Meng, the public security ministry has said, “is very timely, totally right and very wise.” The foreign ministry spokesman Lu Kang said it showed that the government is determined to combat corruption and that there can be “no privilege or exception before the law” — and that “the overwhelming majority of members of the international community will have correct views and conclusions about this.” Embarrassment is in the eyes of the beholder.

But then comes the more pragmatic question: Won’t the Meng incident jeopardize China’s chances of placing more of its people at the head of international bodies in the future? The C.C.P. could have lured him back to China and packed him off under some pretext like poor health while silencing the rest of his family.

Mr. Xi may have assessed — and if so, quite correctly, I think — that given the souring of relations between China and the United States, in the future Beijing won’t have as many opportunities as before to see Chinese people lead major world organizations. That being so, riding roughshod over Mr. Meng wasn’t costly internationally — on the other hand, it could cause shock and awe among Mr. Xi’s domestic opponents.

After seven decades of living under the Communists, the people of China know that during times of heightened international tensions, the leadership will demand unity at home and punish dissent. Many may even fall into line and wax nationalistic — creating a feedback loop that will only push China’s leaders toward more extreme positions, internally and internationally.

The Nixon-Kissinger-Clinton thesis — that helping China develop its economy would bring about a middle class that would then push the country to democratize and become a responsible stakeholder internationally — is now widely recognized as wishful thinking. The reverse is proving true: For China today, having face means being shameless. And the rest of the world may just have to get used to that.

Yi-Zheng Lian, a commentator on Hong Kong and Asian affairs, is a professor of economics at Yamanashi Gakuin University, in Kofu, Japan, and a contributing opinion writer.

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