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CAMBRIDGE, England — Sometimes it takes a while for the significance of statements made by Chinese leaders to sink in. At a propaganda conference organized by the Communist Party Central Committee on Jan. 10, President Jiang Zemin said that the rule of law alone is not enough; there must also be rule of virtue.

The rule of virtue is a Confucian concept. When the Chinese Communist Party came to power in 1949, one of the first things it tried to do was wipe out Confucianism and replace it with Marxist-Leninist-Mao Zedong thought. Around 1984, Confucianism began to be referred to again, but to explain the Asian miracle (before it collapsed, that is). Now Jiang has gone whole hog and put Confucianism with its rule of virtue at the forefront of contemporary communist theory.

At another conference in Beijing, I complained about Article 7 of the new Wholly Individually-owned Enterprises Law. This article reads “Communist Party of China members in wholly individually-owned enterprises shall carry out their activities in accordance with the charter of the Communist Party of China.” I complained that this would create difficulties for people and firms dealing with party members in such enterprises, as it introduced something seemingly above the rule of law, and hence something unpredictable, into business relationships.

The chairman of the session, the most senior Chinese official present, and I guess the highest-ranking party member present, responded with a lecture about party philosophy, the thrust of which was that the party is above the law in the sense that obligations of party members to society are on a higher plane than those of nonmembers.

In his lecture, the chairman referred to the Three Emphases and the Three Representatives (sometime called the Three Represents).

According to the Three Emphases, party members must emphasize political correctness (i.e., conform with party directives), emphasize awareness of and consistency of action with the Marxist canon, and emphasize righteous behavior in their everyday life. According to the Three Representatives, the party and its members represent stability and national integrity and ensure that China has its rightful voice in world affairs.

We can see where all of this is leading. The CCP does not have the mandate of the Chinese people to act as their government, nor their agreement that the party and its members and leaders are above the law. Indeed, there are reports that a teacher in Sichuan was recently thrown in prison for two years after pointing this out on a Web site last August. Confucianism gets around this problem by its conservative emphasis on obligations rather than rights, and the group rather than the individual. Acceptance of leadership is an act of filial-like piety; its right to demand loyalty to the party and its representatives in the workplace, schools and universities and every other social organization is basic Confucianism.

In a Confucian political system, individuals forgo self-interest in the interest of the group, compromise rather than litigate, accept that social harmony (stability) is more important than justice for the individual.

But a Confucian political system can work only if the leaders are above reproach. If their morality decays, so does their power. Confucius said, “When a prince’s personal conduct is correct, his government is effective without the issuing of orders [laws]. If his personal conduct is not correct, he may issue orders but they will not be obeyed.” When the leadership is morally bankrupt, the rule of law becomes meaningless.

Marxism and Leninism, and Maoism too, support the use of violent revolution to remove corrupt governments. Confucianism preaches unquestioning acceptance of authority. But it does have that tricky requirement: It demands morality in the leadership to justify the “rule of virtue.” And what better way to demonstrate virtue than to define all forms of opposition as immoral (Falun Gong, etc.) and to constantly hold show trials of the corrupt (with quick executions to prevent embarrassing incriminations).

The recently concluded annual two-week meeting of the National People’s Congress (the nearest thing to a parliament in communist China) and the associated meeting of the China People’s Political Consultative Committee (made up of approved retirees and approved representatives of various groups, especially intellectuals) addressed these issues. In both venues, top leaders stressed the lack of “virtue” in the party, the government and the legal system.

At a press conference during the NPC meeting, Jiang’s spin doctor, Liu Ji, even stressed the need to reform the party’s system of promotion to get away from the current situation in which “villains” were able to move up in the party and government. Using the current politically correct language he reportedly said, “How to scientifically and democratically elect cadres and successors [to top leaders] who have capabilities and virtue has long been a problem troubling the Communist Party.”

He went on to say that that reforms should not be immediate but a “matter of several generations.” Meanwhile, the Chinese people will have to put up with those virtuous villains in the leadership.

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