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  • Freedom, the Good, and China's Moral Crisis
  • Joseph Chan (bio)

Although it is widely believed that post-Mao China has fallen into a moral crisis, there are few scholarly analyses of its nature, causes, and consequences. Jiwei Ci's Moral China in the Age of Reform1 fills this gap by giving an unusually penetrating and insightful account of this crisis. There is much in Ci's account that one can find thought-provoking and enlightening. Any good analysis of a crisis not only gives a good diagnosis but also sheds light on a possible solution. While the diagnosis of China's problem occupies a large part of the book, in a tentative yet careful manner Ci does suggest a way out. In my comment here, I focus on his suggestions as to how China can accomplish this.

For Ci, China has been plagued not just with one crisis but with a several. First is the crisis of justice and social order in the domain of the right–, manifested in the massive violations of basic ethical and legal norms in society. This has been caused by a number of interrelated crises in the domain of the good–, which include the Socialist-Maoist conception of what the good is, the problem of moral authority and moral willingness, and the crisis of the moral subject. Today, China finds itself in a painful and uncertain transition of moral subjectivity—the old moral subject of the Maoists is defunct, and a new kind of moral subject in the reform era has yet to appear. The new social and economic conditions—characterized by individuals having de facto freedom of choice along with their daily responsibilities—call for a different kind of moral subject, one that is defined by freedom. This freedom is not mere de facto freedom, but freedom raised to the level of a publicly recognized value and personal entitlement, bestowing upon individuals "dignity and worthiness of respect" (p. 4). "Until this new moral subject takes shape," Ci says, the Chinese people "shall remain in the grip of the moral crisis" (p. 3).

The arrival of the new moral subject is not yet in sight; for decades the contemporary Chinese political structure

has been consistently devoid of internal incentives to promote or allow incremental growth in those virtues and capacities associated with freedom and self-government. … It should therefore come as no surprise if initial increases in freedom, if and when central control slackens in one way or another, are accompanied by displays of confusion, crude egoism, sheer irresponsibility, and even new forms of corruption and lawlessness.

(p. 5)

The big question for any keen observers of China, then, is this: how can China escape from its manifold crisis? Ci's diagnosis points to a possible route: because the lack of [End Page 583] enhanced freedom "lies at the root of the prolonged moral crisis in post-Mao China" (p. 5), enhanced freedom "must be an important part of any solution to China's moral crisis and, by implications, to many of its other problems" (p. 187). This is the main thesis of Ci's book.

But it is not clear how freedom and the development of a free moral subject can help China get out of the crisis of justice and social order. Freedom seems neither necessary nor sufficient to tackling a crisis of justice and social order that involves widespread noncompliance with moral and legal norms. It is not sufficient, because in liberal democracies where citizens enjoy the status of free moral agency (consider India, the Philippines, and the Wall Street culture in the United States, although corruption in the last case may take a more subtle form) there can be rampant corruption and noncompliance with norms. And freedom seems not necessary, because some illiberal governments may have a relatively low level of corruption and social disorder, as in the case of Singapore, whose citizens seem to have developed their moral agency through neither enhanced freedom nor identification, and they do not enjoy the full set of civil and political rights as commonly found in liberal democracies in the West.

I would like to suggest that social cooperation and compliance with...


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pp. 583-589
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