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  • The Breakdown of a Society
  • Ann A. Pang-White (bio)

After more than three decades of economic reform, is China better off? More importantly, do the Chinese people enjoy a greater sense of well-being? Reflecting on the current state of affairs, Jiwei Ci's Moral China in the Age of Reform is a timely and thought-provoking book.

The book is a critique of China's lack of political and moral reform after its economic reform since 1978, detailing Professor Ci's genuine concern for the future of China. His personal experience, as a Chinese who lives and teaches in Hong Kong, lends an additional first-person perspective to a penetrating logical analysis of China's predicament in the postmodern context. In their relentless pursuit of wealth, Ci points out, the people of China and corrupt Communist Party officials do not hesitate to violate both the law and elementary social norms. This total disregard for justice and personal responsibility is manifested in "many instances of unsafe food (infant formula and so-called gutter oil …), medicine, water, and traffic" that harm both the political state and its citizens (p. 15). Ci insightfully argues that this crisis of justice and the human good represent a breakdown of "the validity condition" of the good and "the reciprocity condition" of those who are governed by the agreed-upon good, so fundamentally essential in maintaining the moral fiber of a sustainable good society.

Diagnosis and Prescription: Lack of Moral Subjectivity and Its Causes

I am especially intrigued by Ci's diagnosis of the root of China's moral crisis in the fundamental lack of any new kind of self-governing moral subject or agent who can out of their own accord (that is, autonomously) choose to act responsibly and conscientiously in order to construct a meaningful life. This lack of a new kind of moral subjectivity is at bottom caused by a repression of freedom—freedom not defined in terms of some sort of de facto freedom ("the presence of abilities to do whatever people may want to do"), but "freedom as a value interpreting and shaping reality that is the proper object of scrutiny and appraisal" (p. 43). In other words, even though China undeniably allows its citizens de facto economic freedom, it nonetheless devalues freedom by suppressing it, especially in the moral and political realms.

Why does China devalue freedom? At bottom is the problem of the one-party political state and its desire to maintain its status quo. To allow moral-political freedom undermines its monopoly of power (or causal efficacy). Why do the Chinese people allow this suppression of meaningful freedom, the freedom to interpret and [End Page 598] shape social-moral-political reality even in the face of undeniable political corruption and a total violation of any sense of justice? In his analysis, Ci proposes two opposing models/configurations of moral agency: "freedom-configured agency" versus "identification-configured agency." The former is representative of a modern and postmodern perspective on moral agency, the latter representative of the traditional Chinese (e.g., Confucian) or Maoist view of agency. Ci further argues that at a fundamental level both Confucianism and Maoism hold two conditions in common: "the authority condition" and "the exemplar condition" in their moral psychology and the construction of the moral self: neither exemplifies the wholehearted acceptance that freedom has value. This is an astonishingly bold claim, to which I shall return in the next section.

To drive his point home, Ci furthermore argues that while Confucianism and Confucian texts endeavor to maintain a delicate and uneasy balance between "cultivation of the self" (with a focus on the agent's initiative and discerning ability) and "identification with an exemplar" and with an external set of standards/norms, it is not difficult to see, Ci maintains, that the two are naturally contradictory: I am free in self-cultivating activity but I am not free in scrutinizing or in shaping the norms. Because of this, Confucian tradition tends to recognize "just enough individual initiative for purposes of identification and no more" (p. 101). In other words, individual freedom is allowed only to the extent that it is in the service of...


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pp. 598-602
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