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What is enlightenment in China? An essay about political (im)maturity

Magnus Obermann, Beijing and London 2020


“Enlightenment is every human’s emergence from his self-imposed immaturity. Immaturity is the inability to use one’s own understanding without another’s guidance. This immaturity is self-imposed if its cause lies not in lack of understanding but in indecision and lack of courage to use one’s own mind without another’s guidance. Dare to know! Sapere aude! ‘Have the courage to use your own understanding’ is therefore the motto of the enlightenment.”

In 1784, Immanuel Kant wrote these lines to address the question “What is Enlightenment?”. In his essay, Kant took a critical stance on the church and the state Prussian authorities and advocated for an intrinsically motivated process of enlightenment. Kant’s dictum of the “emergence from self-imposed immaturity” has since become an undisputed credo of the enlightenment.

So why would we need another essay on enlightenment “in China”? Initially, one should assume that Kant’s ideas are universally valid, rendering it unnecessary to formulate a separate “Chinese enlightenment”. Moreover, the assumptions on which Kant’s enlightenment is based, and the preconditions he formulates do not involve any cultural or, what would be even more problematic, ethnic speculations that would exclude any world region. Yet, Kant’s words were formulated in a particular cultural and political context – which may determine the degree to which Kant’s message can unfold in different contexts. Western philosophy should thus be careful not to criticize China as politically immature or patronize Chinese philosophy – a topic of which its knowledge very often remains limited.

Nevertheless, there is a reason to connect the concept of enlightenment with today’s China – a reason which goes beyond the (almost) physically tangible differences between the Königsberg of 1784 and the Beijing of 2020. To begin with, Kant is originally concerned with enlightenment in demarcation to the Prussian church, only to a lesser extent the government. Not least on the shoulders of the Kantian edifice of thought, this “religious” form of enlightenment has reached a degree of societal acceptance that leaves no doubt about its global success. For many reasons, however, Kant cannot go beyond “religious enlightenment” and does not spell out “political enlightenment” in the same way. Yet, with regards to the situation in China, as well as at home in Europe, particularly the political ramifications of the enlightenment principle call for a revision of the whole ideal. In other words, we must develop a better understanding of the political side of enlightenment.


Enlightenment and political reality

Kant was an outspoken critic of some of his contemporaries, assuming that their immaturity was self-inflicted: “Laziness and cowardice are the reasons why so many people (...) like to remain minors for the rest of their lives, and why it is so easy for others to throw themselves into the role of their guardians.” Therefore, it appeared to him merely a question of “resolution and courage” to overcome the unsatisfying, immature state of mind. In fact, this analysis might be true for church matters in 18th century Europe, above all for the subjects of the comparatively tolerant Frederick II of Prussia. However, it does not describe the political reality of life of many Chinese today. Their political immaturity, like that of many other people on the planet, is not self-inflicted. Instead, it is the well-calculated product of an authoritarian government which in its technological perfection and economic proportions dwarfs everything that all previous enlightenment philosophers of the Western world could imagine.

At this point, China is often demonized for its authoritarianism and its failure to comply with international human rights norms. Unfortunately, however, blind criticism is quite often an expression of self-inflicted ignorance, too. After all, it is not a nation of billions that has decided to be governed by a Leninist party, or to encounter Maoism with increasingly nostalgic paroles. It is not even those tens of millions of members of the Communist Party who, out of fervour, fight civil rights, reject democracy, and barrack minorities. One could go on with the list; the completion of a philanthropic catalogue of principles would bring to light many more grievances and reveal the absence of political enlightenment. However, such accusations do not usually help to understand the underlying structure of the problem.

Kant almost hits the core of the issue himself: “I have no need to think, if only I can pay.” Most Chinese today are richer and enjoy higher living standards than ever before. As in many undemocratic societies, this confirms an old social contract between the people and the state leadership: “You, the people, stay out of politics; we, the government, make sure you get ahead economically.” In this context, it would be worth investigating whether China is becoming wealthier thanks to its leadership, or rather despite it. The question which role economic development plays in the consolidation of democracy and whether the factors “democracy” and “prosperity” are causally linked are far from idle. Both questions deserve to be looked at more closely. However, it is even more important to note that a perfectly fulfilled life in authoritarian China is possible and, thus, to acknowledge that the enlightened style of life, that the liberal West was once proud of, is now rivalled by a new systemic alternative.


The China model – a systemic challenge to enlightenment?

Fortunately, the political debate about the new systemic alternative, dubbed the “China model”, has gained momentum in recent years. In a remarkable essay, Professor John Ikenberry of Princeton University concludes that “the liberal world order is collapsing because its leading patrons, starting with the United States, have given up on it” (John Ikenberry: The next liberal order, 2020). Like many others, Ikenberry predicts 2020 to be the year that could mark the end of the post-war liberal world order, led by the USA and based on the Kantian philosophy of enlightenment. Indeed, the reference to 2020 and China’s growing global role may be another justification for this text. Surprisingly, however, Ikenberry does not elaborate on the philosophical foundation of liberalism – his text contends itself with the political aspects of liberalism. Yet, to take the rivalry between a liberal and an authoritarian system seriously, one must talk about the enlightenment. Unless liberalism intends to alienate itself from its intellectual roots, to talk about liberalism in world politics means to speculate about enlightenment, too. To put it simply, Kant must be based on new political assumptions.

It is certainly not the case that people in China, or in other authoritarian countries on the planet, do not “use their minds”. In fact, China is a high-technology country. In future-oriented areas such as artificial intelligence and renewable energies, it occupies a place high up – if not at the top of the world. Of course, this is supported by the authoritarian state leadership. Thus, one is even tempted to satirize the Kantian praise of the (likewise authoritarian) Frederick II. and transfer it upon China’s strong men: Argue as much as you want and about whatever you want, but do not criticize us and obey! During my studies in Beijing, most professors admitted that everything could be said, thought, and taught – as long as the role of the Communist Party was not questioned. Therefore, one is only almost tempted to draw this parallel: the way of reasoning is limited even in academic discourses and the above quoted use of reason does not happen “without the guidance of another”. However, exactly this is a condition for enlightenment in both its religious and political form, then as now.

It is not easy to discern the roots of enlightenment in a smoothly running authoritarian system. How can a self-guided process of enlightenment be accomplished when the foundations of teaching, learning and living are so comprehensively dictated? If every step on the path to political maturity is dangerous because of the “supervision of guardians”? If general convenience, but also solid economic reasons, even speak against it? When every well-meaning impulse from outside is in danger to become the “leadership of another”? The “Western model”, wherever one may look, has already experienced easier times than now to, according to Habermas, convince with the “forceless force of the better argument”. It is precisely this set of political challenges to which the champions of the enlightenment must formulate a response.


The private and public spheres of enlightenment

Kant admits that it is extremely difficult for the individual to free itself from the immaturity that has almost become its second nature. On the other hand, he believes that “an audience” is more likely, almost certainly, to enlighten itself. Wouldn’t it therefore suffice to come up with a better role model that can be received and imitated by the “audience”? No – because that would be the (Hegelian, resp. Fukuyama’s) return to the “end of history”, which has proven to be relatively endless for 30 years. Any form of complacent intellectual colonialism must be met with scepticism, it just fails to recognize the realities of the 21st century. In fact, Kant himself specifies that an audience can only enlighten itself if it dwells in the freedom to do so: “For this enlightenment, however, nothing is required but freedom; and the most innocent of all, which may only mean freedom, namely that of making public use of its reason in all matters.” In modern terminology, Kant advocates for freedom of thought, conscience and religion, enscribed in Article 18 of the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights, in conjunction with Article 19, freedom of opinion and freedom of the press, and Article 20, freedom of assembly. For an authoritarian regime all this is anything but innocent.

It is remarkable that Kant divides the use of reason into a public and a private sphere. “Private” could be aptly paraphrased with “professional”, as not the silent dissident at home is meant, but a civil servant or bureaucrat who has to implement the instructions given to him (at least in principle). The use of reason in official business can, according to Kant, certainly be restricted without preventing the entire social enlightenment. In contrast, “the public use of his reason must be free at all times, and this alone can bring about enlightenment among people.”

For Kant, public discourse and civil society are the keys to enlightenment. It is emblematic that these two are adversaries of authoritarian systems in which external opposition is hardly possible, everyone who thinks differently (or independently) quickly becomes a traitor, and the social space is penetrated by the organs of the state. If this process is too far advanced, political scientists speak of totalitarianism. Yet, today’s Chinese Communist Party has not taken up the cause of eroding the diversity of Chinese culture. On the contrary, just like any good governance organ, it is constantly preoccupied with promoting its cultural and political achievements. Nevertheless, it does not allow a second force to exist next to it and propagates the composition of its members as “social avantgarde”, which limits the development potential of other societal groups and prevents political pluralism.


Enlightenment with Chinese characteristics

This observation provokes the objection that, when authoritarian (or more specifically: the dictatorship of communist parties) is mentioned, the problem is neither new nor specific to China. On the one hand, this is obviously correct; but on the other hand, it fails to recognize the novelty of the situation in which the enlightenment and autocracy confront each other. Some aspects of China’s specific nature and their implications for the future have been mentioned above. Looking at the past, it can be added that the communist-authoritarian Soviet Union never represented a credible alternative to Western liberalism and capitalism. This holds true for social, political, and economic terms. In all these areas, however, today’s China consists of more than just Leninism, namely a symbiosis of new power with preserved ideological structures and thousands of years of traditions and cultural influences. Much about China is hardly communist, hardly oppressive, and hardly restrictive – so long as one belongs to the inner part of the society (大家) and does not question the sovereignty of a system that presupposes exactly those three attributes as guarantors of power. In this respect, enlightenment should not be equated with capitalism, nor should a false analogy be drawn between the Soviet Union and the People’s Republic of China, which at best lends itself to deceptive security.

While an unenlightened but fulfilled life (because what is to be understood by “fulfilment” essentially depends on socialization and education) becomes routine for an increasing number of Chinese and begins to overshadow the advantages of unrestricted intellectual freedom, enlightenment has not lost its attractivity. As in the Soviet Union and other authoritarian regimes worldwide, countless people in China adhere to liberal ideals out of conviction. The sympathy of the enlightened world must be particularly strong for these people who indeed show courage when they use their own minds. In this regard, one must therefore disagree with Kant: if the public sphere is unavailable as the constituent element to overcome immaturity, the use of reason in private can also have enlightening traits. Enlightenment then does not mean the emergence from a self-imposed immaturity, since this is not the case in the political sphere, but rather the liberation from immaturity in one’s own actions (even if they might be just private) – in order to point to its continued existence when in contact with others.

Thanks to this political definition of what is enlightenment, further derivations can be extrapolated from Kant’s original reflections. The enlightenment of society can only succeed where its basic conditions, first and foremost the public exchange of opinions, already exist. Political freedom is a precondition for the unrestricted use of the mind by every individual, as rationalist and enlightenment philosopher Karl Popper explains almost literally. Of course, Kant himself lived in an authoritarian state, but he was nevertheless able to spread his (religiously) enlightened writings without having to fear for life and limb. That does not apply to the pioneers of public political enlightenment in China: as critics of the government, they are persecuted and socially ostracized.

The numerous others, however, who practice enlightenment in private, must not be forgotten. They should not be considered unenlightened just because impossible things are demanded from them. Instead, the policy of all countries that identify with liberalism and enlightenment must be guided by two, slightly modified, Kantian maxims: 1) Republic means democracy (which includes many constitutional kingdoms rather than “democratic” people’s republics); and 2) a global civil society can only succeed if it is based on equal rights for all, i.e. universal human rights.


The answer to the challenge: More political maturity at home

Finally, what does political enlightenment mean for us? First, a clear reflection of our own position, as “Caesar non est supra grammaticos.” Linked to that is the appeal for caution when reflecting about the positions of others. To draw on another citation from the Enlightenment essay, “what a people may not decide for itself may even less be decided for it by a monarch.” In the context of China that is to say that, if even the domestic intelligentsia has difficulties in shaping the enlightenment, the foreign quack may not know any better with his recipe. Where small steps are taken in private, one should not demand public quantum leaps. Much more than in the past, however, foreign observers must promote these small steps in every discussion, demand them where possible, and above all not allow themselves to be blinded by diversionary manoeuvres and become a compliant helper of anti-enlightenment regressions. This is the first take-away.

The second is a message to the all too effusive friends of the “China model”, who also exist in the West. One is inclined to throw Kant’s contemptuous dictum “it is so comfortable to be an unenlightened minor” at them because unlike their Chinese comrades-in-arms, and millions of “unpolitical” bystanders in authoritarian systems, they have no excuse for their self-imposed immaturity. They enjoy the fruits of democracy, rule of law, and political freedom at home, but then move into the world and are beguiled by authoritarianism. What is worst, they deliberately make themselves the servants and spokesperson of their new authoritarian idols. Isn’t it somewhat one-dimensional, almost bigoted, to criticize the West’s poor handling of Covid-19 in a free discussion on Facebook, to then praise the Chinese approach that suppresses free exchange on social media? Isn’t it cynical to enjoy all the privileges that Beijing and many other cities still offer to their Western minorities, and then turn a blind eye on the discrimination that happens elsewhere? Whether we would like to acknowledge it or not, the apologists of the China model not only discredit themselves but also represent a greater threat to democracy and liberalism than all despots and despotically inclined people far away.

Unfortunately, as comprehensible and legitimate as this reaction seems, it is also very unenlightened. To draw on Karl Popper, a true enlightener does not want to persuade, “in fact, he does not even want to convince. He always remains aware that he might be wrong. Above all, however, he respects the independence, the spiritual independence of the other person too much to try to convince him in important matters. Rather, he wants to challenge contradiction, and preferably reasonable and disciplined criticism. He does not want to convince, but to shake people up, to challenge them to form their own opinions freely. Free opinion-forming is valuable to him; not only because we can all come closer to the truth with free opinion-forming, but also because he respects free opinion-forming as such. He also respects it when he considers the developed opinion as such to be fundamentally wrong” (Karl Popper: “On the subject of freedom”, 1958/67). In this sense, Popper understands the enlightenment as “the duty of every intellectual” – in this context one could also speak of “experts” – “to help others to free themselves intellectually.”

In the conclusion of his essay, Kant remains optimistic: “If someone asks: ‘Are we living in an enlightened age?’, the answer is: No – but probably in an age of enlightenment.” This essay ends on a similar note: We, too, can hope that political maturity will grow in China and among the new godparents of political immaturity. Dealing with them, be they authoritarian governments or their paternalistic friends, requires us to take the enlightenment seriously again – and to regain its character as role model for our own societies. It is here where an answer to the authoritarian challenge must be found. First and foremost, this demands a stronger public exchange of opinions about the foundations and value of our social order. It is important to realize what is at stake and to rediscover what has become self-evident – freedom of expression, argument-based discussion, constructive criticism but also constructive participation in political processes.

Furthermore, a new ethic of mindfulness, patience and determination is needed. Mindfulness for cracks in the foundation of freedom, patience in critical discussion with divergent opinions, and unwavering determination to defend the liberal position with new arguments. After all, the best way to fight authoritarianism is not to be afraid of it, but to practice enlightenment. To conclude this essay, there is one more argument to remain optimistic. If there is a single characteristic feature of the “West” (or, according to Professor Ikenberry, the post-war liberal order) it is its capability of self-correction. In this sense, studying China can facilitate the spread of political maturity – and from that there would be a lot to gain for both sides.

© Magnus Obermann, Beijing and London 2020

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