Helmut Schmidt: 'Why Chinese Civilization Has Lasted.' Part III

Former German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt smokes a cigarette during a meeting with Prime Minister of China, Li Keqiang (not in
Former German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt smokes a cigarette during a meeting with Prime Minister of China, Li Keqiang (not in picture) in Berlin, on May 27, 2013. AFP PHOTO / POOL / MICHAEL SOHN (Photo credit should read MICHAEL SOHN/AFP/Getty Images)

Recently, the Chinese scholar Wang Hui sat down for a conversation with Helmut Schmidt, Germany’s elder statesman, in Hamburg.

Until 2007, Wang Hui was editor of the influential journal, Dushu, and is the author of the seminal four-volume study, “The Rise of Modern Chinese Thought.” Helmut Schmidt, 95, was chancellor of Germany from 1974-1982 and visited China several times to meet Mao and Deng Xiaoping.

WANG HUI: I read some interview in which you talked about your early visits to China and you said that Deng Xiaoping smoked when you met him. [Helmut Schmidt is famous for insisting on smoking, even in public places, at 95- ed.]

SCHMIDT: I met him three times in my life. And each time we had plenty of time. He was a great listener; quite different compared to Mao Tse-tung. Mao didn’t really listen. He did not speak a lot, but he did not really listen. He believed in what he believed and stuck to that that over a long number of decades.


HELMUT SCHMIDT: There is something about China that I do not really understand. The Chinese civilization, the Chinese written language, Mandarin, has existed at least for 3000 years now. Three thousand years ago we had the great civilization of the Iranian people, of the Egyptian people, of the Romans, of the Greeks. All of these civilizations have gone. Yet, the Chinese civilization has retained its continuity. And after more than 4000 years of Chinese history, all of the sudden the Chinese are exploding onto the world stage. Why?

WANG: The Chinese civilization has had the tendency to construct and reconstruct itself continuously. It was interrupted many times, but continuity was always revived. No doubt it has much to do with Confucianism. Confucianism is a political culture and not only a philosophical culture.

"Confucianism is a political culture and not only a philosophical culture."

SCHMIDT: The Confucian civilization starts only around the year zero A.D. -- 500 years after the death of Confucius. And later on Confucianism almost died out. And it came back around 900. So, Confucianism covers only one half of Chinese history.

WANG: But even in the dynasties when Confucianism was in decline, rulers and scholars still attempted to reconstruct the ideology of the Confucianism to some degree.

SCHMIDT: And it is coming back today.

WANG: They always tried to reconstruct it. The thing most difficult to understand is that the Chinese civilization was interrupted by nomadic people from Mongol, Khitan, and Jurchen. But it is interesting that the nomads who came to China also tried to re-establish society in the tradition of Chinese dynasties. They tended to respect Confucianism while preserving their own cultures and diverse identities, hence enriching the Chinese civilization.

SCHMIDT: The political civilization of China differs in one way from the rest of the civilizations. Chinese Confucianism does not seek to establish the belief in one religion. Confucianism is a philosophy, or an ethical system, but not a religion. You do not believe in God. In what do you, as a Confucian, believe?

WANG: Confucius himself said that we should respect ghosts and spirits while keeping some distance from them.

SCHMIDT: Your theory is that the impulse for reinvention so many times after so many dynasties is what gives Chinese civilization its sustainable longevity?

WANG: To one extent, yes.

SCHMIDT: What is the other extent?

WANG: The other extent is that there was still an important legacy that always survived, especially in the countryside. Until the 20th century, China remained as an agricultural civilization. “Farming and studying as the family lineage,” or geng du chuan jia, had been the basic lifestyle. But now there is a big change. Another great transformation is happening now.

SCHMIDT: Of course, farmers are always conservative. They stick to what they have learned from their fathers and from their grandfathers. This is the same all over the globe. It is not a Chinese specialty.

WANG: No, of course not. But the other side of the coin is radicalness. Mao himself is such a paradoxical character. On the one hand, he was very radical. But on the other hand, he was so well acquainted with Chinese history and classics. When I was a student in the middle high school, I started to study the Chinese Classics under the influence of Mao.

SCHMIDT: Did you do it with the consent of Mao or against his will?

WANG: Well, both. Mao argued that we needed to criticize Confucianism and should be pro-Legalism (the school of thought emphasized strict obedience to authorities and the law—ed.) That political campaign started in 1974. That’s why even in middle school, we were required to read and then criticize Confucian texts. We were hence asked to read a lot of the classics.

SCHMIDT: My impression is that Mao was even against Confucius being quoted in public.

WANG: That happened mainly after 1974 when the campaign “Criticize Lin Biao, Criticize Confucius” started. Lin was criticized for attempting to revive Confucianism as a power move, so Mao launched this campaign.

SCHMIDT: At the time of Confucius, there was another outstanding Chinese philosopher, Laozi. Did Mao also attack Laozi?

WANG: No, at least he was not the main target. He was considered a master of dialectical thinking. Mao regarded Laozi as a strategic thinking above all. You may read Laozi from the perspective of military strategy.


SCHMIDT: When I was in China in the 1990s, the general answer that I got when asking about Mao was the he was “70 percent was right and 30 percent was wrong” in what he did. Is that still the answer?

WANG: For China, Mao is complex. Nowadays, some people dislike him very much, but on the other hand many people have a very positive opinion of him. It is difficult to evaluate such a man with such accurate metrics.

SCHMIDT: By the way, he also liberated women in China. This is something that is overlooked at present. If you speak about what Mao has achieved, he paved the way for the liberation of women. Am I right?

WANG: Yes, absolutely. And another issue is that, even though we suffered in a certain period, the history of his period would become the foundation for the next period. After the Cultural Revolution, Deng Xiaoping was under great pressure to denounce Mao. But Deng refused to do so. It was partly a political strategy since the legitimacy of the reform was derived from the legitimacy of the Chinese Communist Party. But it was also because he knew perfectly well that while the Cultural Revolution caused tremendous loss, the Mao era also laid the foundation and defined the framework for a unified nation that was the basis for “opening up and reform.”

Deng’s decision strengthened the legitimacy of China’s political system. Otherwise, China could have fallen into chaos at that time.

SCHMIDT: This could still happen -- not very likely, but not totally unlikely. And it would certainly, after some time, lead to reconsolidation of China once again. It is not the first revolution in history. By the way, Mao confessed to not being a Marxist. He never was (laughter) -- he was a revolutionary.

WANG: How Mao should be evaluated remains a provocative question. But he said during the Cultural Revolution that, in his view, very few people in the Chinese Communist Party really knew Marxism. He made this comment in the 1970s.

SCHMIDT: Marx believed in the revolution by industrial workers. Mao believed in revolution by the peasants. That had nothing to do with Marx. What they had in common was revolution. Right now in Germany, among every hundred people who earn their living by working, less than a third are “workers” in the sense Marx meant it. Many are not workers in a traditional sense. They work in an office and in front of them is a computer.

WANG: The Chinese situation is different. We still have 260 million migrant workers -- who have come to the cities from the countryside. It is the largest working class in the world. But in the 20th century, when the Revolution took place, there were less than 2 million workers in China.


SCHMIDT: You have to consider the abolishing of the hukou system [the system or urban registration for urban dwellers. Without residence permits, migrants do not get urban services, as urban residents do, including education.. editor].

WANG: Now we are moving toward that direction -- not abolishing it, but making it much more flexible. .

SCHMIDT: You need to do away with the whole system of hukou. It is one of the necessities or modernization. How long will it take?

WANG: Some cities in China have already changed the policy for allowing migrants to get urban services. Compared with the past, the significance of hukou has already dwindled. The key issue for the present is land ownership. Each peasant has a small piece of assigned land, the rights of which they still own even after they migrate into cities.

SCHMIDT: This has also to be changed.

WANG: This is a big issue for China. There are heated disputes over it. Many peasants who live in the suburbs or cities don’t want to give up their land.

SCHMIDT: I think one of the greatest changes that have happened in China is that you do not need so many farmers any more. And they are going into the cities. And the cities are becoming bigger and bigger. Beijing has about 19 million inhabitants now. Shanghai is close to 30 million. This means that the instinct of the farmer keeping to his father’s will in the Confucian tradition is bound to dissipate.

WANG: That’s right.

SCHMIDT: You Chinese today do not believe in your father or your forefather. You believe in making money.

WANG: That is a big challenge. According to the estimation of some Western scholars, by 2035 China will have 25 of the most populous cities among the top 75 in the world. If true, that would entail a thorough transformation in the social structure of China.

SCHMIDT: The urbanization of the nation also means massification. The psychology of the masses is something completely different than the psychology of the family, or even the psychology of the market. And the masses can be led astray. This is as big a problem as the smog over Beijing and Shanghai.

WANG: Now there is a debate in China among the leaders and the intellectuals about the approach for the next reform, and about the trend of urbanization. Basically the consensus is that globalization renders the trend of urbanization inexorable. This has been the premise of such discussions. But in China, land is still state-owned and collectively owned, so the problem focuses on how to handle the relationship between cities and the countryside.

In the end, the debate comes down to the issue of the privatization of land. Some argue that state and collectively-owned land should be privatized. But some other scholars disagree and promote the reconstruction of the rural society at the same time as urbanization continues. Even if our rural population is reduced dramatically in the next 50 years, we will still have a population of 500 million in the countryside.

SCHMIDT: I guess that the average size of a Chinese village today is several thousand people. At the time of Sun Yat-sen, there were several hundred people. How great was the population of China in the year 1911?

WANG: It was about 400 million.

SCHMIDT: And now it is more than 1.3 billion. And an increasing share of that 1.3 billion is living in the cities. And the process is going on, whether you like it or not.

WANG: Life in central cities is not that comfortable. The Chinese government does not simply encourage the expansion of cities. The trend is rather to get people to move to the smaller cities.


SCHMIDT: The problem is rather more complicated, because the standard of living in the big cities, is infinitely higher than in these small towns that are large villages. The standard of living per capita in Shanghai is probably 10 times higher than the standard of living in the small towns of which you have spoken.

On the other hand, the bulk of the Chinese people are still living under the consequences of the one child policy. That means that as a nation you become ever older and you will need to care for the older people. And this is one of the great Chinese problems approaching the middle of the century.

WANG: Yes, absolutely. One doctrine of Confucianism is about “expanding piety to your parents and to others as well.” It is about the respect for the elderly and about sympathy with those who came before, both of which are facing challenge as urbanization accelerates.

"One can expect a future race between America, on the one hand, and China on the other hand. Both of them will be forced to invent social security systems almost at the same time."


SCHMIDT: One can expect a future race between America, on the one hand, and China on the other hand. Both of them will be forced to invent social security systems almost at the same time. The Americans have an advantage because they already do have the beginning of a social security system and you do not have one, or it is very weak.

WANG: Yes. China has been attempting in the last decade to rebuild the social welfare system, especially the healthcare system. Of course the standard is still low, but for the first time in history China has a basic healthcare system that can cover the whole population. We have to be realistic in a country with more than a billion people: The pressure on the state budget might be too much.

SCHMIDT: Further, the science and the art of applying medicine today will extend people’s lives. Your children will become much older than yourself. They will become five years older at least. I am an example; I will become 95 this year. And I’m still alive, due to modern medicine.

WANG: Average life expectancy is already over 70 years of age in China.

SCHMIDT: Before long their lifetime will reach 80.

WANG: I believe so. The average life expectancy in China is much higher than that in India, and is about the same as Russia. It is still lower than that in Japan.

SCHMIDT: And this longevity will grow while the margin of manoeuvre for the state to act in a globalized world is dwindling at the same time.

WANG: The pressure exerted by the society on the government has grown. The urban population has a strong consciousness. Most of the protests in the early days happened in the countryside. But now, they happen in urban areas. Globalization has certainly impacted China, but in comparison to other nation-states, we are relatively independent.

SCHMIDT: And at the same time they are not revolting against the central government.

WANG: That is another phenomenon. A lot of the protests call for social equality more than a change in government.



Zhou Yongkang