Weber & Chinese Leadership Final1
2017-11-03 publish

   Hu Jintao ascended to power as the General Secretary of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) at its 16thCongress on March 15, 2003. Since that time, people with an interest in Chinese politics, and both Chinese and international media, have focused their attention on possible changes in the new era of the so-called fourth generation of CCP leadership. Some scholars have tried to interpret Chinese leadership politics in terms of Max Weber’s gradual transition theory of three types of authority (traditional, charismatic, and rational-legal). They have asked,

   Can Max Weber’s transition theory provide an adequate explanation for China’s transition under the new leadership? Can a rational-legal system develop in Chinese Confucian civilization in which enlightened despotism, rule of man, and elitist rule have always prevailed throughout the history? In other words, can China develop a constitutional democracy, true parliamentary body, the Rule of Law, civil rights, and competitive party system under the new generation of CCP leadership in the 21stcentury? … Can Chinese politics be fundamentally transformed as an authoritarian regime has promoted "developmentalism" and industrialization while successful growth in turn legitimates authoritarian rule?


  It appears in these questions that the meaning of “transition”isa development or evolution from one form, stage, or style to another, from low to high, and backward to advanced; there is an optimistic and positive expectation. In this case, distinction between the high and advanced and low and backward is the bifurcation of the traditional and charismatic types of authority verus the rational-legal type. To apply it to the situation of China, the low and backward type of charismatic rule is the rule that existed before the new leadership: the eras of Mao Zedong, Deng Xiaoping, and Jiang Zemin. Many students of Chinese politics expect the new leadership of Hu Jintao to fall more in line with the higher, more advanced rational-legal rule. The application of Weber’s categories explicitly evaluates and illegitimizes the political systems that China had assumed were effective until Hu took power. However, the question is, Is Weber’s general transition theory and the three ideal types of authority capable of being used as a criterion for Chinese leadership politics?

   In this paper, I argue that, in many ways, Weber’s theory does not work as an apparatus for explaining Chinese society and political leadership. The reason is rather simple. Weber did not formulate his ideal types and general theory with the intent to subsume empirical reality. In addition, one must have adequate sensitivity when applying Western analytic methods to the Chinese case; the Chinese situation is often incapable of being fully understood in terms of Western conceptual categories.

Here it is useful to clarify Weber’s theory. This is not a critique of Weber but rather a critique of the misuse of his ideas. To subsume historical experience under Weber’s three types of authority is inappropriate and invalid. This is not a problem of Weber’ own theory, but the way his theory is used. An analogy is someone who attends a Chinese banquet but insists on using a fork; he is using an inappropriate tool for the situation. Likewise, Weber’s categories of authority are not appropriate tools for the purpose of analyzing Chinese leadership because Weber did not intend for them to be used in this way.




   We must read Weber carefully in order to understand why his account is inappropriate for the Chinese case. First, one potential error in applying Weber’s three ideal types of authority is that it separates the rational-legal from the traditional and charismatic, while in empirical reality they are inseparable. It also disregards the significance of diverse historical and cultural settings. Weber himself acknowledged mixed authority types; his ideal types were “representations” as opposed to actual and specific historical phenomena.

   Second, Weber’s rationality is rather narrow and specific, only referring to modern Western capitalism, that is, capitalist acquisition, rational capital, and profit calculations, and thus, the rationalization in science, government, law, organizations, and culture.

   Third, the rational is never entirely separated from the irrational. Just as the economy needs entrepreneurs, so the political system and other parts of the social system need charismatic leaders. Hence, applying Weber’s theory to modern capitalist society is itself in danger of inappropriately downgrading the complexity of empirical reality.

   Fourth, the transition from the traditional and charismatic types into the rational-legal system in the West was not a pure one; the rationalization of action was only realized when traditional ways of life were abandoned. But the appeal of Jesus Christ, the most important charismatic in history, was based on tradition.

   Lastly, when one forces Weber’s conceptual categories on Chinese politics, one not only simplifies the complexity of historical phenomena but also gets mired in the difficulties of universalism and dualism. In this way, one fails to notice the structural differences between the cosmologicalassumptions and metaphysical tradition in the West and an aesthetic worldview and correlative thinking of the Chinese tradition.

   If one applies Weber’s models, as well as liberal democratic concepts, as “analysis” apparatus for understanding the empirical reality in China, we will inevitably smuggle in with them an alien worldview and way of thinking. To do so is to force a structure upon modes of thinking and practices that do not necessarily appeal to any such structure. The traditional and charismatic versus rational-legal types of authority, constitutional democracy, true parliamentary body, rule of law, civil rights, and competitive party political systems, may all become misconceptions of reality.


1. Weber’s Purpose

   We need an accurate reading of Weber. If one subsumes the political systems of the eras of Mao, Deng, and Jiang under the charismatic authority type, one is imposing subjective meaning on historical phenomena in an indiscriminate manner, and this was not Weber’s purpose. For him, sociology tends to formulate type concepts and generalized uniformities of empirical processes.“Ideal types” are theoretically conceived from subjective meanings attributed to hypothetical agents in a given type of action.As Peter Manicas maintains, it is an exercise in concept formation, the working out of ideal-typical categories to be applied in historical research.It is convenient to treat irrational action (from the point of view of rational pursuit of a given end) as a deviation from a conceptually pure type of rational action.

   By comparing this analytically clear type to empirical reality, we increase our understanding of how action is actually influenced by irrational factors.The sharper and more precise the ideal type (and thus the more abstract and unrealistic), the more effective it is in clarifying terminology and formulating classifications and hypotheses.In this sense, the formulation of “ideal type” is an exaggeration of one side of reality, or a synthesis ofselectedmultiple aspects of reality into a unified analytical construct. The usefulness of ideal types lies in the fact that as an analysis apparatus, they abstract from reality and at the same time help us understand it, for an analysis shows with what degree of approximation a concrete historical phenomenon can be subsumed under one or more of these concepts.In this respect, Weber states,

   For example, the same historical phenomenon may be in one aspect feudal, in another patrimonial, in another bureaucratic, and in still another charismatic. In order to give a precise meaning to these terms, it is necessary for the sociologist to formulate pure ideal types of the corresponding forms of action which in each case involve the highest possible degree of logical integration by virtue of their complete adequacy on the level of meaning. But precisely because this is true, it is probably seldom if ever that a real phenomenon can be found which corresponds exactly to one of these ideally constructed pure types.


   We should be cautious about what Weber suggests here. Apparently, the purpose of formulating ideal types is to give precise meaning to the terms. There are some critical points to be made here: (1) to give precise meaning to the terms is not identical to subsuming historical phenomenon under these terms in an indiscriminate manner; (2) formulating ideal types separates the normative from the empirical and generalizes the empirical process, so the ideal types are only approximately comparable or only in terms of slices of historical reality; and (3) the ideal types can help us understand reality when our interest is to see the influence of irrational factors (or non-modern-capitalist-rationality) on actual action, or in Weber’s case, to see how modern society differs from societies of the past.This is quite different from an interest in legitimizing the simplistic reduction of real phenomena to ideal types and dichotomizing charisma and rationality-legality. On this point, Manicas says…if we look at the work actually done by Weber, we can see that he was interested neither in a “general theory of action nor in explaining concrete behavior … Rather, he aimed at an understanding – the word is carefully chosen – of capitalism in the West, the differences in the structuring of authority in Confucian China and modern Germany and the causes thereof, and so on.


It may well be a misuse of the ideal types if we go beyond the limitation of their efficacy. As Guenther Roth warns in his “Introduction,”

In the theoretical discussions the three types of legitimate domination have usually been treated in isolation, and in research the complex typology of domination has all too frequently been reduced to the simple dichotomy of charisma and bureaucracy, if nor just to the so-called Weberian “formal model of bureaucracy.


   Roth clearly points out that Weber recognizes that, far from being irreconcilable, charisma and bureaucracy may be interdependent Weber’s discussion of the types of legitimate domination makes it quite evident that “ruling organizations” that belong only to one or another of these pure types are very exceptional. For example, entirely pure charismatic authority, including the hereditary charismatic type, is rare. The terminology and categories set forth as ideal types of legitimate domination were not intended to be exhaustive or to confine the whole of historical reality to a rigid scheme. Moreover, Weber even considered the basis of every authority to be a belief. As he warned,

In general, it should be kept clearly in mind that the basis of every authority, and correspondingly of every kind of willingness to obey, is a belief, a belief by virtue of which persons exercising authority are lent prestige. The composition of this belief is seldom altogether simple. In the case of “legal authority,” it is never purely legal. The belief in legality comes to be established and habitual, and this means it is partly traditional.


   And yet, “ideal” does not mean desirable, but “abstract,” “in the realm of ideas,” not being perfectly exemplified by anything we actually experience. And “ideal type” is not “the best” or some moral ideal, but rather typical or “logically consistent” features of social institutions or behaviors. Based upon such an understanding of Weber, subsuming the authority of Mao, Deng, and Jiang in China under the ideal type of charismatic authority is a misuse of Weber’s theory. The misuse is made more serious because it separates the traditional and charismatic from the rational-legal, when they are not capable of being separated, particularly in the Chinese case. I will return to this issue later.


2. The Strict Meaning of “Rationality”

   An appropriate reading of Weber must also identify his idea of “rationality” strictly with modern Western capitalism, and “irrationality” with non-modern-capitalist-rationality. Indeed, rationality (modern capitalist rationality) may serve irrational goals and irrationality may contain other kinds of rationality, such as is indicated in Weber’s term,wertrational, or value oriented rationality.

   It is inzweckrationalaction that the means to attain a particular goal is rationally chosen, andthe efficient application of means to ends in the modern capitalist society, which has come to dominate and replace other mechanisms of social behavior, is what Weber means by “rationality.” An individualistic capitalistic economy's fundamental characteristic is rationalization based upon rigorous calculation and directed with foresight and caution toward economic success. As this might be best understood, the development of the spirit of capitalism, “as part of the development of rationalism as a whole, could be deduced from the fundamental position of rationalism on the basic problems of life.” Therefore, in defining the term rationality, Weber sliced and subsumed it under the action of capitalist profit making and an orientation to capital accounting. He deals only with the specific and peculiar rationalism of Western culture, which is a rationalization of economic life, technique, scientific research, military training, law, and administration.

One of the fundamental characteristics of the efficient application of means to ends is the rational-legal bureaucracy. As Weber explains,

Though by no means alone, the capitalistic system has undeniably played a major role in the development of bureaucracy. Indeed, without it capitalistic production could not continue … Its development, largely under capitalistic auspices, has created an urgent need which is so fateful to any kind of large scale administration … On the one hand, capitalism in its modern stages of development requires the bureaucracy, though both have arisen from different historical sources. Conversely, capitalism is the most rational economic basis for bureaucratic administration and enables it to develop in the most rational form, especially because, from a fiscal point of view, it supplies the necessary money resources.


   Kilcullen points out, “Just as Adam Smith saw division of labor in general as the cause of progress toward modern, generically commercial, society, so Weber sees bureaucracy as one of the most important causes of the development of capitalism specifically. Capitalists adopted machinery and other innovations when their bureaucracy analyzing possibilities of investment found that such innovations would be profitable. In fact a bureaucracy find its own capitalists.

   In view of the American system of “scientific management,” Weber observes that the whole process of rationalization in the factory and elsewhere, especially in the bureaucratic state machine, parallels the centralization of the material implements of organization in the hands of the master. Discipline inevitably takes over ever-large areas as the satisfaction of political and economic needs is increasingly rationalized. Bureaucratization is a function of the increasing possession of consumer goods and an increasingly sophisticated technique for fashioning external life – a technique which corresponds to the opportunities provided by such wealth. The moral Western rational structures also include law and administration since “modern rational capitalism needs not only the technical means of production, but also a calculable legal system and administration in terms of formal rules.”

   However, Weber treats the charismatic and rational-legal authority ideal types with bureaucratic administrative staffs almost the same; he does not bring out the structural peculiarities, nor does he differentiate between bureaucracies of professional services and administrative hierarchies of occupational structure types. For him, legal authority with a bureaucratic administrative staff is in principle applicable with equal facility to a wide variety of different fields. It may be equally applied in profit-making, business, charitable organizations, and also political and hierocratic organizations.

   Insofar as Weber’s rationality is constructed strictly in terms of the efficient application of means to ends for profit making (and so is identifiedonly with an increasing division of labor, bureaucracy, and mechanization), it excludes other kinds of rationality that are not in accord with that goal. For example,wertrationalis value-oriented rationality characterized by striving for a goal which in itself may be much broader and pursued through rational means in terms of human values such as social justice and peace. The rationalization process is the increasing dominance ofzweckrationalaction over action motivated by traditions and emotions

In this sense, Weber’sconcern is not exactly with the differentiation between rationality and irrationality but between modern capitalist rationality and non-modern-capitalist-rationality. Modern capitalist rationality might well serve irrational goals. First, as he made clear, though this peculiar rationalism extends to science, military training, law, and administration, each of theses fields may be rationalized in terms of very different ultimate values and ends; and what is rational from one point of view may well be irrational from another. Second, the ethic of earning more and more money, or economic acquisition, “combined with the strict avoidance of all spontaneous enjoyment of life … is thought of so purely as an end in itself, that from the point of view of the happiness of, or utility to, the single individual, it appears entirely transcendental and absolutely irrational.”

Indeed, the irrationality of the rational-legal system is visible, as Frank W. Elwell asserts:

   This enormous power of bureaucracy is often used for ends that are counter to the interests and needs of people. Weber maintained that even though a bureaucracy is highly rational in the formal sense of technical efficiency, it does not follow that the moral acceptability of a bureaucracy’s goals or the means used to achieve them is also rational. Nor does an exclusive focus on the goals of an organization necessarily coincide with the broader goals of society as a whole. It often happens that the single-minded pursuit of practical goals can actually undermine the foundations of the social order … and, often, in the long term, is not good for a bureaucracy either.


   Weber also recognizes that the social system cannot work unless people attribute value to some actions without calculating the pursuit of an end. He particularly acknowledges that the validity of claims of legitimacy for rational-legal authority may rest upon a belief in the legality of enacted rules and rights. The basis of every authority, whether traditional, charismatic, or rational-legal, is a belief in its legitimacy. Every such system attempts to establish and to cultivate such a belief.The belief in legality is established, cultivated, and habitual. Therefore, the legal authority is never purely legal. As Kilcullen maintains, our rulers can point to statutes and constitutions as the basis of their authority; the constitution rests upon our beliefs about the appropriate procedures for drawing up and approving constitutions.


3. Irrationality of Rational-Legal Authority

A paradoxical characteristic of rational-legal authority, which demonstrates its irrationality, is that an effective bureaucracy is required to be under the control of politicians and charismatic leaders, or it lacks any sense of direction or purpose. As Weber claims, “At the top of a bureaucratic organization there is necessarily an element which is at least not purely bureaucratic.” Because the concept of bureaucracy is only applied to the exercise of control by means of a particular kind of administrative staff, the “position” of a capitalistic entrepreneur is as definitely appropriated as that of a monarch. And in the modern state, the only “offices” for which no technical qualifications are required are those of ministers and presidents; this is also true of the managing director or president of a large business corporation. Weber is rather ambiguous regarding who ultimately controls the existing bureaucratic machinery; it is likely to be the capitalist entrepreneur, as he states,

Superior to bureaucracy in the knowledge of techniques and facts is only the capitalist entrepreneur, within his own sphere of interests. He is the only type who has been able to maintain at least relative immunity from subjection to the control of rational bureaucratic knowledge. In large-scale organizations, all others are inevitably subject to bureaucratic control.


    Weber seemed to have a clearer view in his lecture on leading political strata: “According to all experiences, a care for the economic 'security' of his existence is consciously or unconsciously a cardinal point in the whole life orientation of the wealthy man … a non-plutocratic recruitment of interested politicians, of leadership and following, is geared to the self-understood precondition that regular and reliable income will accrue to those who manage politics.” No matter in what forms he will be rewarded, the professional politician assumes the character of an entrepreneur, like thecondottiereor the American boss who considers his costs a capital investment which he brings to fruition through exploitation of his influence. As Elwell points out,

Weber noted that by its very nature a bureaucracy generates an enormous degree of unregulated and often unperceived social power .… Those who control these organizations, Weber warned, controlled the quality of our life and they are self-appointed leaders .… In a society dominated by large formal organizations, social, political, and economic power will become concentrated in the hands of the few who hold high positions in the most influential of these organizations.


   None of the three ideal types of authority is commonly found in historical cases in “pure” form. Although the usefulness of the classification is in promoting systematic analysis, the concept of charisma is not separable from rationality and legality in historical reality. Weber explains why no mention has been made of the kind of head appropriate to a system of legal authority in his outlining the fundamental categories of rational legal authority,

   There are very important types of rational domination which, with respect to the ultimate source of authority, belong to other categories. This is true of the hereditary charismatic type, as illustrated by hereditary monarchy, and of the pure charismatic type of a president chosen by a plebiscite. Other cases involve rational elements at important points, but are made up of a combination of bureaucratic and charismatic components, as is true of the cabinet form of government.


   For example, as Lewis A. Coser argues, although Hitler's domination was based to a considerable extent on his charisma, elements of rational-legal authority remained in the structure of German law.Kilcullen also points out that modern party political leaders exercise "charismatic" leadership, according to Weber, though within their party their leadership may be rational-legal.

It is, however, still problematic for Weber to treat the three ideal types of legitimate authority, particularly charisma and legality, as a dichotomy, however abstractly:

Since it is "extra-ordinary," charismatic authority is sharply opposed to rational … the charismatic type is the direct antithesis … Bureaucratic authority is specifically rational … charismatic authority is specially irrational in the sense of being foreign to all rules … charismatic authority repudiates the past …. From the point of view of rational economic activity, charismatic want satisfaction is a typical anti-economic force. It repudiates any sort of involvement in the everyday routine world. It can only tolerate with an attitude of complete emotional indifference, irregular, unsystematic acquisitive acts.


   I would argue that Weber’s placement of the two ideal types in opposition to each other is inappropriate and invalid. First, the two types are not in the same category of comparison. Weber’s concept of rationality, modern capitalist one, is too precise and narrow. Further, charisma is inseparable from rationality and may well be categorized as some other kind of rationality. The distinction between types of authority should be made in terms of contrastive goals rather than rationality versus irrationality. Strictly speaking, charisma is not necessarily anti-economic and anti-rational; it simply has goals other than those of the modern capitalistic rationality.

Second, because they are different in goals rather than in terms of rationality versus irrationality, they are simply not comparable in Weber’s way. Even more critical is that they have different and diverse references. If we name legal authority asA, and its bureaucracya, and charismatic authority asB, and its bureaucracyb, then logical comparisons ought to includeAandB,aandb, orAaandBb. However, although he recognizes that none of the ideal types is found in historical cases in “pure” form,and that in empirical reality mixtures are found, in Weber's work we only find a rather simplistic conceptual establishment of a dichotomy ofaandB. That is to say, as he discusses the rationality of the modern capitalist legal authority, he is primarily talking about bureaucratic organizations and has left out the element at the top that is not purely bureaucratic. Conversely, in examining charismatic legitimacy, he only refers to the charismatic personality, not his bureaucratic administration. In this way, Weber forces a comparison between two different, and possibly incomparable, categories.

Finally, though Weber doesis payingpayattention to those at the top of bureaucracies pursuing their interests(their goals),and the unregulated and unseen, vast power, he fails to differentiate between the structural peculiarities of leadership of“rational-legal”and that of charismatic systems. Who are they? Whose interest do they represent? Who benefits from their law and rules? How different are their goals and means from each other? A sharp and significant demarcation is only possible by highlighting these questions.


4. The Ahistorical General Transition Theory

   This paper has argued that the bifurcation of Weber’s ideal types of authority is not necessarily rationality versus irrationality, but rather the pursuit of different goals; and Weber’s “ideal types” refer to reflections of precise ahistorical kinds of authority. Therefore, the theoretical transition from traditional and charismatic authority to rational-legal authority does not reflect historical reality, except for modern Western society, which has set for every individual the goal of the efficient application of means to ends for profit making, independent of all personal ethical qualities of man. Even in the West, the transition from charismatic authority to legal authority was not a pure one in the sense of moving from irrationality to rationality. To speak precisely, “rationalization” of action was only realized when traditional goals of life were abandoned. It is possible, however, that traditional ways of life could be carried into modern capitalist society, as long as they were capable of being utilized to serve the goal of making a profit.

Amintore Fanfani, an economic historian in Rome, argues that capitalism as we know it today was born in the Italian merchant states under the religious umbrella of Catholicism. As he states,

The creation of a new mentality in the economic field cannot therefore be considered as the work of Protestantism, or rather of any one religion, but it is a manifestation of that general revolution of thought that characterizes the period of the Renaissance and the Reformation, by which in art, philosophy, morals, and economy, the individual emancipates …. himself from the bonds imposed on him during the Middle Ages.


   If Fanfani’s argument is valid, then the “rationalization” of action is based on tradition even more than Weber claims. Whereas it is stated that rationalization has led to modern capitalist society, which is characterized by the decline of many traditional institutions such as the family, community, and religion, and secularization,the ultimate driving engine in modern capitalist society is the domination of the pursuit of profit. More precisely,capitalism rises in struggles against traditional goals of life;and rational-legal bureaucratic systems are created to guarantee the realization of that new goal.

   Another problem with Weber’s general transition theory is that, though his sense of “rationality” has the narrow and precise meaning of pursuing profit, his modeling of the ideal types of legitimate domination lacks rigorous definition.What Weber has constructed is acomplexof juxtaposed elements that do not have any tight logical, psychological, or other causal connection.As Kilcullen shows, Weber is not well placed in studying the phenomena associated with bureaucratization to distinguish what is due to division of labor and what is due to authoritarianism, since he has lumped these two things together under one concept: bureaucracy. In his model, bureaucracy embodies the notions of division of labor and authoritarian subordination, but it is quite possible for a division of labor to be organized by a set of people acting as a "collective," relating as equals. And if bureaucracy’s effectiveness is due to the division of labor, and the threat to freedom is due to authoritarianism, then it might be worthwhile to ask whether in practice one can exist without the other. Is it possible that a non-authoritarian bureaucracy might be even more effective?ForKilcullen, Weber's ideal type is an abstraction of the Prussian bureaucracy that wasin factauthoritarian; and the ideal type does not help with, but is rather an obstacle to, thinking about the question of whether a division of administrative labor must be organized in an authoritarian way.The problem becomes more conspicuous as Kilcullen references Parkin:

Parkin points out that in constructing the complex "ideal types "or models he uses in his comparative study of eastern and western cultures, Weber's inclusions and exclusions are pretty arbitrary, slanted toward the conclusion he expects to come to: In his characterization of the world religions, Weber sets up a series of ideal-types. Only the most salient features of any belief system are incorporated into the general construct. This necessarily entails the accentuation of some features and the exclusion or devaluation of others.


Parkin also writes,

   Weber heavily underscores those teachings in Calvinism that could be said to be broadly compatible with the capitalist ethos, while discounting those elements that appear to jar with it. When it comes to the other major religions, the opposite procedure is adopted. Elements in Hinduism, Confucianism, Judaism, and the rest, that seem to square quite well with economic rationality are accorded only a peripheral place in the model, while those elements that are at variance with such an outlook are given a central place. As a number of other authorities on these religions have noted, it is perfectly possible to construct ideal-types in which Weber's priorities are reversed.


   The juxtaposition of Weber’s concepts of precise rationality (and thus the ideal type of rational-legal authority) and irrationality (and thus the traditional and charismatic ideal types) that do not have any tight logical connection manifests his universalism and dualism, and in a critical sense fails his “aim at an understanding” capitalism in the West and his comparative study of eastern and western cultures. In some places, Weber presses the case that Eastern civilizations possess as many social and institutional supports for capitalism as does the West. In other places, he sets about demolishing this point with a vengeance.Though he seems to identify the reason for the failure of the Eastern civilizations to develop capitalism is the absence of a motivational drive, before he identifies the source of the drive in the West, he quickly turns to the problematic differentiation between rationality and irrationality. For Weber, Europe alone could boast of deeply rooted laws and institutions. The perception was that in the West, law and justice were administered according to rational procedures and impersonal rules; in the East, the administration of justice was highly “irrational.”He made little progress in his comparative study of eastern and western cultures if the understanding of the West and East is ultimately accomplished in terms of rationality versus irrationality based on capitalistic versus non-capitalistic knowledge. As Kilcullen points out, this is a general problem with the method of constructing ideal-types; investigation carried on by means of such ideal types has some of its conclusions built in.

   To this point, I have shown why Weber’s general theory is incapable of serving as an analysis apparatus for Chinese political leadership: (1) the ideal types are not concepts that can be exemplified by anything we actually experience; and (2) the key issue is in fact not a matter of rationality or irrationality, nor charisma or rationality-legality, but the domination of pursuing profit as an unlimited life goal that differentiates modern capitalist society. In some of his writings, Weber seems to guard against distinguishing the charismatic and rational-legal models by subsuming a variety of historical and cultural phenomena and geographic conditions under these two forms. If the two reasons put forth here are true in the West, they are even more so when one considers the empirical reality in China. Here it is even less probable that people are following a leader purely because of his individual personal qualities.



   If Weber's theory does not help us understand the Chinese political situation, what does? The situation China under Hu is not a “transition” that is somehow teleologic, but simply “change,” which entails more possibilities than any theory can represent. Any new perspective needs to rediscover Weber’s original purpose by identifying the influence of “irrational factors” (or non-modern-capitalist-rationality). The new perspective ought not be opposed to actual and specific historical phenomena but acknowledge mixtures; the ideal types need to return to reality and an effort ought to be made to discover their relationships in actual, specific, and dynamic empirical processes. This paper proposes adopting a perspective that views the Chinese case in China’s own terms as a far more helpful approach.

   The correlativetongbianway of thinking of the Chinese tradition is a more appropriate model.Tongbianis a distinctive mode of correlative thinking in Chinese tradition based on a set of characteristics that outlines the parameters of a natural worldview in terms of continuity through change. It takes into consideration a variety of actual, specific, and dynamic historical phenomena in China and rouses our sensitivity to the fact that certain Western cosmological assumptions lead to structural differences between Western and Chinese intellectual traditions. Chinese political thought and practices developed from a culture and tradition that may be incapable of being fully understood in Western categories. It is possible that this perspective may better explain possibilities for change under the new leadership of Hu.

   Tongbiandeparts from Western thought primarily around the issue of life goal(s); elements in traditional as well as modern Chinese thought often suggest life goals that are at odds with profit making. If, as Fanfani claims, the creation in the West of a new economic mentality is considered the general revolution of thought that characterized the period of the Renaissance and the Reformation,then China’s absence of the motivational drive for the spirit and culture of capitalism can be understood as due to different historical experiences. China did not experience the Middle Ages, the Renaissance, the Enlightenment, Catholicism, Protestantism, and Calvinism. China’s tradition is also absent of the worldview, modes of thinking, and cultural mentality of the West that so has led to differences in political thoughts, concepts, and practices between China and the West.

   Tongbianmeans “continuity through change”.It is crucial to note that Chinese tradition developed a clearly identifiable philosophy that is distinctly Chinese but not necessarily uniquely Chinese. The following six statements are pertinent to this strand of philosophy. (1) The worldview oftongbianis one of correlations andself-so-ing(self-moving, self-going, or self-doing). (2) The patterns of correlation are many and diverse, operating on many levels, in many dimensions, and in many categories. (3) Continuity is carried out through change, wherein the sky, the earth, and all things correlate with each other; humanity thus sees itself as continuous with nature through correlations as well as through a thorough understanding of nature. (4) Intongbianthere is no concept of God, but ratherdao(ways). Humans depend entirely on themselves for developing their intelligence in comprehendingdao. (5) Change is itself an embodiment of continuity between things that are not strictly contrastive. (6)Tongbianis a way of constantly alternating between two things, changing into each other, exchanging with each other, displacing each other, and so on.Shen(mystic, unfathomable) describes the efficacy of these interactions of complementary opposition. The most salient feature oftongbianis that it is not God’s work but complementary interaction between two elements of a polarity, such asyin-yang, constituting the force of change.

The explanation of the creative process in terms of the interaction of complementary opposition is fundamental understanding Chinese tradition. In the absence of Western-style dualisms that establish an ontological separation between some determinative principle and that which it determines, the recognition of interconnectedness among all things promotes a correlative mode of philosophizing and of explaining order in the world. This tradition plays a facilitating role in one’s effort to understand politics in China. The following are fundamental Chinese concepts of politics and the typical way the Chinese read Western ideas.

(1) Rationality:lixing. Rationality is often translatedlixingin Chinese. However, appeals toli(often translated “reason,” but referring to correlation and continuity) in the modality oftongbianalways presuppose a communal context. It is expected that the Chinese context is not so congenial to the strict logos style of accounting.In the lack of an ontological mode of thinking, the act of understanding and articulating thedao(ways of correlation) of things cannot have an ontological reference. Perhaps the Chinese reading of rationality can better be understood asheli, “to be in accord withli.” Regardinglixing,The Book of Later Han Dynastysays, “Being too mindful may become willful, being too accommodating may become will-less. Therefore, the sage teaches being in accord withli, to restrain from being reckless, be prudent and appropriate, and curb inappropriateness.”In Chinese, rationality (li) does not have the same meaning as in the West; it is performed with continuity between things, as time changes and as circumstance varies, and takes into account the appropriateness of both means and end.

(2) Politics:zhengzhi. Intongbian, politics, or “zhengzhi,” a classical word, means appropriateness (also uprightness, righteousness), flow, or “thedaoextends appropriately to all parts of the land, enriching populace’s lives." There are no dualistic woes of the ruling and the ruled, since propriety and harmony is nurtured between them. It lacks a sense of acquiring power, referring more to handling the affairs of the people. The ruler has always been and continues to be defined by his personal character, so to object to the policies that articulate the existing order is to condemn the ruler’s person. Good rulers take care of the people and promulgate good policies.

(3) Rule of Law:fazhi.In the West, the "rule of law" means the law of nature or God, and the contracted law in the form of the constitution serves the law of God, and the rule of man refers to tyranny or violation of the contracted law. But in China, “law” (fa) is rather a specification of administrative guidelines. Those who govern are not understood to be separated from the ruling guidelines, which are supposed to reflect thedaoof society and nature and help maintain harmony. Whereas people in the West fear that the government will infringe on their private rights and so it should be checked, in China, people believe that every government has as its goal taking care of the people’s livelihood. As a result, repudiating existing ruling guidelines suggests the ruler has failed in fulfilling his tasks. Whereas Westerners tend to think they obey laws but not bureaucratic officials, the Chinese sense is that the official cannot be separated from particular personality and conduct. In reality, law (fa) plays a secondary role; it assists in situations in which an individual fails in maintaining a moral and ethical performance. Law is resorted to only to correct by punishment. Invokingfaindicates failure to maintain harmony; andappeals tofain Chinese society have little in common with Western appeals to the rule of law.

(4) Rule of Man:renzhi.Tongbian's rule of man suggests more exactly the rule ofren(appropriate relationship or humaneness) and the rule ofde(virtuous rule).Chinese thought gives preference for the rule of the most virtuously capable; in a social environment, everyone wants to acquire appropriate relationships in all aspects of society for better living. It is common understanding that all rules are conducted by men, and hence, that the critical issue is to get those men who are the most capable of comprehending continuity and correlations, and acquiring and maintaining the harmony of humans and society. The form of politics must not be independent of ethics, orrenzheng(rule of humane correlations)anddezheng(rule of moral virtue).

Lunli(ethics) anddaode(virtue)literally mean having acquired the way, or in a full sense, having obtained a thorough comprehension of the appropriate and harmonious relationships of society and nurtured sophistication in pursuing, maintaining, and shaping them productively. As it suggests, appropriate and harmonious relationships can never be acquired by competition but requireliandrang(ritual or propriety and receptiveness) as “an enduring yet always malleable syntax through which the human being can pursue refined and appropriate relationships.”The rule of man precludes the psychological fear of tyranny.

(5) Rights:quanli.In atongbiancontext,“right,” orquanli, means propriety and harmony, or the righteous and appropriate location one should find for oneself in the context of community, or say, in the focused locale of relationships. It is not the providence of God or contractarianism; it is a natural tendency or effort through human experience. Such an effort entails realizing one’s own freedom through one’s equality to other individuals who share continuity and correlations within a context. In this case, equality is not defined in terms of property but a full range of conditions and obligations related to the individual as regards his/her appropriate position.

One finds there is no need to separate governmental powers when intongbianare absent all the structurally preconditioned conceptions in the Western tradition, particularly the rule of man as necessarily tyrannical. In this respect, if seen from the perspective oftongbian, the separation of powers would not work if the rule were indeed tyrannical, since it is operable in reality through powers separated merely in form.

(6) Democracy:minzhu. One can see how different the Chinese read the Western political concept of democracy, by examining the ideas of the relationship between the ruler and the people as correlative and continuous. Some expressions reverberate the Chinese ancient idea of democracy. As Xunzi states, “Nature does not nurture the masses of human beings for the sake of the ruler, but rather in reverse, selects the ruler for the sake of the masses.” As Confucius claims,

“The people regard the ruler as their heart; the ruler takes the people as his body … The holiness of the body determines that of the heart; the damage of the heart happens when there is harm to the body. The existence of the ruler is determined by that of the people; the perishing of the ruler is due to that of the people.”


   Zuozhuansays, “The people are the master of spiritual beings, so the sage-king primarily devotes himself to the people, and secondly takes care of the spiritual beings.” As far aszheng(or politics) is concerned, "there is none in which the people are not taken as the paramount end." These phrases all suggest that fundamental Chinese political concepts do not separate leaders from the people, placing them in opposition. Atongbianview of “democracy” (minzhu) preferences content and its harmony with form, over mere form; any form of democracy has to take into account the interest of the great majority of the population in society, particularly the weak and poor, since a state of suffering indicates the failure ofzhengzhi.A democracy,minzhu(“the people’s governance”), is more a concept and practice of the government for the people, of the people, and by the people, which encourages the idea of equality based upon the communal sources of individuality rather than atomistic individualism. It might be said that the Chinese worldview and modality of thinking promote a sort of communitarian form of politics that is seriously at odds with the liberal democratic model.

   The Chinese worldview does not necessarily have the kind of psychological worry about the unsolvable problem of evil human nature, the emergence of tyranny, and hence, establishment of a checking mechanism as solution. Why? This is because the ruler has to be by a morally distinguished person through self-cultivation in the social environment wherein all people pursuit ethic self-cultivation. Apparently,tongbian’s “authority” entailing indispensable moral and aesthetic content has somehow left little room for growth of tyranny. As Hall and Ames maintain,

From its inception, Confucianism has been concerned with the self-cultivation of individuals – preeminently that of rulers and ministers. The Confucian sensibility enjoins the ruler to rule by virtuous example. This can only be possible if rulers are themselves products rather than producers of culture … One cannot rule effectively without presenting himself as a moral leader.


   Of course, this does not mean that the modality of Chinese correlative thinking and the Confucian idea and practice of moral self-cultivation is capable of preventing immoral and amoral authority from happening in any moment and under any social condition. But it is often that, in a social environment wherein every person pursues ethical self-cultivation, immoral and amoral persons have to pretend to do good and behave in a deceptive manner if they want to perform evil.Perhaps this is the reason that there are plenty of popular sayings referring to such an immoral scenario, for instance, “gua yang tou mai gou rou” (selling mutton only in name, while what sold is indeed dog meat); and “man zui ren yi dao demanduzi nan dao nu chang” (while one has intention as evil as committing adultery full in the mind, he is claiming himself of being humane, righteous, upright and virtuous). In this respect, it occurs from time to time that distinguishing between one who inadvertantly does something bad and one who is intentionally bad requires a tough and meticulous effort.

   However, as Hall and Ames also observe,there is little evidence to suggest that contemporary China has abandoned any significant elements of its Confucian orthodoxy. The leadership of contemporary China maintains many of the same characteristics that have dominated Chinese government since the Han dynasty – namely, the nation understood as a family, the filial respect for the ruler as father, and the consequent sense of rule as a personal exercise.

   As shown in the discussion so far on the correlative modality of thinking and the differences between the Chinese and Western systems of thought and cultural tradition, thetongbianperspective approaches the issue of Chinese politics in Chinese terms and its account articulates actual and specific historical phenomena in China. Therefore, it is more likely to facilitate a better understanding of the Chinese case.




   An application of Weber’s ideal types and general transition theory to the issue of Chinese leadership politics inevitably leads to separating the normative from the empirical reality by labeling the leaderships before Hu as charismatic authority, and regard only Hu's as a possible form of the rational-legal leadership. However, from atongbianperspective, charismatic and rational-legal leaderships are never independent of each other but mixtures of both. By subsuming wholesale the historical phenomena in the eras of Mao, Deng, and Jiang under the charismatic rule type, one rather simplistically says that under Hu’s leadership China is making an entire break with tradition and entering a period of pure rational-legal type authority. It can only be true if Hu can really move beyond the ongoing process. Even if Hu truly attempts a revolution to break from tradition, there is still no basis for assuming that he will be successful in making that happen and bring China on a new road leading to constitutional democracy, parliamentary body, the Rule of Law, civil rights, and a competitive party system, since revolution or sudden alteration is not simply equal to the fruition of a rational-legal system. Very probably, there exist other potential outcomes, for instance, sinking into a state of chaos or even warfare. Perhaps we should take into account the three following scenarios.

   As we said, by the ideal type of rational-legal authority, Weber means the systems of rationality of modern Western capitalist society, or the domination of pursuing profit as a life goal; it is exactly this which distinguishes China from the modern capitalist society. Although in the course of more than twenty years of economic reform, China is currently experiencing a rush for wealth and the slogan “To be rich is glorious” seems to have become the motto of the masses. If seen in the view oftongbian,which takes into account both the elements of rationality and irrationality in reality, it would be a foggy situation for both the masses and the government, if the society as a whole were to be dominated by the goal of pursuing unlimited money or profit. The attitude is far more paradoxical than a subsumed view in terms of Weber’s models; that is, it is all right to become rich but not okay to be dominated by the goal of capitalistic profit seeking. There is currently no sign indicating a certain direction that China is going to take; a teleologic transition does not exist, particularly in terms of Weber’s conception, apart from enormous uncertainty. For this reason, our only option is to consider various scenarios. The following scenarios are three possible social conditions relating to how China deals with the conflict of “being rich” and avoiding being dominated by the capitalistic life goal: (1) to be rich but also avoid being governed by the goal; (2) to be cautious at handling political issues; and (3) to experience inevitable domination of society by the capitalistic end.

1. Unlike the claimed Weberian approach,tongbianseeks continuity. There has been no sign so far showing that the CCP intends to slow its ongoing project of economic reform, particularly in terms of privatization. Nor do we know whether it has a chance to win its war against the rampant corruption caused by privatization. But continuity is seen clearly running through the policies of the eras of Deng and Jiang and the new era of Hu;Hu has carried onall the economicreformprograms and might also have some ambitious plans for political reform, for example, to include “protect private property” in an amendment of the Constitution and to take up institutional democratization starting with the CCP itself. AWashington Post Foreign Servicearticle reports on “China to Open Field in Local Elections,” a decision to allow multiple candidates to debate the need for reform. The story says, “President Hu Jintao is poised to announce limited but significant political reforms that would permit for the first time more than one candidate to compete for office in local legislatures, political sources said today.”It revealed thatinstructors and researchers of the Central Committee Party School had been to Germany to establish contacts with leaders of its social democratic party, giving rise to speculations about Hu's interest in reforming China's Leninist party.Hu approved sending high-ranking officials for training in administrative operation of modern capitalist society at Harvard University. Perhaps all these are potential elements for China’s change toward a rational-legal type of domination, or perhaps they suggest that Hu at least believes the mechanisms of modern capitalist society do not necessarily contradict, and may be beneficial to, non-capitalistic goals of life.

   However, well mixed with these elements is “irrationality.” As Hu prominently stresses, the CCP’s existence is for the ultimate communal interest and it governs for the people; its use of political power is for the people; its concerns are always with the people; and it pursues the people’s interest. In addition, Hu has shown that his leadership is a continuity of former communist politics by visiting Xibaibo Village in Hebei and Jinggangshan in Jiangxi, both of which were important spots where the Central Committee of the CCP had been situated in its revolutionary process. Visits to them signify maintaining the tradition of revolutionary leadership politics. Hu’s continuity from Deng and Jiang may certainly form a basis for the suspicion that there might be change under his leadership in the direction of constitutional democracy, true parliamentary body, rule of law, civil rights, and even some forms of competitive party system. However, based upon his demonstration of continuity with Xibaibo and Jinggangshan, it is also possible that in Hu’s mind these systems of rationality-legality or liberal democracy are not supposed to contradict with non-capitalistic traditional life goals, the virtues and ethical values of the revolutionary tradition. There is hardly any possibility for Hu to construe the individualistic pursuit of profit as a single life goal governing the entire society.

2. From a view which does not take Hu as a pure type of rational-legal personality but rather more engaged in charismatic image building, there are “irrational” elements (or non-modern-capitalist-rationality). Even though Hu believes modern Western capitalism is not necessarily opposed to non-capitalistic life goals and is conducive to maintaining traditional virtues and ethical values (and for that reason he has ambitious plans for political reform towards liberal democracy), he is a well-known prudent, wise, and sober person who tends to make political moves meticulously. Since he came to his current position, his political maneuvers in dealing with many situations have shown that he takes into account and is heavily influenced by multiple dimensions of society domestically and internationally.He is seen as making a particular effort to build himself an image of affinity with the masses. It would not be a mistake to suspect that he might adjust a political operation according to domestic social conditions, for instance, the rampant corruption among high-ranking government officials, economic crimes – against which he has demonstrated a firm stand – public opinion’s fervent protests against unemployment, and privatization. These may all become major obstacles to carrying out bold political reform for liberal democracy.Perhaps Hu's only option is to push forward democratization programs within the boundaries of Communist Party (or even by then the Social Democratic Party) domination. Based on his political performance, as one of the leaders who handled the political turmoil in Tibet in 1988 and Tian’anmen in 1989, there is a consensus that he will not carry out his reform campaign in a reckless manner, regardless of the capability of society for making radical political changes and often creating chaos. The fact that he has somehow won popularity from both radical reformists and people who are suspicious about further capitalist-oriented reform, can be in part attributed to his rather ambiguous political signals. There is no question that ambiguity helps build his charisma. It is probable that what is happening under his leadership may not be fully satisfying the expectations of the proponents of liberal democracy both inside and outside China. Taking into account the current situation in China in which the CCP and PRC government leaders face enormous pressure regarding many social problems and perilous international circumstances, it is not too difficult to predict that Hu will continue to approach the issues of political reform meticulously.

3. If adequate attention is paid to the actual and specific social reality of China as embedded in a particular tradition which developed independently (and is absent of the Western civilizational experience, intellectual history, worldview and mode of thinking, and conception of the individual within society as an end in itself), then it may not be wrong to suspect that at some point Hu and other major leaders of China might come to realize the domination of the capitalistic life goal. In this case, social and political crises will be unavoidable if many of the reforming programs are continued and pushed even further. At some point during the emerging crises, the new leadership may rethink the whole process reform, and as a result, resort to traditional virtues and ethical values as both ideology and political solutions in handling the elements that affect social stability. In this scenario, they will be forced to consider how to assess and even retreat from certain reform programs that are endangering the future of China. Then their behavior will become very disappointing to the proponents of a teleological transition to rational-legal type of politics.


   Since the application of Weber’s conceptual representation of reality is constructed on abstract certainty, it is impossible for this approach to go beyond the limited view of the pure and precise rationality of capitalistic acquisition and conceive the uncertainty of mixtures of rationality and irrationality in empirical reality. In this respect,tongbianmakes a probable alternative for gaining a better understanding. In the locale where the users of Weber’s ideal types see a normative rational order of transition and between clear cut models,tongbiensees their interdependence and change through their correlations and continuity, and therefore, a full range of uncertainty in reality that leaves little room for plausibility of predicting exactly what is going to happen from the point of view of any theory. Even supposing that Hu had revealed to us what he truly thinks of the future, abrupt and often stormy social change will alter everyone’s projected goal. However, this doesn’t mean it is completely helpless to have a probable understanding; there is hope if we just let Weber’s conceptual slices of historical phenomena return to the actual, specific, dynamic, empirical processes and comprehend them through correlations and continuity as a full range in empirical reality. To do so avoids slicing historical phenomenon into separate and unrelated conceptual normative types and generalizing uniformities of empirical process. As to the case of China’s change under the new leadership, which scenario will be to come to fruition is highly correlative with diverse and complex factors of social change. In all the possible scenarios, worldviews, modality of thinking, traditional virtues, and cultural and moral values will play fundamental roles in determining the direction of social change. Even though there is substantial use of Western concepts on the surface, below the surface are forms that have been left out, but which can be incorporated into, and fully understood in terms oftongbian.

Roger T· Ames (Roger T.Ames)

Roger T. Ames was born in 1947 in Toronto, Canada. As a professor at the University of Hawaii, an advisor to Nishan Shengyuan Academy, Chairman of the World Association of Confucian Culture Studies and Vice Chairman of the International Confucian Association, he is an internationally famous expert in Sinology. He is a leading figure in Chinese & Western philosophy and is famous in China and abroad for his translation of books such as theAnalects of Confucius,Sun Tzu’s Art of War,Huainan Tzu andTao Te Ching He was the Chief Editor toPhilosophy of the Occident and Orientas well as theInternational Chinese Book Reviewand the author ofConfucian Philosophical Thinking,Thinking from the Han: Self, Truth, and Transcendence in Chinese and Western Culture,Anticipating China: Thinking Through the Narratives of Chinese and Western Culture,the Art of Rulership: A Study into Chinese Political ThoughtandDemocracy if the Dead: Dewey, Confucius and the Hope for Democracy in China. Roger T. Ames once received the guidance of Liu Dianjue and became proficient in classical Chinese, then to one of the most outstanding modern scholars of Classical Studies. In 2013, he was awarded the "Confucius Culture Award" by the 6th World Confucian Congress. Then he won the second "Huilin Prize Award" in 2016.…
+ Learn more

Follow us

  • Download

  • E-mail

  • Weibo

  • WeChat

  • Live Broadcast