Two important cultural values underpin China’s political system. The first is the hierarchical and familial character of Chinese political thought. Chinese philosophers acknowledge the value of spontaneity, but within a strictly ordered world in which people know their place. As the Analects of Confucius puts it: “Let the ruler be a ruler, the subject a subject, a father a father, and a son a son.”
There is also very little belief in the sanctity of human life: Buddhism holds that there is no difference between humans and animals and plants. A pledge to protect human rights was written into the Chinese constitution in 2004; but, as the recent case of the blind dissident Chen Guangcheng illustrates, this is mostly a dead letter. Similarly, private property ranks below collective property.
Then there is the Confucian doctrine of the “mandate of heaven,” by which political rule is legitimized. Today, the mandate of Marxism has taken its place, but neither has any room for a mandate of the people. Ambivalence about the source of legitimate government is not only a major obstacle to democratization, but is also a potential source of political instability.