OPINION: On China, Self-Censorship and the Legalist Notion of Tact

OPINION: On China, Self-Censorship and the Legalist Notion of Tact
Credit: Reuters / TPG
What you need to know

China's use of ambiguity in international and other relations has its roots in Eastern legalism.

After President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) passed through the United States and bought a coffee from a local 85°C coffee shop, the company was accused of promoting Taiwan independence, which resulted in their brand being boycotted and removed from all online take-out delivery platforms in China.

Although 85°C then issued a statement supporting the "1992 Consensus," and with it the "one China policy," it had no remedial effect.

So when trying to break into the Chinese market, what is the best way for Taiwanese businesses and artists to declare their political stance so as to keep the authorities happy?

The answer is very simple. There is no way to guarantee that the government in Beijing will be satisfied with how you express your position, because this lack of cast-iron clarity is exactly their goal.

Read More: ANALYSIS: A Brief Overview of China's Blackmail Strategy Towards Taiwan

‘Tact’ and self-censorship

Han Fei, author of the mid-third century BC text “Han Feizi” and founder of the Legalist school of thought, advocated the notion of "tact", or the methods employed by a ruler in order to rule over his subjects:

“Tact is the means whereby to create posts according to responsibilities, hold actual services accountable according to official titles, exercise the power over life and death, and examine officials' abilities. It is what the lord of men has in his grip. Law includes mandates and ordinances that are manifest in the official bureau, penalties that are definite in the mind of the people, rewards that are due to careful observers of laws, and punishments that are inflicted on offenders against orders. It is what the subjects and ministers take as a model. If the ruler is tactless, delusion will come to the superior; if the subjects and ministers are lawless, disorder will appear among the inferiors. Thus, neither can be dispensed with: both are implements of emperors and kings."

Han Feizi (韓非子) - Book 17: Chapter XLIII. Deciding Between Two Legalistic Doctrines

“The important business of the lord of men is either law or tact. The law is codified in books, kept in governmental offices, and promulgated among the hundred surnames. Tact is hidden in the bosom and useful in comparing diverse motivating factors of human conduct and in manipulating the body of officials secretly. Therefore, law wants nothing more than publicity; tact abhors visibility.”

Han Feizi (韓非子) - Book 16: Chapter XXXVIII. Criticism of the Ancients, Series Three

The above excerpts indicate that in order to rule over a society, two things are needed. The first is “law,” open and honorable; the light side where rules are written in black and white, so as to give everyone a clear understanding of the standard that people need to follow. Through law, we know what can and cannot be done, the standard is uniform and therefore you know your limits and within them can do anything you want. This is also known as “Everything which is not forbidden is allowed.”

However, the second is "tact", brutal and callous; the dark side. Tact is basically political trickery, and just another method for controlling people. The basis of this method is to make those being disciplined uncertain if and when they will be punished.

Standards of tact are different and can change at any time, including with the mood of the ruler. Therefore, those being ruled can only keep their heads down and continue to do their best, to consciously take the initiative to do things they think will please the ruler in the hope that they will not be punished.

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Photo Credit: Reuters/達志影像
China's President Xi Jinping speaks during the BRICS Summit in Johannesburg, South Africa, July 26, 2018.

The goal is to elicit self-suppression, self-censorship, and self-discipline; not to tell you what to do, because nothing you do will ever be satisfactory.

The goal of the exercise of tact as a principle is to keep you guessing, so that you will "only do things that benefit the ruler." What if your ruler stays silent and neither rewards nor punishes you? You would be unsure whether they are satisfied or not, which would in turn motivate you to come up with further ways to impress them.

But what if that still does not satisfy them and you are cast aside? Perhaps next time you would think, “If that’s not enough, then perhaps also wiping their dog’s backside may satisfy them.”

Of course, they will never make it clear what it takes -- you will always be second-guessing whether or not they are satisfied, and that is the exact goal. This is “tact,” a truth that Han Fei unveiled more than 2,000 years ago.

For avid readers of Legalist ideals like the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) rulers, it is an exemplary teaching, a profound truth, and the method they adopt to rule their country.

The trap of Eastern ideals

Political trickery aims to tame people by making them feel like dogs; once they are tamed, all they ever think about is how to please, care for, and protect their ruler, as well as correctly maintaining the rules of society.

They live with the fear that their actions are not thorough or pure enough, and that this will incite fury and punishment from their ruler. This perfectly describes certain people in Taiwan, people who constantly murmur that Taiwan’s actions will anger someone, that there is no need for standards, no need for boundaries, because in the end we have no choice but to pander to China’s needs.

Han Fei (韓非) said: “The enlightened sovereign governs the magistrates but never directly governs the people.” Rulers, through the use of tact, govern only those directly beneath them: local bureaucrats, officials, or even small states (such as Taiwan), who will consciously serve their ruler and control the people.

However, far too often, even without direct orders, these underlings will go to extremes that are more malicious and brutal than the ruler themselves. On the one hand, rulers enjoy the fruits of the repression these lackeys instigate, and on the other, when these minions are overly excessive and cause rebellion, they can distance themselves by shunning direct responsibility.

In Taiwan, when we try to guess what might make China happy, we have already been manipulated by this “tact,” one of the many pitfalls of Eastern thinking. If you don't want to be influenced, your only option is to abide by realpolitik.

As such, whether or not the CCP is satisfied is unimportant; don’t worry about what they think or how they feel, all you need to do is be prepared for one thing: when push comes to shove, you need to know what you are willing to sacrifice.

China, this Legalist-driven Eastern powerhouse, is an infinitely expanding beast, and a cancerous authority, a monster that won’t be satisfied until it rules the whole human race. It’s every action is only for the purpose of expanding its power and authority, therefore to even think of worrying about this authoritarian demon’s feelings, or how to satisfy it, is simply the wrong way of addressing the situation.

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Translator: Zeke Li

Editor: David Green (@DavidPeterGreen)

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