This article first appeared on the Stanford University Press blog.
In January of 1998 news leaked that President Bill Clinton had engaged in ‘improper’ relations with White House intern Monica Lewinsky. People around the country debated whether a man with such moral character was fit to run the country. This carried over into Congressional hearings and Clinton eventually became the second president to be impeached, charged with perjury and obstruction of justice. He was later acquitted in the Senate, served out the rest of his term in the White House and went on to become a popular former president known for doing good around the world.
Now imagine the same scenario in China of a president having an affair with a woman outside his marriage, news being leaked to the media, and popular debates ensuing about his ability to rule the country. Having a hard time with that image? That’s probably because the Chinese government would never allow such a scenario to develop. Surely the president may have an affair but the government will go to any length, as we are now witnessing, to prevent the news from being leaked.
The individual in China is still expected, first and foremost, to be loyal to the state with expectations for representatives of the government and the Party to serve as moral role models.
Last fall five men connected with Hong Kong publisher, Mighty Current, and their affiliated bookstore, Causeway Bay Books, went missing—all are now confirmed to be in police detention in China. The publishing house, which is known for releasing books critical of the Chinese government, is thought to have been working on a tell-all book that would reveal sensitive information about Xi Jinping’s love life before he became president. The Chinese government has gone to great lengths to cover up any allegations that could be revealed in the book—crossing over sovereign territory into Hong Kong and Thailand to abduct these men, two of whom now hold citizenship with European countries, and clandestinely bringing them back to China. Sure, Clinton tried to cover up his relationship with Lewinsky—he knew, after all, that admitting to it would raise eyebrows and damage his political career. But as far as we know, he never committed a crime, impinged upon the rights of individuals, or disregarded international norms to cover up or erase his indiscretion. The stakes were also a lot lower for Clinton—despite social and personal fallout, ultimately he retained his role as president. Xi Jinping or any Chinese leader, on the other hand, would certainly face the end of their career, and maybe more, upon the exposure of an extramarital affair.
How did Bill Clinton survive this scandal and why are the stakes so much higher in China than in the US? The answer lies in the relative position of morality in Chinese and American societies. Western societies are individualist in nature. Behavior is seen as an individual act and it reflects on the individual’s character. In a collectivist society like China, an individual’s behavior is more of a reflection on the collective unit he or she represents. In Chinese society a person sees him or herself as an individual embedded in concentric circles of society; consequently an individual’s behavior resonates throughout each circle of which they are a part. The behavior of a government official embedded within the Party structure (or circle) thus reflects the Party as well.
Clinton’s decision to engage in improper relations with a young intern reflected on his own moral character. Of course, his political foes saw this as an excuse to have him impeached, but ultimately his personal transgressions do not reflect on the office of the president or our political system. This division between the public and the private doesn’t exist in China. There is a perception that the reforms that have led to a major recession of government in China have also brought about a neoliberal turn that has given people more space to explore and express themselves privately. This is possible up until a point, but ultimately the individual in China is still expected, first and foremost, to be loyal to the state with expectations for representatives of the government and the Party to serve as moral role models. Any transgression on their part reflects on the Party.
This type of mindset is not new. The Confucian system of government revolved around the individual who was not only representative of himself and his family but of the state in general. Confucius saw family as a microcosm of the state and hence any disturbance in the family was believed to diffuse into the state. Consequently, only an individual with his affairs in good order was believed to qualify as a good ruler. This held for his sexual affairs as well. Confucius believed that eroticism could introduce chaos into the home and hence the state, which is why he advocated for men to save their erotic behavior for relationships outside the home.
Many men in China still adhere to Confucian principles when it comes to their sexual lives. Stories of government officials and businessmen who keep multiple wives or lovers are not rare—and even more common are men who solicit commercial sex. But the Party views this as behavior that incites chaos and foments corruption rather than, as in Confucius’s view, protects state order. Ironically however, for Chinese elites, these types of libidinous relations have become a hallmark of political and economic success in China over the past few decades because they represent a particular type of social capital.
Stories of government officials and businessmen who keep multiple wives or lovers are not rare—and even more common are men who solicit commercial sex. But the Party views this as behavior that incites chaos and foments corruption.
China’s Leninist political economy was built on a system of trust that only rewarded people loyal to the Party with economic resources. The needs of the system have changed with the institution of China’s market economy, but Party officials still control most resources and still demand demonstration of loyalty and trust in exchange for those resources. They have justified the exchange of resources outside the formal Party system with use of a more traditional system, similarly built on relationships of trust and reciprocity, known asguanxi.
This turn to guanxi was logical because Chinese society is built around guanxi relationships. But only people with close natural bonds like kin, classmates, army buddies, and people from the same hometown innately have guanxi with one another. The nature of this bond implies a level of intimacy that far surpasses what you might expect to find in a cordial relationship with a colleague or a respected business partner. Party officials and businessmen consequently turned to a more intense socialization process traditionally used to build the kind of trust and loyalty characteristic of guanxi relationships.
These bonds are built through ritual acts of banqueting, drinking, smoking, and entertainment, collectively known as yingchou, that are pursued in the lavish restaurants, massage parlors, and karaoke bars that, until recently, have been ubiquitous in China since Deng Xiaoping instituted his famous economic reforms. Such rituals—which often include an offer from one partner to another to partake in the services of commercial sex workers—have thus become integral to a government process that has nurtured the development and growth of China’s economy, but at the same time are often proscribed by the same people who take part in them. This builds up economic capital, political capital, and social capital for the men living out their Confucian rights. And for those who can afford it (often by pulling from Party coffers), the social capital is increased through the acquisition of a long-term lover or secondary wife. So while guanxi has been essential for fueling the growth of China’s economy, it has also become synonymous with Party politics and government corruption.
Xi Jinping has branded his reign with a strong stance against such corruption, which began when he issued warnings against extravagant spending and living. His initial aim at austerity urged government officials to limit themselves to ‘four dishes and a soup’ (sige cai yige tang). He didn’t, however, mention the karaoke clubs and accompanying ‘female entertainment’—to suggest that Party officials would engage in such immoral behavior would impinge on Party legitimacy, after all. Many of the Party officials who have been arrested for corruption over the past few years though, are charged with improper relationships.
Whereas Clinton’s transgression threatened his moral character, the sexual transgressions of Chinese officials threaten the legitimacy of the Communist Party because these officials are first and foremost representatives of the Party—President Xi included. That makes the stakes much higher and subsequently calls for more aggressive means for covering up such transgressions in China—like abducting a group of booksellers across international borders. Because our moral values in the West are aligned with individual character, a president or other government official can survive such allegations. But in China, such transgressions implicate the government and its ruling party—and the Party can ill afford such a test of its legitimacy. What they’re left with is a dire political imperative to get ahead of the scandals by making sure the news never even reaches the public, no matter the cost.
Elanah Uretsky is Assistant Professor of Global Health, Anthropology, and International Affairs at George Washington University.