US President Donald Trump and China's President Xi Jinping make joint statements at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, China, on November 9, 2017. Photo: Reuters / Damir Sagolj
US President Donald Trump and China's President Xi Jinping make joint statements at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, China, on November 9, 2017. Photo: Reuters / Damir Sagolj

Revolutionaries of various brands regularly demand radical changes in all ancient conservative institutions. Their ill-considered utopian innovations, ranging from changing the names of the months of the year to killing the kulaks after killing the king, fail.

Successful conservatives stepwise piecemeal reform with a waiting period after each step to see what the unexpected consequences are, which is the best way to make ongoing refinements in any large social institution. Conservatives know that nothing is ever quite right the first time or the seventh time or the 17th time.

Yes, time-tested ideas sometimes fail.  But in failure, they give guidance to reformers who, as they use the meta-time-tested process of stepwise construction of new social ideas to produce gradual improvement, so give rise to a conservative version of true progress.

The new world of North and South America was “discovered” and settled by six different European civilizations, who employed two starkly contrasting strategies. England, France, Spain, the Dutch, the Portuguese, even the Russians competed for dominance. One strategy, followed by five was to repeat the time-tested model of their own society, complete with an aristocracy, established church, a bureaucracy, a standing army, an economy of pillage and extractive export of unearthed treasures and a preference for taking and whoring the natives rather than family settlement, the entire effort controlled with strong direction from the eastern side of the Atlantic.

The best history of that grand strategy, and its failure in particular in the case of colonies supported by the Bourbons from Paris is Francis Parkman’s six-volume history, entitled France and England in North America.  His enduring lesson is, that the unplanned, undirected, self-managed piece-by-piece Exceptional Experiment in liberty and equality conducted by that new people, those Americans, defeated and supplanted and surpassed all others, despite its novelty.  But that novelty required 400 years of gestation from the time of Columbus to the writing of the Constitution, and 200 more years to mature into the world’s super-civilization, having, by virtue of 600 years of refinement, created the world’s language, laws, secular religion and model of manly national virtue and resolve.

At this point, we have to say that China has become conservative by way of contrast with the 18th-century French style of violent revolution that typified much of “1949”-style China. Thankfully, red guards, one-child policies, artillery bombardments of Quemoy and Matsu, immoderate threats to Taiwan/Formosa and the like are permanently off the table. But still, many of our friends may criticize any hint from us that Xi Jinping’s China is “conservative enough” to work with, in particular, US President Donald Trump in order to “denuke” North Korean leader Kim Jong-un.  We have previously written (for Asia Times) two essays arguing that two versions of such a Xi/Trump plan are quite possible: one inspired by the “Elba/Napoleon” solution and the other by the “remove Kim’s nukes and experts to China, allow defanged Kim to run North Korea.”

But we likely have readers who think China is not yet conservative enough to prefer a pacified Korean Peninsula.  Skeptics say an apparently erratic (but actually China-controlled) North Korea is useful as a long-run irritant to the West, for example, when Kim-troubles may be turned on and off, when linked, say, to trade talks.  Alternatively, we think China’s leaders wish to see and adopt conservative principles. Then they might, over time, gradually adjust them so as to insulate them from ever again having to suffer the pains of a repeat of the 1949/1789 experience. For the benefit of both audiences, we below outline the core factors that characterize essential conservatism.

Historically informed conservatives know change occurs. After discharging themselves of any allegiance to the too-powerful English king and parliament, Americans put together their own political machine and lived with a political story where power waxed and waned. Control passed back and forth. At first, it was strong federalist government from the center, and then Jeffersonian “localists” took command of the nation’s destiny. For two centuries the fight went on.  It will take more years or centuries “to get it right.”

In China, where taking the long-run view is traditional, conservative patience may be the path most wise.

Conservatives are okay with change, even significant change, so long as it is the result of the constitutional process, due process, legitimized by tradition and common-law with rules and procedures that are painstakingly followed. Conservatives know that good governance is more than constitutionally balanced and separated powers.  In an exchange of letters between Thomas Jefferson and Samuel Adams (August 16, September 2, and October 28, 1813) it was agreed that Natural Aristocrats of Merit and Virtue (NOT wealth or birth) were essential characteristics of true rulers if the delicate machinery of the Constitution was to survive.

The strength and weakness of unchangeable human nature give rise to vicissitudes and wiliness of opportunistic humans in ways that no fixed document may guard against.  And so, corruption must be counteracted by honor on the part of leaders.  The people also must be virtuous. The people, voting for the public interest and against self-aggrandizement, must be educated to be on the alert against their own inevitable failings.

China’s current anti-corruption policy, if supported by constitutionally established and observed habits and traditions for unbiased application of transparent rules for contract and property rights, will succeed

China’s current anti-corruption policy, if supported by constitutionally established and observed habits and traditions for unbiased application of transparent rules for contract and property rights, will succeed. Reform will set up a bulwark against perceived unfairness, build a foundation allowing economic and political equality, and finally, a form of liberty will take root, by way of allowing freedom of economic action.

It is said that China slept for 400 years. The story goes that the West, which up to the “sleeping time” had been far behind Asia’s technical abilities, thereafter caught up and then surpassed the productivity and innovative spirit of their one-time betters.

The reason that China, now fully awake, was able to survive its prolonged quiet time is its natural stoicism. Stoicism is a classic feature of the conservative style for survival. It is a source of the great strength of endurance. Stoics accept what is real and inevitable. They are wise enough to seek only to change when it is in our power to bring about change and accept the rest.  If acceptance is unacceptable, they figure out how to channel energies of dubious vice/virtue, such as selfishness, and evolve the price mechanism. The idea is to create institutions that accept and use the “failings” of our human nature such as limited benevolence and turn it to our advantage.  For example, the price system allows self-interest and greed for profit to motivate buyers and sellers to unconsciously devise an unplanned co-operative plan to build a better mousetrap. Everyone’s personal well-being gets better.

China’s stoic personality will allow it to accept, albeit in a gradual manner, eventual evolution along the road to more personal liberty, a greater degree of economic equality, and an understanding of the practical benefits of institutions such as the market, political competition between parties, and transparent popular government.

In conclusion, we say non-ideological, practical conservatives on the two shores of the Pacific do not lightly change complicated institutions (market, marriage, family) because they cannot understand them well enough to produce “man-made” revolutionary alternatives to them.   An example is the endurance and survival of traditional religion, even against powerful revolutionary forces, such as state-controlled education, propaganda efforts and other regulatory machines that quickly become (badly) self-interested. The record shows, and the people know, that social workers do not really want to see the end of, say, “homelessness” because doing so will end the careers of the government workers who are temporarily in command of the political high ground.  But today, thanks to Xi’s reforms, there are glacier-like gradual conservative forces within China that, more and more, will conjoin, in a mutually but conservative way, a partnership between East and West. In particular, the highly educated and therefore meritorious Chinese returning students will insist that merit and competence alone earn for them entry into the “bosses office.”  It will be an example of “creeping conservatism” that will make easier trans-Pacific agreements that go well beyond current trade talks and peninsular peace efforts.

Tom Velk and Jade Xiao

Tom Velk is a libertarian-leaning American economist who teaches and lives in Montreal, Canada. He is the chairman of the North American studies program at McGill University and a professor in that university's economics department. Jade Xiao is a McGill University graduate.