Systems vs Parts

I admittedly use the word holistic (adjective of the noun holism) a lot in writing about China. It’s impossible not to. But it’s a word I seldom used until coming to China. And, unfortunately, like a lot of our language, it has been usurped by the world of corporate jargon where companies are centric-this and centric-that when a mere ‘we care about this’ would do. To many of us that in itself gives it the feeling of a word that has no application in real life.

But it does, particularly in China. It is impossible to understand China, in fact, if you don’t grasp its implications and nuances.

Merriam-Webster, an Encyclopedia Britannica Company, defines holistic as “relating to or concerned with complete systems rather than individual parts.” In the past it has primarily been associated with alternative approaches to contemporary Western medicine. Merriam-Webster, however, offers the additional example of holistic ecology, which “views humans and the environment as a single system.”

The Chinese definition, I believe, would be that “the body, society, and the universe, both visible and not, past and present, are a single system.” It’s a broad view, but, in a way, a more holistic view than the Western definition. (Sorry for the pun.)

The opposite of holistic, or holism, would be incrementalism. Things exist individually but can become something else when combined. It implies discreet steps in logic and behavior that move only in one direction, typically left to right, much like deductive logic. If you want to get someplace, you start walking, one step at a time. These steps (cause) take you in the direction you want to go (effect) in an orderly and predictable process, the pre-occupation of the deductive Western worldview.

It is true that many Westerners, particularly in business and sport, are fond of saying, “The whole is greater than the sum of its parts.” But this is often more of a motivational imploration than a worldview. Why else would US corporations continue to give individual performance reviews and professional sports teams to treat individual players as commercial markets unto themselves?

The American political system has become incremental in the extreme. The electorate often votes on a single issue of particular importance to them and the emergence of the powerful special interest group is, itself, the ultimate testament to the trend. A ‘special interest’ is, by definition, incremental in its focus.

Political party affiliation, while still meaningful, is becoming far less so, a fact reinforced by the number of successful politicians who have declared their official independence. Even the President cannot count on the support of all members of his own political party on legislation of undeniable historical importance.

The Fifth Estate and voters alike now insist that political candidates talk only about ‘the issues’ and take stands on specific issues that they have no reason to have any expertise in. One result of this, of course, is that our government policy is really determined by a tapestry of unelected experts who do have experience in the many specific issues that an incremental electorate is totally focused on.

Chinese politicians, by contrast, remain completely holistic in their worldview. While individual Chinese are following their Western cousins along a path of incrementalism, the Communist Party of China (CPC) is not. It remains completely holistic in both its decision-making and its public posture.

Fewer than 6% of the Chinese population actually belongs to the CPC, although it alone controls all things political in China. This, in itself, is evidence of the holistic Chinese worldview. As Confucius himself noted, a government cannot rule by the sword alone. The power of rule requires the voluntary acceptance of the ruled if it is to survive the 60+ years that the CPC has.

And is it even plausible that each member of the CPC shares the same perspective on all issues? It’s unthinkable. I’m sure there is as much division within the Party as there is within any governing body, be it the UN or the local school board in the US.

The difference is the holistic worldview that holds the government of China together and has allowed it to do things that few other developing countries, including India and Brazil, have been able to replicate.

A current example.

At the end of August Beijing will host the World Track and Field Championship and a celebration of the 70th anniversary of the end of WWII, culminating in a giant military parade on September 3 to commemorate the specific surrender of Japan, its principle adversary during the war.

To date the government has set up security checkpoints on all roads leading into Beijing. Every car and truck is stopped. Licenses and registrations are carefully checked. The contents of the vehicle are carefully scrutinized.

Anyone mailing a letter or parcel to a Beijing address must present identification to the receiving postal authority or carrier and all delivery companies have been given strict security protocols to follow.

And, of course, the government has promised ‘APEC blue’ skies so factories and construction sites will be closed down throughout Beijing and its neighboring provinces. The steel mills of Tianjin and Hebei Province have already been ordered to cease production during most of August and September. (The government apparently wants to insure blue skies for the Mid-Autumn Festival, which falls at the end of September, and the important National Day Golden Week that begins October 1 and is a popular time for the Chinese to visit their capital.)

For the same reason, from August 20 until September 3, cars will be allowed to drive in Beijing only every other day on an even/odd plate system similar to the one employed during the Summer Olympics of 2008. Cars not registered in Beijing will not be allowed in the capital at all.

Security Bureaus in the areas surrounding Beijing have also been put on alert and will undoubtedly take strong measures to limit the access of potential terrorists to industrial materials that could be used to disrupt the festivities, meaning even more factories could be shut down and the transportation of critical industrial raw materials could be halted.

Even the subways are already swarming with police who use hand held electronic devices to check the ID cards of Chinese nationals they randomly and/or profile and pull out of the crowds. (Foreigners are apparently exempt from this scrutiny in my personal experience.)

Inconvenient? Yes. Acceptable? To me, of course.

Possible in any Western country? Certainly not the US. In the US I’m sure there would be lawsuits about civil liberties, protests about the police overstepping their authority, even screams of repression. Politicians would be lined up in front of the microphones to get their face in front of the news camera with some incremental statement of conviction that really misses the holistic reality and the holistic steps that must be taken to combat it.

Here, however, I have yet to see a single politician stand in front of a microphone and question whether all of this was really necessary. And while I have heard individual citizens complain about the inconvenience, not once have I heard any individual question the necessity of the measures.

Perhaps it is too much. Perhaps it won’t be enough. Only time will tell. For now, the holistic Chinese appear fully supportive.

In the meantime I am convinced that incrementalism and the extreme individualism that ultimately follows will only take the US further into an abyss of chaos, unnecessary violence, and paralysis in solving the many social ills that face us in the West.

And to those who claim that it is individualism and personal liberty that got the West to the advanced state it is today I respond that you are interpreting history incrementally, not holistically. Incrementalism can work when there is a common culture, a common moral code, and a common commitment to personal restraint in the interest of the common good. Civil order, as we are now learning, is largely a function of self-restraint, not armed force. (Confucius understood this completely.)

The US had that holistic, if largely invisible, containing wall in the decades immediately following WWII. With the random killings we are now witnessing on the streets and in the homes of America, however, the death that shrouds our schools, and the ‘lone wolves’ now terrorizing our public gathering places, it is hard to say that natural self-restraint remains intact.

As a resident of Beijing, I can honestly say that I’m all in favor of holism. And, yes, there are pros and cons. That’s okay. Only an incrementalist sees the world as either/or, black or white.

To the inductive Westerner, individual freedoms of speech and expression are paramount. To the inductive thinker, however, results are all that matter. What good is the freedom to express myself if no one is listening or acting upon my expression, a position Americans increasingly find themselves in.

View the author’s literary work written under the pen name of Avam Hale. Both books are available at Amazon and most major online retailers in both electronic and print formats.

Copyright © 2015 Glassmaker in China

Notice:  The views expressed in this post are strictly those of the writer acting in a personal capacity.  They are not in any way endorsed or sanctioned by his employer or any other individual with which he may be personally or professionally affiliated.