The rumour was that Wen Jiabao, the then premier of China, had been reading Adam Smith. Not, however, The Wealth of Nations, the renowned work of political economy, which might have expected to interest one of the key architects of market China. But rather Smith's lesser known The Theory of Moral Sentiments.
It seemed an unusual choice for the man then in charge of the world’s largest emerging economy and its most populous nation. Why would China's prime minister find time, amid his busy routine of diplomatic meetings and and managerial committees, to study a 200-year-old study of the ethical basis of human behaviour?
This is no criticism of the 18th-century Scottish thinker's book, for it is a clear and elegant exposition that still deserves a wide readership. But close attention to its main argument renders intriguing the notion that it was Wen’s favourite reading. After all, some of Smith's concepts - duty, self-discipline, benevolence - are well formed in China's own classical thinking about ethics.
Yet other elements are alien to Chinese tradition. Smith writes, for example, of the "inner man" who stands as judge over all human behaviour, a sort of personification of conscience able to tell right and wrong, and who acts as an internal standard for all action. He repeats many times the idea that the individual human has sovereignty over their own behaviour, and that ethical action is based on a simple rule: acting correctly to others serves one’s own self-interest.
Smith’s text is an affirmation of control - we are masters of our selves, and that provides the best way to then engage with others. Kindness creates capital, and is the route by which we forge obligations with the circles of connections in the world around us. Vice is capricious and tricky, but kindness obeys rules.
When Smith does refer to the state, he talks of bonds of loyalty in ways very similar to those he uses when discussing individual humans. We are loyal first to our selves, but this requires us to be loyal to our friends, our clans, our societies, our nations, and then to the world. Peace with one creates peace with all: in this way the sovereignty of rationality is served. The foundation of global peace is peace in our homes. For the truly rational actor, self-discipline is the route to creating this harmonious world. Smith devotes many almost poetic pages to descriptions of self-mastery; he even proposes that under savage torture and provocation the individual needs to cultivate indifference and practise emotional disengagement.
The social glue
When a senior leader of a populous, dynamic country like modern China reads a book by an 18th-century rationalist, political questions are inevitably raised. What is the purpose, what is being sought, what problem is uppermost? The rumour that top Chinese figures were reading Alexis de Tocqueville’s The Old Regime and the Revolution made more sense: an unstable society whose elites feared an explosion of popular revolt had evident traction in a China aiming for middle-income status by 2020. The Theory of Moral Sentiments, by contrast, is more abstract and concerned to articulate first principles. Its appeal to the Communist Party of China (CPC) is harder to fathom.
It does make sense, however, in light of a central challenge the CPC faces in the 21st century. In its thinking, the party is largely bereft of a system of ethics. It appeals to self-interest, but once it moves to the larger issues of what society (or for that matter humanity) might finally want, the trail goes dead. Xi Jinping’s rhetoric of the "China dream" dips a toe into this territory, as did the edicts of establishment thinker Zheng Bijian and his lofty language of a "Chinese renaissance". But these ideas are in the end circumscribed by being linked to cultural definitions of the good or desirable. They don’t really answer the more fundamental issue of vision.
The party’s problem here is to a degree self-inflicted, in that it has eschewed "western universalism". Some public intellectuals, such as Wang Hui and Pan Wei, have produced coruscating attacks on the west's hubris and its proclivity to define everything in terms of all-encompassing rules and abstractions. These tend to ignore contrary strands in modern western tradition, such as the rich anti-rule-based thinking of the later Wittgenstein and his critique of holistic explanations.
If Wen Jiabao did indeed read Adam Smith, the message must be that the CPC is searching for some sort of ethical basis as part of its modernity project. It "gets" notions of self-interest perfectly well; but how can it move from this to envisioning a proper standard of social behaviour?
At the same time, a party that took Smith too much to heart would be creating another big trap for itself. The fundamental predicate of his ethical discussion is of a benevolent, all knowing, rational God, who had (in Smith's words), created the world to be perfect, and whose project all humans were part of. For the Communist Party of China to accept this would be a sign that the Marxist utopia is in sight. Neither is likely any time soon.