John Keane | Confucius Says…
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Confucius Says…

  |   Democracy Field Notes, Democracy in the 21st Century, Media   |   No comment

A popular recent joke in China tells of two Communist Party members enjoying drinks in a fancy bar in downtown Shanghai. One says to the other: ‘I think I’ve lost touch with my comrades.’ The second asks: ‘Are you sure?’ Replies the first: ‘Ya, every time I type into Baidu the word “comrade” I get nobody.’ The joke’s pedestrian, but its popularity is another reminder that the language of twentieth-century Chinese communism has found its destiny, in the dustbin of local wit.

Presuming the CCP apparatus retains its grip on power, and supposing its governing machinery requires the oil of public legitimacy, what will replace Marxism-Leninism-Maoism as the dominant language of state power? Are there plausible substitutes for the old ruling ideology?

Such questions occupy the heart of a recent New York Times op-ed piece by Jiang Qing (founder of the Yangming Confucian Academy in Guiyang) and Daniel A. Bell (a prominent Canadian scholar of Chinese politics). They call for a new moral foundation for political rule and everyday life in China. To the surprise of most China watchers, they say, ‘Western liberal democracy’ has no future in China. Their swipe against Francis Fukuyama and the American foreign policy establishment is backed by a strong preference for Confucian notions of Humane Authority.

Qing and Bell explain that the current revival of Confucianism in China is fuelled by the moral bankruptcy of communism. They presume (or hope) that Confucian values are destined, with Party help, to replace communism as the ruling ideas. Their anticipation underestimates the magnetism of other values. Their silence about the conspicuous consumption of the middle classes and the hyper-rich ‘princelings’ is typical. Can risky market innovation, profit and self-interested greed of the ‘small person’ (xi?orén) denounced by Confucius be combined with his teachings on the saintly, scholarly, ascetic ‘perfect man’ (j?nz?)? Or (to take another example) how many Chinese women will be willing to embrace the old Confucian values of chastity, silence, hard work and compliance? Qing and Bell don’t say.

Playing the role of court intellectuals, they yearn for a ‘progressive’ politics of Confucianism. Central to their vision is a strategy for building a new governing institution to replace the leading role of the Party. The sketch includes plans for a tri-cameral legislature. It would comprise a House of Exemplary Persons guided by mandates from heaven; a House of the Nation, whose representatives are imbued with ‘wisdom from history and culture’; and an appointed or elected House of the People.

The blueprint seems quixotic. Never mind the clutch of difficulties that would confront legislators when trying, in the much-changed circumstances of the early twenty-first century, to sort out the philosophical and political tangles within key texts such as the Analects. What does it mean to say that authorities should be ‘beneficent without great expenditure’ or ‘majestic without being fierce’ (Book 20)? Or that those who govern by means of ‘virtue’ can be ‘compared to the north polar star, which keeps its place and all the stars turn towards it’ (Book 2)? Of what relevance are these words in resolving bitter conflicts such as last week’s events in the Jiangsu city of Quidong, where at least 50,000 citizens defied riot police, stripped shirtless the local mayor, who quickly changed his tune by announcing the shut-down of a pulp mill pipeline which locals feared would pollute the nearby coastline?

Problems of interpretation would be compounded by the political impracticality of the Way of Humane Authority. Qing and Bell’s scheme bears more than a passing resemblance to the tale told by Jonathan Swift of the efforts of intellectuals at the Academy of Lagado to extract sunbeams from cucumbers, erect buildings from the roof down, plough farmland with pigs and transform marbles into soft pillows and pincushions. There are (it’s true) members of the Politburo Standing Committee in Beijing now pushing for the revival of Confucianism. These ideologues may dream of dressing up their old wolfish habits in the new sheep’s clothing of Confucianism, yet what Qing and Bell’s proposal in effect does is to confront them with a high-risk strategic dilemma. It puts the Party in a pickle.

The CCP could toughen its move away from communism by means of a frontal top-down propaganda campaign in favour of Confucianism. The media fervour and political bossing required would contradict the Confucian spirit of ‘humane authority’. It would also produce public resistance from many groups. Tibetan Buddhists, Falun Gong and other qigong activists, Catholics and Protestants, middle class cynics, Uighur Muslims and others who have little or no interest in such propaganda would understandably condemn it as a new form of sacralisation of state power.

An alternative, bottom-up pathway to Confucianism would prove just as rocky. A twenty-first century version of the Maoist ‘Smash the Four Olds’ (culture, customs, ideas, habits) campaign, launched at the outset of the Cultural Revolution, would surely stir up great public resistance to the CCP and its manipulative propaganda from below. Its fantasy of ‘social harmony’ would be exposed; state Confucianism from below would breed social confusion and resistance to power above.

There’s another difficulty lurking inside Qing and Bell’s proposal. The Confucian polity they envisage is designed to function as a non-violent peace formula, yet the ‘humane’ openness and tolerance it promises would be contradicted by the compulsory public forgetting required to make it stick. The trouble with the whole idea of a Confucian state is not just that it privileges one set of ethics at the expense of others, that it runs counter to a society whose citizens make sense of their lives drawing on resources as varied as ancestor worship (the annual Qingming Festival is an example), ancient metaphysics and state-of-the-art social media. Talk of a Confucian state is wilfully forgetful. It is a recipe for historical injustice.

State Confucianism would practically demand the extinction of memories of pain and suffering of many ethical communities who still today feel deeply aggrieved by their ongoing history of maltreatment. Ongoing demonstrations by Tibetans and Uighur Muslims in the western province of Xinjiang are living proof of unfinished historical business. So, too, are the Vatican’s diplomatic recognition of Taiwan and the phenomenal resurgence of official and underground Protestantism – the single greatest revival Christianity has ever known.

Along with Christianity and Islam, the most popular forms of religion in China, Buddhism and Taoism, are also enjoying an extraordinary rebirth. The age when god was red is over. The country now resembles a giant spiritual laboratory. Many different religious experiments are competing for the attention of Chinese citizens, and that is no bad thing.

With the exception of Marxism-Leninism-Maoism, no single faith or creed ever enjoyed an exclusive grip on Chinese citizens. The current return to normality cannot be stopped, which is why a post-communist version of the old Qing dynasty practice of attempting to use the state to impose religious orthodoxy is doomed. A clear alternative to State Confucianism is the Taiwan and Hong Kong model of a secular democratic state and a plural and tolerant religious society. What’s so wrong with that alternative? Why could it not work in practice for millions of Chinese citizens? Qing and Bell don’t say.


-> Originally published in The Conversation, July 31, 2012