Say no to new Confucianism

In the spiritual laboratory that is modern China, secular pluralism should win out against new Confucianism, writes Professor John Keane.

Scenes from the recent riots in Quidong. Source: The Conversation.
Riot police were called in after the violent protests in Qidong, China

With the 18th Congress of the Communist Party of China just around the corner, a fundamental political question is haunting its members and supporters: now that communism, the once-dominant language of state power, is widely seen as morally bankrupt, what will replace it? Are there viable substitutes for the old ruling ideology of Marxism-Leninism-Maoism?

The champions of political Confucianism, some of them members of the Politburo Standing Committee, think they have an answer. Tapping into Confucian notions of altruism, self-improvement, and humane authority, they call for a new moral foundation for political rule and everyday life in China. Contradicting most China watchers, American-style Western liberal democracy, they say, has no future in China.

Many new Confucians insist that the ‘spiritual’ conversion of the Party would leave untouched its leading role. Others propose new governing structures, such as a tri-cameral legislature comprising 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.

Each version of Confucianism seems quixotic. Never mind the fact that the new Confucians underestimate the magnetism of competing values, such as the conspicuous consumption of the middle classes and hyper-rich ‘princelings’, or local forms of feminism. How many modern Chinese women will be willing to embrace the old Confucian values of chastity, silence, hard work, and compliance? Confucians usually don’t say.

They’re also typically silent about the philosophical and political tangles within key texts such as the Analects. What does it mean to say, in the much-changed circumstances of the early twenty-first century, that authorities should be ‘beneficent without great expenditure’ (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)? Surely these words are of limited or no use in handling bitter conflicts, such as that in the Jiangsu city of Quidong, where a fortnight ago 50,000 citizens defied riot police and 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?

Protesters and police clash outside the local government offices in Qidong, China. Photo: RTE News


The chief trouble with the whole idea of a Confucian state is not just that it serves as CCP camouflage or privileges one set of ethics at the expense of others, that it’s at odds with a society whose citizens make sense of their lives drawing on resources as varied as ancestor worship, ancient metaphysics and state-of-the-art social media…It’s a recipe for historical injustice.

The CCP could of course pursue a frontal, top-down propaganda campaign in favour of Confucianism. It might even adopt a 21st century version of the Maoist ‘Smash the Four Olds’ (culture, customs, ideas, habits) campaign, launched at the outset of the Cultural Revolution. In either case, the media fervour and political bossing required would contradict the Confucian spirit of ‘humane authority’. Tibetan Buddhists, Falun Gong, and other qigong activists, Catholics and Protestants, middle class cynics, Uighur Muslims, and others would understandably condemn it as political propaganda. Great public resistance to the CCP would follow. Its fantasy of ‘social harmony’ would be exposed; state Confucianism from below would breed social confusion and resistance to power above.

The chief trouble with the whole idea of a Confucian state is not just that it serves as CCP camouflage or privileges one set of ethics at the expense of others, that it’s at odds with 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’s a recipe for historical injustice.

State Confucianism would practically demand the extinction of painful memories of suffering for many groups who still feel deeply aggrieved by their history of maltreatment. Ongoing demonstrations by Tibetans and Uighur Muslims in the western province of Xinjiang are living proof of unfinished historical business, as 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, often in hybrid form. The age when god was red is over. The country now resembles a giant spiritual laboratory. 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 can’t be stopped. That’s why a post-communist version of the old Qing dynasty practice of using the state to impose religious orthodoxy is doomed. A clear alternative to State Confucianism is the Taiwan and Hong Kong models of a secular constitutional state and a plural and tolerant religious society.

What’s so wrong with that democratic alternative? Why could it not work in practice for millions of Chinese citizens? The new Confucians don’t say.

John Keane is a Professor of Politics at the University of Sydney.

More photos and video from the Qidong riots are available at China Digital Times.