China Power

China Going Confucian?

Communism just isn’t doing it for Chinese leaders. So what about Confucius?

One of the key points critics of the proposition that China will be the next superpower consistently make is that there simply isn’t an appealing ideology that others around the world are likely to want to embrace or emulate in the way they have with the American ideal.

Indeed, as Daniel Bell notes in this interesting essay in the Globe and Mail, the Chinese leadership has apparently recognised that Communism isn’t even able to inspire its own people, much less the wider world, prompting them to turn to a figure officially reviled for decades: Confucius.
Bell says:

‘The party has yet to relabel itself the Chinese Confucian Party, but it has moved closer to an official embrace of Confucianism. The 2008 Olympics highlighted Confucian themes, quoting The Analects of Confucius at the opening ceremonies, and playing down any references to China’s experiment with communism. Cadres at the newly built Communist Party school in Shanghai proudly tell visitors that the main building is modelled on a Confucian scholar’s desk. Abroad, the government has been symbolically promoting Confucianism via branches of the Confucius Institute, a Chinese-language and cultural centre similar to the Alliance Française.’

But whether these efforts will translate into an approach that the West feels comfortable with, much less one other nations might find worth emulating, is an open question:

‘It can be an uphill struggle to convince people in Western countries that Confucianism can offer a progressive and humane path to political reform in China. Why does the revival of Confucianism so often worry Westerners? One reason may be a form of self-love. For most of the 20th century, Chinese liberals and Marxists engaged in a totalizing critique of their own heritage and looked to the West for inspiration. It may have been flattering for Westerners – look, they want to be just like us! – but there is less sympathy now that Chinese are taking pride in their own traditions for thinking about social and political reform. But more understanding and a bit of open-mindedness can take care of that problem.

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‘Another reason may be that the revival of Confucianism is thought to be associated with the revival of Islamic “fundamentalism” and its anti-Western tendencies. Perhaps the revival of closed-minded and intolerant Christian “fundamentalism” also comes to mind. But the revival of Confucianism in China is not so opposed to liberal social ways (other than extreme individualistic lifestyles, in which the good life is sought mainly outside social relationships). What it does propose is an alternative to Western political ways, and that may be the main worry. But this worry stems from an honest mistake: the assumption that less support for Western-style democracy means increased support for authoritarianism. In China, packaging the debate in terms of “democracy” versus “authoritarianism” crowds out possibilities that appeal to Confucian political reformers.’