Pattberg: The Dangers of a New Confucianism

THERE have been rumors in recent months about the possibility of a revival of Confucianism in China. Powerful scholars, not without personal agendas, have called for a “Confucian constitution”. Some people have likened President Xi Jinping’s concepts of “Zhongguomeng” (the Chinese dream) and “Zhonghua Minzu de Fuxing” (rejuvenation of the Chinese nation) to the teachings of the sage. There are even voices that claim that Xi’s anti-corruption campaign, including a recent sex trade clampdown, can be directly attributed to Confucian values that aim for an ideal society led by “uncorrupt men”. [1]

Reading Confucius is fascinating, just like reading the works of Socrates, Plato or any other archaic thinker. The aphorisms are simple and basic – how can their words not be true? It can be argued that certain elements of the Greco-Roman tradition always remain with Europe, such as an emphasis on individualism and reason. In the same way, Confucian values such as filial piety, a love for learning, and lofty pragmatism have prevailed in China, without necessarily making mention of Confucius.

However, I have a notion that actions such as the crackdown on prostitution and corruption are based on reason and a common sense of modern statesmanship. They should not be attributed to the recommendations of Jesus Christ, the Buddha, Confucius or any figures who lived in the first millennium BC.

Confucianism, a 2,500-year-old tradition, is anything but “uncorrupt” from a modern perspective. Confucianism is about hierarchies, patriarchy, nepotism, abuse of officialdom, pure inequality and moral dictatorship. Some critics, including Lu Xun, Mao Zedong, European philosophers, and historians from places like Japan – which freed itself from the Chinese tradition – have argued that Confucianism is the main reason for China’s cultural backwardness. In fact, China may be so corrupt today not despite the Confucian legacy but partly because of it.

The Confucian Canon, often referred to as a code of conduct rather than a proper religion, could essentially be seen as an instruction manual for cult leaders and dictators on how to morally blackmail the people into obedience. Hence the absence of universal concepts of freedom, individualism, and human rights – although there’s a lot in it about human responsibilities, like filial piety, obedience and dependency.

The vibrant sex trade, instead of being the result of communist vices, might as well be the direct expression of the out-dated, yet not defeated, Confucian tradition, while Xi Jinping’s Anti-Corruption Campaign might as well be another attempt of modernization to drive out worn-out customs that blemished China’s image in the world. How so? Well, for a start we know that it was the Communist Party which battled the legacy of the “Confucian traditions” such as polygamy, concubinage, arranged marriages, and the mistress culture (albeit not always successfully).

It might be taking forever to establish the rule of law in China precisely because Confucius believed that coercing people with a sense of obligation, shame and “face” works just as well. But this has had the unenviable consequence that the people of China, in German philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel’s words, “cherish the meanest opinion of themselves, and believe that they are born only to drag the car of Imperial Power”.

More than a few China experts have suggested that the troubled Communist Party under Xi Jinping, instead of dashing into an unknown future (of liberal democracy and Westernization, perhaps?), may want to revive Confucianism in order to justify its authoritarian grip on power. As I said, Confucianism works fantastically well at that: The Confucian ideal of a government run by supreme human beings – the junzi – with supposedly superior moral values (not dissimilar to Plato’s fascist philosopher kings) is possibly the greatest corruption of all.

1. China’s Crackdown On Sex Trade: An Anti-Corruption Campaign in Disguise?, Forbes, Feb 21, 2014

Dr Thorsten Pattberg is a former research fellow at The Institute for Advanced Humanistic Studies, Peking University, and the author of The East-West Dichotomy and Shengren. His website is:

(First published May 7, 2014 / Via Big Think/ Asia Times / Copyright 2014 Thorsten Pattberg)

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