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A superficial balance

China's New Confucianism: Politics and Everyday Life in a Changing Society, by Daniel A Bell (PUP)

Bill Durodié
posted 20 June 2008

In July 2001, the International Olympic Committee announced their decision that the XXIVth Summer Games in 2008 would be held in Beijing. Since then, and the best part of a generation on since the end of Mao Zedong’s Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution, demand for knowledge and insight into all things Chinese far outstrips supply. This has allowed all manner of commentators, interested parties and self-appointed pundits to attempt to seize the high-ground.

China is now mostly in the news because of fears about the environmental damage that 1.3b people hauling themselves out of abject poverty might reap – or, as it is usually perceived, heap upon the rest of us. Alternatively, the modern-day leaders of the ancient Middle Kingdom are castigated for their actions in Africa and Tibet. Many of these critiques are ill-informed, fearing development, romanticising poverty and blaming China for daring to compete.

So when a Western academic, fluent in Chinese and holding a full-time post at China’s prestigious Tsinghua University in Beijing writes a book about everyday life in the vast, maelstrom-like, melting-pot in the East, it is bound to get noticed. Like the Economist magazine in May 2007 and Professor Jonathan Spence in his opening BBC 2008 Reith Lecture, Daniel A Bell uses as his framework the apparent return of some aspects of Confucianism to China.

Confucius predates Socrates by about a hundred years and, like Socrates, is largely remembered by what his students wrote. Born into a noble family that had fallen on hard times, Confucius worked his way back to being a moderately senior official. But, failing to find any ruler open to implementing his ideas, he settled into teaching and is now mostly remembered through the Analects, a series of fragmentary sayings or aphorisms attributed to him.

Over the centuries, these gradually became transformed, combining with a more formal legalism, to produce an elaborate system of rules and rituals centered on the benefits of harmony, virtue and loyalty. His notion, dating from feudal times, that all should be judged according to their merit rather than their class, influenced the advent of the Imperial examination system in China which, remarkably, lasted until the creation of the modern state in 1912.

Today, 2,500 years after Confucius, a small book Lunyu Xin De (Reflections on the Analects), emanating from a most unlikely source for promoting what most still see as an old-fashioned patriarchal system – Yu Dan a 42-year-old female media scholar at Beijing Normal University – has become a marketing sensation, selling over 10m copies in less than two years. As Bell points out, the last book to attract so much attention in China was Mao’s Little Red Book.

The problem is of course, that Confucius and the Analects mean all things to all people at the same time. Yu Dan has her interpretation, Bell has his. No doubt President Hu Jintao had his own motives too when in February 2005 he cited Confucius as saying that ‘harmony is something to be cherished’. Other Western analysts and commentators are equally self-motivated when they notice what they see as a possible trend that they are keen to see promoted.

Like pretty much everywhere else on the planet nowadays, China is undergoing a cultural malaise triggered by the end of its recent ideology. This is accentuated by a tremendous pace of development with the concomitant alterations in norms and social structures this inevitably brings. Accordingly, the use of ancient, ill-defined and contested concepts to analyse a highly fluid and disputed situation allows all sides to arrive at conclusions of their own choosing.

Feeding off the Western zeitgeist, Yu Dan’s book is little more than China’s first self-help manual, encouraging people to reduce their expectations and be happy with their lot. The British economist, Richard Layard, the Eton-educated, semi-official happiness guru of the New Labour government would be proud. So too would the vast armies of anti-consumerists, anti-globalists, anti-capitalists and other assorted antis of our modern, disenchanted world.

But for Bell and Professor Jiang Qing – author of the yet-to-be-translated book Political Confucianism – whom he cites favourably, Yu Dan does not go nearly far enough. As they see it, she is just a populist, appealing to the little people, and failing to realise the new Confucianism’s potential for tackling much broader problems. The Bush administration’s failure to sign up to the Kyoto Treaty is thus held to exemplify a failure to harmonise with future generations.

Despite aiming to establish more Confucian Institutes worldwide than there are Alliance Française and Goethe Institutes combined, the Chinese elites, much to Bell’s evident disgust, appear loathe to pay much attention to their supposed experts and intellectuals. Maybe they realise such arguments could backfire, or maybe they are not keen to lie in the same camp as Osama bin Laden, who also castigates the US over its environmental abstentionism.

Undoubtedly, the Chinese Communist Party faces a period of upheaval and uncertainty. In some respects, as Bell notes, the political future there appears more open than it is in the US. Calls for harmony and loyalty from on-high are undoubtedly self-serving. But so too are the liberal appeals to modesty, tolerance and restraint promoted by Bell and other outsiders when advocating a Confucian, rather than a Greek, approach to the Olympics and other pursuits.

‘I’ve learned to question that most sacred of modern Western values’, argues Bell reflecting on his time in the East, ‘rule by the people in the form of one person, one vote’. His book is peppered with condescending sneers at ill-informed, primary-school-educated voters. Confucius himself courted the elites rather than ordinary people within his own lifetime, but ironically these did not want to know, leaving him to become an ordinary teacher.

Whilst meritocracy may well have been a dramatic concept in the feudal world, today it is used as a means to bypass the people. Critics continue to lambast the Chinese over their, often misplaced, human rights and environmental concerns, while simultaneously ignoring, or in Bell’s case even celebrating, the one aspect about contemporary China most in need of reform – its inability to engage democratically with and release the potential of its people.

But those who despair of the popular prejudices of the majority are the people who do most to reinforce them. By side-stepping the need for hard arguments in the face of skeptical opinion, and appealing to experts instead, so the masses are cut off from public debate and ignorance thrives. Fearing that truth is too difficult for ordinary people to handle it is always the elites who, despite sounding moderate and understanding, are those who deny people’s rights.

Expecting little from his own audience, Bell uses a made-up character to promote ‘engaging with the work of Great Thinkers’ without offering the chance of such an engagement. Sadly, his book is littered with too many blatant contradictions, bar-room style observations, personal anecdotes and pet-prejudices to be considered a serious contribution to the literature.

Bill Durodié is an Associate Fellow of the International Security Programme at the Royal Institute for International Affairs, Chatham House in London. From September he takes up a new post as Senior Fellow responsible for the Homeland Defence research programme in the Centre for Excellence in National Security of the SRajaratnam School of International Studies at the Nanyang Technological University of Singapore.

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