Skip to main content
Canada’s most-awarded newsroom for a reason
Enjoy unlimited digital access
$1.99
per week
for 24 weeks
Canada’s most-awarded newsroom for a reason
$1.99
per week
for 24 weeks
// //

Four decades ago, it would have been suicidal to say a good word about Confucius in Beijing. Confucius was the reactionary enemy, and all Chinese were encouraged to struggle against him. Chairman Mao himself was photographed on the cover of a revolutionary newspaper that announced the desecration of Confucius's grave in Qufu. My own university was a hotbed of extreme leftism.

How times have changed. Today, the Chinese Communist Party approves a film about Confucius starring the handsome leading man Chow Yun-Fat. The master is depicted as an astute military commander and teacher of humane and progressive values, with a soft spot for female beauty. What does this say about China's political future? Confucius bombed at the box office, leading many to think that the revival of Confucianism will go the same way as the anti-Confucius campaigns in the Cultural Revolution.

But perhaps it's just a bad movie. Confucius received the kiss of death when it went head-to-head against the blockbuster Avatar. A vote for Confucius was seen as a vote against the heroic blue creatures from outer space. In the long term, however, Confucian revivalists may be on the right side of history. In the Cultural Revolution, "Confucius" was often just a label used to attack political enemies. Today, Confucianism serves a more legitimate political function; it can help to provide a new moral foundation for political rule in China. Communism has lost the capacity to inspire the Chinese, and there is growing recognition that its replacement needs to be grounded at least partly in China's own traditions. As the dominant political tradition in China, Confucianism is the obvious alternative.

Story continues below advertisement

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.

Of course, there is resistance as well. Elderly cadres, still influenced by Maoist antipathy to tradition, condemn efforts to promote ideologies outside a rigid Marxist framework. But the younger cadres in their 40s and 50s tend to support such efforts, and time is on their side. It's easy to forget that the 76-million-strong Chinese Communist Party is a large and diverse organization. The party itself is becoming more meritocratic - it now encourages high-performing students to join - and the increased emphasis on educated cadres is likely to generate more sympathy for Confucian values.

But the revival of Confucianism is not just government-sponsored. On the contrary, the government is also reacting to developments outside its control. There has been a resurgence of interest in Confucianism among academics and in the Chinese equivalent of civil society. The renewed interest is driven partly by normative concerns. Thousands of educational experiments around the country promote the teaching of Confucian classics to young children; the assumption is that better training in the humanities improves the virtue of the learner. More controversially - because it's still too sensitive to publicly discuss such questions in mainland China - Confucian thinkers put forward proposals for constitutional reform aiming to humanize China's political system.

AN UPHILL STRUGGLE

Yet, the problem is not just the Chinese government. 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.

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.

Confucian reformers generally favour more freedom of speech in China. What they question is democracy in the sense of Western-style competitive elections as the mechanism for choosing the country's most powerful rulers. One clear problem with "one person, one vote" is that equality ends at the boundaries of the political community; those outside are neglected. The national focus of the democratically elected political leaders is assumed; they are meant to serve only the community of voters. Even democracies that work well tend to focus on the interests of citizens and neglect the interests of foreigners. But political leaders, especially leaders of big countries such as China, make decisions that affect the rest of the world (consider global warming), and so they need to consider the interests of the rest of the world.

Story continues below advertisement

Hence, reformist Confucians put forward political ideals that are meant to work better than Western-style democracy in terms of securing the interests of all those affected by the policies of the government, including future generations and foreigners. Their ideal is not a world where everybody is treated as an equal but one where the interests of non-voters would be taken more seriously than in most nation-centred democracies. And the key value for realizing global political ideals is meritocracy, meaning equality of opportunity in education and government, with positions of leadership being distributed to the most virtuous and qualified members of the community. The idea is that everyone has the potential to become morally exemplary, but, in real life, the capacity to make competent and morally justifiable political judgments varies among people, and an important task of the political system is to identify those with above-average ability.

CONFUCIAN VALUES IN PRACTICE

What might such values mean in practice? In the past decade, Confucian intellectuals have put forward political proposals that aim to combine "Western" ideas of democracy with "Confucian" ideas of meritocracy. Rather than subordinating Confucian values and institutions to democracy as an a priori dictum, they contain a division of labour, with democracy having priority in some areas and meritocracy in others. If it's about land disputes in rural China, farmers should have a greater say. If it's about pay and safety disputes, workers should have a greater say. In practice, it means more freedom of speech and association and more representation for workers and farmers in some sort of democratic house.

But what about matters such as foreign policy and environmental protection? What the government does in such areas affects the interests of non-voters, and they need some form of representation as well. Hence, Confucian thinkers put forward proposals for a meritocratic house of government, with deputies selected by such mechanisms as free and fair competitive examinations, that would have the task of representing the interests of non-voters typically neglected by democratically selected decision-makers.

One obvious objection to examinations is that they cannot test for the kinds of virtues that concerned Confucius - flexibility, humility, compassion and public-spiritedness - and that, ideally, would also characterize political decision-makers in the modern world. It's true that examinations won't test perfectly for those virtues, but the question is whether deputies chosen by such examinations are more likely to be far-sighted than those chosen by elections.

There are reasons to believe so. Drawing on extensive empirical research, Bryan Caplan's book The Myth of the Rational Voter: Why Democracies Choose Bad Policies shows that voters are often irrational, and he suggests tests of voter competence as a remedy. So examinations would test for basic economic policy (and knowledge of international relations), but they would also cover knowledge of the Confucian classics, testing for memorization as well as interpretation. The leading Confucian political thinker, Jiang Qing, argues that examinations could set a framework and moral vocabulary for subsequent political actions, and successful candidates would also need to be evaluated in terms of how they perform in practice.

Story continues below advertisement

Far-fetched? It's no less so than scenarios that envision a transition to Western-style liberal democracy (because both scenarios assume a more open society). And it answers the key worry about the transition to democracy: that it translates into short-term, unduly nationalistic policy-making. It's also a matter of what standards we should use to evaluate China's political progress. Politically speaking, most people think China should look more like Canada. But one day, perhaps, we will hope that Canada looks more like China.

Daniel A. Bell is professor of political philosophy at Tsinghua University in Beijing and the author of China's New Confucianism: Politics and Everyday Life in a Changing Society.

Report an error
Due to technical reasons, we have temporarily removed commenting from our articles. We hope to have this fixed soon. Thank you for your patience. If you are looking to give feedback on our new site, please send it along to feedback@globeandmail.com. If you want to write a letter to the editor, please forward to letters@globeandmail.com.

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff. Non-subscribers can read and sort comments but will not be able to engage with them in any way. Click here to subscribe.

If you would like to write a letter to the editor, please forward it to letters@globeandmail.com. Readers can also interact with The Globe on Facebook and Twitter .

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff. Non-subscribers can read and sort comments but will not be able to engage with them in any way. Click here to subscribe.

If you would like to write a letter to the editor, please forward it to letters@globeandmail.com. Readers can also interact with The Globe on Facebook and Twitter .

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff.

We aim to create a safe and valuable space for discussion and debate. That means:

  • Treat others as you wish to be treated
  • Criticize ideas, not people
  • Stay on topic
  • Avoid the use of toxic and offensive language
  • Flag bad behaviour

If you do not see your comment posted immediately, it is being reviewed by the moderation team and may appear shortly, generally within an hour.

We aim to have all comments reviewed in a timely manner.

Comments that violate our community guidelines will not be posted.

UPDATED: Read our community guidelines here

Discussion loading ...

To view this site properly, enable cookies in your browser. Read our privacy policy to learn more.
How to enable cookies