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Confucius reprises role as political pawn
By Benjamin A Shobert
At various moments in China's past, he's been seen as either a virtuous bureaucrat or a villain. He was held forth as the apex of Chinese civilization at one point, and a threat to Mao Zedong's rule during another. His name effortlessly represents both the modern visage of China and a classical ideal from the country's past.
And it should come as no surprise today that Confucius (551 BC-479 BC) is a necessary object - equal parts myth and reality - by which China desires to be understood both within by its own citizens and without by those who are increasingly curious about the country and its long-term goals.
The accuracy of presenting thinker and social philosopher Confucius the historical man is a difficult - if not almost impossible - task. Venerated in what closely approximates a religious body of work, his teachings have for centuries been passed down as a sort of uniquely Chinese ideal, a blend between the personal call to serve with humility, and the duty of those who govern to do so wisely.
Much easier - and as some have suggested the more interesting challenge - is to wrestle with how the varied and nuanced ideas about Confucius have changed over time, and what these changes have to tell us about China.
Confucius played a complicated role in Mao's thinking. Aware of the importance Confucius played in Chinese culture, Mao (the People's Republic of China's leader from 1949 until his death in 1976) made efforts early on to incorporate at least cosmetic appeals to Confucian ideals during his speeches and other public acts.
Mao popularly appealed to Confucius when he asked Chinese to "go about and enquire into everything" and when he reminded the country that "when speaking to the mighty, look on them with contempt". But Mao warily embraced Confucius, perhaps because as his post-1964 actions would illustrate, Mao saw himself as the progenitor of a new and better line of thinking that deserved to be held in higher regard.
Those limited references Mao made to the ancient philosopher were self-serving, an act of utility. Mao's real view of Confucius was revealed as to be one of the final tethers Mao needed to sever between China's past and its communist future.
Once necessary tools to legitimize his tenuous grasp on power, Confucian ideals that might remind Chinese of the numerous government-induced inadequacies they were experiencing at Mao's hand, became threats to his legitimacy; and, in the throes of the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), Mao determined to once and forever disrobe the myth and replace Confucius with his own teachings.
In 1974, the country's media would proclaim "Although Confucius is dead, his corpse continues to emit its stench even today. Its poison is deep and its influence extensive." Mao would brook no competition in the battle for his ideology to reign supreme during his rule, nor would he take the chance that his own philosophy would somehow fall away in importance after his death. Both made necessary an aggressive attack on Confucian teachings.
As the Cultural Revolution wound down to its calamitous final moments, the "Criticize Lin Biao, Criticize Confucius" movement was set in motion by Mao's third wife, Jiang Qing. Marshall Lin Biao, a revered military figure and contemporary of Mao's, represented one of the few members of the Chinese government that could have challenged Mao.
The awkward attempt to force together criticisms of Lin Biao with those of Confucius ultimately failed, on both a practical and philosophical level. Today, these attempts remain one of the more awkward aspects of Mao's political legacy, requiring any number of tortured explanations as to what Mao supposedly "really" meant.
But, the historical lesson from Mao's use of Confucian philosophy remains that Confucius was less an ancient leader with wisdom to impart as a myth capable of being exploited.
This tension very much captures the ongoing view of China's governing class today: always on the look-out for opposing ideas that could serve to challenge their grip on power, today's leadership in Beijing has a more utilitarian view of political ideology.
What works to preserve their power is good, because the preservation of their power serves to stabilize a country that could otherwise revert back to strife, famine and collapse. Consequently, Confucianism is a tool to be deployed, a means to an end, rather than a deeper realization of the responsibilities between the government and those whose acquiescence give rise to its legitimacy.
Added to this realization is an implicit awareness that the China of today lacks a unifying political identity. Simply put, the ideas of Confucianism are necessary because the country lacks any other grand unifying political consciousness. With no broadly accepted national religion that could serve as something of a nominal substitute, China's dominant political policy is unrecognizable by friend or foe, citizen or outsider. It seems nominally Marxist, yet very aware that the economic growth from which it derives its political legitimacy is a gift of the free market.
John Dotson, a research coordinator for the congressional United States-China Economic and Security Review Commission, published in July a research report titled "The Confucian Revival in the Propaganda Narratives of the Chinese Government". In it, Dotson writes that "[China's revival of Confucianism] ... may be motivated in part by the desire to fill a psychological vacuum left by the widespread loss of faith in Marxism, and the go-go materialism that followed in its wake."
As a result, for China the practical value of Confucianism today is its ability to offer not only a compelling alternative narrative in a country starved for a unifying political identity that can bridge income and education gaps, but the flexibility to discourage dissent and emphasize social continuity in a country always looking over its shoulder at a past filled with too many traumas of disunity and disruption.
Outsiders are watching China's flexible embracing of Confucian thought, torn between desires to believe in the good it holds the potential to achieve through an emphasis on eliminating corruption, while also clearly seeing the potential for Beijing to use Confucianism as a means of rationalizing their absolute control.
China's ongoing internal battle against corruption has made numerous references to the Confucian ideals of justice and honesty, with a recent report highlighting President Hu Jintao's 2006 "Eight Honors and Eight Disgraces" campaign relying heavily on these thoughts.
Similarly, China's ongoing external battle over the image it casts to the world as to its regional aspirations has made similar references to Confucian ideals. Both the "Harmonious Society" and "Peaceful Development” campaigns have been designed to allay concerns outsiders have about China's plans for expansion by illustrating what Dotson calls "... a gentler humanist face". The broad international respect given to Confucius has made projecting this idea about China and its plans more easy to tolerate for some.
But dangers do exist that this amounts to pandering, and that the use of Confucius is yet another piece of propaganda, a stylized romantic projection from China's ancient past that has little light to shed on the country's future. For all the good that an appeal to Confucian thought can do, it would be easy to overlook the value Confucius and his followers placed on social order, and the ways in which similar values can be embraced by Beijing without regard for the means by which social order is achieved.
Many, if not most, of Beijing's publicized 2020 objectives for its "Socialist Harmonious Society" are noble. And, to the extent China's government must be credited with an impressive record of achieving its recent goals, it is worth hoping that these are sincere goals that will be met in ways that empower the individual and make government more accountable and transparent.
However, nested within the goals is a pulsing refrain to "improve social order". What this means remains up for debate, yet it seems another reference to stability by any means possible. As such, this goal raises a question the West must ask and answer: if China is successful in maintaining its control, yet does so through stifling dissent and limiting personal liberties, while managing to achieve many of these other goals, will the US and European Union accept this?
And if it does, is this a realization of the Confucian ideal, or was Confucius simply a pawn; a means of distracting both citizens and outsiders from Beijing's unremitting control over political expression?
In all likelihood, Confucius is a utility; one particularly necessary in a country absent a unifying national religion, and distant from a coherent mythology as to its most recent foundation. It is likely best understood as a means to an end, and that end is China's maintenance of its odd amalgam of an authoritarian political system with a quasi-liberalized market economy.
As such, Confucianism probably means very little to the Communist Party now, and should be seen in a utilitarian light by outsiders curious as to what is to be made of this reconstituted myth and rehabilitated man.
Benjamin A Shobert is the managing director of Teleos Inc (www.teleos-inc.com), a consulting firm dedicated to helping Asian businesses bring innovative technologies into the North American market.