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“Confucius Say…”
Old Values for New Tyrannies

Friday, Aug 1, 1997
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Most of us are not at our cerebral best first thing in the morning. Stimulants like coffee and tea do help, but around this time of the year with MFN business in Washington (plus the hoo-hah of the Hong Kong handover), an unusually high degree of alertness is required to guard oneself against the China Business Lobby’s subtle persuasions lurking within the contents of the morning paper.

I must confess that I have, on an occasion or two, been somewhat swept away by the skilful prose of those who tell us that in order to help the people of China we must ignore the Chinese government’s human rights’ violations — concepts like human rights and democracy anyway being Western inventions which should not be insensitively foisted on an ancient Confucian culture of obedience, loyalty and reverence for hierarchy.

But then I brew myself another mug of strong, mahogany-brown tea, sit back and ask myself what the probability is of the journalist or columnist in question ever having dipped into the Analects, the Odes, or any other Confucian classics for that matter. Reason is restored.

Even President Clinton was moved to make a reference to Confucius around this time last year, when explaining why he felt it necessary to de-link trade and human rights “a proud Confucian culture that prizes order over liberty is specially reluctant to take a step that is perceived as kowtowing to the US”.

Actually, the sage is on record as saying, “Let humanity be your highest standard”. Confucius may not exactly have been a democrat by present-day standards but he believed in the rule of law and accountability in government. Though Confucius was convinced that hierarchy and ritual were vital to the running of a state, he was very clear that princes should rule through moral authority and not through violence and oppression. An even more humanist and democratic development of Confucianism is represented by Mencius, who not only put the interests of the people above that of the ruler, but even vindicated tyrannicide.

In his book The Burning Forest, the Belgian art historian and China scholar Simon Leys tell us that: “In traditional China, ‘morality’ (which means essentially Confucianism) was the main bulwark against incipient totalitarianism.” He refers to the Chinese historian Yu Ying-shih, schematically summarizing an article by him on this question as follows: “Confucianism described the world in terms of a dualism; on the one hand there is the concrete, changing realm of actual politics, on the other hand there is the realm of abstract, permanent principles. The duty of the scholar-politician is to serve the ruler insofar as the ruler’s behaviour and policies harmonise with the unchanging moral principles, which provide a stable reference by which to judge them. In case of a clash between the two realms, the Confucian scholar must, in the strong and unambiguous words of Xun Zi, ‘follow the principles and disobey the Prince.’” [1]

At the end of the last century, the neo-Confucian scholar Kang Yu Wei (1858–1927), who was also China’s first great modern reformer, came up with a radical interpretation of Confucius’ teaching which shook the intellectual world of the Chinese gentry-literati. In Kang’s view, Confucius was a forward-looking “sage king” who saw history as a progressive unilinear development from an age of disorder where kings and emperors ruled over people, through an age of approaching peace guided by constitutional monarchies, eventually to an age of universal peace and republican government.

Kang had been the main inspiration behind the extraordinary but shortlived reform movement of 1898 by the Manchu Emperor Guangxu. The emperor’s aunt, the ruthless, reactionary Dowager Empress Cixi, had the young emperor arrested, and six of the main reformers beheaded. Kang just managed to flee China in a British warship. In exile in Darjeeling (my old hometown) in British India, he completed a synthesis of Confucian, Buddhist and Western Utopian ideas, which he explained in his astonishing Book of the Great Community (Datongshu).

Beside such standard utopian prescriptions as the abolition of nation states, the creation of a world government, and the ending of all wars, class and economic distinctions, Kang’s most original reflections concerned the problems of abolishing the two other “boundaries” in the Great Community, the boundaries of the family and boundaries of gender. Such ideas were at the time revolutionary not only for a Confucian scholar but even for a Western one.

Long before the seeds of Communism were first planted in China, there was a broad intellectual movement embracing democracy. “Mr. Democracy and Mr. Science” represented, for the youth and intelligentsia of turn-of-the-century China, the two fundamental requisites for a modern Chinese state. The founding father of the modern Chinese state, Dr. Sun Yatsen, was a democrat. His widow, Song Meiling, together with Cai Yuanpei, chancellor of Beijing National University and the writer Lu Xun, founded the Chinese League for the Protection of Human Rights as early as 1930.

It cannot be over-emphasised that democracy and human rights do not merely represent foreign values now being forced on a reluctant Chinese society. They existed in China’s political debate since the end of the last century. They now appear never to have existed only because of the effectiveness of totalitarian propaganda in erasing the political memory of an entire nation, and in blurring the historical perception of the rest of the world.

The notion of a set of “Asian values” (as Confucian values are referred to in a larger context) of hierarchy, order and tradition that places little value on freedom and democracy can be dismissed outright if we take into account a large chunk of Asia which is oddly, but invariably, overlooked in this debate. I mean, of course, the world’s largest and, arguably, liveliest democracy — India. If anyone from the West were to have the temerity to suggest to an Indian that he or she give up democracy and embrace “Asian values”, I definitely think that hard words would ensue.

Of course, there are other Asians, besides Indians who do not feel the necessity of limiting themselves to observing “Asian values”. Malayasia’s young deputy prime minister, Anwar Ibrahim, in a Newsweek interview (2 September 1996) said:

Does Sun Yatsen represent Asian values? Of course he does. He was a democrat and he believed in freedom of the press. And the media played a role in Sun’s revolutionary era. The Philippines, Indonesia, Malaysia, Vietnam, Thailand — they all had similar experiences. The founding fathers always subscribed to moral fervour and traditional values — very Asian at that — but certainly they were great democrats.

He also has some choice word for “old values” describing them as “feudal” and “corrupt”. At a meeting of South East Asian leaders in Singapore he offered this advice to those proponents of “Asian values” facing criticism from the West. “If you don’t want the West to be condescending, don’t be condescending to your own people.” The remark so annoyed Lee Kuan Yew, dictator of Singapore, that he began rustling a copy of the Asian Wall Street Journal as Anwar spoke.

Lee Kuan Yew (Harry Lee) has been one of the leading advocates of Asian and Confucian values. He has developed his own effective methods of silencing political opponents and outspoken journalists, while avoiding the more conspicuous excesses of dictatorial rule which could possibly embarrass his supporters and friends in the West. Right-wing dictators of the post World War II era have generally had a negative militarist image (dark glasses and army uniforms) that has prevented them from spreading their political message outside the immediate areas of their own control. But Singapore’s civilian exterior, clean-cut orderly economy and anti-democratic politics make up a dangerous “model”, not just for the likes of China and Burma, but possibly even for shaky new democracies in Asia and Africa with economic problems and over-ambitious leaders.

Henry Kissinger and James Schlesinger have honoured Lee Kuan Yew as Singapore’s “architect of the next century”. They and other members of the Nixon Center for Peace and Prosperity probably find the idea of a successful capitalist / fascist country with good golf courses and a muzzled press, secretly attractive. Others of more democratic bent are troubled. In a recent essay in the New York Times, William Safire warned that “The Singapore virus — the notion that capitalist prosperity can be abetted by political repression — could infect the global economy with its strain of fascism.”

In Dharamshala, where democracy and the free press have yet to feel fully welcome, a mutant strain of the Singapore virus has seriously infected our freedom struggle. For instance, in the sixties and seventies Tibetans firmly believed that the whole purpose of having a government-in-exile and keeping together a united exile community was to fight for freedom. The official version of our raison d’être as refugees, oft repeated in the speeches of the Dalai Lama and his ministers, was that Tibetans had not left Tibet because of economic hardships but to continue the struggle for Tibetan independence from a more advantageous location.

But last year the Dalai Lama stated in a couple of interviews that since Tibet was economically an underdeveloped country it would be beneficial for it to be part of China and its booming economy. He also added that as Tibet was a landlocked country it would need to be part of China which had access to the sea. It is not the place here to debate His Holiness’s views on economics and geo-politics, but it can most certainly be said that his recent utterances have thoroughly confused and demoralised many of his followers.

So we have now sunk to a nadir where Tibetan offices as the International Campaign for Tibet (ICT) no longer call for revocation of MFN for China. Instead its Director, Lodi Gyari, announced some months ago in a New York Chinese language newspaper that though he had formerly been a nationalist, he had now seen the light and was no longer an advocate of Tibetan independence. Nawang Khechog, the Tibetan New Age flautist, also seems to have been affected by this virus, for, before a recital at a public ceremony in New York to commemorate the Tiananmen Massacre, he announced his newfound belief that Tibetans must give up their struggle for independence.

But a few Western supporters of Tibet and a some die-hard Tibetans, are still firmly rooting for freedom: organising trade boycotts and marches to promote the cause of an independent Tibet. Their untiring enthusiasm and idealism, in spite of the enormous contradictions between their position and that of the Dalai Lama’s, under whose leadership they are ostensibly operating, is not only cause for admiration, but for someone as cynical as myself, cause for a little bewilderment as well.

Still, one must toast their efforts, even if right at this moment it can only be done with a mug of strong tea.

Tibetan Review, August 1997

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Reference note

1. “Anti-Intellectualism in Chinese Traditional Politics,” Ming Pao Monthly, February and March 1976.

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