Can the Sage Save China? Beijing Is Hoping a Return to Confucian Values Will Help Quell Growing Dissent, and Inspire New Loyalty

Newsweek International, March 20, 2006 | Go to article overview

Can the Sage Save China? Beijing Is Hoping a Return to Confucian Values Will Help Quell Growing Dissent, and Inspire New Loyalty


Byline: Benjamin Robertson and Melinda Liu (With bureau reports)

China's official buzzword these days is "harmony." Whether the audience is Chinese or foreign, rich or poor, Beijing's leaders are spreading the message: can't we all just get along? After becoming president in 2003, Hu Jintao made the pursuit of a "harmonious society" his personal mantra. Last week Prime Minister Wen Jiabao echoed the same sentiment before the current session of China's Parliament; the gathering has focused on improving health care and education for the rural poor, who have increasingly been left behind by China's economic boom. Foreign Minister Li Zhaoxing has got into the act, too, trying to market the message abroad. "The Chinese nation has always pursued a life in harmony with other nations, despite differences," he said recently. What few of China's top leaders acknowledge out loud, however, is that Hu's slogan actually harks back to a famous--and ancient--Chinese personality: Confucius.

After about a century in the political wilderness, the Great Sage, who is believed to have lived from 551 to 479 B.C., is in vogue again in China. Confucian values--unity, morality, respect for authority, the importance of hierarchical relationships--are being touted by Beijing's communist leaders as never before. Four decades ago, during the Cultural Revolution, Confucianism was vilified as a pillar of feudal despotism. But last September, the government's birthday bash for Confucius was the most lavish since 1949, replete with costumed pageantry and tens of thousands of participants. Among them were 100 scholars who discussed how Confucianism could serve as the "moral foundation" for the country. Hu himself has not publicly declared that Confucianism should fill China's current ideological void. In February 2005, however, he evoked the sage's name--"Confucius said, 'Harmony is something to be cherished'"--in a speech to senior cadres on how social cohesion would help stave off "economic stagnation and social upheaval."

The domestic reasons for Hu's campaign are self-evident. Market reforms, a white-hot economy and a culture obsessed with getting ahead have unleashed envy and discontent among China's 1.3 billion people. There is simmering social unrest, especially in the countryside, where residents are unhappy about corruption, land confiscations and, perhaps most important, stagnant incomes. In a 2005 survey, nearly three quarters of respondents said "money" was what they desired most. Beijing University professor Kong Qingdong, who claims to be a descendant of the ancient sage, ticks off the flash points: "The rich-poor gap, job layoffs, more and more petitioners publicly airing grievances, deteriorating social security and other contradictions."

Clearly the Communist Party needs a new ideology to heal these wounds. Marxism no longer inspires, and the "gospel of greed" that replaced collectivism and has helped power economic growth is morphing into what some experts say is a virulent form of crony capitalism. That leaves only the glue of nationalism to hold China together. But it's a double-edged sword. Indeed, Chinese leaders were deeply rattled by eruptions of violent anti-Japanese and anti-U.S. riots over the past half decade, which helped put bilateral relations with Tokyo into the deep freeze and ties with Washington into a wary holding pattern. Confucianism, on the other hand, is not only quintessentially Chinese, but also pacifist and nonthreatening to other nations. "It stresses datong, which proposes that all the world's people should become one big family," says Kong, who began advocating a "harmonious society" years ago.

Scholar Kang Xiaoguang, the country's top proponent of Confucian education, thinks Confucian values are similarly the answer to China's new go-go culture. "Chinese society today is at its worst ever," he says. "The problem is that there are no moral standards to regulate how people treat each other, their business partners, their friends and families. …

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