China’s hallmark sage goes abroad

Forthcoming in the June 2009 issue of New Internationalist (under the title ‘The Cultural Crusades’), this essay was commissioned as a discussion of the question whether, and how, China’s overseas Confucius Institutes are a manifestation of ‘soft power.’ It starts, however, by considering the changing fortunes of Confucianism within China.

Half way through my twelve years in China I discovered that an office manager I had just taken on spent his every free moment reading ancient Buddhist texts. At first I connected this to the trauma of a close shave with death in a car crash that had left him permanently disabled. But when I looked further I realized that the personal quest for meaning was widespread in our small office.

Two other close colleagues were interested in Tibetan Buddhism (and quite passionate about Tibet.) Another attended an ‘underground’ Christian church. Then there was the cleaner who also cooked us wonderful lunches. A retired factory worker whose ‘work-unit’ pension had evaporated when the factory went bankrupt, she quietly joined the ranks of the quasi-Buddhist Falun Gong: a movement which blended spiritual teachings with breathing techniques and exercises, but which the government banned in 1999. ‘Mama Liu,’ as we called her, was a kindly pillar of her community who volunteered in a youth prison. She turned up at work one day in tears because the police had raided her home, seized her Falun Gong literature, and told her to watch out or she would end up behind bars herself.

In short, the China that many outsiders were seeing as brashly materialist yet firmly under the Communist Party’s thumb was, in reality, in ideological ferment. Many people were indeed intent on ‘getting rich’ but many were also looking to religion. Others were attracted to human rights, democracy and rule of law. Others to nationalism, the awakened pride of an aggrieved nation on the way back up. Many heads, perhaps most, were spinning, looking in several directions at once.

Although still using Leninist techniques of mass control and sometimes ranting about Western decadence, the Party itself had abandoned Marxism for a kind of state-driven crony capitalism. To fill the belief vacuum, it tried throughout the 1990s to promote ‘socialist spiritual civilization’. Committees were formed to judge how ‘civilised’ workplaces and residential compounds were, and to award the good ones with plaques. But hardly anyone took this seriously.

Yet the idea of ‘civility’ – like the idea of the ‘harmonious society,’ that became the watchword of Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabao’s administration early in this new century – signalled a new direction for Party ideologues. For these concepts hark back to China’s hallmark sage, Confucius (551-479 BCE) who during the Maoist years was reviled as epitomising the ‘old thinking’ that had to be ‘smashed.’

The hallmark sage

Public interest in Confucius is fast reviving within China. One recent commentary on his Analects sold ten million copies. So is this resurgence some crafty trick that the Communist Party is pulling to maintain thought control? Or is it a popular groundswell as people reach back into their heritage for ways to make sense of the present? I believe it is both. For China’s government and society reflect each other far more closely than most outsiders believe.

In the West, Confucius is widely seen as deeply conservative and misogynistic. His main legacy is seen as a tradition of authoritarian, paternalistic government across East Asia. It is indeed possible to read Confucius this way; and thus to suspect the Party of deliberately rehabilitating him in order to maintain a tight grip on an orderly, well disciplined society. It is also true that Confucianism meets some key Party concerns. It is distinctively Chinese, so chimes with the Party mantra that China has its own ‘characteristics’ that make Western style democracy inappropriate. It emphasises social stability through rule of virtue rather than rule of law. And, given the growing inequality and social stratification that China has seen over the last 20 years, the Party is understandably keen to switch from a Marxist language of social contradiction and class struggle to a Confucian language of interdependence and reciprocal duties.

But whilst adopting vaguely Confucian slogans the Party has not promoted specific doctrines. A couple of my colleagues were Party or Youth League members who had attended training on topics such as ‘Strengthening the Vanguard Role of the Party.’ These were reportedly dull affairs, but they were not devoted to reading the Analects. Those ten million commentaries on the Confucius were, we can conclude, bought voluntarily.

But reading Confucius as authoritarian is only one side of the story. For in fact he insisted on the right of people to rebel against bad rulers. In this respect, Confucius was 2,000 years ahead of the Enlightenment philosopher, John Locke (1632-1704 CE). Locke’s theory of ‘tacit consent’ – in an implicit contract between rulers and ruled – was one of the main intellectual foundations for the development of Western democracy.

There is not, nor ever has been, only one reading of
Confucius any more than there has ever been only one reading of Christianity or Islam. Confucianism has long been interwoven with Buddhism, Daoism and much else besides, and there have always been multiple, shifting interpretations. And many who see themselves as Confucians today are decidedly anti-Communist.

Confucius goes abroad

While China has set up more than 300 Confucius Institutes in more than 80 countries this decade, these are certainly not designed to spread authoritarian doctrines abroad. Rather they are primarily intended to showcase Chinese culture and teach Chinese language. China used the Confucius brand just as Germany and Spain use Goethe and Cervantes to brand their overseas institutes, which perform much the same role.

The creation of the institutes partly reflects China’s desire to be accepted and respected by the rest of the world, but it is also highly practical. There has been steeply rising demand for Chinese language teaching and China wants to supply it. Moreover, the Institutes are usually embedded within universities overseas, which absorb some costs and stimulate other academic linkages, such as exchange programmes for students and teachers, and joint research. This is an area where China may well come to exercise the real power of knowledge.

Education is a Confucian preoccupation on any reading of the sage. He was perhaps the world’s earliest and most ardent advocate of lifelong learning. And not just rote learning either; he also believed strongly in critical reflection, once you were mature enough to get to that level. Chinese society has long been deeply infused with respect for learning (which is why the Cultural Revolution attack on teachers was, and quite deliberately, so shocking.)

That period of nihilism over, respect for learning has returned. The state has invested heavily in elite universities. China’s first World Bank loan, in the 1980s, was for higher education. State funds, supplemented by gifts and endowments from wealthy entrepreneurs, have poured into universities ever since. Over the last decade the universities have actively sought foreign professors willing to spend time teaching in China. They are now also able to hire young Chinese staff who have been out, in their tens of thousands, doing PhDs overseas. Research and teaching standards in most disciplines are soaring.

Knowledge and power

According to global market research surveys, it is the developed countries that are most prone to see China as a threat. Africa, Latin America and most of Asia are far more sanguine about China’s ‘rise.’ So it is in the West that China most needs recognition and respect. Where better to start getting it than in the academe? That’s why many of the Confucius Institutes are in Europe and North America. By far the biggest concentration is in the US, which has a couple of dozen. This is logical, for it is the developed countries that need and can afford the language teaching for business and managerial elites that are now engaging with China.

But penetration outside the developing world is increasing. Institutes have recently been set up across Latin America, and one recently opened in Kenya’s capital, Nairobi: and more will doubtless follow in the countries that are China’s main African trading partners. As well as teaching Chinese to the growing number of Africans doing business in China, these can serve as outreach and recruitment teams for China’s already substantial African scholarship programmes, which every year place thousands of Africans in Chinese universities. This is much the same service that the British Council long provided overseas for UK universities.

It is worth reflecting that, throughout the 20th century, universities in North America, Europe and Australia have sucked in developing-country brains. Think of Amartya Sen, Edward Said, Chinua Achebe. Indian and Chinese software engineers have been a key resource for Silicon Valley. Asian brains underpin many areas of natural and applied science research, especially cutting-edge fields, like bio-tech, with great commercial potential. China wants its intellectual capital back and to be a global leader in these fields. The investment in higher education and global marketing through Confucius Institutes will certainly enhance China’s capacity to shape and retain the best brains from other countries. There’s soft power for you.

Marx’s last laugh

The global standing of Confucianism seems also to be on the rise. There has long been a small group of international scholars who take Confucius seriously and sympathetically. Back in 1987 for example, David L. Hall and Roger T. Ames were arguing that Confucian epistemology could resolve many of the problems and dead-ends of Western philosophy ('Thinking Through Confucius,' SUNY). The Tiananmen massacre two years later perhaps played a part in preventing such thinking from becoming fashionable. Now, however, the number of Western scholars with an interest in Confucius is increasing and they are reaching wider audiences with much more accessible work. A prime example is Daniel A. Bell, a visiting professor at Tsinghua University, who last year published 'China’s New Confucianism: Politics and Everyday Life in a Changing Society' (Princeton University Press.)

Growing international interest in Confucius is itself an indicator of China’s enhanced international status. As the world at large realises how much our economic fates are intertwined, Chinese thinking is slowly coming to enjoy the respect that it deserves. Funny thing, really. Marx would have seen this as the material base of global productive relations determining the cultural and ideological superstructure.

Nick Young
April 2009, Kampala