Communism, Confucius and confusion: China’s turn to the sages

This article was first published by The Norwich Radical.

Fifty years ago Mao Zedong’s Red Guards rampaged through the ancient streets of Qufu, home city of the sage Confucius, pulling down statues, burning temples and desecrating graves.

The ‘old customs, old culture, old habits and old ideas’ associated with the teacher who for millenia had provided philosophical legitimacy for China’s feudal order were to be swept aside by the Cultural Revolution to make way for a new classless society.

But today Qufu is one of communist China’s foremost places of pilgrimage. An sprawling museum and park complex stands by the restored temple, overlooked by a giant figure of Confucius the size of the Statue of Liberty. ‘The Holy City of the Orient’, with its gleaming new high-speed rail link, now attracts more visitors each year than the land of Israel.

Those who have come to pay their respects include the current General Secretary of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and President of the People’s Republic of China, Xi Jingping. As he mines the sage’s ‘brilliant insights’ to construct his ‘China Dream’ Xi takes his place on the long, long list of Chinese rulers who through the centuries have sought to cloak themselves in the old master’s mantle.

According to legend Confucius was an intinerant teacher who wandered China some 2500 years ago, passing on a pragmatic philosophy offering guidance for the conduct of personal and public life. The central principle of the Confucian ‘Way’ is order: order within the self, within the family, amongst neighbours, throughout communities and, ultimately, across nations. The living, the dead, the unborn and the natural world are bound each to each through a tight nexus of obligations. Social harmony depends on the cultivation of hierarchies maintained through mutual respect rather than force. The people owe the same ‘filial piety’ to those who govern them as children do to their parents – on the condition that those exercising power do so with compassion.

Indeed for Confucius the well ordered state mirrors ‘the divine order which governs the revolutions of the seasons in the Heaven above’, a principle that has been fundamental both to the stability and authoritarianism which has characterised Chinese civilisation, seized upon by generations of rulers to claim a divine mandate for their authority.

For Mao Confucius legitimated a cobwebbed conservatism that had to be cleared away to open the possibility of a radical egalitarianism. But his successors have turned back to the Confucian tradition, finding within it useful resources for navigating the philosophical conundrums that have beset the CCP since its effective abadonment of Marxist-Leninism in favour of the ’socialist market economy’ that has facilitated the spectactular economic growth China has enjoyed for nearly 40 years.

The CCP has found some ideological cover for that radical shift by presenting its embrace of the market as a form of ’socialism with Chinese characteristics’, a necessary intermediate phase of economic development prior to a final move towards full communism. But with no such transition discernable on any horizon the party has delved deep into China’s intellectual history for new narratives capable of reconciling a population of some 1.4 billion people to the perpetuation of its rule.

The growing sense that China’s venerable wisdom tradition offered possibilities for such a ‘usable past’ became increasingly visible during the term of Xi’s predecessor Hu Jintao, whose ‘Eight Honours and Eight Shames’ – a somewhat leaden set of pieties urging the masses to ‘follow science’, ‘be disciplined’ and ‘live plainly’ – drew upon the sayings of Mencius, Zhuangzi, Han Fei and, of course Confucius. Hu also oversaw the opening ceremony of the 2008 Beijing Olympics, which with its themes of harmony and order aspired to project an image of a united China attuned to the great thinkers of its past.

Xi has gone much further. A keynote address to a conference commemorating Confucius boldly positioned the CCP as the latter-day guardian of China’s philosophical heritage, noting that the ‘values and spiritual world of the Chinese people have always been deeply rooted in the fertile soil of China’s traditional culture’ before asserting the party’s claim to be ‘the successor to and promoter’ of that culture. To reject Xi’s vision of a prosperous and peaceful China under the benevolent stewardship of the CCP, he implied, would be to reject the great unfolding story of Chinese civilisation itself.

There is no doubt that Xi’s invocation of his country’s Confucian heritage resonates with a popular nativist sentiment that China has, as Martin Jacques puts it, a ‘civilisational culture’, a way of being in the world quite distinct from that of the West. There is substantial popular support amongst China’s swelling middle classes for the CCP’s valorisation of Confucian ideals, restoration of temples and establishment of academies dedicated to the philosopher’s teachings.

But Xi’s shameless appropriation of the Confucian tradition for political purposes has also stirred resentments. Liberals wearily note the party’s ongoing ‘harmonisation’ of thought and knowledge through ceaseless propaganda and censorship. And for the country’s powerful ‘New Left’ the turn from socialism to Confucius has allowed yawning economic inequalities which have concentrated one third of the country’s wealth in the hands of the richest 1%.

A 2012 manifesto published by China’s substantial underground network of ’neo-Maoists’ called for a new revolution to overthrow the ‘bourgeois fascist dictatorship led by bureaucrat monopolist capitalists’, one of the more radical expressions of a popular desire for a simpler, more equal society. Each year some 17 million visit Mao’s home town, Shaoshan, some four times as many as those travelling to Qufu.

Certainly, China’s relationship with Mao’s legacy is complex. Life expectancy doubled under his leadership, but tens of millions died during ’The Great Leap Forward’, the clumsy attempt during the 1950s to fast forward the country’s transition to an industrial power. Women gained significant new rights, but many freedoms were repressed, particularly during the Cultural Revolution. It isn’t clear how many people in today’s censorious China have a true picture of what happeneded during Mao’s reign. But remarkable surveys gathered by sinologists consistently find that some four-fifths of respondents support or are nostalgic for the Cultural Revolution.

It’s a popular sentiment of which Xi is fully aware. Even though his own family suffered persecution under Mao Xi has reversed the tendency of his predecessors to downplay Mao’s legacy, making frequent admiring references to ‘Mao Zedong Thought’ and high-profile visits to the revolutionary leader’s home.

Indeed Xi has been swift to identify and exploit a critical intersection between the supporters of Confucius and Mao: their mutual antagonism towards Western liberalism. Supporters of both traditions are charged by a proud resistance to the encroachment of Western culture, a defensiveness manifested in the mainland’s indifference and antipathy to liberal protestors in Hong Kong, and the unease of many Chinese students with the ‘corrosive’ scepticism towards authority characteristic of Western universities.

Xi has so far exhibited a deft capacity to meld the various strands of China’s intellectual heritage to support his particular form of ‘benign paternalism’. Indeed the CCP’s successful maintenance of China’s strong economic performance, its bold embrace of emerging automative technologies, and a rush of pioneering initiatives to confront climate change have won many Western admirers. Those successes play on the West’s perpetual anxiety about the capacity of democracies answerable to capricious electorates to provide sufficiently firm leadership in times of crisis, a concern that has grown since the 2008 financial crash, expressing itself in successive waves of populist nationalism.

And yet it isn’t clear what Confucius himself would have made of Xi’s appropriation of his teachings. For the old sage a sustainable order can only be rooted in reciprocity: the wise ruler governs by virtue, not force or subterfuge, a virtue that earns the respect of his people. In his day the philosopher was regarded as something of an iconoclast, roaming the land restlessly in search of wisdom.

Would he have found it in today’s China? Perhaps. But in staking his claim to authority on lofty promises to spread prosperity, address climate change and marshall technology for the common good Xi asks for much trust from those he governs. And as Confucius once observed, ‘He who speaks without modesty will find it difficult to make his words good.’