Tuesday, June 3, 2014

The Road to Paradise: Confucian lessons for the West

[Author's update 2014-12-15: In the final analysis, this is over-simplified. Closer to the full truth is the fact that Western-style liberal democracy will never work in China, and neither should it. The assumption in the West that all roads lead to liberalism in the end, is flawed. And what exists in China now may not ultimately be far worse, at least not at this stage. Only history will know.]

Empty promises

Anglo-Saxon liberalism has failed to deliver much that it has promised. Western societies, particularly the United States, are hollowed out husks of what they once were. As modern thinkers look for a way to solve the problems which have taken decades to unravel what once was, they look to history for inspiration. No longer are liberal ideals able to be held up without scrutiny, but are instead being subjected to more criticism and inspection. Perhaps there is so much at stake that letting individualism rule the day will not do. Perhaps social cohesion and harmony are more important than certain individual rights which, if we’re honest, are rarely exercised but are more often only discussed in theoretical terms.

While some turn to more recent philosophical ideas which borrow from certain traditionalists, I will advocate for reaching farther back to Confucian philosophy which may offer more in the way of bringing societies back from the brink. Specifically, the works of Confucius, Mencius, and Xunzi are all relevant. It is probably wishful thinking to expect Western cultures to be able to understand, let alone to implement, systems which are based on concepts such as: social and family harmony, decentralization, self-discipline and education, benevolence, and checking of power. To the untrained mind it will be all too easy to dismiss discussions which center on these topics as being socialist in nature—this is a Western error. There are wide areas between the Anglo-Saxon liberalism of the West and Soviet-style socialism which can be explored. East Asian societies, generally, fall between those extremes. However, as China is evidence, it is possible for a nation to fall into the extremes and we may focus on their mistakes so as to learn what to avoid as cultural and political changes foment.

The road to paradise

China’s transition from the Qing Dynasty to the People’s Republic of China occurred over what is the blink of an eye in terms of long history and the path of this transformation was as complicated as it was swift. The process took China on the path towards constitutional monarchy, yet that process was interrupted prematurely. The failure of such reform still extends a long shadow of uncertainty over the nation, “What might have been?” While it may be useless to speculate, it is nevertheless true that lessons from this brief and bloody period should be considered when evaluating potential changes in government. For every would-be revolutionary, social planner, or hopeful politician with an eye towards putting things right, looking back at history should be a starting point—not a second thought.

In 1898 there was a 103 day period of reform in China known as the Wuxu Reform. This reform was brought about by Kang Youwei, who convinced the Tongzhi Emperor of the need to move towards a more democratic polity by way of constitutional monarchy. Kang developed the so-called Three Generations Theory which held that societies had to go through three periods in succession: Chaos, Peace, and Paradise. In Kang’s view, people had chaos for Chaos, dictatorship for Peace, and republic for Paradise. It is important to keep in mind that the Chinese people had lived in relative peace for two thousand years from the Han Dynasty forward. Whatever may be said about the periods which came before the revolution in China, they were more stable and peaceful, relatively speaking. To Kang’s credit, he realized that a well thought out system was needed to transition from the effective dictatorship of the Qing Dynasty towards constitutional monarchy so as to lessen the ultimate costs.

Unfortunately, before the reforms had time to develop and grow towards a constitutional monarchy, the empress dowager cixi (孝钦显皇后) led a coup and stopped the reforms. Yet, after the Japanese defeated the Russians in 1905, she and others became convinced that the strength of the Japanese must have come from their constitutional monarchy, which the Russians and Chinese did not have. Ironically, they therefore tried to implement the same types of reforms which they had interrupted years earlier. After her death the remaining family resisted petitions to speed up the timeline for such reforms and as a result, those who had advocated for constitutional monarchy went over to the side of the revolutionaries calling for a direct leap to a republic. Thus the brief chance that rational reform had was snuffed out by the impatience of those who pushed their ideals above all else. It is easy to understand their intentions. It is equally easy to see how disastrous the consequences.


Without going into minute detail about the revolution, the founding of the republic, the warlord era, the KMT, bloody civil war, and ultimately the founding of the People’s Republic of China, we can draw a few general conclusions from those events. Firstly, when looked upon through the lens of long history, it becomes apparent that whatever the good intentions of revolutionary reformers, they were ill-equipped (as were the people generally) for the challenges which they faced. Ultimately, what was created out of the ashes of their revolution would be far worse than what was there before. This is not to be overlooked by those who think of Western-style liberal democracy as the answer to all problems in the modern world, as Liang Qichao, a democratic reformer who defended the republic, would later realize. He understood from his experience that Confucianism could give moderation and modesty to Western-style liberal democracy, helping to minimize competition and aiding unity in society. As I’ve said, this may not be possible in the West where ideals of individualism are so ingrained.

Given the state of things in Iraq/Afghanistan after American democrazy, or current events in Ukraine (as of this writing, also current events in Spain), we can conclude that these lessons regarding gradual transition into different government have not been learned. Or, perhaps more likely, the prime movers behind such actions have other motives which don’t include the general welfare of the society or a move towards democratic polity.

In addition, we may learn how the liberal ideals of the West can be viewed more as pathology than anything a society should aspire to. The Confucian tradition’s focus of social harmony, the decentralization inherent in its philosophy, and the focus on family and man’s relation to other beings all offer a sharp contrast to Anglo-Saxon influenced Western societies which have no social harmony, are anything but peaceful, and which turn a blind eye to the least fortunate in society.

The disruption of social harmony is a feature of Anglo-Saxon liberalism, not a bug.

Regarding transitions of government: one major problem with a people trying to “leap forward” into a democratic polity is that the mass of people are rarely prepared to take on the burden which such forms of government require. This sometimes includes the leadership, which may be comprised of immoral men and women who will seek to consolidate their own power at the first available opportunity (such as when Yuan Shikai tried to become dictator soon after the Republic was established in China). Even if the instigators of revolution are moral and have the best of intentions, like Sun Yat-sen, they may be unable to stem the tide they are up against. The vast majority of people, if they are not imbued with strong moral fiber and dedication to checking power, may all too easily become part of a mob who is either violent (China's revolution and civil war) or complacent and lazy (current United States). Because of this, republican (democratic) forms of government are dysfunctional when people are not engaged and actively checking power. Furthermore, there generally are not proper checks of power built-in to such systems, despite protestations to the contrary. Unlike the Censorate, a built-in feature of the Confucian-influenced Chosŏn dynasty in Korea, there’s usually no truly impartial system to criticize the government without fear of retribution. A look at the so-called checks and balances of American government illustrates this quite well.

Confucian guidance

Improvements which Confucianism might make when applied to democratic styled governments (or constitutional monarchies for that matter) are: a return to ethics which focus on moral education, respect for others, and taking care of the least fortunate in society. Since the West has found itself in the grips of libertarian capitalism run amok, there is ample room for improvement on a number of metrics (homeless, jobless, etc.). The United States, as one example, has the means to deal with social problems, it just lacks the philosophical grounding upon which to do so. Even Christianity, which favors some of the same tenets of social responsibility, has failed to produce anything which reaches all corners of the society. The perversion of welfare programs in the United States is that they are not backed by real ethics on the part of society. If they were, abusers would be punished fully, more than lip-service would be paid to the truly desperate, and there would be more help available via family and social networks—all things which are important from a Confucian point of view.

Confucian ethics entail that human beings should look out for one another, that the government should not meddle unduly, yet that it should enable people to help themselves and their families. In contrast, the U.S. has designed and implemented a farcical system which only serves to ingrain the idea that everyone should fend for themselves. Because these programs are so poorly designed and implemented, and because there’s no real belief in government having the responsibility to make sure that people are able to work and are educated, they are nothing but boondoggles on which vast fortunes are spent for those who are gaming the system. This is all the more sad as that kind of waste prevents the truly needy from getting help. And so everyone turns away and concludes that the government shouldn’t be involved in the first place. This is not the Confucian view, which holds that there are multiple layers of support systems including: family, social networks, and government. The classical Confucian ideal is not that of a nanny state, but one with low taxes which allows people to save and care for themselves and others. In the Confucian view, government should foster people to be able to take care of themselves and it should also take care of those who are truly unable to. Whereas liberal democracy has defined an all-or-nothing system, there are clearly alternatives.

Another improvement would be a return to moral education, beyond any which may or may not be taught at home. Clearly this is a failing point (not just in the West) and the effects of this failure are huge. Ethics should be taught and not left up to chance. However, moral education in schools should not turn into a perversion and opportunity to push political or religious messages. If kept to the basic ethical idea of, "treat others fairly, as you’d like to be treated yourself", that would be a good start. Clearly leaving this up to parents (who failed to learn it themselves) isn’t working, and neither is leaving it up to television and films. TV and films are designed to be salable. If they are trusted to teach values and social norms (or we simply let that happen, trust notwithstanding), there will be a gradual decline in values and a perversion of social norms. We see this today.

Concluding thoughts

We can conclude that it’s neither possible nor advisable to quickly rush from one form of government to the next and it has rarely gone well. Even in the United States, a country whose revolution is thought to have gone well, we see that the system is so perverted that it scarcely resembles anything that its founders might have envisioned or intended. This should give us pause when considering any leaps towards democracy as it will be no guarantee of any of the things it promises. The great tragedy to revolutions and social change which are predicated upon ideals of individual rights and freedom is that they are usually reaching for paradise but too often deliver hell.

Furthermore, the West should give serious consideration to the Confucian traditions which have spared (to some degree) East Asian countries based on its models from some of the societal and moral decay which spreads continually. In general, it can be said that the West would do well to open its collective mind to points of view and philosophies which it has typically ignored or assumed irrelevant, while embracing its own arrogance and stupidity. If Anglo-Saxon liberalism is left unchecked, it may lead to the undoing of many societies. This is what we see now. Confucian thought has much to offer and should be considered duly.

References / Inspiration for this work came from the following essays in the book Confucianism for the modern world:

Bell, Daniel A. (2003).Confucian constraints on property rights. In Bell, D. & Chaibong, H. (Eds.) , Confucianism for the modern world (pp. 161-180). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Chan, Joseph. (2003).Giving priority to the worst off: a Confucian perspective on social welfare. In Bell, D. & Chaibong, H. (Eds.) , Confucianism for the modern world (pp. 236-256). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Helgesen, Geil. (2003).The case for moral education. In Bell, D. & Chaibong, H. (Eds.) , Confucianism for the modern world (pp. 161-180). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Jongryn, Mo. (2003). The challenge of accountability: implications of the Censorate. In Bell, D. & Chaibong, H. (Eds.) , Confucianism for the modern world (pp. 54-68). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Wang, Juntao. (2003). Confucian democrats in Chinese history. In Bell, D. & Chaibong, H. (Eds.) , Confucianism for the modern world (pp. 69-89). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.