- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 25, 2005

HONG KONG — The dormant seeds of a long-buried debate are beginning to sprout in China, with implications that could shape the future of the world’s most rapidly developing society. Scholars and officials are re-examining China’s Confucian past in search of strategies to cope with internal social conflicts and to shape international relations.

President Hu Jintao’s nationwide campaign to promote a “harmonious society” is the most visible evidence of the new trend. The phrase has become the central line of domestic policy since Mr. Hu told leaders at a Communist Party meeting in February to put it at the top of their agenda.

A huge public pronouncement of this policy stretches along Beijing’s heavily traveled Fourth Ring Road in cheerful red and white — in Chinese and English — reading: “A bit more science, a bit more democracy, a bit more reasoning, a bit more tolerance, a bit more love, shall result in a bit more harmony.”

The inclusion of tolerance and love as well as harmony in this litany is a surprising deviation from communist rhetoric, evoking values more akin to Buddhism, Christianity and Confucianism.

Skeptics suggest the message is aimed at foreigners — otherwise why the English? — in an effort to paint Beijing as a warm and open society that shares the values of other open societies, ahead of the 2008 Olympics. Others note the emphasis on the words “a bit more,” implying that Beijing advocates change, but not too much and not too fast.



Whatever the intent, two things are clear: Social discord has reached alarming levels, with growing numbers of citizens filing official complaints and petitions or participating in strikes and riots to protest injustice; and the government is toying with promoting traditional values as a possible antidote to the burgeoning discontent.

Confucian values also are proving useful in providing an ideological framework for China’s foreign policy stance — the nation’s “peaceful rise” to great-power status that will balance the United States and thus maintain world peace.

Earlier this month, more than 200 scholars gathered at a Beijing hotel for a two-day conference sponsored by the government-backed China Confucian Foundation and three other organizations. Scholars wrestled with the task of trying to blend communism and Confucianism into a remedy for social conflict and a recipe for world peace.

“Confucianism lasted for 2,000 years because new content was constantly added,” said Ren Ziyu, a scholar on world religions and the recently retired director of the National Library. The core teachings had undergone two major waves of change in history, he said, adding, “Today, with economic globalization and cultural polarization, it is time for a third surge of Chinese culture. Not just academic thought, we need conscious power.”

Only when the nation is strong, when science and technology are developed, can you talk about higher things, Mr. Ren said. China’s growing power was creating good conditions for the spread of Confucianism, he said.

Ding Guanzhi, a professor from Shandong University, pointed out the Confucian concept of seeking the “golden mean” meant keeping a balance.

“I speak for a more dynamic balance,” he said. “Subjective good will is far from enough.”

A righteous government should use power to maintain the mean, he said, and power between nations should be kept in balance. China’s economic and military rise could repair the geopolitical imbalance in which the United States is the sole power, he said.

Professor Zhang Liwen, dean of the Institute of Confucian Studies at People’s University, said that throughout China’s history Confucian scholars argued over the meaning of harmony and how it should be implemented, but concepts such as benevolent and fair governance and adherence to moral laws did not change.

“The core themes cannot be violated even if we talk about the evolution of Chinese philosophy,” he said. “To reach social harmony, we need diligently applied rules.”

Government officials who use public money and violate the law are not following the way of the mean, he said.

“Pursuing too much self-interest is not the mean. Today people follow self-interest, and so do nations,” he said. “This won’t lead to harmony.”

To some listeners, this talk of peace, harmony, benevolence and the golden mean was eye-opening, despite attempts by some speakers to wrap these alien terms around familiar concepts of political power. It was a far cry from the philosophy of violent revolution and class struggle that Chinese youth were raised on, and that the elderly among these scholars tasted bitterly in their youth, during the Cultural Revolution.

“We never learned any of these ideas in school. We know nothing about what is really valuable in our own culture,” said one participant, a professor at a Beijing university in her 40s, who asked not to be named.

If China’s Communist Party leaders see the irony in their position — attempting to shift the national ideology from conflict to peace, from class struggle to social harmony, while retaining their power and party affiliation — they are not letting on.

Asked whether this contradiction disturbed him, Shan Chun of the Institute of World Religions at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences said, “No.” Chinese are pragmatic people, he said, and “have to conform to the world reality. The world current is toward democracy. If you resist the world current, you will be sucked out.”

“A harmonious society should feature democracy, the rule of law, equity, justice, sincerity, amity and vitality,” Mr. Hu said in his February speech to party members, recently released in full by the official Xinhua News Agency.

“The problems and contradictions China will face in the next decades may be even more complicated and thorny,” Mr. Hu said, acknowledging that not only the economy, but also the “social structure and ideological setup” required “major shake-up.”

Sounding a note of wisdom reminiscent of the ancient Chinese sage, China’s president warned, “Without a common ideological aspiration or high moral standard, a harmonious society will be a mansion built on sand.”

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