Comrade Confucius

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 08 October, 2005, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 08 October, 2005, 12:00am

Last week, China's most influential philosopher's 2,556th birthday was celebrated amid parades and theatrical reenactments. Confucius is being slowly raised from the dead as the government looks to his ancient thoughts in its fight to cure modern society's ills.

Despite rapid economic growth and urban regeneration, the unsettling nature of the mainland's recent past has nonetheless left deep scars that have yet to heal.

A legacy of distrust and disenchantment stemming from the violence of the Cultural Revolution - when students were encouraged to turn on 'bourgeois' elements in academia and government - the cracking of the 'iron rice bowl' of cradle-to-grave state support, and the emergence of a dog-eat-dog business culture have strained the society's foundations, causing concern for many observers.

'Chinese society today is at its worst ever,' says Kang Xiaoguang , former social policy adviser to Zhu Rongji and also the principal proponent behind the revival of Confucian theories.

Not alone in painting a bleak picture of contemporary China, Professor Kang points to worrying indices to prove his point, including rising crime rates, unemployment, growing corruption, an increasing wealth gap, an absence of a welfare system, and what he says is a complete lack of a moral or ethical value system, before concluding that in order to survive, China needs to rediscover its cultural roots.

Born in 551BC in what is now the coastal province of Shandong , the teachings of Confucius - known also as Master Kong - on good governance and moral society in the sixth century BC dominated Chinese intellectual thinking until the early 20th century.

First denounced during the May 4 movement of 1919 - a period of intense discussion among Chinese scholars, including a young Mao Zedong , of why China had fallen behind the developed world - and then later criticised under the communists as a figurehead of 'feudal backwardness', Confucius' return to power mirrors the reappearance of other traditional belief systems. Taoism and Buddhism are gaining support as increasing numbers of Chinese seek to make sense of a rapidly changing society and fill an ideological and spiritual vacuum since the death of Mao.

'Over the past 150 years, China has abandoned its traditional values and has followed a process of westernisa-tion ... a mixture of capitalism and Marxist-Leninism,' Professor Kang says. 'No other country has abandoned their history like China. As a result, there are no moral standards to regulate how people treat each other, their business partners, their friends and families. Relationships are ambiguous and we have no way of judging what makes a happy life. Confucius offers traditional values that can help rebuild our moral and social standards.'

His belief that western theories are responsible for China's social malaise and that China needs to embrace its past in order to confront the future is counter to many of his contemporaries who advocate following a western developmental model.

Professor Kang draws little hope from what the west has to offer politically and says recent pictures of New Orleans shatter any belief that western streets are paved with gold - and his views are winning him influential friends in government.

Already, proposals for schools to adopt courses in traditional Chinese culture have been given the green light by the Ministry of Education. Although not compulsory, schools can opt to teach the 30-class course and more than five million children now study Confucian texts and recite ancient poetry.

Making the comparison with religious classes in the west, Professor Kang enthuses about the value of teaching children about right and wrong. 'There are three ways to lead a happy and good life,' he says. 'You must promote justice and the rule of law. You must promote moral standards, and you must attain perfection.'

It was a call taken up at last week's birthday celebrations in Confucius' home town of Qufu , as scholars and officials lined up to praise his works. 'We hope people can understand the significance of his wisdom today,' Gu Yanpei, one of the organisers, was quoted as saying.

Coinciding with the end of the weeklong festivities, Yu Wenyi, a researcher at Peking University, said he was beginning work on a US$37,000 film about the sage, titled The Analects, after the compilation of Confucius' work that bears the same name.

Chain-smoking throughout the interview, Professor Kang has much grander plans for the old sage. Waving his cigarette around like a magician's wand, he conjures up images of not only the Communist Party adopting Confucianism as its official ideology, but also the United Nations.

Calling it the rise of Chinese cultural hegemony, his words may sound like those of a scholar trapped in his ivory tower, were it not that once again the government is already putting it into practice.

In the past few years calling for the building of a 'harmonious society' and asking officials to 'dedicate themselves to the interests of the public' - both ideals borrowed from Confucius - Chinese leaders are increasingly using such terminology in speeches and policy announcements.

Promoting notions of virtue, filial piety, integrity and righteousness, and placing the needs of the community and state before that of the individual, at its core Confucian teachings were about encouraging officials and rulers to put society's needs before their own.

Investing a sizeable US$10 billion, the government is also sponsoring a worldwide network of schools to promote Chinese culture and language. Called the Chinese Bridge programme, Professor Kang sees it as the first step to a wider global acceptance of his hero, and as China's gift to the international community.

Overlooking the contradiction in embracing a man they once condemned, Confucius' teachings offer a traditional Chinese alternative for a government lacking a guiding ideology. In addition, Confucius' notion of a self-sacrificing ruler - in today's parlance benevolent authoritarianism - also dovetails neatly with China as a one-party state, prompting suggestions that some in the government are attempting create a new form of political administration.

Possibly as a foretaste to this, one provincial government has announced plans to expand the mechanisms of internal party democracy. This winter, Sichuan township-level party secretaries will have to win the approval of their peers at the ballot box in a move designed to improve accountability. If successful and adopted on a national scale, say officials, it would mark the beginnings of a one-party democracy where positions within the Communist Party were won through nominally transparent and competitive elections.

A revival of Confucian values however, is not shared by all of China's intellectuals.

'I believe in absorbing traditional values with aspects of other civilisations, as you cannot completely copy a traditional belief system in the modern era,' says Hu Xingdou , a political scientist at the Beijing Institute of Technology. 'For example, Confucius places a priority on how people should behave, asking them to suppress desire and adhere to a high level of moral etiquette. This is unrealistic.' Instead, he advocates adherence to seemingly more tangible measures of accountability such as the rule of law and western-style democratic elections.

Like Professor Kang, disillusioned with the state of modern Chinese society, Professor Hu also suggests a system of education for children.

Titled a 'citizenship education' his system promotes western-leaning concepts of individual human rights and freedoms, democratic government and the rule of law. Professor Hu's textbooks have yet to receive official approval.

Professor Kang says the debate within government over whether or not to resurrect Confucius is over. What is being decided now is which pedestal he should occupy - part of the education system, a political ideology, or a national religion.