Chinese Philosophy

Moral tales a far cry from seedy reality

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 31 January, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 31 January, 2010, 12:00am

It is no doubt sheer coincidence that the Confucius movie is being screened almost simultaneously with all-time box office record holder Avatar. But the apparent overwhelming popularity of the latter compared with the former probably cannot only be put down to Avatar's technical brilliance.

Avatar also contains a moral message, simplistic though it may be, about abuse of power and 'might is right' assumptions. In one context, it can be seen as a critique of imperialism, of colonisation, of the power of mining giants to destroy communities and, in another, of the dangers of humans regarding other creatures as inferior as they reach out beyond earth. In the Chinese context it has been seen as mirroring the land-grabbing by corrupt officials, now all too common in a society that has put wealth accumulation ahead of all other objectives.

Confucius would, of course, have been suitably appalled by this kind of official behaviour. The right to rule and to expect obedience carried with it obligations to act justly, unselfishly and in the interests of society. Whether this comes across in the new movie, I don't know. By most accounts, it is a competent but prosaic costume drama featuring battle and other scenes that are standard in historical epics.

What is clear, however, is the disconnect between Confucius the idealist philosopher, now being resurrected by the same Communist Party that once reviled him, and the reality of the Chinese state. This is not just seen in the sleazy behaviour of local officials; it goes to the very top, as the state uses its power to suppress news of wealth acquisition by the well connected. A very recent example was the blocking of internet searches for information on New Horizon Capital and its founder, Winston Wen Yunsong, son of premier Wen Jiabao . This private equity group is in the process of raising US$1 billion.

New Horizon is an entirely above-board venture by the young, US-educated Wen. But the leadership clearly fears that the public would draw conclusions about the relationship of political power to wealth accumulation. Similarly, last year, the government blocked internet references to some business deals involving a group headed by the son of President Hu Jintao .

Of course, such efforts at news suppression are not unique to China or to communist parties. Malaysia has been going after bloggers reporting on the many well substantiated misdeeds of the sultan of Johor and former king of Malaysia, who died last week. Both he and his son and heir are known to have killed people in fits of rage. Royal immunity from prosecution was subsequently abolished, at least in theory, but the politically well connected, royal or not, continue to enjoy it. Malaysian ministers, meanwhile, have escaped punishment for serious crimes including sex with under-age girls and large-scale money laundering. Royals, who are supposed to be guardians of Islam in their states, are known for their liking for alcohol, gambling and girls, while their subjects get jailed for such activities.

One does not need to go to the extremes of prurient interest in the minor failings of public figures, be they sportsmen or politicians, often seen in the West. And, in every society, well-placed figures may sometimes appear to be treated too leniently by the law.

Still, it is hard to see how, in the longer run, China can become a dynamic, property-owning society while the connections between wealth accumulation and political power are so great, while society as a whole has to be shielded from knowledge of this.

The party's history of creating instant billionaires goes back a decade or more and has cost the state, as shareholder, dearly in asset giveaways and loan forgiveness. As with Malaysia's creation of a class of instant billionaires through privatisations, the long-term impact is to undermine entrepreneurship and increase public cynicism towards the rulers. All very anti-Confucian.

Philip Bowring is a Hong Kong-based journalist and commentator