Sage reflections

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 26 July, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 26 July, 2011, 12:00am


As the Chinese Communist Party celebrates its 90th anniversary, there has been much nostalgia about the good old revolutionary days. Movies about the founding of the party describe how a group of energetic and idealistic youths got together to start a movement that, despite all odds, transformed the nation and shocked the world. In the process, many sacrificed their lives for their beliefs.

Today, 1921 and 1949 are probably yester-years to be remembered only as history, as the post-revolution baby boomers and now their children take centre stage. Revolutionary slogans have long been replaced by the materialistic ethos of the market economy and consumerism. China has emerged from bankruptcy at the end of the Cultural Revolution to become the world's No 2 economic power three decades later. It is a nation to be reckoned with in global politics.

Many in the West tend to see China as an ideologically alien state that refuses to succumb to Western liberal and democratic values. Some have predicted the disintegration and collapse of this deviant state, while others dwell on the 'Chinese threat' to the world.

Despite its economic resurgence, China is still fraught with internal contradictions, disparities and instabilities. Corruption is widespread and there seems a loss of fundamental values in the nation's transition from dogmatic communism.

The recent new movement of singing 'red' songs and remembrance of the revolutionary past should not be casually discarded as just Maoist remnants making their way back to the stage. It reflects the disillusion of some in the population about the present market rules of the survival of the fittest. The party's 'red' anniversary celebrations ironically expose the decline of ideals and free thinking that nurtured the party's birth in the first place.

China is in desperate need of a cultural renaissance, all the more so because of its economic expansion. Critics may see the ruling party's attempts to restore Confucianism and resort to Confucian notions of harmony as just a new ploy to suppress dissent, but the more fundamental question is why it has to resort to China's cultural past to regain strength in governance and legitimacy.

China's Republican and Communist revolutions in the 20th century had served to demonstrate its determination to break away from the feudal past and to embrace modern foreign systems and ideologies.

The May Fourth movement of 1919, which groomed many of the early leaders of the party, saw Confucianism as responsible for a closed, conservative dynastic order. 'Down with Confucius' became a catching slogan to free China.

The past century witnessed an indigenous path of developmental navigation by China amid imperial encroachment, revolutionary twists, and then pragmatic restoration, in its painful and sometimes treacherous search for independence, modernity and identity.

Now, almost a century later, history seems to be coming full circle. Confucianism is being revisited and reinterpreted. In the West and particularly in East Asia, New Confucianism has become an established academic study to modernise Confucian philosophy and world views. An article in this paper last week asked 'Is Confucianism the answer?' Confucianism may not be the full answer to China's search for a national soul, but it would certainly provide much needed cultural reflections to a nation with growing pride in its economic might and international status, and yet suffering from spiritual and moral anxieties.

Reconnecting to China's great traditions including Confucian and other ancient teachings should not mean the rejection of Western values like democracy, liberty and human rights. Indeed, in the globalised world of the 21st century, there is no one dominant civilisation, but a conglomeration of values and cultures drawn from various civilisations and social systems. Neither Japan nor Korea have disposed of their cultural heritage to embrace Westerninstigated technological and economic modernisation.

In rediscovering traditions, it is necessary to go beyond conformist interpretations to have a critical and rational understanding of the richness of many of China's ancient great thinkers throughout the ages.

There is a distinction between conservative and progressive Confucianism, inasmuch as between Christian fundamentalism and liberalism. China should look both outward and inward to find its way forward.

Anthony Cheung Bing-leung is an executive councillor and founder of SynergyNet, a policy think tank