My Take

Legacy of distrust through the ages

PUBLISHED : Monday, 29 October, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 29 October, 2012, 1:41am

A China editor once remarked that it makes perfect sense for the Communist Party to go big on Confucianism. "When it comes to control, communism and Confucianism have a lot in common," he said. Confucianism, he added, was also much easier to swallow (for the governed) and to sell (for the rulers) these days because its proponents - and that includes the current state leaders - often use nicer-sounding words like harmony and trust, rather than "totalitarian control".

That conversation came to mind when a reader sent me the fascinating notes of a lecture delivered recently by George Cautherley of the Hong Kong Democratic Foundation at the Institute of Education. Cautherley argues that trust is mostly irrelevant to good government and that governments, instead of demanding trust from citizens, should simply focus on delivering the goods. In a democracy, distrust is even institutionalised, such as by limiting terms of office, imposing checks on powers and installing independent judges. It is assumed most officeholders are unworthy of their posts.

So what kind of government demands trust? Autocracy. Dictatorships are institutions of trust because blind obedience is demanded of their citizens. Paradoxically, they are also most distrustful of their own citizens.

I can't think of a more anti-Confucian position than Cautherley's. For Confucius, trust is the key to good society and governance. For a ruler, earning the trust of his people is essential. And like a son, a citizen must trust in the goodness of the ruler, unless proven otherwise. Only then can harmony reign within the person, family, society, state and the world.

Of course, that's the Confucian theory. The reality is very different. As has often been observed, Confucian societies such as China, Taiwan and Korea are actually low-trust societies. That's why guanxi is important in business; family-run businesses rarely hire outsiders as chiefs, and trust is replaced by distrust as relations move outside kinship towards strangers.

Through the centuries, far from being the father figures Confucius says, the rulers and mandarins have more often than not been viewed as untrustworthy and corrupt. Paradoxically, the lack of trust in our cultural DNA may be rather "democratic" in this respect.