Sincere Move or Tool of Propaganda?
During China’s far-reaching history, Confucianism has gained and lost support from its country’s ruling powers. Sometimes, its guiding message, aimed at fostering harmony within humanity, was embraced as the ultimate answer to society’s abundance of problems and discontent. In the face of modernity, it was pegged as a restraint on political progress and destined to lead the country to certain failure if its teachings were not abandoned. Therefore, it would not be inaccurate to describe the ethical system’s relationship with its country of origin as one characterized by bipolar affinity. Depending on the circumstances, Confucianism has been in and out of political favor. Today, the centuries-old Chinese philosophy is finding itself welcomed back into government doctrine, despite the fact it was shunned only several decades ago during the Cultural Revolution. With the threat of China losing national identity due to the invasive effects of Western influences, is today’s revival of Confucianism simply a political move to substantiate the current government’s legitimacy? So, why does China’s current government view Confucianism in a positive light? What circumstances have led to the ethical system’s acceptance in the past? Has its promise of leading followers into a harmonious society proved to be merely a propaganda tool that dupes subjects into supporting a hierarchical social structure? If Confucianism were successfully applied to China’s governing practices, what effects would be noticeable in China’s foreign policy and human rights conduct?
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To answer these questions, one must first understand the origin of Confucianism and the circumstances of that time. The primary contributor to the ideals of Confucianism was Confucius himself; his actual Chinese name was Kong Qiu. He lived from 551 to 479 B.C.E. in a time when China was undergoing a state of chaos (Lopez Jr. 1999, 89).
Factions were vying for power and control which resulted in a profusion of warfare and suffering amongst the population. It was an age that history books have labeled the Warring States Period, which lasted from 463 until 222 B.C.E., and gave birth to the major political institutions that define China’s state system (Feng 2007, 17).
The emergence of the territorial state system was accompanied by the development of “the hundred schools of thought,” which includes the distinguished schools of Legalism and Confucianism (Ibid, 18).
It was an era that witnessed grand evolution of military warfare. Its further development heavily relied upon improvements in productive capabilities and exploitation of the general public (Ibid).
Suffering of the general population was a major consequence of the ruling families’ merciless will to achieve their objectives. The progression of military warfare was apparent in Ancient China’s new attitude towards the nature of war, the composition of military forces, and the conduct of battle (Ibid).
The philosophical schools that blossomed in the advent of violent chaos felt a responsibility to furnish humanity with a pathway to alternatives of harmonious coexistence and structured society. Therefore, Confucius developed an ethical system for civilized living in a conflict-plagued society (Pollard 2008, 1).
Confucius felt the way to a harmonious environment for humanity lay within the revival of ideas and institutions of a past golden age (Lopez Jr. 1999, 89).
Trying to get to the roots of the problems that infested society, Confucius focused on basic interpersonal relationships and responsibilities of individuals on every level of a hierarchical social structure. He determined that there existed “five great relationships.” The five fundamentally reciprocal relationships were kindness in the father and obedient devotion in the son, gentility in the eldest brother and humility and respect in the younger brother, righteous behavior in the husband and obedience in the wife, humane consideration in elders and deference in juniors, and benevolence in rulers and loyalty of their ministers and subjects (Pollard 2008, 1).
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Today, one can see how Confucianism’s mission can be overwhelmingly appealing to a media-subjected society, in which the world is constantly haunted by possible threats of nuclear warfare, terrorism, and genocide. But, why does one of the world’s most powerful governments find it particularly attractive, and feel the need to promote the ancient school of thought to its citizens and other parts of the world through newly established institutions?
It is obvious that periods of conflict and suffering create a desire for peace and harmony amongst affected populations. That much explains Confucianism’s widespread reception felt during the Han Dynasty, which lasted from 202 B.C.E. until 220 C.E. (Lopez Jr. 1999, 90).
The Han Dynasty followed closely on the heels of the Legalistic ideals of the Qin Dynasty. Qin leaders consolidated their grip on power by territorial expansion and ruled domestically through severely strict policies and brutal punishments (Feng 2007, 20).
As a result, people had grown tired of violence and yearned for peaceful alternatives to resolve conflict. During the Qin Dynasty, the Qin Emperor attempted to control intellectual heritage through an evil campaign, known as fen shu keng ru, that focused its efforts on burning all Confucian writings and burying all Confucian scholars alive (Ibid).
The goal of this campaign ultimately failed and led to the dissemination of Confucian ideology. Furthermore, the Qin Dynasty collapsed as a result of the high costs of expansion, conquest, and continued resistance from subjected populations (Ibid).
Today’s Confucian revival, however, is not the result of a previous period filled with conflict and oppression. In the past several decades, China has not been involved in any full-scale wars. Actually, China’s last officially recognized war was the 1979 Sino-Vietnamese War (Elleman 1996).
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Furthermore, as of 2007, China logged its fourth consecutive year of double-digit growth in GDP (USCBC 2007).
With increased wealth and a lack of recent warfare, it is hard to draw a parallel between present-day China and the epoch following the Warring States Period and the Qin Dynasty. Then, why would China look to Confucianism during a relative time of peace and prosperity?
Originally, Confucianism’s strong appeal was based on people’s general aspiration for peace, the country’s leaders favorable interest in a hierarchical ruling structure, and because it was a domestically focused ruling philosophy that encouraged Chinese expansion through cultural means rather than military force (Feng 2007, 20).
If not brought on by a period of turmoil and distress, then maybe the reasons lie within recent corruption and scandals that have gained global attention. In 1998, national attention was gained when a Beijing mayor was jailed on corruption charges (Sommerville 2006).
In 2000, scores of officials were involved with smuggling operations in Xiamen (Ibid).
Much of China’s corruption is found in infrastructure projects, real estate, government procurement, and financial services (Pei 2007).
The recent surge in reported incidences of scandals and corruption is harming the view of the government that China’s citizens hold. If the people cannot trust political leaders, then the government loses legitimacy in the public’s eyes. Therefore, it would be advantageous for the government to promote an ideology that centers on moral and just action. Today’s Confucian revival would be better explained as an attempt to sway officials onto a righteous path of action and to fight temptation. Confucius theorized that a humane government based on virtue, or ren, was one that possessed a just king who would be supported by the people, would be capable of avoiding violent actions, and would promote moral values among the citizenry (Feng 2007, 19).
Reeducating government officials about proper morals seems admirable, but in a time of invading Western culture, China seems to have more of a political goal in mind. After the 2008 Beijing Olympics, China’s concern with its global perception is quite evident. It is undeniable that China is determined to retain its cultural identity in the age of globalization. Thus, promoting two and a half millennium old teachings is a logical move in the attempts to stimulate national pride through cultural heritage. However, China’s self-regarding nationalism has often led to real dangers. China’s pursuit of Olympic gold medals exposes how athletes are selected at a very young age and subjected to undergo rigorous state-sponsored physical education, with little attention paid to other forms of learning (Bell 2008, 98).
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This is where one questions if Confucianism is being used as a propaganda tool.
The Chinese recent attitude towards physical competition conflicts slightly with the Confucian view. Before the 2008 Beijing Olympics, the goal to surpass the U.S. gold medal tally was set (Ibid, 99).
As a matter of fact, China achieved that goal in extraordinary fashion by attaining fifty-one gold medals compared to U.S.A.’s thirty-six medals (“Overall Medal..” 2008).
The contemporary Chinese view athletic competitions as struggles between political systems (Bell 2008, 99).
Traditional Confucianism believes that physical activity should connect to pursuit of non-militaristic virtues and that the test of success should be its contribution to intellectual and moral development rather than victory in sporting events (Ibid).
The attitude that the Chinese government holds about Confucianism seems to fluctuate depending on political interests motivated by global perception. The contradiction of views towards national sporting competitions could easily imply that the recent revival resembles a propaganda move rather than a sincere movement towards following a pathway of righteousness and harmony.
On the other hand, in the days leading up to the 2008 Olympics, China’s government spent a tremendous effort to promote “Olympic civility,” through a series of campaigns (Ibid, 101).
The effort that China’s leaders undertook to educate citizens about moral behavior and courteous conduct reflects a Confucian approach. For example, public announcements encouraged the public to line up rather than amass in an unorganized fashion (Ibid).
Likewise, they advocated that people spit less and that taxi drivers exercise a polite nature in customer interaction (Ibid).
The government went a step further in its recommendation that athletes and spectators display civility to those of countries with whom China has had historically bad relations, such as Japan (Ibid, 102).
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In light of these actions, it appears that the Chinese government has taken a sincere step towards following Confucian ideals.
Nevertheless, other aspects of China’s government must be analyzed to determine the sincerity of the current revival. A return to Confucian ideals would be apparent in China’s foreign policies. The true test lies within its political dealings with Taiwan. Taiwan was part of the Chinese territory back in the Qing Dynasty, but was taken by Japan when they defeated China in 1894-1895 (Feng 2007, 102).
After the anti-Japanese War, the Nationalist government took back the island and became a Nationalist place of refuge after suffering defeat from the Chinese Communist Party (Ibid, 103).
Ever since, CCP has stressed its intent to reunify Taiwan with the mainland, but has been impeded by U.S. military assistance to Taiwan (Ibid).
Under Confucian ideals, the use of force should not be employed until it is inevitable. For instance, excusable uses of force under Confucian pretext are to fight off invasion or to stop the strong from bullying the weak (Feng 2007, 26).
Similarly, Confucianism advocates that offensive campaigns only after launched for punitive purpose, deterrence and pacification instead of annihilation (Ibid, 27).
In the past, China has reiterated several times that it will use force only if Taiwan declares independence (Ibid, 29).
If Taiwan were seriously to motion towards independence, it would almost definitely result in China launching an offensive for punitive purposes in an attempt to maintain order. But, if China were to initiate an aggressive action for other political interests, then a lack of sincere Confucian beliefs would become unmistakable in China’s interaction with Taiwan.
In regards to Tibet, however, China holds a long, ugly past filled with actions that do not reflect Confucian ideology. China claims that its 1950-1951 invasion was justifiable because, historically, Tibet was a part of the motherland, and therefore, sovereignty over the region legitimately lies with the Chinese state (Vervoorn 2006, 19).
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This claim has failed to convince the international community, and widespread sentiment is expressed for the Tibetan people. Not only does an unprovoked offensive measure contradict Confucian ways, but allegations of mistreatment of political prisoners detained in Tibet do as well.
One account given by a released monk described savage beatings by the police, administered with fists, feet, sticks, and rifle butts, resulting in hearing loss, broken bones, and other unpleasant traumas (“Merciless…” 1990, 50).
He went on to proclaim the application of shocks with electric cattle prods, and the suspension of ropes, frequently resulting in the dislocation of shoulders (Ibid).
Obviously, these accounts characterize actions by a government unconcerned with virtuous behavior. The benevolent action of a ruler being reciprocated by the loyalty of his subjects is completely absent in this situation.
In the months leading up to the Olympics, feelings of oppression were expressed through bloody clashes between Tibetans and Chinese police. China was faced with the dilemma of how to deal with the growing resentment felt amongst Tibetans towards Chinese occupation under close scrutiny from the international community. Normally, China would not hesitate to crush major protests or jail disobedient monks, but leaders felt reluctant to use such heavy-handed tactics so close to the Olympics (Yardley 2008).
The different manner, in which China handles its domestic disputes when the rest of the world is watching as opposed to when it is not, raises the possibility that its inherited ethical system could be misused as a political tool aimed at deceiving people. In Confucian tradition, leaders are compelled to lead by example in order to create a harmonious society based on reciprocal relationships. If leaders are influenced by foreign perceptions rather than dutiful obligation, then the ideals of Confucianism are not being followed. Instead, an ambiguous government is simply struggling to gain acceptance from its people through fraudulent endeavors.
In addition to foreign policies and domestic affairs, a sincere move to reviving Confucian ideology in all aspects of China’s government would be promptly revealed in its human rights conduct. Human rights are defined as rights that ‘originate from the innate dignity of the human person’ (Vervoorn 2006, 73).
Article 2 of the Universal Declaration articulates the right to be free of discrimination based on distinctions such as race, color, sex, language, religion, property, birth, and status (Ibid).
The recent protests held by Tibetan monks were in response to China’s criticism of the Dalai Lama and imposed limits on their religious freedom (Macartney 2008).
The alleged infringement on religious freedom is in clear violation of the Universal Declaration’s definition of human rights, but is it violating Confucian definitions for human rights?
Based on the presumption that Confucianism is solely defined by authority and discipline, then China would be right to exercise force in the quelling of rebellious monks. As a matter of fact, Mencius elaborated in his works that the people’s welfare should be a prime concern of the ruler, but if the ruler disregards the people’s welfare, it is the duty of his ministers to remonstrate him and not the mistreated people (De Bary and Wei-ming 1998, 8).
In this sense, Confucianism argues that human rights are dependent on civility and due process (Ibid).
Either way, the lack of protest within President Hu Jintao’s cabinet of his discount for the Tibetan’s welfare exposes the failure to uphold their Confucian duty.
In regards to the suppression of religious freedom in Tibet, Chinese authorities have made it abundantly clear that controls over the Buddhist clergy are necessary in order to develop a more reliable sense of allegiance to the Chinese state amongst Tibetans (“Merciless…” 1990, 65).
This could be justifiable under Confucian context, in which the ruler exercises such measures in attempts to achieve order. However, on October 5, 1998, China signed the International Convention on Civil and Political Rights, which is one of three legal instruments of the Universal Declaration (“The Signing of…” 2000).
Thus, China’s voluntary submission to the United Declaration’s definitions of human rights should result in the nation’s recognition of the document’s authority and, therefore, command China’s discipline according to Confucian thought. In other words, China has not upheld its duty to Tibet or the United Declaration based on Confucian principles.
In conclusion, the recent revival of Confucianism in contemporary China appears to be a political ploy to provide legitimacy for the government’s actions rather than promote virtue and harmony. It is a blatant example of a country exploiting its humanities under the guise of promoting cultural identity. In the past, periods characterized by turmoil and unrest fostered the desire for Confucian ideology, but with increasing prosperity and no warfare in recent times, it is hard to see the need for its recent revival. At first glance, it can be explained as a response to encroaching aspects of Western culture, but under a closer examination of government action, it is evident that only politically beneficial aspects are being embraced and not the complete practice. For example, the case of 2008 Beijing Olympics provided conflicting ideas about physical competition. Likewise, after assessment of China’s relations with regions, such as Taiwan and Tibet, it seems that goals of national unification override benevolent behavior. Furthermore, the 1998 signing of the International Convention on Civil and Political Rights openly reveals China’s disregard for Confucianism’s message of fidelity to authority with its violation of Tibetan human rights. The recent revival of Confucianism is appropriately viewed as a propaganda tool set on exploiting citizens in exchange for political objectives under the pretense of exhibiting pride in cultural heritage.
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