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What does the rise of China mean for western values?

Unthinkable: Chinese philosophy advocates virtue and social harmony – two things badly needed in public life

Confucius: Master of self-cultivation. Photograph: Getty Images/iStockphoto

The election of Donald J Trump has led to grim predictions about the fate of the “free world”. Moral authority has shifted away from the United States towards the East where China is seeking to extend its global influence.

The loss of confidence in parliamentary democracy is leading some political scientists to toy with more authoritarian modes of governance. Public debate in the West is so fractious it is tempting to romanticise about the alternative.

In his erudite and highly-readable book The Quest for a Moral Compass: A Global History of Ethics, Kenan Malik draws attention to the growing influence of China at a time when faith is declining not only democracy but that other cornerstones of western civilisation: Christianity. “The rise of China as a world power will inevitably unsettle the debate about morality,” Malik writes.

Could the West evolve along more eastern lines; and if so, what might it borrow from China? Dr Xiao Ouyang, Irish Research Council post-doctoral fellow at University College Cork, says it is difficult to answer this question directly “since there is no single Chinese political theory, but many different schools of thought”.

However, he suggests there are two ways in which Confucian political thought could influence our thinking. First, its emphasis on character-formation and virtue and, second, its attempt to achieve a “grand harmony” of seemingly irreconcilable views. He explains further, as this week’s “Unthinkable” guest.

Is there an inevitable conflict between Confucian thought and liberal democracy?

Xiao Ouyang: “Confucianism and democracy are not antithetic per se. Confucianism shares fundamental democratic values such as authority of the people, although it does reject certain individualistic liberal democratic values.

“Yes, the conflict is possible but not entirely unavoidable. The reason is simple, Confucianism, as a system of thought, is not fixed in stone but evolving like an organism.

“In the last two millennia, Confucianism has undergone continual self-updating and has been incorporated various components from rival schools such as Legalism, Daoism and Buddhism through its peculiar hermeneutic practices.

“In the last century the New Confucianism movement has interiorised a lot of western thought. Its future course is yet to be defined, and we in the West can play an active role in the new metamorphosis of Confucianism.

“It would be narcissistic to assume that the West has already found the perfect form of governance. If the Chinese philosophy has only one word to say, I guess it would be yi ‘change’, the name of the arguably most ancient Chinese philosophical text.

“Perhaps the result of a critical cultural synthesis will not result in unwanted conflict, but instead in a healthy hybrid or confluence, a possible upgrading for both China and the West.”

As I understand it, Confucius saw humans as selfish and irrational – unlike Mencius who saw humans as inherently good. How does this negative view of humanity influence Confucian political thought? For example, it seems to inform Confucian scholars like Jiang Qing who suggests people need elites to protect them from their worst selves.

“There is indeed certain disparity between Confucius and Mencius. But the proposition that Confucius, unlike Mencius, saw humans as selfish and irrational is textually ungrounded. In contrast to a negative view of humanity, Confucianism probably holds the brightest view of humanity.

“Confucian governance aims to harmonise conflicting interests and ultimately to transform the people through education until everyone lets their inborn luminous virtue shine forth and eventually come to rest in perfect goodness.

To understand Chinese philosophy one has to suspend the binary mode of thinking

“Jiang Qing’s argument is common in the Confucian school, which is often interpreted as a sort of political elitism or guardianship. But this is also misleading. In Confucianism, political elites, intellectual elites, and moral elites are united in the Confucian exemplar person junzi. For Confucians, public service is the necessary way to achieve complete self-realisation, and a determinate criterion for such an achievement is duty and commitment to the people.

“A true Confucian junzi is a role model who assists others to better themselves. Moral excellence is achieved, it is not pre-given or possessed, in fact everyone can achieve the Confucian exemplary personhood. Thus, there is no absolute demarcation between ‘elites’ and common people in Confucianism.”

In his book “When China Rules the World”, Martin Jacques writes: “With the rise of China, western universalism will cease to be universal... The emergence of China as a global power in effect relativises everything.” Do you agree?

“I don’t think the Chinese input will leads to robust relativism that ‘relativises everything’. Pluralism is not equal to relativism. Also, Martin Jacques doesn’t argues against universalism per se. He uses the term ‘universalism’ to mean Western-centrism.

“As Jacques points out, Western mentality is in fact highly parochial, believing in its own universalism, rectitude and eternal relevance. China and the West are not entrenched in irrevocable polarised positions.

“The rise of China will foster a self-reflection of the Western Enlightenment heritage. Ultimately, it leads to a convergence of civilisations on the basis of cross pollination. Neither the Chinese nor the westerner can cling to their past glories, or stop the course of history. The Chinese have been intensively exposed to western civilisation and adapted to changes since the beginning of the last century. In this sense, they are ahead of the West.”

Is Confucianism itself a relativist philosophy?

“No, Confucianism is universalist, but in a different way. The timeless, universal applications of objective principles are problematic in Confucianism.

“Universalism is very much an Enlightenment product, partly fuelled by the zeal from the great achievements in natural philosophy, even though modern science has already moved on to uncertainty and relativity. But to understand Confucianism or Chinese philosophy in general one has to suspend the binary mode of thinking, the over simplistic universalism-relativism dichotomy.

“It is better to think of Confucianism as ‘relationist’. Confucianism recognises context – an accessible reality that is meaningful only from an interior and spatiotemporally embedded perspective.

“Unlike relativism, relationism does not reject universality, but universality has to be embodied in a particular way within a particular spatiotemporal context.

“Yes, it can be seen as pragmatic as it values the actual consummate output in each concrete process of contextualisation. Confucian Dao - ‘the way toward …’, or ‘human on the way towards…’ - is universal in the sense of being universally realisable. There is a further leap from being universally realisable to the universal as such - the former presumes context while the latter is context-less.”

What can the West learn from Chinese political theory?

“The West can be informed – as well as contemporary China itself – by the classical Confucian political thought in at least two aspects: its emphasis on virtue and self-cultivation in political life, and its syncretic spirit of internalising rival principles and intellectual sources.

“Confucianism endeavours to encourage social mobility via education. But Confucian education is more than skill training. Ultimately, it aims at the cultivation of virtuous personhood.

“The political arena should be more than a stage where power struggle are performed. Political actors should be more than technocrats or meritocrats who offer consultation by means of their authoritative expertise, or populist performers who are ready to flatter anybody as long as they get their vote. In our world, being professional is distinct from being virtuous.

“In the Confucian agenda, morality assumes coherence between our professional and private lives. Confucian governance starts from self-cultivation and ends in a moral vision of datong or ‘the Grand Harmony’.

“Politics is the ability to envisage the ever-changing horizon. This is certainly true for both China and the West.”

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Question: How do you achieve a work-life balance?

Confucius replies: “A man who has energy to spare after studying should serve his state. A man who has energy after serving his state should study.”