An article in The National a couple of days ago repeats the "look, China is trying to gain soft power through Confucius Institutes" story. How many times do we have to go through this? Little has changed in the past four (or more) years. I guess one novel aspect of this most recent "news" story is the odd denial given by a Hanban official:
Officials insist the Confucius Institutes are not about spreading soft power. Hu Zhiping, the deputy director general of Hanban, the government language organisation that runs the institutes, said the aims were to help foreigners learn Chinese, introduce Chinese culture to the wider world and, through this, to “promote mutual understanding and friendship”.
“You cannot find any trace of this soft power promotion,” he said at the organisation’s Beijing headquarters.
“We are just promoting language and cultural understanding.”
And if you believe that I have a bridge in Shanghai I can sell you...
But seriously, at this point, the PRC soft power strategy as manifested in Confucius Institutes is not news. What is needed is analysis. Are they actually working to increase PRC soft power? I doubt it. Language learning might have some effect but, as I've mentioned before, I doubt that Confucianism generally can serve the soft power interests of the PRC. These days I suspect that the Chinese response to the current North Korean crisis will have a much greater impact on PRC soft power than all the Confucius Institutes combined. If China is seen by South Korea and Japan as siding too closely with North Korea, the former's soft power will be seriously damaged in the region. It seems that the CCP leadership understands this and is beginning to press NK. But the bigger test will come when the UN Security Council takes up the issue. Soft power is shaped not just by amorphous notions of "culture" but more directly by the actions and policies of states.
But don't get me wrong. I continue to believe that Confucianism has something important to say to modern life everywhere. It just isn't well suited to the political maneuvering of the PRC or any other state.
And that assessment is a good deal less harsh than that rendered by Xiao Jiansheng in his book Chinese History Revisited. I noticed this book last year, when it was banned in the mainland. But, as often happens, the truth will out, and a piece about it appears in today's Asia Sentinel. I especially like his argument that over-centralization of political power has been an obstacle to social and cultural and economic development in China:
Chinese History Revisited, written in Chinese, has sold more than 11,000 copies – a large number for such a serious subject – many to mainlanders who have taken it home, where it is banned. The book challenges the conventional wisdom – supported by Emperors,
The opposite is true, argues Xiao Jiansheng. The golden ages of Chinese civilization were the Song dynasty (960-1269 AD) and the Spring & Autumn Period (770-476 BC), where a weak central government allowed a high degree of local autonomy and for civil, intellectual and commercial society to flourish. The centralized and violent imperial system introduced by Emperor Qin Shi Huang when he unified China in 221 BC and followed by most dynasties since, including the Communists, has been a curse for China, Xiao says. It has stifled civil rights, intellectual development and human diversity.
The lack of religious faith, especially Protestantism, has also been a great misfortune because it left China's rulers with no moral compass or restraint and exposed individuals to their greed and caprice, he charges.
Xiao also praises Protestantism's respect for individual life. "In the eyes of God, everyone is created equal and has rights that cannot be removed. This demands respect and protection for individual life, assets and freedom. The equality of people is the most precious equality."
But the Chinese character does not have this respect, he said. "According to Confucian thinking, the ruler can divide people into gentlemen and common people and those with power and authority can strictly control those without them. Society has a strict order of classes and an enormous bureaucracy. In the name of the nation, the rulers can exploit the rights and freedom of the people and the individual sacrifices himself for the state and the collective. For this purpose, the ruler can sacrifice the lives of countless ordinary people.
I think this is wrong. Xiao is criticizing the subordination of Confucianism to Legalism, the combination that became such a potent driver of Chinese statecraft. Certainly, from a perspective based on The Analects and Mencius (i.e. Confucianism before the Han dynasty combination with Legalism), it is certainly not the case that "...the ruler can divide people into gentlemen and common people..." That division is not a matter of the ruler's decree; rather it is a reflection of the innate capacities and ethical training of individuals themselves. A "gentleman" (junzi) is a "gentleman" not because the ruler says so, but because he has worked hard to learn and live Humanity.
In any event, Xiao has written an important book that needs to be take seriously. And the confusion about Confucianism is just another example of why that great philosophical tradition will likely not serve as a source of PRC soft power: if we disagree on fundamental definitions of what Confucianism is, then how can it function in a politically persuasive and significant manner?