Nice to see the piece over at the WSJ by Liu Junning, "The Ancient Roots of Chinese Liberalism." Liu is a well known Chinese intellectual, and has worked hard since the 1980's to fashion a contemporary Chinese liberalism. He argued against "Asian Values" in the 1990s and for a more universal notion of human rights. Although his arguments quite clearly press against the theoretical underpinnings of party hegemony, he has not faced severe political repression, even though he signed Charter 08, because he has kept away from more public political organization. He likely has friends in high places, too.
In this WSJ piece, Liu makes brief reference to aspects of liberal-like thought in ancient Chinese sources:
Indeed, what we now call Western-style liberalism has featured in China's own culture for millennia. We first see it with philosopher Laozi, the founder of Taoism, in the sixth century B.C. Laozi articulated a political philosophy that has come to be known as wuwei, or inaction. "Rule a big country as you would fry a small fish," he said. That is, don't stir too much. "The more prohibitions there are, the poorer the people become," he wrote in his magnum opus, the "Daodejing."
For Mencius, a fourth-century B.C. philosopher and the most famous student of Confucius, a kingdom would be able to defend itself from outside attack if the king "runs a government benevolent to the people, sparing of punishments and fines, reducing taxes and levies. . . ." When asked by the King of Hui, "What virtue must there be to win the unification of the world?" Mencius replied, "It is the protection of the people."
I am sure that serious students of Chinese philosophy would take issue with the suggestion that something like a modern liberalism was in the minds, much less the actions, of ancient Chinese thinkers. Laozi and Mencius were not, in their own times, liberals, at least as we understand the term "liberal" now. At its most basic, liberalism asserts the significance of individual rights, and that conception individual rights was alien to ancient Chinese cultural and political contexts.
But that does not mean Liu is wrong. Although ancient thinkers were not themselves liberal in a modern sense, ancient thought can be made consistent with contemporary liberalism. Take Mencius. His emphasis on serving the people and his notion that "Heaven sees through the eyes of the people, and Heaven hears through the ears of the people" raises all sorts of questions. It could suggest that individual members of the group known as the "people" must have a certain autonomy, which then allows them to assess independently their quality of life and the efficacy of a ruler's policies. Moreover, it could further suggest that the preferences and opinions of the "people" must somehow be expressed and measured - and how will that take place? Long story short, a system of legal protections of individual rights and electoral participation would be consistent with the more general Mencian understanding of the political role of the "people." Thus, even if Mencius himself was not, strictly speaking, a liberal, his thought, when transposed into a modern context, can be compatible with - and actually may require - liberalism.
Liu's article is a welcome reminder of these possibilities. And I must say that I absolutely agree with him on this:
To say that the narrative of liberty vs. power is uniquely "Western" is to turn a blind eye to the struggles of those who have gone before us. Individual rights are not a Western development any more than paper and gunpowder are inventions that are uniquely Chinese. Is Marxism "German"? Is Buddhism "Indian"? Of course not. When ideas are born, they take flight into the world to be used, improved or discarded by all of humanity. Constraints on political power and the protection of individual rights belong to all.