The scandalous story of Gu Kailai, wife of disgraced Chongqing boss Bo Xilai, is back in the news, with the formal announcement of charges being filed against her for intentional murder a British man. I don't want to get swept up in the hoopla surrounding this rather sordid affair, but one aspect of it stands out for me: she is indirectly invoking Confucian principles in the first reports of her planned defense.
Here's a story from The Telegraph in London:
...the statement added that as a result of the row, Mrs Gu had begun to fear for her son's safety.
"Investigation results show that BoGu Kailai, one of the defendants, and her son surnamed Bo had conflicts with the British citizen Neil Heywood over economic interests," the short dispatch said.
"Worrying about Neil Heywood's threat to her son's personal security, Bogu Kailai along with Zhang Xiaojun, the other defendant, poisoned Neil Heywood to death," it added.
The idea that protecting a family member might be grounds for ignoring the law is time-honored in the Confucian tradition. The locus classicus of this concept is Analects 13.18:
Speaking to Confucius, the Duke of She said: "In my village there was a man called Body Upright. When his father stole a sheep, he testified against him."
"In my village," said Confucius, "to be upright was something else altogether. Fathers harbored sons, and sons harbored fathers - and between them, they were upright."
If the law threatens family solidarity, then the latter should be defended against the former.
This is a vexing concept for Confucianism, one that could be used to justify nepotism and corruption of various sorts. It stands in the way of a more universal application of the rule of law.
But it seems to me that Confucius did not really mean for this to protect murders. Notice in the example that the crime is stealing sheep. This might have been fairly serious, but it pales in comparison of homicide. If Gu Kailai participated in the murder of Neil Heywood, she is guilty of killing someone else's family member, robbing that other family of a loved one to whom they owed a certain filial duty. On Confucian grounds, we must take murder more seriously than sheep stealing.
Mencius takes up precisely this question (7A35). When asked what Shun, the legendary uber-filial sage-king, would have done if his father had been accused of murder, Mencius replies that Shun, who was then king of "all under heaven," would not have attempted to overrule the authority of the duly appointed justice minister, but he would have given up his kingdom and fled with his father:
"Casting all beneath heaven aside meant no more to Shun than casting aside an old sandal," said Mencius. "He would have stolen away with his father on his back, and gone to live beside the sea. He would have lived out his life happily there, forgetting about all beneath Heaven entirely."
Shun seems to be evading the law, not contradicting it, as Analects 13.18 suggests. We might imagine that if the authorities caught up with him and his nefarious dad, he would have yielded and allowed his father to be taken into custody, because he continued to recognize the legitimacy of the law. Or maybe not. Maybe Shun is pretty much the same as the men in Confucius's village, willing to subvert the law in the name of family.
In any event, Gu and her lawyers are likely invoking family ties - concern for her son's safety - to create a sense of virtue about her actions. She was desperate to protect her son, and had to go to extremes to do so....or, at least, that is what they want us to think. This might get some traction among some Chinese, and it might provide sufficient mitigation to keep her from the death penalty, but it will not be enough to find her not guilty. That has already been determined. Her case is a top political priority for the CCP leadership, and they would not let charges be publicized and legal procedures move forward without knowing precisely what the outcome would be ahead of time. She is facing very serious punishment.
And I think it's safe to say that Gu is no Shun....