Ever since his appointment as General Secretary of the CCP last fall, Xi Jinping has been playing up the notion of a "China Dream." In a number of speeches, most notably the one that ended the recent session of the National People's Congress, Xi has emphasized themes of improving the material lives of the citizens of the PRC and "rejuvenating the Chinese nation." To American ears the rhetoric is familiar: promises of better times to come, larded with windy exhalations of exceptionalism. All of this is wrapped in projections of greater military power:
"This dream can be said to be the dream of a strong nation. And for the military, it is a dream of a strong military..."
Indeed, the militaristic connotations of "China Dream" are developed in a recent book of precisely that title.
From a broader comparative and international perspective, none of this is particularly surprising or unusual. Rising economic powers generally work to assert greater political and military power in the world, and to turn domestic populations in that direction, appeals to nationalism and promises of wider prosperity are common.
What is notable, at least from the point of view of this blog, is how un-Confucian Xi's "China Dream" is.
First, it must be said that one aspect of the "China Dream" is consistent with Confucian principles, and that is the goal of creating "a comprehensively well-off society." This idea is an outgrowth the of the notion of xiaokang (小康) - which might be translated as "moderately well off," a watchword of the Hu-Wen administration. Xiaokang has Confucian overtones and implies a certain basic minimum standard of living that most people can enjoy. There is a hint of equality here, or, as a China Daily editorial put it some time ago: "No redistribution, no xiaokang". For Mencius, good governance was based upon the assurance that all people had sufficient resources to carry out their familial duties with requisite dignity. It seems that Xi is building upon that idea (which is not fully egalitarian but rather more ameliorative) by emphasizing a "comprehensively" xiaokang society. Confucians should be happy with such social policy.
But Xi's "China Dream" goes off the Confucian rails in its emphasis on nationalism and military power.
Confucianism is, in and of itself, not a nationalist discourse. It is a moral theory with universal aspirations, putatively transcending particular national and cultural boundaries. "Nationalism" itself is a modern concept, and Chinese nationalism, like all nationalisms, is a product of modernizing forces. "Confucianism" may be a cultural resource that nationalists draw upon to construct a distinct collective identity in the here and now, but for the vast majority of its multifaceted intellectual life, "Confucianism" was not nationalistic.
Moreover, attempts by Chinese nationalists to claim "Confucianism" as an exclusively Chinese cultural practice and tradition is not in keeping with the more open and transformative aspects of the philosophy. In theory, at least in the spirit of pre-Qin Confucian texts, one did not have to be "Chinese" to be "Confucian". "Foreigners" could become "Confucian." Mongolians and Manchurians and Hui and Vietnamese and Koreans and Japanese could all become "Confucian" because to do so was a matter of enacting a certain moral imperative; it did not require association with some other set of "national" characteristics.
To the contrary, Xi's "China Dream" is all about "rejuvinating the great Chinese nation." And that discourse obviously excludes Japanese, as well as other nationalities. Such exclusion makes no moral sense in Confcuian terms:
A sorrowful Szu-ma Niu said: "People all have brothers and I have none."
"I have heard," said Adept Hsia, "that life and death are matters of destiny, that wealth and renown are matters of Heaven. If the noble-minded are reverent and leave nothing amiss, if they are humble toward others and observe Ritual - then all within the four seas will be their brothers. So how can you grieve over having no brothers?" (Hinton, Analects, 12.5)
All men are brothers: no nationalism there.
And on the military question, we know that Confucius and Mencius were generally against war, and against policies that built up militaries in preparations for war. Of course, there is lots and lots of war in Chinese history, which once again demonstrates how so much of Chinese history and culture does not conform to Confucian morality. Mencius has more to say directly about war than does Confucius, and, while there are some exceptions (i.e. King Wu's "single act of wrath" 2.3), his general orientation is clear:
If you use force to gain the people's submission, it isn't a submission of the heart. It's only submission of the weak to the strong. But if you use Integrity to gain the people's submission, it's a submission of the sincere and delighted heart. (Hinton, 3.3).
Indeed, Mencius was disgusted at the war that surrounded him in his own time. I have always wondered about this line: "Mencius said: 'There are no just wars in The Spring and Autumn Annals." (Hinton, 14.2). All of those battles over territory and power and prestige were unjust, and thus unnecessary and immoral. Quite the contrary of the current PRC posturing in the East and South China Seas.
Ultimately, Xi's "China Dream" is simply a rather American-sounding ideological rationale for nationalistic military development. Not all that different from other Great Power ideologies, but not consistent with Confucianism.