The old Twitter feed lit up yesterday afternoon with links to Chris Buckley's story in the NYT: "China Takes Aim at Western Ideas." The lede:
Communist Party cadres have filled meeting halls around China to hear a somber, secretive warning issued by senior leaders. Power could escape their grip, they have been told, unless the party eradicates seven subversive currents coursing through Chinese society.
These seven perils were enumerated in a memo, referred to as Document No. 9, that bears the unmistakable imprimatur of Xi Jinping, China’s new top leader. The first was “Western constitutional democracy”; others included promoting “universal values” of human rights, Western-inspired notions of media independence and civic participation, ardently pro-market “neo-liberalism,” and “nihilist” criticisms of the party’s traumatic past.
This is a reassertion, apparently in more robust form, of the "seven don't mentions"
- 七不讲 - which were rolled out earlier this year. And it is accompanied by a continuing emphasis, expecialliy by General Secretary Xi Jinping, on Maoist-Marxist ideology as the foundation of PRC political-economy. This narrowing of the avenues for political expression raises some interesting questions about the possibiities for further "reform" in the PRC. But I want to take the conversation in a different direction: what does this revival of state-socialist ideological orthodoxy portend for those in China who are working to bring some sort of "Confucianism" to the political fore?
Remember: back in January, when the Southern Weekend incident occurred, an event that seems to have inspired the current repressive ideological backlash, a group of self-proclaime "Confucians" came forward to defend the ideal of constitutionalism. I was impressed then at their effort, and I blogged it: "Confucian Constsitutionalism in defense of Freedom of Expression." As I look back to that post now, however, it seems that the link to the key document is no longer operative - perhaps a victim of the unfolding crack-down (for the record it was entitled: 中国儒者就《南方周末》新年献辞事件告天下书. And, among other points, it stated:
National freedom to express every sort of opinion, including direct criticism of power-holders, is a political and constitutional principle that has always been inherent in the excellent political traditions of Chinese civilization.
A refreshingly straightforward defense of freedom of expression. And one that is in keeping with the political assumptions of Confucianism itself, which requires a sphere of individual moral autonomy to allow persons to determine how best to define and carry out their filial and family and social duties (for a fuller explication of this argument see Erica Brindley,"Moral Autonomy and Individual Sources of Authority in The Analects," pdf here).
But the constitutionalism debate has taken a distressing turn of late: the first of the seven ideological no-nos in Document number 9 is "Western constitutional democracy." Thus, the political position that the Confucians had staked out in January is now quite clearly out of bounds.
What will the Confucians do? If it is true that a certain realm of personal freedom, which would include freedoms of belief and expression, is necessary to make progress toward the moral goal of ren - 仁 - then it would seem rather obvious that Confucians will have to stand against the current ideological crackdown. But Confucians in China have, since long about the Han dynasty, generally not challenged state power in defense of their beliefs. Rather, they have attempted to work with and through power-holders to gain a political foundation for implementing their political philosophy. This strategy worked quite well for long stretches of imperial history. From the twentieth century onward, however: not so much.
It may be unfair, from my position safe from the repressive reach of the PRC state, to expect Chinese Confucians to take on what might be considerable political risk in standing up to the anti-Confucian ideological crack-down by the PRC, but the question nonetheless lingers: will they resist?
On the face of it, the most immediate problem facing the deepening of Confucianism in China is not "Western" liberalism but the expanding ideological power of the CCP. And, at some point, if they truly want to make Confucianism more relevant to the lives of more Chinese people, Chinese Confucians will have to take a public political stand against the current ideological tide.
Let's see what happens...