In our exchange at Parlio, Daniel Bell has raised a question that has spurred me to a lengthy response, one that fits better here than at the bottom of the comments section there.
“What, if anything, did you learn that changed (or enriched) your normative political outlook -- i.e., something new and different compared to "Western-style liberal democracy" you learned in the US -- and that you think can and should be used as a standard to evaluate political progress and regress in China?... I'm a bit worried that you pick and choose from the Chinese tradition only those parts that fit your pre-existing normative political framework, but I hope to be proven wrong :)”
We’ll ignore the suggestion that I “pick and choose from the Chinese tradition,” which could easily be turned about here, and go right to the heart of the question.
I have learned many things from my study of ancient Chinese philosophy and contemporary Chinese politics. First, from the Confucian tradition, I have come to appreciate an understanding of personhood that diverges from the standard assumptions of liberalism. We might, after Henry Rosemont Jr., frame this as a distinction between a “rights-bearing individual” (liberalism) and a “role-bearing person;” or take Gish Jen’s formulation of an “interdependent self” (Confucianism) versus an “independent self.” In either case, Confucian personhood is dynamically constructed in constant interaction with others, it is never wholly autonomous and socially isolated. I draw out the implications of this notion of personhood for a variety of contemporary American social issues in my recent book.
I have also learned that this Confucian role-bearing person, this interdependent self, in order to make informed ethical choices about how to live a good life in relation to others requires a certain moral autonomy. Each person must, as Mencius says, look inside of him- or her-self to determine how possibly conflicting social obligations might best be prioritized. No external authority, and certainly no governmental authority, can tell a person how to be the best person he or she can be, especially when that person is faced with difficult ethical choices. At times, albeit rarely, one might even have to choose to disobey one’s parents in order to do the right thing, as legendary sage-king Shun did when he married without informing his parents. But persons must have a modicum of freedom to make decisions about what they believe is the right thing to do, as is suggested by Analects 9.26: 三軍可奪帥也，匹夫不可奪志也. – “"The commander of the forces of a large state may be carried off, but the will of even a common man cannot be taken from him."
What Chinese history and philosophy has also taught me is that the greatest danger to the moral autonomy necessary to live a good, Confucian life is the tyrannical abuse of highly centralized political power. I understand that moral autonomy is not the same as political autonomy but, especially in the context of modern state power (as in the PRC since 1949), it is clear that an individual’s moral autonomy can be inhumanely destroyed by repressive political power. The Maoist period of PRC history is a distressing demonstration of what happens when the state robs individuals of their moral autonomy.
During the Great Leap Famine, the terrible man- and Mao-made famine of 1958-1962, untold numbers of Chinese families were destroyed by the actions of the Chinese Communist Party. Political authorities created conditions so horrific that individuals were forced to act in ways they knew were morally repugnant. Many people resisted the state, and died, and in death retained their moral coherence. They chose not to live instead of living immorally. But their deaths – and at times those deaths were publicly inflicted and displayed – created a climate of fear and intimidation that forced others to act against their personal moral bearings. From a Confucian perspective, it was a holocaust, a deeply inhumane war on families.
The CCP worked hard to destroy Confucian morality. The Great Leap Famine was followed by the Cultural Revolution, and the structural and psychological power of the state narrowed the space of personal moral autonomy to the point of near non-existence. Confucianism survived this unrelenting attack through the care and work of scholars outside of China, people like Mou Zongsan, Qian Mu, Tang Junyi, and Tu Weiming.
Thus, what I have learned from contemporary Chinese politics is that the CCP tried very hard to destroy Confucianism, and the philosophy and way of life survived largely because it was cultivated in politically freer contexts outside of the PRC.
Perhaps apologists for PRC authoritarianism might want to argue that all that terrible Great Leap Famine and Cultural Revolution stuff are things of the past. The PRC is different now and Confucianism is back. Although there is truth in that assertion, there are also other truths: the Party still arrogates to itself unrestricted power which can, and is, used in ways that shrink the space of moral autonomy for many Chinese people. Thus Yu Ying-shi, argues: “…for a certain organization [the CCP] on the mainland to support Confucianism amounts to the kiss of death for Confucianism.” And that is because the lack of protections of individual rights, which provide a legal bulwark against the restriction of personal moral autonomy, renders the political environment of the PRC inhospitable to Confucian morality. Tu Weiming makes a similar point:
“Paradoxically, the Confucian personality ideals (the authentic person, the worthy, or the sage) can be realized more fully in liberal democratic society than in either a traditional imperial dictatorship or a modern authoritarian regime.”
So, the last lesson that I will mention here is this: I have learned from my study of Chinese philosophy and Chinese politics that the rhetorical construction of the “West” versus “China” denies a more complex historical reality of constant movement of ideas and cultural practices from place to place over time. After recounting several examples of 19th and early 20th century Chinese scholars thinking creatively about the intersections and cross-fertilizations of Confucian and “Western” ideas, Yu Ying-shi concludes: “…we can acknowledge that Confucian values are completely consistent with the universal values observed in the modern West, and Confucian values are most definitely not completely opposed to these western values.”
And that reminds me of another passage from The Analects, 12.5, one that suggests that Confucian morality is itself an expression of universal values:
“Si Ma Niu, full of anxiety, said, "Other men all have their brothers, I only have not." Zi Xia said to him, "There is the following saying which I have heard - 'Death and life have their determined appointment; riches and honors depend upon Heaven.' Let the superior man never fail reverentially to order his own conduct, and let him be respectful to others and observant of propriety - then all within the four seas will be his brothers. What has the superior man to do with being distressed because he has no brothers?"”
All men are brothers, all people are family.