Thanks to Yaxue Cao on Twitter, I came upon some recent brief remarks by the eminent scholar Yu Ying-shih on the current revival of Confucianism in the PRC that had popped up on Weixin (wonder if it was taken down....). The title of the post is: 余英时：大陆提倡儒家是儒家的死亡之吻, which runs something like: "Yu Ying-shih: The Confucianism Promoted on the Mainland is Confucianism's Kiss of Death."
Yu is a long time critic of the CCP regime in the PRC. Thus, it is unsurprising that his comments express a certain skepticism regarding how Confucianism might be used there now. I share a good deal of that skepticism, but I would raise a question with one aspect of Yu's approach.
First, his critique, which is captured in this line: 中国历史上向来就有两个[儒家]，一个是被迫害的儒家，一个是迫害人的儒家, which translates as: "In Chinese history there have been two [types of] 'Confucianisms,' one is the Confucianism that has been persecuted, the other is the Confucianism that has persecuted people." The latter is what he refers to as "institutional Confucianism" - 制度性的儒家- the use of Confucian ideas by the state to rationalize authoritarian rule. He points out that this was a powerful trend throughout Chinese history, but that it is not, to his mind, "genuine Confucianism" (真正的儒家). A more genuine Confucianism must embrace a high degree of critical consciousness - 高度批判精神. Though in these very brief remarks he does not elaborate, I believe what he means here is a kind of moral autonomy, and a corresponding degree of freedom, to be able to make particular judgments about right action in very specific circumstances beyond the reach of the state. Current political conditions in the PRC constrain such autonomy and genuine Confucianism is obstructed there. Thus, for Confucianism to be revived in a context where its most genuine expression is impossible is the "kiss of death" - 死亡之吻 - for Confucianism.
I agree with analysis, as I have similarly argued here.
There is one aspect of Yu's discussion, however, that I find problematic. He goes on to argue that genuine Confucianism is compatible with democracy and human rights as they are understood in modern times, which again I agree with. But then he asserts that ancient China had significant expressions of democracy and human rights as universal values. He invokes, among others, Kang Youwei to argue that China of the "three dynasties" - Xia, Shang, and Zhou - was democratic: 所以康有为也就认为三代以上我们中国的制度是民主的...
I know what Yu is doing here. He is trying to resist the pro-authoritarian argument that China has never had a significant historical experience with democracy, that the very idea of democracy is a product of Western imperialism, and, therefore, the only culturally appropriate political system for China is some form of authoritarianism. This is a classic non sequitur, since democracy, as it is currently understood and practiced around the world, is very much a modern phenomenon and, while there are certain conceptual precursors, did not come into its own anywhere until the 19th and 20th centuries (remember: women got the right to vote nationally in the US only in 1920; and blacks were politically excluded for much longer). This sort of false argument is quite common, and Yu knows he is up against it: his work is banned in the PRC.
But I think Yu's effort in this regard in ineffective both historically and politically. Historically, it may be true that there are certain proto-democratic ideas in ancient China, most notably in Mencius. Be that as it may, there is lots and lots of Chinese history that pushes in the other direction. The imperial state was not democratic and "universal human rights," as they are contemporaneously understood, were not firmly rooted in the culture nor protected by political institutions. I don't think Yu can win the "but China was democratic back in the day" argument.
Furthermore, in political terms, reaching back to deep Chinese history will not overcome the authoritarian-nationalist position arrayed against Yu. Better to concede the historical point and focus on modernity.
China now is not what China was in imperial times. Too much has changed materially and socially and culturally. Everyone agrees on this. The CCP is a party of modernization; it's most horrible actions, such as the man-made Great Leap Famine, were attempts to accelerate Chinese modernization. Deng Xiaoping was a modernizer. And modernization creates a very different China, just as it creates a very different America (compared to, say, the America of 1850), a very different Japan, a very different India. And that creative destructive transformation does not stop. That's what modernity is.
As such, the "moral crisis" that China now faces, that seems to necessitate a reconnection with its Confucian past, is not a function of Western imperialism. It is the culmination of over 150 years of Chinese modernization. Yes, imperialism started that process (we will leave Max Weber out of this), but China has been rid of imperialism since at least 1949 and the CCP has been very much in control of how modernization has transpired there. The internal generation of calls for democracy and human rights are not a nefarious plot by "hostile foreign forces." Rather, they are predictable and inescapable elements of modernization (I am not arguing that modernization is a singular process that unfolds along the same course everywhere; rather, I hold to a complex and pluralistic understanding of modernization as here).
Long story short, for those who want to argue that Confucianism, genuinely and autonomously critical Confucianism, is compatible with Chinese modernity, do not need to argue against the "imposition of 'Western' values" canard that authoritarian apologists are so quick to invoke. Modernization is not simply "Westernization." The "West" was not the "West" before modernity; and the "West" is constantly transforming within modernity, influenced incessantly by the experience of modernity in the "East". China, too, is transforming, and the combination of economic and political and social and cultural practices and institutions that constitute Chinese modernity at any particular moment will obviously be different than the formations of, say, American modernity.
There is, therefore, no deep historical experience that might ultimately authorize genuine Confucianism in China. Confucianism was viciously struggled against by Mao and it now faces a wholly unique modernizing context. Whatever Confucianism might be in contemporary China, genuine or not, will not be what it was in the 19th century. And the main thing standing in the way of the emergence of genuine Confucianism in China, as Yu reminds us, is the continuing authoritarian power of the CCP. As long as that power remains unchanged, the prospects for a Confucianism of a high degree of critical consciousness in China are oppressive.