REG LITTLE: Confucian thought: pervasive, unstoppable but largely invisible

May 31, 2019


‘China is taking over the world’ is a cry not uncommonly heard these days. Reasons expressed for this ‘takeover’ are often Chinese wealth and the many Chinese spreading their influence across the globe, and the uncertainty of the US and Europe’s futures. While these are reasons on one level, they fail to capture the fact that thought cultures of the Chinese and the West are fundamentally different, and this is driving the shift in global dynamics.

The difference between thought cultures may seem obvious, but it is perhaps because of such obviousness that few appear to have reflected deeply on its implications. Defining the difference takes one into areas often unfamiliar to Western thought. For instance, Chinese Communist Party leaders have actively promoted traditional Chinese values, such as harmony, benevolence and righteousness, as a counterbalance to the influence of Western liberal and individualist ideas. Additionally, most Western scholars only recognise two political systems – democracy and autocracy, and use two words “Communist China” with sometimes a third, “autocratic”, to assert a knowledge and judgement of all that needs to be known about China. Perhaps “Confucianism” offers a better guide to the ideals underpinning Chinese reforms than “Communist” or “autocratic”. Remember that the founders of many of the most robust modern Asian states – South Korea’s Park Chung-hee, Taiwan’s Chiang Kai-shek, and Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew – were Confucian.

A case can be made that China’s major Communist leaders, including Mao, were products of a classical education. To this point, it has all but become common knowledge that Xi Jinping regularly quotes Confucius and other ancient sages. He emphasises the teachings of sacrifice, obedience and order, and promotes the idea that the Party is the custodian of a 5,000-year-old civilisation. In fact, Xi has made reading the classics of Confucius and other thinkers a requirement for Party leaders. Application of learnings from the Chinese classics is not reserved for the Party elite, rather its teachings are targeted to all of society. For instance “The Great Learning” section from the Classic of Rituals positions that only after individuals and the family acting rightly, can states be well governed and society perfected.

An example of a Confucian teaching that is commonly quoted is that the accumulation of wealth, whether at the personal or societal level, should always be subordinate to the pursuit of moral values. Analect 4.16 says that the petty person is conversant with profit, while the noble person is conversant with righteousness. Analect 4.12 says that one motivated by profit will end up producing much resentment. Some may question the relevance or applicability of these principles in modern China. The Chinese targeted in Xi’s anti-corruption campaign should have come to realise they live in a country that follows the teachings of Confucius rather than those of Adam Smith.

Western strategies, such as those derived from Adam Smith, guide its people to focus on financial outcomes, which in turn leaves them vulnerable to unexpected consequences. For instance, a well-known criticism of a free market economy is that it does not account for externalities. While an individual or organisation receives positive gains, negative side effects is borne by the society at large.

Those reading this article are familiar with Western economic superiority for the past several centuries, and may assume that this is the norm and will continue, unless they are well read in history. China is one of the oldest continuous civilisations, with many of its dynasties contributing substantially to global development over the past two millennia. It must not be forgotten that China’s economy led its European counterparts at the start of the Renaissance, and that at the start of the 15th century China already had paper, the compass, movable type print, and gun powder. It is historically inaccurate to consider Western economic superiority as a foregone conclusion, either in the past or into the future. It is dangerous for the West not to anticipate a major change of leadership in many critical areas, such as technology, innovation, and economic expansion.

The West now has a major problem of overcoming its hubris, its sense of superiority and recognising that it is now competing with China on many fronts, and sometimes from a disadvantaged position. It is difficult to tell which is the bigger challenge: the superiority of Chinese thought, or the challenges facing Western thought in recognising that reality.

Reg Little was an Australian diplomat for 25 years, receiving 18 months Japanese and 15 months Chinese full time language training and serving as Deputy or Head of Mission in five posts. He was elected a Vice President of the International Confucian Association in 2009, at the time the only one not of ethnic Asian origin.

Reg Little died in February. This  final article was written with the cooperation of his daughter Jade Little.

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