Saturday, August 22, 2009

Transcript of My Oral Comments on a Paper by Daniel Bell at U of T March 7, 2009

With regard to Daniel Bell's paper, my general comment is that I love Daniel Bell, but I hate this paper. I see it essentially as inheriting the nineteenth century perspective by Westerners resident in China at the time, who proposed schemes to make things better for China in accordance with Chinese mores as they defined them--like Arthur Smith's The Chinese. There are a whole lot of these books, all of them out of print.

I don't buy the idea that there is a tendency towards political Confucianism in China. As was pointed out in Qing Miao's paper, the tendency is towards individualization and less focus on family and the state by young people today. I think that Daniel Bell's paper conflates two different things: first, ideologies that allow us to seek meaning in our life, like Confucianism, and secondly, the political institutions that ensure a good and just society. They really are not the same. I am a Christian. I have a lot of faith in Psalm 72, which says, “He shall serve the children of the needy and shall break into pieces the oppressor.” Very meaningful for me, but I don't suggest it be written into any constitutional document.

I do think that Dan has Confucianism on the mind. For example, on page two of his paper, he says the government has been promoting Confucianism via branches of the Confucius Institute. Actually, the Confucius Institutes are a function of the Ministry of Education, guojia hanban to promote the study of Chinese language and culture. The Germans have the Goethe Institute and the Spanish have the Cervantes Institute, so the fact that it is called the Confucius Institute does not mean that the Chinese government is trying to promote the study of Confucius. They are trying to promote the study of Chinese language, literature and culture in general. I think that one shouldn't draw too much out of this.

Can Confucianism offer a compelling alternative to Western liberalism? I really don't consider the two as being the same. I see Confucianism as a way of understanding the meaning of life, but I do not find anything in Confucianism that is relevant to contemporary politics. Really nothing, zero.

On page four, he says that, “I do not deny that such 'Western' values as social democracy, solidarity, human rights and the rule of law need to be adopted in China. They also need to be adapted in China, they need to be enriched and sometimes constrained by Confucian values.” I disagree that social democracy, solidarity, human rights and the rule of law should be constrained. While there might be some cultural spins on the rule of law, or on what social democracy is, or what solidarity is, enriching and constraining these Western values by Confucian values strikes me as a justification for authoritarianism.

Finally, with regard to his proposal for a meritocratic house of government with deputies selected by such mechanisms as free and fair competitive examinations that would have the task of securing the interests of foreigners, future generations, ancestors and minority groups typically neglected by democratically selected political decision makers. I am not sure about the motivation for this. The Canadian Senate was originally designed as a house of meritorious people to constrain the Canadian House of Commons, which was people-based and it hasn't worked out as we hoped. I think the concern about tyranny of the majority has problems. If one is concerned that the majority of Chinese who are not foreigners, future generations, ancestors or minority groups, would be unfairly treated in a democratic system, the normal way in most countries for addressing tyranny of majority in a democratic system is a charter of rights and freedoms, rather than relying on the rule of virtuous men.

I think that Left Confucianism is able to be defined by whatever one wants to ascribe to it because the Confucian tradition is a very varied and rich tradition that says many contradictory things. What is Confucianism? It's in the eyes of the interpreter. I studied the history of ancient Chinese thought at Fudan University and worked on Neo-Confucianism, which is not really Confucianism at all. There are many strains there, and when you have such a huge, diverse and rich cultural tradition, you can pull a lot of things out of it to justify your own agenda.

He does mention that Jiang Qing says that Marxism no longer grabs the people and Confucianism is most likely to do so. I think that there could be some justification for that because Marxism-Leninism Thought, Deng Xiaoping Theory and the Three Represents, which are encapsulated in the Chinese Constitution and the Constitution of the Party, are largely discredited and something else would be more appealing. Actually anything else would be more appealing. The question is, do we need another ideology to legitimate patriarchical authoritarian rule? If Marxism isn't working, why try Confucianism to justify a non-democratic society?

On the plus side, and your final point, which I do agree with because I love this stuff, you refer to the current crisis of confidence in the West that might lead Western intellectuals to urn to Confucianism for hope and inspiration. I am actually not expecting large numbers of Western intellectuals to turn to Confucianism for hope and inspiration, but I wish they would. That is my assessment of your paper and I am sure we can discuss it later.

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