Pragmatic Nationalism and Confucianism: The New Ideology of the CCP

By Nicholas J.S. Miller
2010, Vol. 2 No. 04 | pg. 1/6 |
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Confucianism was one of the dominant political philosophies of Imperial . Confucianism’s influence declined throughout the 19th century coinciding with the end of the Qing Dynasty in 1911. Some Chinese intellectuals, like Lu Xun, attacked Confucianism believing it to be one of the sources of China’s failure to modernize. However supporters, like Kang Yuwei, attempted to modernize Confucianism and use it a source of Chinese . Anti-Confucian fervor reached its zenith during the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s with the destruction of important Confucian sites, but it is now seeing a resurgence in contemporary China and its ideas have been selectively adopted within the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). After Deng Xiaoping began to open up the country in the late 1970s by adopting capitalist ideas, the CCP has sought to find another ideology that complements the Four Cardinal Values put forth by Deng Xiaoping to keep the people unified. Selective usage of Confucianism and nationalist sentiments are the methods the CCP appears to be using to foster a pragmatic nationalist sentiment and serve as the codifying ideology that will allow them to further secure the CCP's right to rule. The CCP leaders and other political elites will need to strengthen centralized authority if the CCP wishes to continue to curb the internal problems of corruption, ethnic discontent, and rising power in local and provincial governments.

Political elites have been working to adopt new ideals as an attempt to offset the damage done by corruption and crony now that the Party has moved from Maoist socialism. It was a logical choice for the Chinese political elites to look back to Confucian philosophy to keep the people unified under their rule because of its strong roots in Chinese history. Nationalist ideology will have to be careful managed and used by the Party as it could lead to the creation of secessionist movements within the country amongst ethnic minorities or further empower groups like the Falun Gong, which are perceived by the government as threats to their leadership.

The Qing Dynasty, which was governed by the Manchu ethnic group from 1644 to 1911, was faced with numerous challenges in the 19th century. The most devastating to the Qing government was the British Opium Wars that lasted through the 1840s and 1850s. The Treaty of Nanjing, after the first Opium War finished in 1843, fostered heavy war reparations on the Qing government and made the island of Hong Kong a crown colony to Great Britian.1 The Treaty of Tianjin further opened up Chinese ports to Western traders, military vessels, and missionaries and to pay two million taels of silver2. These treaties contributed to the internal rebellions within Qing Empire, the most notable being the Taiping Rebellion of the 1850s3 and the Boxer Rebellion in the 1880s and 1890s4.

Confucian scholars in the 19th century originally dismissed the ideas of Western modernization. The Chinese viewed their empire as the center of heaven, and all those outside were considered uncultured barbarians. It was only in the late 1800s that China acted, with great reluctance by the Confucian elite, to modernize and accept Westernization. There were still strong debates within the Chinese elites on whether Westernization would end the Chinese way of life.5

After the Qing Dynasty was dissolved in 1911, there were still those who desired to bring back the monarchy and use Confucian thought as their rationale for ruling the country.6 In 1913 Yuan Shikai desired a restoration of the monarchy, which only further cemented the people disfavor against Confucianism when he declared himself Emperor in 1915. Yuan was highly criticized for this maneuver, one of the more famous attacks from Zhang Shizahao, who published an article, Refuting the Emperor System, in the magazine The Tiger, which was a pro-Westernization publication, comparing Yuan Shikai to Louis Napoleon, who dissolved the French constitution in December 1851 and instituted authoritarian rule.7 He quickly stepped down after the outcry from the people. The military governor Zhang Xun attempted to restore the last Manchu Emperor to the throne in July 1917, but the Emperor abdicated after only two weeks of rule. 8

In 1915, the New Cultural Movement occurred in China. This was a collection of intellectuals who were working towards the goal of modernizing China by the promotion of variety of changes, which included the Romanization of the Chinese and the further adoption of Western political ideals. Yi Baishi, in 1916 for the New Youth magazine, published harsh criticisms of Confucian ideology. He believed Confucian philosophy was the reason for China’s fall centering on four points- first, Confucius was an advocate for the unlimited authority of rulers, and preferred the rule of man through virtue and morality over the rule of law; second, there was no encouragement of questioning amongst his disciples; this laid a foundation for an orthodox environment and stifled innovation and independent thinking; third, Confucius lacked firm opinions on issues, which left his writings open to misuse and interpretation- Yi Baishi, believed was how elites kept their control over Chinese ; and lastly, Confucius was more interested in being an official in the state rather than in the preventing autocrats and despots from controlling the political system.9

Chen Duxiu, one of the central leaders to the New Cultural Movement, contended that Confucianism addressed primarily moral issues and had little relevance in modern China.10 Chen was concerned that those who were still advocates for Confucianism would seek a return to the past and re-install the monarchy. Chen continued to call for a complete Westernization of China. During the May 4th Movement of 1919 some academics and students continued to attack Confucianism. The movement arose from the post-war Paris peace conference, in which, the German occupied province of Shangdong, the birthplace of Confucius, was given to the Japanese. Students protested and continued to blame Confucianism as a political philosophy that impeded individual freedom and the national strength of China. Many students and advocates of the May 4th Movement wanted to “smash Confucius’s shop” and turn to “Mr. Democracy” and “Mr. Science”. 11 Though there was dissent amongst the academics Liang Qichao, a prominent Chinese scholar, believed that China’s cultural values and Confucianism were not incompatible with Western conceptions of liberties and rights. He believed that liberty and rights were only a part of moral principles.12

During the Nationalist Government of the Kuomintang, Chiang Kai-Shek considered, The Three Principles of the People, written by Sun Yat-sen, the first President of the Republican China, to be the state ideology. Sun viewed Confucius as an advocate of , and posited that not China, but rather material civilization was behind in political ideas. Sun believed the West should learn from Chinese politics and political philosophy. Sun preferred the use of Confucian ideas of social harmony over the Western philosopher Karl Marx and his theory of class struggle.13

Mao’s China was committed to the removal of Confucian influence. Mao viewed Confucianism as the ideology of the exploitative class and its ideas of social harmony contradicted Marxist tenets. 14 Anti-Confucianism sentiment reached its peak during the Cultural Revolution, when the Red Guards raided and destroyed Confucius’s birthplace and burial ground.15

In 1995 the CCP leaders attended a conference celebrating the 2545th anniversary of Confucius’s birth. Li Ruihuan, who was the chairman of the National Political Consultancy Conference, praised Confucianism for giving the Chinese nation sustained prosperity and that its ideas would bring a stable and cohesive society.16 In 2005, President Hu Jintao launched the ‘harmonious rise’ foreign policy dialogue. This shift, and specifically the use of Confucian language, represented an important move and the Chinese intellectuals took note of it.

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