'Confucius' notions of individual freedom and societal harmony are universal.'
Info to go
FOR MORE information on Taiwan, link to Prof J. Patrick Gunning's pages about the island. Prof Gunning discusses not only the policies which the Taiwanese government imposed, but has a useful history of the foundation of the Republic of China.
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In all the discussion about the hand-over of Hong Kong, the majority of commentators have only taken sides: whether the communist Chinese way is right or not. In this final instalment before July 1, 1997, CAP explores the only way for China to govern Hong Kong and itself: the principles of Confucius - the same ones that brought prosperity to Taiwan, South Korea, Singapore, and, to a lesser extent, Japan
A L L O W U S to get a common misconception out of the way: first, Confucianism is not a religion, but a philosophy. And it's very likely the only lasting solution for good government in China. Most readers not versed with the history of China may be asking at this point, 'How can a Chinese who lived 2,500 years ago have any relevance for today?'
The examples of Singapore - where Confucius is acknowledged as the one who has provided them with their economic and social policies, even by Senior Minister and former prime minister Lee Kuan Yew - and Taiwan serve to remind us how sometimes ancient philosophies still work to bring economic success and a peaceful society. Even more importantly, Confucianism is a philosophy about free wills, not about state control, which is compatible with the western notion that a person should determine his or her own destiny.
The ideas behind Confucianism
Confucius himself lived in the "war nation" era in China. Born in 551 B.C., he was a contemporary of Buddha but his ideas were quite different. While Buddha spoke of the after-life, Confucius was a down-to-earth visionary who tried to find the best way for a society to be run.
Faced with an unstable China run by feudal lords, Confucius tried to find a "hook" that everyone would understand. His solution: harmony. The concept was familiar with all Chinese, epitomized in the Ying and the Yang, that everything has its equal opposite for a natural balance. Taken to the societal level, he believed that societies and nations would be more stable if there were a two-way flow of duties: the people's duty to work for the development of the state would be balanced by the government's duty to care for the people and to provide for their welfare.
If the everyday people could see that the government cared, then they would in turn be more happy to be under that government. This is clearly lacking in some nations who are discontent with the way they are governed, and it can be usually traced to their anger with corruption in high places, or an irresponsible president or prime minister.
Then what about each person's free will? Doesn't this mean that every person has his place, with government and commoners? No, believed Confucius, introducing the second principle of morality. If everyone had morality, he reasoned, they would not need to be governed. The government would not need to regulate, impose fines or use the law to punish. State intervention would then be at a minimum, leading to efficient government.
For instance, Confucius believed formal laws were only used to oppress people by régimes, while moral principles depended on each person's free will. The use of penal law, reasoned Confucius, would lead to people avoiding punishments and lacking a sense of shame. Leadership with virtue and morality, practised and preached, would have the opposite outcome, leaving people get on with life in an orderly fashion and staying within what is accepted as moral and decent. Interestingly, the interpretations of morality and decency can change with the society and the era.
So anyone has the potential to be a leader, as long as that person has a strong sense of morality. He must win the confidence of his superior and his friends first.
Also central is the ability to refrain from committing immoral acts. Confucius considered if people left their desires uncontrolled, they are no better than animals. Civility is critical.
So here is a philosophy that promotes decent human relationships, efficient governments, freedom for the individual and morality. It's not even sexist - prejudice of any sort was not tolerated.
OK, but even communism works in theory
Here's the most interesting part about Confucianism: China has implemented it over the last 2,500 years and each time it has worked for long periods. The times when it fell down was when a corrupt emperor came on the scene and used laws to oppress people, for instance, during the time of the Mongols in the thirteenth century, and in 1585 during the Ming dynasty. Confucian policies during the Sung dynasty (the Marco Polo visits came during this time), when China was the undoubted global superpower with the world's highest standard of living and prosperity, meant that China was a peaceful nation, not a threat to any other state.
Most recently, variants of Confucianism appear in Singapore and Taiwan. While there are strict laws there, one can see they are seldom implemented. Singapore, for instance, follows Confucius' ideas of minimizing legal formality but having just a sitting judge on cases. Laws are not used to oppress people in the Asian tiger economies - and that is the most visible difference between them and the traditional common and civil law systems in the west. Where there is conflict, the Confucian solution is to negotiate, compromise, and find consensus and harmony. What can be found is a stronger community feeling in the Confucian society.
There are giant state-run enterprises, however, in Taiwan, but that is seen more as a function of the state looking after the people so they can get on with their work, whether that be in the private or public sector.
What is out of hand in some Asian economies, including Taiwan, is corruption - something that would not happen in the orderly Confucian society. Indeed, Singapore, a fairly corruption-free city-state, is the closest living example of Confucianism and a traditional Chinese society at work.
What about Singapore's control, say, of the internet? Surely Confucius advocated freedom of speech? That is true - he believed in free speech as long as it was articulated in a reasonable and civilized way. Ideally, Singaporeans would be able to see whatever material was on the 'net and make the choice between what is acceptable and what is not. Censorship of the internet is, we feel, not the way approved by Confucius. We do understand that Singapore feels that immoral literature on the 'net or in the press is harmful to her brand of national harmony, and has approached the censorship from that angle.
What is approved by Confucius is democracy which functions through participation and not through conflicting claims to rights. Education is also key - witness how Taiwanese families sent their children to learn high-tech skills in the 1950s, who later returned to build up that country's current position in technology and computing. It was an initiative supported by the government; in return, the students helped build up the nation.
Similar forces were at work with Hong Kong families. Although not funded by the state, at the least HK citizens could leave the colony to get education elsewhere - education which, ultimately, would be used to build up the technology and knowledge of the colony's professionals. In Hong Kong, Confucian philosophies were at the foundation of many of the leading Hong Kong Chinese-owned corporations. The freedom of speech in Hong Kong has been successful, too - the proliferation of media actually provides citizens with information with which they can make up their own minds. China, regrettably, sees the media as tools for manipulating the citizenry - allegedly the same thing happens in many western nations, although it is somewhat better hidden.
Why isn't it in place in mainland China?
Looking through Chinese history, formal laws and bureaucracy are indicative of régimes wanting to seize political control. Confucianism was banned in Communist China as the leaders believed it would prove harmful to them. Chairman Mao believed that the stability that Confucianism provided would be an impediment to his authority, according to legal writer Forte. This was, in fact, foolish on the part of the Politburo in Beijing: the reality is that Confucianism could have potentially made China easier to govern for the Chinese leaders. Today, China finds that her Marxism is not compatible with the late Deng Xioping's Open Door Policy of 1979, or its promise to keep Hong Kong unchanged after 1997.
Li Zehou of the Colorado College feels that Confucianism fills the void of China's damaged faith in Marxism. Prof Li believes it is the philosophy most compatible with Chinese culture.
If so, then the Chinese government should take heed of Prof Li's viewpoint. In fact, some Chinese government-sponsored scholars have set up conferences on Confucianism. Now, if the Beijing administration can see to getting to the next stage - acting on the conferences' findings and principles - then there is a chance of success for preserving the way of life in Hong Kong, but efficient government of China herself.
How about enterprises? The "family feeling" promoted in Asian businesses, from family-owned trading companies in Hong Kong to the largest Korean chaebols, is an example of Confucianism at work. If the company looks after the welfare of its team, then team members are going to be happier working for the good of the company. This family orientation also manifests itself in the lifetime employment policies. Because the company wanted to look after its staff's welfare (or had to, in the case of South Korea), it was the company's duty to find new things for staff to do once their present tasks became obsolete, e.g. through automation. This meant retraining in some cases, funded by the company, so that the staff could work in new industries. Or it meant the development of new industries - which is why Korean conglomerates have such diversified portfolios.
But Confucianism is not strictly for China alone, be it in business or government. As mentioned, its notions of individual freedom and societal harmony are universal. The concepts of light and dark in the Ying and the Yang are not exclusively Chinese, either. In fact, there is potential for Confucianism to be adopted around the world, because it takes into regard human nature, not just Chinese nature.
If that is Confucianism's wider goal, how will it be implemented? Importantly, it emphasizes education and morality. If we care about the wellbeing of the next generation, then it's not too late to start thinking about putting more community spirit into education programmes. And since Confucius emphasized trust - trusting your neighbour, your friend, your boss, and expecting that trust to be returned - it's about applying those values which we know are right, but meaning it. It's about refraining from doing things that'll offend, but instead, building up a decent reputation that will encourage good networking, business success, and, community spirit.