Monday, May 16, 2011

The Last Confucian Empire

Since 200 BC, the Confucian philosophy had been adopted by the Chinese political system as the moral foundation of it governance. It was integrated so deeply into every aspects of the Chinese culture, that until the most recent century it was impossible to separate the Chinse culture from the Confucian teachings, in much the same way as the western cultures from Christianity. “The Great Teacher” was truly the un-crowned emperor.

The Confucian moral foundation was build on the five principle relationships: emperor and his subjects, father and children, husband and wives, older brother and younger brothers, teacher and students. In these relationships absolute obedience is required. For example, children should obey their father, wives should obey their husband, and everyone obeys the emperor. Life’s sole purpose is to fulfill the expectations of these roles. The five relationships are also omnipotent, in that they are the only things in this universe that matter. Confucius said: “I don’t know about life and why should I care about after-death?”. There was no interests in where we came from, where we are going, or anything that’s non-human. Everything in the universe exists to serve the humans, and as long as we maintain harmonious relationships amongst ourselves, the universe will conspire to serve us. This is contrary to the Greek philosophies which seek the meaning of life by trying to understand the truth in all realms, including those we do not understand yet. There is no such thing as seeking truth for its own sake. This ignorant altitude had not only stalled China’s progress for centuries, but also contributed to the destruction of its environments and habitats.

When China first began its modernization efforts in 1850, both the government and the society initially thought they could simply adapt the modern technology without changing its values. There was no urge to “derive its power from the consent of the governed”, for example. This ‘mal-adaptation’ had lead to such disasters, that by 1930, the effort to defend Confucian culture had been abandoned and replaced by culture reforms that still continued to this day.

Why had the Confucian values lasted for so long? To answer this question, we need to trace its root to back where it all began. When agriculture was invented 10,000 years ago, there were many arable land and few people, therefore the early farmers were highly mobile and retained their paleolithic values and flat hierarchies. In early Chinese history, there were many records about clans migrated away from despotic rulers, and one of Confucian’s most admired emperors was Yu, who was basically a hydraulic expert that developed arable lands in order to attract subjects. At around 1000 BC, Chinese population had saturated the available lands and migrations were no longer possible. This created the conditions for the rulers to become tyrants. Facing the Malthusian challenges, Confucianism was the right idea at the right time for the right people, namely the rulers. Its main design principle was stability, not enlightenment. It gave the rulers the mandate to govern, with no need for the blessing from higher authorities like God, and with few guarantees for the people. For over 2000 years, the Confucian model mostly worked, except for the periodic collapses of corrupt regimes due to the lack of accountability. As China moved away from the agriculture and into the industrial age, Confucianism and its Neolithic values simply became irrelevant.

The regime in China today is really the last incarnation of the Confucian empire. Absent of a living emperor, the ‘elite’ bureaucrats govern the people not by their consent, but by their self-imposed mandate. However, the empire had been doomed since the end of the neolithic age, and subsequent attempts to sustain it only drove more Chinese away from the country, if not from the culture and language altogether. In the modern world where each new generation becomes more enlightened, the static view of Confucianism has relegates itself to a footnote in history. The Last Confucian Empire will follow too.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

The Pursuit of Chinese Happiness

You have to expect things of yourself before you can do them”

- Michael Jordan

According to Chinese historian Te-Kong Tong, the Chinese modernization movement began after the Opium War in 1842 and culminated in the 1911 revolution that established the Republic of China, the first democracy in Asia. It was later replaced in 1949 by the communist People’s Republic of China, the Chinese government we know today.

Parallel to the political movements, a series of culture reforms also took place - The reforms included the May Fourth Movement in 1919 , the Four Modernizations movement in 1963, the economic reform in 1978, the Fifth modernization (democracy) in 1978, and the Tiananmen Square Protests in 1989.

According to Tong, these political and social movements are the continuation of the modernization effort that began in 1842. The main driver is simple: Chinese people no longer wish to live in their traditional ways. The 1919 May Fourth Movement called for “total westernization” (later changed to “total modernization”) and rejected every aspect of traditional Chinese customs and values. The movement had a spectacular success that Chinese people in the 21th century today would certainly be considered “westerners” by the 19th century standards - Chinese men no longer practice polygamy, Chinese women no longer bound their feet or accept arranged marriages and there are few ancestor-worships. There is now nothing truly “Chinese” about modern Chinese way of living, except the food culture and and language.

Unlike the other aspects of the Chinese modernization, the political modernizations was comprised of a series of failures. The 1911 democracy degenerated into warlord-ism. The 1949 socialist government brought three decades of disasters that killed more than 70 million people (Great Leap Forward 1958-1961, Culture Revolution 1966-1976) . In Tong’s view, the 1911 democrats and the 1949 socialists were doomed to fail because it was impossible to build a modern government out of the 19th century Chinese men. Most of the founding fathers of the 1911 republic were polygamists. The first democratically elected president of China in 1912 declared himself the emperor 3 years later. Most of the 1911 and 1949 founders were either assassinated or had ordered the assassination of others. Tong believed the failure in the political reforms mean that the culture transformation is still incomplete, and culture transformations could take a long time. For example, Japan’s modernization efforts took almost 100 years (it began in 1853 when Perry sailed into Tokyo Bay and ended in 1945 when MacArthur built a new democracy). European modernization took a few centuries, from the Renaissance period in 14th century to the modern parliamentary system beginning in the 18th century. Tong speculated that China’s modernization movement would take 200 years. As the movement started around 1840, according to Tong it should culminate in 2040 when China become truly democratic.

Then is the Chinese modernization on track? Since the 1990s, the Chinese government has been following the Singapore model - in exchange for economic progress, people have come to accept living under an authoritarian regime. Two decades of spectacular economic growth has raised 300 million Chinese to the middle class. Yet every coin has two sides. The economic boom has belied the rampant corruptions and the drastic inequalities. In spite of the successful democratic transformation in Taiwan and the more limited one in Hong Kong, Chinese people do not fervently pursue democracy. Why is this so?

In the hindsight, the Chinese modernization movement that began in 1850 had never answered a critical question but rushed to its conclusions, and the omission of critical reflection has been the root of all its problems every since. The critical question is: What does it mean to be (modern) Chinese?

The U.S. Declaration of Independence in 1776 first defined what being an American means: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal,…with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”. Only after the definition did the Declaration proceed to lay out its expectations of government, that it should “ these rights, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.”. The Declaration of Independence was drafted in 1776, followed by the Constitution in 1787. In other words, Americans first decided what they wanted to be like before they decided what their government should be like.

By the time China’s 1911 revolution took place, those founding fathers must have been aware of the 1776 Declaration in the U.S. They neglected the definition process and only focused on nation building because most of them clung to Chinese traditions and wanted to keep “Chinese learning as the essence, western learning as a utility” (中学为体, 西学为用). The slogan of the 1911 revolution was “Get rid of the Manchus, establish China, build a people’s republic, and equally distribute land properties”. The 1949 revolution slogan was “The Chinese people have stood up!”. But how do we define Chinese people? Adding to the confusions, the word “rights(权利)” and “power(权力)” have the same pronunciation in the Chinese language.The China Constitution stated that “All powers belong to the people (一切权力属于人民)” but made no mention about individual rights(权利). Mao himself was famous for the confusion about “rights” and “power” in his statement “... no such thing as God-given power (read: rights), since power can only be given by the people”.

150 years into the modernization movement, now it’s still not too late for Chinese people to answer the question about their identity. Today’s China is no longer hindered by foreign aggressions or poverty. It has the biggest middle class in Asia, if not in the world. Nothing stands between Chinese people and who they want to be. The only question is: do they know what it means to be Chinese? The answers to this question will hold the key to China’s final (and hopefully, peaceful) transformation to democracy.