Friday, May 16, 2008

The Confucian State

Many commentators have expressed surprise at how well China has coped with her earthquake, dispatching aid, help and the Prime Minister Wen Jiabao. China, the story went, was a military/communist dictatorship akin to Burma's. It's taken two disasters, in Burma and China, to demonstrate the difference.

It's easy to see why the misunderstanding arose: under Mao and his extremist wife, and the Cultural Revolution, China was a brutal communist dictatorship. But starting in 1979 with Deng Xiaoping, China abandoned economic communism and seems to have abandoned social communism too. But they are clearly not a democracy, so how to define the Chinese state?

It's becoming increasingly clear that after flirting with western ideas in the 20th century (a corrupt version of democracy before WW2 and communism after), the Chinese have reverted back to the system of government that worked best for them for several millenia - the Confucian state.

Confucianism, which first developed in around 400 BC, is a system of government based on technocrats. Confucius was distrustful of aristocracy and inherited power, and instead was the first to come up with the idea of government by a permanent civil service, which was entered into by examination, and which wielded power while the Emperor remained a figurehead (hence our term "mandarin" for civil servants). You could be the son of a nobody and yet wield huge power if you were clever enough to pass the examinations to get into government. Confucian government was also deeply conservative, keeping detailed historic records so the government could search for precedents before enacting any law. "Documents, conduct, loyalty and faithfullness" were his four key rules of government. In addition he believed in the traditional Chinese reliance on clans and family ties.

And despite his conservatism, Confucius believed that although rebellion was wrong if a true king reigned, a government that provoked it and could not control it ought to be replaced, as it had proved itself illegitimate. Hence confucian governments paid great attention to the prospect of trouble brewing, as they did not want to make themselves illegitimate by messing up. (You could also say that the rebellion that led to Mao's government after WW2 was justified by ordinary non-ideological Chinese people at the time as being in accordance with their traditional Confucian values, as the previous government had failed to defend them from the Japanese and had hence made itself illegitimate).

And so we come to modern China. They have reverted to a Confucian system par excellence - a government of technocrats, very conservative, always worrying about potential uprisings (hence the move by the government in recent years to rapidly increase rural incomes to forestall unrest, and the related moves in Tibet to quell demonstrators) and very much concerned with "face" or conduct. And anyone who has done business in China can attest to the power of the clan system in controlling commerce. Some modern Chinese scholars have even gone so far as to propose the government introduces an upper chamber of deputies, Xianshiyuan, that is entered into by examination rather than election, which would complete their reversion to Confucianism. It's a complete contrast to the values of the Cultural Revolution, which imprisoned intellectuals, rather than revered them as in the Confucian system.

In this context, the speedy response of the Chinese government to the earthquake, including the presence in the area of the Prime Minister, is easily explained. According to Confucian thought, the government would become illegitimate if it failed to do it's duty and respond properly to the disaster, and would open itself to replacement. So of course they are doing everything they possibly can to demonstrate good government to the people in the affected regions.

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