“The Chinese Way”

Kevin Carrico (who I believe is an occasional reader of this blog) has written an opinion piece for the Christian Science Monitor that poses a wonderful counter to the bizarre Daniel Bell-Jiang Qing op-ed op-ed on a “Confucian constitution” that set off a spirited debate in this thread. You remember: the one about a Confucian meritocracy system, in which leaders in at least one “house of authority” would need to be descendants of Confucius. (Every time I think of that I have to wonder if this was a parody, but it’s not).

Carrico counters:

Such ideas are part of a much larger discussion of “Chinese characteristics” in recent decades. Promoted by the state and state-friendly intellectuals, the notion of Chinese characteristics portrays the people of China as so unique, on account of their longstanding cultural traditions, as to be immune to the political and cultural change that has swept the world in recent decades. And while supposedly determining China’s sole proper path for handling any and all issues, these unique characteristics, according to their proponents, remain conveniently unable to be fully grasped by outsiders.

Whether applied domestically or internationally, this is a harmful line of thinking.

The primary political effect of these ideas is to deny the inevitable trend of democratization in recent decades – in Asia, Latin America, Europe, and Arab countries. Ironically, however, the notion of Chinese characteristics appeals to many of those whom it would deceive and ultimately disenfranchise. Internationally, it rationalizes authoritarianism under the guise of cultural sensitivity to a uniquely Chinese way. Domestically, it fulfills a desire for uniqueness and exceptionalism in order to distract citizens from the growing desire for basic political and human rights.

He eviscerates the Bell-Jiang nonsense with a biting wit:

The notion that China’s future must inevitably be found in its past, after all, is not particularly liberating, especially when one considers that this past represents a period prior to accountability in governance and recognition of human rights. Anyone who proposed a similar framework for the future of a western country, or even for such traditionally Confucian – but democratic – neighbors of China as South Korea, Japan, or Taiwan, would not be taken seriously.

Equally restrictive is the quirky proposal that the House of the Nation be populated by direct descendants of Confucius and other sages. One such male-line descendant is Kong Qingdong, a professor at Peking University and a contentious Chinese pop-culture figure. Besides his ancestry, which he never hesitates to cite, Prof. Kong is best known for his outspoken hatred of “traitorous” liberals, his fondness for the North Korean political model, and his recent characterization of the people of Hong Kong as “dogs” and worse. Clearly, cultural sensitivity is not a two-way street.

As “a PhD. candidate in sociocultural anthropology at Cornell University, researching neo-traditionalism, nationalism, and ethnic relations in contemporary China” Carrico has credentials. This opinion piece is a joy to read and a much needed antidote to the op-ed that I still can’t believe the New York Times allowed to grace its pages.

The bottom line is that “the Chinese way” is a fancy way to rationalize keeping China an authoritarian state. Whether that’s good or bad isn’t really the point. But let’s call it what it is.

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Richard Burger is the author of Behind the Red Door: Sex in China, an exploration of China's sexual revolution and its clash with traditional Chinese values.

The Discussion: 21 Comments

Yeah Richard, but, as you know, the US claims to be exceptional, therefore China must claim to be exceptional. It’s entirely logical.

And yes, I still can’t believe anyone could suggest that a system where people achieve genuine political power through being descended from a man who died more than 2,000 years ago would be ‘meritocratic’. The Jiang/Bell piece really was the most outrageous garbage and I’m glad that CSM has made up for carrying it in the first place by publishing this much-needed rejoinder.

September 10, 2012 @ 12:00 pm | Comment

Totally agree. A breath of fresh air.

September 10, 2012 @ 12:01 pm | Comment

Yeah. I still have no idea why that Jiang/Bell piece was published, or even written. The chances of something like that happening in today’s China is not high.

September 10, 2012 @ 12:08 pm | Comment

Can one validly claim to be a Confuscian descendent?

September 10, 2012 @ 12:23 pm | Comment

Aha, thanks to Google http://languagelog.ldc.upenn.edu/nll/?p=3755

September 10, 2012 @ 12:28 pm | Comment

@t_co – The answer lies in what seems to be the use of Confucianism as an elaborate semi-grown-up form of Dungeons & Dragons. It allows people to construct a world different to our own, one in which such systems might actually work. That they can actually collect a salary for doing so and get published is what amazes me.

September 10, 2012 @ 12:31 pm | Comment

Not calling it what it is is the Chinese characteristics. Say anything to get their ways, and save face is the ancient Chinese cultural tradition. Just read some of the state sponsored history text over the last couple of thousand years will tell you that.

September 10, 2012 @ 12:53 pm | Comment

The answer lies in what seems to be the use of Confucianism as an elaborate semi-grown-up form of Dungeons & Dragons. It allows people to construct a world different to our own, one in which such systems might actually work. That they can actually collect a salary for doing so and get published is what amazes me.

Well, their understanding of domestic policy is a bit farfetched, but calling it D&D is a little hyperbolic. Right now there is no chance for that system to work, since no interest group in China wins with that system (not even the elites at the top of the pecking order). But if things change drastically for the worse, I can see something like that coming into play.

September 10, 2012 @ 2:16 pm | Comment

I don’t think the term history should succeed state sponsored. Dynastic records were many things, but history, as understood in common Western parlance, they were not. They definitely fall outside primer definitions on the discipline written by the Teutonic vons (Ranke @ Humboldt), EH Carr and others.

For Mao, who spent a lot of sack time reading dynastic histories, they had bugger all to do with what took place and how, and everything to do with being cautionary tales on how to maintain power and shaft wannabee contenders for the top job.

And as we know, the Great Helmsman topped his class in the maintenance and shafting department.

Aside from the juvenile parading of his research level and institution….a vomitious American characteristic (PHd cand.),Carrico makes a very good point re South Korea. Past and present South Korea is in many ways a far more Confucian society than China, and yet has gestated a very feisty democracy in the past three decades.

And this was a society which legally accepted slavery until the 1890s.

The Chinese Way is the greatest weasel concept of the 20th century.

@Richard. You don’t need credential to make a valid point, and many who make valid points/claim etc usually have the good manners not ram their academic gonads down the throat of the reader.

September 10, 2012 @ 2:31 pm | Comment

Apol. A few missed plural.

September 10, 2012 @ 2:34 pm | Comment

@t_co – I stand by my D&D comparison. Neo-Confucianists of the Bell/Jiang ilk seem to be constructing a world in which people are expected to act in a fashion that is impossible to imagine unless you say “but they’re a Level 5 Confucian Battle-Scholar, so of course they’d do that”. It’s nice as make belief for nerds who spent their school days hiding in the library (rather than cool people like me who blog) but as a way of running a country it’s totally unworkable and will certainly never happen.

But who would benefit if people were to waste their time discussing this impossible system and others like it? That’s fairly obvious.

September 10, 2012 @ 6:36 pm | Comment

I can see that T_co isn’t too keen on D&D. From his views on Chinese regional ambitions I would say he is more a fan of Risk.

As I said in the last thread on Confucianism; it isn’t compatible with gender equality and as such won’t work in a modern society. Without gender inequality the whole Confucian system breaks down.

The only chance of Confucianism getting a look-in in modern China will be as a T-shirt. An example of this would be the Confucius institutes.

September 10, 2012 @ 7:36 pm | Comment

Richard linked to the previous debate already – and I explained there why I do believe that there is (or can be) a future for Confucianism in China. It’s a great topic for controversy, of course. Even Foarp takes King Tubby‘s ways when hearing ‘Confucianism’. But I don’t want to repeat myself.

September 10, 2012 @ 8:54 pm | Comment

KT: You don’t need credential to make a valid point, and many who make valid points/claim etc usually have the good manners not ram their academic gonads down the throat of the reader.

Telling the people the credentials of an author is not “cramming them down their throat.” For an op-ed I nearly always give at least a few words telling who the writer is, such as telling people Daniel Bell is a China historian, etc. It would have been irresponsible of the CSM to offer an op-ed without giving the credentials of the author. It is totally standard in journalism, and your remark is incomprehensible.

September 10, 2012 @ 11:55 pm | Comment

@Richard – I guess KT’s point is that PhD candidacy is not a credential, at least by Anglo-Australian standards.

September 11, 2012 @ 12:39 am | Comment

Maybe, but with any op-ed you always list the writer’s credentials, even if you feel they are inadequate. This is usually a short description of who the author is/what he does that goes at the bottom of the column. Absolutely standard, and being a PhD candidate is not irrelevant. Enough about that; it’s a distraction from the column’s content.

September 11, 2012 @ 12:54 am | Comment

King Tubby, hi, I certainly didn’t mean to cram anything down anyone’s throat. Op-eds have bylines providing a brief description of the author, and I’m currently not doing much of interest besides working on completing a dissertation. So, that’s my byline, for better or worse- feel free to disregard it.
I like the D&D comparison!

September 11, 2012 @ 1:21 am | Comment

I agree with Carrico, KT, the ‘Level 5 Confucian Battle-Scholar’ comment was a stroke of genius.

I don’t know where else we can go with this thread. Carrico takes the op-ed to pieces. I think that Confucianism as a political system belongs in the feudal past. To suggest it as otherwise would be like trying to get rid of parliament and bring back the ‘divine right of kings’ in England.

Richard, I sent you an email.

September 11, 2012 @ 2:39 am | Comment

@Xilim. You are attributing more to my comment (plus typos) than it warrants).

@Kevin. I couldn’t agree more with the content of your op ed as I noted.

@FOARP gets reasonably close to my objection, so I will can the vicious follow up on this form of credentialism I scribbled (in bile) in my head last night.

KT
Negroid blogger/member of the chatterati

September 11, 2012 @ 4:18 am | Comment

O/T. Just where is Xi Jinping? Sports injury, spending some private quality time with his millions? (Beijing gossip is that Bo squirreled away $1.3 billion.)

September 11, 2012 @ 4:37 am | Comment

I heard he got nailed by a Level 5 Confucian Battle-Scholar (Xi is only a level 3).

September 11, 2012 @ 4:44 am | Comment

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