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).
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.
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.