Professor Kang Xiaoguang, social policy adviser to former premier Zhu Rongji, believes that Chinese society has lost many of its moral strengths, but may regain them through application of traditional Confucian values.
He points to the spiralling crime rate, unemployment, corruption, an increasing wealth gap, and what he says is an absence of ethical values.
A principal proponent of the revival of Confucian philosophy, Kang believes that one way into the future is for China to rediscover its cultural past.
“Over the past 150 years China has abandoned its traditional values and has followed a process of Westernisation,” Kang said. “Confucius offers traditional values that can help rebuild our moral and social standards.”
Born in 551BCE, Confucius taught the virtues of good governance and the strengths derived from a moral society.
In “The Analects of Confucius”, a document compiled by his disciples, he was known to have said “if right principles prevailed through the empire, there would be no need for me to change its state”.
Kang Xiaoguang: Confucian values
Confucius also spoke of the need to lead by example.
Despite a ban on his works 200 hundreds years after his death, much of his philosophies dominated Chinese intellectual thinking until the early 20th century.
With China caught up in revolutionary fervour, Chinese scholars, including a young Mao Zedong, labelled Confucius a figurehead of “feudal backwardness”, and one of the reasons why China had fallen behind the developed world.
Today Confucius, or Master Kong as he is known in Chinese, is quickly regaining stature.
Overlooking the contradiction in embracing a man they once condemned – though an image of his face has yet to be placed alongside those of Party ideologues Marx and Lenin – Confucius’s teachings offer a traditional Chinese alternative for a government currently lacking a guiding ideology.
New political ideology?
In addition, Confucius’s notion of a self-sacrificing ruler – in today’s parlance, benevolent authoritarianism – also dovetails neatly with China as a one-party state, prompting suggestions that some in the government are trying to create a new form of political administration.
Since coming to power three years ago, the Hu Jintao leadership has often alluded to the Confucian precept of officials “dedicating themselves to the interests of the public”.
“He really was an outstanding figure. His works can teach children to better understand each other and their own behaviour”
Promoting notions of virtue, filial piety, integrity and righteousness, and placing needs of the community and state before that of the individual, Master Kong’s teachings are, at their core, about encouraging officials and rulers to put society’s needs before their own.
Possibly as a foretaste to this, one provincial government has announced plans to implement ballot box elections this winter for the position of township-level Party Secretaries in order to improve accountability.
Traditionally appointed by a secretive committee, Party Secretaries – the most senior government position at township level – will now be voted for by local Party members, as many as 2000 in the average township. There are six levels of government in China, village and township are the two lowest.
Lai Hairong, a researcher on township elections, said: “Though we cannot talk of legitimacy, because of elections like this it is hoped Communist Party Secretaries will become more responsive to the grassroots.”
If successful and adopted on a national scale, officials say, it would mark the beginning of a one-party democracy where positions within the Communist Party are won through nominally transparent and competitive elections.
But, a revival of Confucian values is not shared by all of China’s intellectuals.
Professor Hu Xingdou, a political scientist at the Beijing Institute of Technology, advocates adherence to more tangible measures of accountability such as the rule of law and Western-style democratic elections.
“Confucius places a priority on how people should behave, asking them to suppress desire and adhere to a high level of moral etiquette. This is unrealistic”
Professor Hu Xingdou,
“I believe in absorbing traditional values with aspects of other civilisations as you cannot completely copy a traditional belief system in the modern era,” he said.
“Confucius places a priority on how people should behave, asking them to suppress desire and adhere to a high level of moral etiquette. This is unrealistic.”
Disillusioned with the state of modern Chinese society, Hu has promoted a system of education for children. Entitled a “citizenship education” it promotes Western-leaning concepts of individual human rights and freedoms, democratic government and the rule of law.
Hu’s textbooks have yet to receive government approval.
School pilot projects
Kang says the debate within government over whether or not to resurrect Master Kong is already over. What is being decided now is which pedestal he should occupy – part of the education system, a political ideology, or a national religion.
Already, proposals for schools to adopt courses in traditional Chinese culture have been given the green light by the Ministry of Education. Though not compulsory, schools can opt to teach the 30-class course and over five million children now study Confucian texts and recite ancient poetry.
At the Fuxue Primary school in central Beijing, administrators have recently erected a museum to the country’s most famous educator.
Standing behind a stylized glass engraving of Confucius, the school’s director of teaching, Wang Xiaochun, extols the virtues that a Confucian education can instil in his 3000 young students.
Drawing attention to the wooden plaques on the wall which list the Confucian virtues that are being passed on to the next generation, Wang distils the sage’s message down to three characteristics: honesty, magnanimity and creating well-rounded individuals.
“He really was an outstanding figure,” he said. “His works can teach children to better understand each other and their own behaviour.”
Backed by a $10bn fund, the government is also sponsoring a worldwide network of schools to promote Chinese culture and language.
Called the Chinese Bridge programme, Kang sees it as the first step to a wider global acceptance of Confucian philosophy, and China’s gift to the world.