Warp, Weft, and Way

Chinese and Comparative Philosophy 中國哲學與比較哲學

The People in Chinese Political Thought

Many readers of this blog have been following the recent demonstrations in Hong Kong with interest, and several days ago Kai Marchal posted some insightful remarks about demonstrators’ motives and inspirations and their relation to Confucianism. Kai specifically noted the absence of explicitly Confucian political ideals from the demonstrators’ public rhetoric.

The following is the text of a short talk I gave at a public gathering organized by HKU students on the street in Admiralty next to Hong Kong government headquarters on October 1, China’s National Day.

 

The People in Chinese Political Thought

Chris Fraser

October 1, 2014

Admiralty, Hong Kong

 

Good afternoon. I speak as a professor in the Department of Philosophy at HKU and as a permanent resident of Hong Kong. Hong Kong is my home.

Many of us at HKU are deeply proud of the actions of Hong Kong’s students this week. They have peacefully expressed their political views on issues of profound importance while observing the principles of nonviolent civil disobedience.

This week’s protest is now famous all over the world for the demonstrators’ civility and considerateness. Our young people have set a wonderful example for the entire world.

We should also thank our police for their work the past three days. The violence on Sunday was deplorable. But the conduct of the police since then has been exemplary.

Today is China’s National Day. Let’s celebrate it as participants in the continuing tradition of China’s great civilisation. We are Hong Kong people, but we are also part of China, and we are proud to carry on both our wonderful regional traditions and our broader national ones.

All around us this week, we see banners and hear speeches presenting important, vital ideals from modern, international political discourse. Universal suffrage is one of these. So is open nomination of candidates by the public.

Some people may suggest that these are “Western” ideals, but let me propose that they are not specifically “Western” notions. They are “modern” ones, especially suited to the social and political conditions of the modern world. That is one reason why they appeal to people from all over the world, not only those from Western countries.

People from other societies, long ago, may not have taken these values to be the best way to govern political society. But we do, today, in our society, and for good reasons.

So when we are contrasting Chinese traditions with the values and methods shared in many developed liberal democracies today, often the most informative contrast is not “Chinese versus Western.” It is “ancient versus modern.” Just as ancient or traditional Chinese political values or methods may sometimes contrast with today’s, in many cases Western values and methods from earlier times do too.

Still, ancient political values and processes remain relevant. They help us to see where our values come from, and they can remind us of what our values really are. We can learn from them.

This is a week in which the people of Hong Kong — especially the young people — have taken dramatic steps to make their voices heard, out of deep frustration with leaders and a political system that they believe has simply not been listening to them.

In honour of National Day, let me invite you to consider three ideas from traditional Chinese political philosophy about the role of the people in the political process. These ideas are distinct from modern political ideals. They are still far from our ideal of democracy, in which leaders are chosen by the people, from among themselves, to lead on their behalf. But you can see ways in which they are continuous with and support our values today. They help to place this week’s events in a historical and cultural context.

And you can ask yourself whether our leadership meets the standards of ancient Chinese political thinkers, let alone our standards today.

Here is the first idea, from Mengzi 孟子.

Some of you are familiar with Mengzi’s ideal of the leader “caring for the people” 保民 and practicing “benevolent government” 仁政. The leader must take responsibility for the people’s welfare. For Mengzi, the people are “the highest” (民為貴) and the leader’s mandate lies partly in their support.

How do we know how well a leader is fulfilling his responsibility and maintaining his mandate? For Mengzi, the people do not choose their leaders or run their own government. But public approval or disapproval serves as an indicator, or a gauge, of how well the leadership are doing their jobs.

You might argue that public demonstrations such as this week’s are just the sort of thing Mengzi is talking about. When tens of thousands of people pour into the street day after day in frustration, this is a sign that the leader is failing and his mandate is weak.

That’s one idea. Here’s a second one.

In Mozi 墨子, the key to a successful political society is a high degree of unity in values among the people and their leaders. This unity is not achieved by having the people simply accept and follow what their leaders decide. It must be achieved by winning the people’s continued support. And the way to do that, according to Mozi, is for the public to see that the leader’s policies work to benefit society as a whole.

If people see that the leader’s actions do not actually benefit all of society — for example, if they benefit mainly himself and his associates — they will join together to oppose and criticise him. People’s relations with their peers in society are stronger than their relation to the leader. So if the leader does not govern in the public interest, they ally together against him. When they do so, unity of values is lost and the basis for political order breaks down.

The role of the people is crucial. If the leader is effective, they have a responsibility to cooperate with him. But they are also expected to correct him if he makes mistakes. If they find themselves joining together in opposition to his policies, that indicates the leader is not fulfilling his job of taking action to benefit all of society.

Here’s our third big idea.

Zhuangzi 莊子 considers the view that leaders should, by their own values, set norms and standards for the people to follow. The text rejects this, calling it “fake virtue” 欺德. This style of government simply won’t work. It is like trying “to step over the sea” 涉海 or “make a mosquito carry a mountain on its back” 使蚉負山.

The proper approach, according to Zhuangzi, is to govern not by one’s own views, but in a way that is deeply responsive to the people. In the best case, the leader’s actions seem to come not from him, but almost from the people themselves. The key lies in responsiveness and conforming to the people’s own values.

So we have three big ideas here that are relevant to us today.

The first, from Mengzi, is that the people’s support is crucial to the leader’s mandate, and the people’s public response to the leader is an indicator of his performance.

The second, from Mozi, is that both the people and the leadership are responsible for maintaining the unity of values needed for good political order. The people can do their part only if they see the leadership genuinely acting in everyone’s best interests. If not, they can be expected to join together in protest.

The third, from Zhuangzi, is that the key to good government is responsiveness to the people, rather than forcing one’s own standards on them.

So we have a range of sources in the native Chinese tradition of political thought that call for government to answer to the people and that may justify the people’s taking extraordinary steps to force the government to change course when its direction does not conform to their values.

Let’s remind ourselves that the name of our “one country” is the People’s Republic of China. Our government exists, in the words of the CCP slogan, “to serve the people.”

Thank you.

(Cross-posted at cjfraser.net.)

October 1st, 2014 Posted by | China, Chinese philosophy - 中國哲學 - 中国哲学, Hong Kong, Politics | 19 comments

19 Responses to The People in Chinese Political Thought

  1. Chris Fraser’s speech is eloquent and exemplary. He has done a good job uncovering some of China’s lost political traditions, the traditions of the Hong Kong protesters – if only they knew it, which they don’t.

    And since they clearly don’t, any more than the protesters at the “Gate of Heavenly Peace” some time back; since they persist in regarding popular sovereignty as a foreign idea, they are doomed. They can be too easily dismissed as importing foreign ideas, as being culturally anti-Chinese. The end of that pejorative identification process, as we all know, is jail or worse.

    I have to ask, given that this is the mental condition of educated Chinese today, are our educators, and in particular our teachers of Chinese thought, doing their jobs?

    You see, there is a lot more that might be added to the fragments of tradition which Chris has so appropriately mentioned. What about the story of the critics of government at the local schools, Dzwo Jwan 9/31/11? Nobody knows? Of course not. Nobody these days knows anything. So I will repeat part of that story for you, from p162 of our book, The Emergence of China. Here it goes:

    “Some people of Jvng had gone to a county school and were discussing the administration. Ran Ming said to [Jvng minister] Dz-chan, How about eliminating these county schools? Dz-chan said, What for? If people morning and evening go there to discuss the pros and cons of the administration, what they approve I will put into effect, and what they dislike I will change. [footnote: This near repeat of an Analects saying (#5:30) gives it a new political meaning]. They are my teachers. How should I eliminate them?”

    So what about that, umbrella people? Does that put you in a better or worse position, vis-à-vis Chinese political tradition? What about the fact that in the Dzwo Jwan, that story ends with Confucius – yes, Confucius, the guy whose name everybody is mouthing – approving the decision of Dz-chan? Does that give any extra authority, any extra force, to the story?

    You’re goddamn right it does.

    Or it would if you had heard of it. And now you have.

    That story is quoted as the end of a whole section on the 04th century Confucian theory of Chinese populism. Populism? Whazzat? Well, you can easily find out. The section begins at page 157 of Emergence. You can read the whole section at our perfectly public web page, umass.edu/wsp/publications/context/emergence/index….

    For that matter, why not go all the way, and buy the whole goddamn book? It will be in the warehouse, ready to ship, about a month from now. And the page just mentioned is taking advance orders for it.

    I weep for the stupidity, the political self-unawareness, of modern China’s best. They don’t really know who they are. Yes, Beethoven belongs to the whole world, and so does the idea of freedom. Nobody owns it, nobody can monopolize it. Classical Chinese thought too is now part of the common global heritage. Whether it is part of the modern *Chinese* heritage remains to be seen.

    E Bruce Brooks
    Warring States Project
    University of Massachusetts at Amherst

    Reply
  2. Kai Marchal says:

    I fear that many Chinese today might just not be able to even see this critical heritage, since Confucian ideas have been used for many centuries to legitimize the Chinese state. Here is just the latest attempt to integrate Neo-Confucian ideas into the ideology of the CCP:

    douban.com/group/topic/63303796/

    (first seen on sina.com.cn, October 1, 2014)

    Reply
  3. Why does Fraser’s talk and Brooks’ post above remind me in some way (as an intriguing analogy) of the revival of Buddhism in Sri Lanka (at least insofar as it began to acquire relevance in the struggle against colonialism, including the principal religion of the colonial powers) in large part fueled by the efforts of Henry Steel Olcott and Madame Blavatsky (bearing in mind the work of Buddhists like Mohottivatte Gunananda Thera and Anagarika Dharmapala), efforts that speak to the origins and marrow of modern Sinhalese Buddhism and nationalism (alas, of late we’ve witnessed the shadow side of this nationalism)? Will the efforts of scholars like Fraser and Brooks (or Steve Angle…) bring these classical worldviews into the modern period, render them relevant to emancipatory social movements committed to the norms of democratic government and governance in Hong Kong or mainland China? It’s either irony or paradox that such efforts (which, to me at least, represent exemplary forms of intellectual and moral responsibility) may only prove productive to the extent that they’re fairly inconspicuous, out of the social and mass media and public limelight, not unlike the ideal rule in chapter 17 of the Daodejing: “a shadowy presence,” and “when their task is done and work complete, their people all say, ‘This is just how we are.'”

    Reply
    • Steve Angle says:

      Hi Patrick, Could you elaborate on your thinking here? Is the idea that the messy work of academics debating about the significance of Confucianism just undermines its possibility of supporting broad public norms?

      Reply
      • Steve, I was simply thinking that a high profile involvement would give the regime cause to blame “outsiders” and Western intellectuals (neo-colonialists!) for student-led demonstrations, even if that merely entailed these selfsame academic intellectuals “debating the significance of Confucianism” (hence the irony or paradox).

        Reply
  4. Kai Marchal says:

    This is just one voice (from Weibo), and we will never know how representative it is:
    你说一个国庆节,很多人在祖国问题上纠结不清,说什么中共把中华人民共和国成立65周年等同为祖国华诞,把祖国历史缩减为65年,把孔孟老庄排除在祖国之外。我就想说,这里是中华人民共和国,是她培养了你,让你健康地学习长大,让你不受外族欺凌…她就是你的祖国,如果不喜欢,请滚~

    Reply
    • CF says:

      Kai, I can assure you that there are a lot of people who think like that in China and elsewhere in the world, but there are also many who disagree. And I agree that currently there is just no way to know which is more representative. (Screw the surveys! I doubt anyone buys them.) But just be aware, there are government voices disguised as regular users on every major social network website in China. And, if you say something “WRONG”, the chance is high that either you won’t be able to post it or it will be deleted immediately (maybe followed by a HTTP 404 error).

      Reply
      • Kai Marchal says:

        Chris, you are absolutely right; one should not be too pessimistic, and what you did that day in HK is very valuable indeed!

        Reply
        • Chris Fraser says:

          Kai, Thank you. The “CF” above and I are different people. However, I agree with the other CF that it’s nearly impossible to gauge actual public opinion in the PRC from social media, which are heavily censored and usually dominated by the “Fifty Cent Party” 五毛團.

          Reply
  5. Max says:

    Chris – thank you for giving the talk and especially for countering the notion that the ideals of the student demonstrators are imported, in their entirety, from the West. Thanks also for so capably representing HKU and many of us in the department of philosophy.

    –Max Deutsch, Head of the Department of Philosophy, HKU

    Reply
  6. Patrick O’Donnell writes, of efforts to bring China’s past somewhat to the attention of China’s present, “It’s either irony or paradox that such efforts (which, to me at least, represent exemplary forms of intellectual and moral responsibility) may only prove productive to the extent that they’re fairly inconspicuous, out of the social and mass media and public limelight.”

    Sure. All the same, I am reminded of an E-mail discussion about these political ideas of “Confucius” as expressed in that highly radical text, the Analects. One Chinese student remarked, in effect, “Let’s just forget that part for now; it is not the time to bring up such ideas.”

    That was about 20 years ago. Go figure. The policy of not bringing it up has been very effectively applied, and look at where we are.

    The question of preparedness for citizenship came up in the Analects too (the ancients were a lot more aware of the technical problems of a working political system than one might expect). Current events could give a global bystander the impression that, after millennia, the Chinese people may be prepared for citizenship.

    The question now might be, how about some sign of comparable progress at the other end of things? Are the rulers prepared to rule? To rule in the sense of Analects 12:19 (the Ji Kangdz Question)?

    E Bruce Brooks
    Warring States Project
    University of Massachusetts at Amherst

    Reply
  7. Yao Lin says:

    I think we may need to distinguish more clearly between two questions: 1) whether a Confucian has (either pro tanto or conclusive) reason to support the protest; 2) whether there is (either pro tanto or conclusive) reason to reframe/justify the protest in Confucian terms.
    As to the first question, I believe the answer is absolutely yes.
    As to the second question, I am less certain. On the one hand, I don’t see plausible substantive theoretical inputs Confucian ideas can provide to the already fruitful discourse about human rights, democracy, rule of law, etc.
    On the other hand, I understand that some may render the talk of Confucian ideas for strategic/prudential reason: to assuage nationalist audience who is suspicious of “Western conspiracy.” But again I wonder how effective this strategy could be, as, first, it might turn out that the nationalist audience would then be suspicious of the “hidden agenda” behind this effort of reinterpreting Confucianism, and second, many pro-government people I know of don’t really give a dame to what Confucius said…

    Reply
  8. Manyul Im says:

    The most recent turn of events (see, e.g. theguardian.com/world/2014/oct/03/hong-kong-protes… ) makes me wonder about the relevance in appeals — by either side — to principles that are gleaned from Chinese philosophical traditions. In particular, what is the appropriate response of a people to violent oppression, following those principles?

    One thing that jumps to mind is some form of Analects and Mencius inspired fatalism and retreat to apolitical self cultivation. Some form of that, though less toward self cultivation and more toward withdrawal from society, also seems recommended based on the Daodejing as well as the Zhuangzi. One thing that seems unsupported from at least classical Chinese philosophy is political resistance and revolution. I would be happy to be convinced otherwise, but I’m quite pessimistic about the utility of classical Chinese philosophical principles for dealing politically with violent oppression.

    Take for example, one of the things that Chris Fraser points out from Mencius:

    “Some of you are familiar with Mengzi’s ideal of the leader “caring for the people” 保民 and practicing “benevolent government” 仁政. The leader must take responsibility for the people’s welfare. For Mengzi, the people are “the highest” (民為貴) and the leader’s mandate lies partly in their support.

    How do we know how well a leader is fulfilling his responsibility and maintaining his mandate? For Mengzi, the people do not choose their leaders or run their own government. But public approval or disapproval serves as an indicator, or a gauge, of how well the leadership are doing their jobs.”

    Though in one sense that is inspiring, thinking about the context in which Mencius taught those things is less so: the Mencian program seems to involve appealing to the sentiments of those in power and hoping for their benevolence to kick in. Meanwhile, lives and livelihoods may be taken or destroyed. And if that doesn’t work, Mencius seems willing to admit that it was not meant to be. Somehow that doesn’t satisfy my sense of justice. It feels like Hong Kong is in a crucial tipping point and some kind of greater action than appeal to benevolence is required.

    Reply
  9. Yao Lin said, “. . . whether a Confucian has (either pro tanto or conclusive) reason to support the protest. . .” It seems to me that this perfectly reasonable question would be easier to answer if we knew the political content of “Confucian.” But do we? The Confucius of classical times varied all over the political map, from the heavy Legalist enforcer to the gentle critic of Legalist killing. When the later Mencians ran out of Confucius quotes to support their argument of the moment, they made up new ones. And then there is the Neo-Confucius. At the present moment, for many people, the semantic content of “Confucian” seems to be merely “Chinese.”

    It may be that we are at the point where labels do not help us much, and the question defaults to, “is it right to support the protest?” I would think it is even clearer to ask, “Do we agree in disapproving what the protest is protesting?”

    Beyond that point, I suspect that we are out of values and into instrumentalities. As Manyul Im seems to be suggesting in his recent post.

    E Bruce Brooks
    Warring States Project
    University of Massachusetts at Amherst

    Reply
    • Yao Lin says:

      I agree. I meant the questions to be about reason in the externalist sense, not in the sense of internalist “motivating set.” So it really doesn’t matter those who are asked about the righteousness of the protest are Confucians or not. And that is exactly the point of my second question: since we already have very good reasons and arguments and theories in support of the protest, why do we need to reframe the latter in Confucian (or some other Chinese-classical-philosophical) terms at all?

      Reply
  10. Not to pick up on anybody, but Yao Lin said, ” since we already have very good reasons and arguments and theories in support of the protest, . . .” Isn’t this assuming a lot? I can imagine a roomful of HKU students, to mention no one else, who might have different thoughts, not only on tactics, but on purposes.

    Are there ethical universals, meaning ideas in the area of people relating to people that are always actionable? Not killing other people seems pretty basic, but there do occur situations where death, either one’s own or someone else’s, is not the second best alternative. In some cultural contexts, death is not a dread, but a counter, a pawn, in establishing social position. As for one’s own death, the Mencians have the idea that here are some dangers one will not avoid, and as for the present world, what is it’s biggest problem? Arguably, it is that the planet is overpopulated by a factor of 4, and unless that gets corrected somehow, and it’s hard to imagine a gentle scenario, at some point no life at all will be possible. Maybe starving children (despite Melinda Gates) and mass plagues are, if not our friends, at least the friends of something in which we, collectively, have a certain interest.

    My own guess, as an amateur in these matters, is that there are ethical norms but no ethical absolutes. Scale, tempo, context, all have their role.

    And now I give it back to the philosophers.

    Bruce

    E Bruce Brooks
    Warring States Project
    University of Massachusetts at Amherst

    Reply
    • Yao Lin says:

      Saying that “we already have very good reasons and arguments and theories in support of the protest” is far from saying that we could/would already agree upon (a particular understanding of) the tactics and purpose of the protest. It is rather saying that the arsenal of normative ideas and arguments (from which people can of course draw support for various positions and keep arguing back and forth) is sufficiently large and comprehensive, to the extent that the import of ancient Chinese thoughts might not be of theoretical significance.
      I think this problem is endemic to comparative *normative* philosophy. Some time ago I commented on a paper on Confucian animal ethics. I mentioned the problem of normative insignificance in the second part of the comments: dikaioslin.blogspot.com/2013/12/Mencius-animal-pro…

      Reply
  11. @ Manyul, who writes “One thing that seems unsupported from at least classical Chinese philosophy is political resistance and revolution. I would be happy to be convinced otherwise, but I’m quite pessimistic about the utility of classical Chinese philosophical principles for dealing politically with violent oppression.”

    There are plenty of stories of people rebelling against unjust rulers in the early literature. What do you mean exactly?

    Reply

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *