Warp, Weft, and Way

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

Where are all the Confucians in Hong Kong tonight?


Like many of you, I have often been thinking about the relation between liberal democracy  and the Confucian tradition (or better: the traditions of thought claiming to somehow continue the spiritual legacy of Confucius and Mencius). In these hours, that is “as dusk fell on Hong Kong Tuesday evening” (in the words of CNN), thousands of young people are filling the streets of Hong Kong demanding full democracy and the right to elect their own leader.

Here in Taipei, we also have a number of on-going protests and sit-ins. One of my students (who is originally from Hong Kong) flew back today, in order to participate in the protests. I am not sure whether he will be back on friday, as he promised to be. Some people think that we should have reason to be very worried about the days ahead.

And here is my question: In recent years, quite a few scholars (both in the West and in China/Chinese-speaking societies) have tried to develop normative theories and frameworks of “Confucian democracy” and have pondered about the normative justifications for liberal democracy which can be found in Confucian texts. But how convincing are all these Confucian theories of democracy, if there are no Confucians fighting for liberal democracy on the ground? If people struggling for democracy in China are not, or not primarily, motivated by Confucian ideas?

Here is the background for my question. Yesterday, the famous historian Yu Yingshi gave a talk in Hong Kong (via Skype, it seems) about the role intellectuals should play in Chinese society. Among others, Yu said (and here I quote from the Hong Kong version of Apple Daily): 他一再重申,「讀書人應該批判社會」,正如孔子知道天下無道,便要人民議論社會,而早在孔子之前,中國的讀書人其實已批評政治,可說是中國的傳統,學生運動早就在中國出現。(for the full article see here). However, at least to me, this appears to be an attempt to “confucianize” an on-going political struggle that has not much to do with Confucian ideas at all. If one asks these young people in Taipei or Hong Kong why they protest (and I have asked quite a bunch of them), they never mention any Confucian idea, but rather refer to abstract, non-culture-based ideas like universal suffrage, human rights, or the universal quest for freedom. The famous slogan of the Taiwanese students (「當獨裁成為事實,革命就是義務」/”When dictatorship is a fact, revolution is a duty”)seems to be taken from Victor Hugo or – according to another version – from the novel Night Train to Lisbon (by the German writer and philosopher Pascal Mercier/Peter Bieri). And here is a very beautiful, very moving version of the song “Do you hear the people sing” from the musical “Les Misérables”, sung by a girl in Cantonese (香港人試問誰還未覺醒). Actually, the slogan “When dictatorship is a fact, revolution is a duty” has been sprayed on the outer wall of the Taiwanese parliament in March and it has also been quoted during the protests in Hong Kong last week.

All this seems to confirm that we do not have reason to believe that many students in Taipei or Hong Kong are motivated by a genuine belief into Confucian ideas. The only place in Chinese-speaking societies where universal suffrage has been realized is Taiwan; and I am rather doubtful that Confucian ideas have played a crucial role during the emergence of Taiwanese democracy in the 80s and early 90s. I do not want to exclude this possibility, however. And I willing admit that, during the 20th century, thinkers like Mou Zongsan and Tang Junyi (during their careers as university professors in Hong Kong and Taiwan) have tried to somehow anticipate liberal democracy on the Chinese soil by appealing to Confucian texts. And similar attempts are still made today in the academy. But such attempts are often much more focussed on re-defining the Chinese past and re-interpreting pre-modern Chinese texts, than on actually creating the political conditions for a liberal and democratic future. And it often comes down to merely saying retrospectively that Confucian texts have already articulated what is actually happening in the present (in Yu Yingshi’s words, as paraphrased by the journalist from Apple Daily: 早就在中國出現). Or this is at least my understanding that might be wrong…

In sum, I think that we, as philosophers pondering about the contemporary fate of the Chinese intellectual traditions, should give this apparent absence of Confucian ideas in the ongoing protests a second thought… And one can only hope that the government in Beijing will not crackdown on these young protesters.


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