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.

20 thoughts on “Where are all the Confucians in Hong Kong tonight?

  1. Thanks for this thoughtful piece. I wouldn’t exactly call the ideas of universal suffrage, human rights, or the universal quest for freedom, “abstract, non-culture-based ideas.” There’s very much a concrete, contextual background for them (and while they may appeal to universality, each so-called “universal” is stipulated by linguistic, cultural, and other types of constraints). Simply put, the language and formulation of these ideas in the Hong Kong movement are drawn from primarily foreign sources…but I think you agree with this. Is this surprising? In some ways, no. How many street protests and rebellions have been spawned in history by using Confucianism as a tool?

  2. Great post, Kai! I share your sense of the Yu Yingshi talk. It does look like an attempt to take credit where it’s not due. Maybe part of what is going on is that Confucianism is really being talked about only among crusty academic types, and there is not much effort, other than by people like Yu Dan, to really get these ideas in the air more widely? I can’t claim much knowledge about the cultural and political situation in China (and certainly not in Hong Kong), but from the little familiarity I have, it does seem like Confucianism is still somewhat “institutionalized”.

    I also wonder to what extent the government has been successful in “claiming” Confucianism, and thus linked with it. They certainly push hard–films about Confucius focusing on “patriotism” rather than actual Confucian thought, “Confucius Institutes” abroad, etc.

    It would be interesting see responses of the young people in HK to the question: “what do you think about Confucianism?”

    • That’s right! I can’t agree more. Either, the Confucianism is taken by academic people to legitimize their democratic correctness, or, an authoritarian government uses it to consolidate its power. What we really need is the response from the civil society. Without the reincarnation of Confucian spirits in this level, it will still remain an item, albeit a very humble one, on the syllabus of the World Religion courses.

  3. I think we need to recognize the difference between intellectuals and political activists. The students in the streets are acting for specific political reasons (built up from the 2003 protests against Article 23 and exacerbated by the more recent “national curriculum” demonstrations). They simply do not trust the Beijing government to protect the liberties HK society has come to expect. Intellectuals, on the other hand, are motivated by things like historical continuity and textual interpretation, which are fairly meaningless to activists. We have seen this before, in a big way, with the victory of the CCP in 1949. Then, the political activists, with a clear military strategy, pursued their goals in defiance of Confucianism. And they won. From that I take it that political behavior and development have logics different than intellectual theorizing.

    Long story short: China is not a Confucian society. HK is not a Confucian society. Confucianism has a certain diffuse historical-cultural presence in both places, but politics and economics and social dynamics are driven by a wide array of modern forces. If Confucianism is to be relevant in HK it has to be make relevant. And thus far the leaders of the movement there (as was the case with democratizers in Taiwan) are really not that interested in that project when there are more pressing political demands.

    Also, I have started reading Jiwei Ci’s new book, Moral China in the Age of Reform, and I believe it is quite relevant to these sorts of discussions, especially his main point that what is necessary for China, and HK, today, is a fuller development and embrace of the value of freedom from within a Chinese cultural context.

  4. I think that HK people can have a Confucian criticism of the CCP. Confucius famously claimed that “a state cannot stand once it has lost the confidence of the people.” (“民無信不立。”) For a Confucian, an untrustworthy regime is not legitimate. The CCP promised that HK people could have universal suffrage in 2017, but shamefully broke the promise. For that reason, a Confucian should criticise the Beijing government.

    Just for the record, I don’t agree with the slogan of Taiwanese protesters. Taiwan is a democratic country. It’s far from dictatorship. So revolution is not justified.

  5. Important post.

    Sam, in today’s world it seems hard to justify a difference between intellectuals and political activists that involves the former never joining hands (literally and figuratively) with the latter (especially on occasions such as this). Others of course have written on this topic and I share their views: C. Wright Mills, Jean-Paul Sartre, Rudolf Bahro, Russell Jacoby, among many others in (the broadly construed) Left tradition. Of course if no such thing is possible in the Confucian tradition, that strikes me as a conspicuous shortcoming. I’ll end with some material from the Sartrian “plea for intellectuals,” that is, a call to those whose class position and status (should) bring with it a corresponding number of obligations, one that minimally entails
    1. struggle against the perpetual rebirth of ideology amongst the popular classes. In other words, [intellectuals] should attack externally and internally every ideological representation that they entertain of themselves or their power (the ‘positive hero,’ the ‘personality cult,’ the ‘glorification of the proletariat’…).
    2. make[s] use of the capital of knowledge [the intellectual] has acquired from the dominant class in order to help raise popular culture—that is to say, the foundations of a popular culture.
    3. help [in] form[ing] technicians of practical knowledge within the underprivileged classes…in the hope that they will become the organic intellectuals of the working class….
    4. [endeavors to] radicalize actions under way, by demonstrating the ultimate objectives beyond immediate aims—in other words, universalization as a historical goal of the working class. (Jean-Paul Sartre, ‘A Plea for Intellectuals,’ a series of lectures delivered in Tokyo and Kyoto in 1965 and published in Sartre’s Between Existentialism and Marxism. New York: Morrow Quill, 1979: 228-285.

  6. Thanks a lot for these helpful comments! I will have to think about them in more depth. For the moment, I agree with Erica’s claim that “each so-called ‘universal’ is stipulated by linguistic, cultural, and other types of constraints”. In order to cope with such ambiguity, I think, we need a very detailed and thorough description which I could not do here (my post was written to make a more general point). Patrick’s point on Sartre is very interesting; there certainly is a difference between intellectuals and political activists, I agree on this. In my short piece, I was gesturing toward a more critical analysis of all sorts of culture-based claims which are taken to have normative force in the present (and Confucianism happens to be one important strand of Chinese culture). And I do indeed think that we need to pay more attention to the self-descriptions and self-understandings of political activists and other people on the ground in China, instead of just re-interpreting Confucian texts. All this is meant to be descriptive, but with certain normative implications. Whether we are all supporting Western liberal democracy might not be the most urgent question to answer. Maybe one should even make a distinction between the engaged observer and the person thinking about trans-cultural philosophical issues from a broader perspective (this is at least my personal stance). For there are no simple answers, and normally we (Western scholars) do not have to live with the consequences of such protests… I will also have to think about the other questions.

  7. And yes, Sam, your observation is correct that “intellectuals, on the other hand, are motivated by things like historical continuity and textual interpretation, which are fairly meaningless to activists.” This is a very good point. Maybe I can rephrase my question this way: Do we think that such continuity is even possible today after Mao Zedong’s totalitarian rule? And are we willing to accept such an understanding of the intellectual as merely being somebody who is interested in re-interpreting Ancient texts? And is such an activity really the same as “intellectual theorizing”? Or isn’t it something else? I tend to think that the very idea of a continuity of Chinese (Confucian)culture, after the political cataclysms of the 20th century, is something rather puzzling, even worrying…

  8. I’m a bit reticent to post on this topic. But here goes anyway. I guess the revival of Confucianism in the Mainland and in academic circles has been prompted by differing motives that have little to do with these protests. The CCP in recent decades has re-invested in Confucianism for mostly self-serving reasons that prop up a kind of nationalism. People like Yu Dan have benefited from this, though her rendition of Confucian thinking looks more like “self-hep” than political or ethical theory. Some political writers in China like Jiang Qing have tried to blend general Confucian principles with some suggestions about structural reforms in government, but such reforms try to blend modern with conservative frameworks in ways that many don’t take seriously. But many academics who have gotten on board with Confucianism in recent decades, in the region and in the west, are often Deweyans, who share Dewey’s acquired suspicions about democracy being only about procedural reform, top-town institutional structures and so forth, and place more faith in communal and local self-governance. For their part, the Hong Kong protests are exactly about procedural issues, institutional change, and are more inspired by neo-liberal conceptions of rights, government, ect. So, the protests are 1. pushing back against the CCP; 2. overtly political and institutionally reformist along neo-liberal lines; 3. ) don’t draw on any overtly political frameworks of reconstructed Confucian thought. So, where are the Confucians in all this? CCP supporters of Confucianism are opposed, Mainland advocates of Confucianism are either politically not engaged, benefiting in one way or another from state-supported Confucian revitalization or embrace more traditionalist political institutional models. Academic Deweyan Confucians are not really into neo-liberal institutional reformism in the first place. So, maybe one effect of these protests is a setting into sharper relief where modern Confucian political sympathies lie, and where they don’t. So, it seems to me that your call for us to give these issues a second thought is quite apt. I certainly share your hope that no crackdowns on the protestors will ensue. But there are plenty of hard-liners in high places in the NPC and on the Standing Committee, and if they feel themselves pushed into a corner, as the hard-liners on the Standing Committee in ’89 did, the possible actions they might resort to, especially if they believe they won’t suffer much in the way of international consequences, are not pleasant to speculate about.

  9. Douglas, Is agitation for free elections “neo-liberal”? I rather think it’s the sine qua non of liberal democracy. Of course I don’t deny that many of the protesters may in fact subscribe to something like a “neo-liberal” ideology (I’m not sure about that but leave open the possibility), but even institutional reforms and concern with electoral procedures are not, in themselves, particularly “neo-liberal.” That said, I’m glad you decided to post something, as I otherwise find your comment illuminating.

  10. Both this thread, and the parallel one that Chris started, have been fascinating. Although events in HK having been developing quickly, and now in very worrying directions, I think it is important to have this kind of discussion. Both threads raise questions about how relevant Confucian and other Chinese traditions may be on the current circumstances. I think that this short article, “Hong Kong Pride,” by one of my colleagues, also sheds relevant light. What does it mean to be a modern Hong Konger, and in what ways might modern Confucianism (if that has, or can come to have, enough content) contribute to this? I am reminded here of Joseph Chan’s Confucian Perfectionism, a book that is informed, I believe, by his own sense of Hong Kong’s particular history and modern situation. And Joseph has been out there with the protesters.

  11. I’ve yet to read the linked material posted by Steve above, but I thought this snippet from the LA Times article today on some student leaders of the democracy movement was intriguing:

    Veteran observers of the student-led movement, though, have praised Chow’s and Shum’s leadership — in particular their move Thursday to reach out to the government for dialogue. This may have averted, or at least delayed, an escalation of tension, these observers said.

    “They are as passionate organizers as they are good strategists,” said Dixon Ming Sing, associate professor of social science at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology and a longtime researcher of the city’s democracy movement.

    Still, their meteoric rise to global attention has surprised some. Nelson Lee, a lecturer at the Chinese University of Hong Kong who taught Shum in two politics courses, said the college junior “was always on the quiet side.”

    Shum, who switched his major to politics after one year studying engineering, was passionate about getting an intellectual grounding, Lee recalled. Lee’s “Politics of Culture” class, which delves into Marxist theories and neocapitalism, is popular among young activists, and Shum appealed to Lee in person to enroll in the oversubscribed course.

    • Thanks Justin — I think this offers important context about Yu’s original remarks. He wasn’t trying to Confucianize the current struggle, as much as to speak about the tradition of New Asia College and the responsibility of intellectuals. Easy enough to make a connection to Occupy Central, but not a connection that he explicitly made.

  12. Yes, I think that’s exactly right. And he makes it explicit that this tradition comes out of a blend of Chinese and Western thinking.

    The NY Times article that he describes (about the orderly nature of the protests, in spite of the fact that they have no clear leadership) is probably this one.

Leave a Reply to Steve Angle Cancel reply

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

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.