An ancient tradition is to be blamed for China’s current success; it is engrained in its society and political culture and needs to be acknowledged when investigating the rise of the Asian giant.
After Mao Zedong’s death, China’s second paramount leader Deng Xiaoping proposed a different road for the People’s Republic; often referred as the “capitalist roader,” Deng suggested practicing “socialism with Chinese characteristics.” Socialism is not a recent phenomenon and can be traced to ancient Greece. Similarly, “Chinese characteristics” began to mature nearly 2,500 years ago—not after socialism was introduced into the country.
China’s current top leader, Xi Jinping, is expected to be in power until March 14, 2023. Before assuming his presidency, he acted as the Vice President for five years; he is also the head of the Communist Party and Commander-in-chief of China’s military force. Xi launched an anticorruption campaign and has made it one of his priorities. As the saying goes, “lead by example” efforts are being made by Chinese leaders to comply with Xi’s campaign. However, there are other “sayings” that Xi and his comrades are heeding: the sayings of Confucius.
In the first pages of the Analects—a collection of teachings of Confucius—when asked about public service Confucius said: “Lift the straight and place them over the crooked, and the people will follow you. Lift the crooked and place them over the straight, and the people will not follow you.” This particular passage demonstrates the sage’s awareness of why and how replacing corruption with virtuosity will keep the sovereign and his allegiant subjects content.
Xi and his comrades have the great responsibility to exercise moral behaviours and honest practices and inculcate them upon the citizenry if they want the people to look up to them. Otherwise, if the wise advice of Confucius is ignored, the people will condemn the Communist Party and compromise its legitimacy.
Corruption is not easy to target, especially if its primary feature is to deceive others and go unnoticed. Xi, however, has done a respectable job by indicting a number of officials found to be involved in crooked activities. Wang Qishan, the current Secretary of the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection, has played an important role locating and swatting out “flies” and bringing down “tigers”—the former referring to low-rank officials, the latter to high-ranked ones. Flies and tigers, including both party members and civilians, have been placed behind bars and some even executed. For guidance and clarity of what is expected from a party member, Wang’s bureau published an extensive list of policies, rules, and regulations to show officials the punitive actions that will arise if they are found guilty of corruption.
The idea of “socialism with Chinese characteristics” is often placed along the lines of how “Chinese socialism” differs from Marx’s socialism or how socialism is to be fitted to Chinese conditions. What needs to be clear is that, when introduced, socialism had to be moulded to the current Chinese state of affairs—culture, customs, principles, etc.—which rely heavily on Confucian practices.
Confucianism became the dominant political ideology of Imperial China during the Han dynasty (206 BCE-220 CE) enduring until the final years of the Qing dynasty (1644-1911). It is distinguished for its role in politics and governance, yet comprises significant social, philosophical, and spiritual characteristics. As a result, this long-lasting tradition became the physiognomy of China, and that cannot be extirpated in a blink of an eye. Even after Confucianism was severely pruned in China throughout the 20th century, its roots remained alive—especially on social interactions among the Chinese—and intensified in other Sinitic societies and even in Western academic discourse.
In the Republican years (1912-1949), Confucianism was blamed for China’s backwardness allowing “Mr. Science” and “Mr. Democracy” to gain popularity in China. But, when Mao and his comrades founded the People’s Republic of China in 1949, Confucianism was fully marginalised and then re-opened for criticism during the ten years of the Cultural Revolution. The Cultural Revolution ended after Mao’s death in 1976 and, few years later, many Confucian intellectuals surfaced in China.
In the mid-1980s, Harvard graduate and Confucian scholar, Professor Du Weiming proposed to “import back” Confucianism to its homeland. In the last thirty years, Confucianism has had a revival in the country, and the Communist Party is not turning away. Jiang Qing, an orthodox Confucian political thinker, and other intellectuals have had gatherings with party members and have imparted lectures to top Chinese leaders. Also, Daniel A. Bell, Professor of Ethics and Political Philosophy at Tsinghua University—Hu Jintao’s and Xi Jinping’s alma mater—, has incessantly encouraged the idea of political meritocracy, which is a key element in “lifting the straight and placing them over the crooked” or incompetent.
China’s current leadership is making efforts to have a solid and reliable government. When asked about government, Confucius said: “To govern means to be correct. If you lead by being correct, who will dare to be incorrect?”
This 2,500-year-old tradition is deep-rooted in Chinese culture and embedded in public affairs. It is necessary to bring to mind “what truly comprises ‘Chinese characteristics’” and admit that a combination of values, principles, and customs known to the world as Confucianism is, to a certain extent, behind Xi and his comrades.