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Today China Beat would like to introduce our new “Exchanges” feature, which we hope will become a regular item on the blog. The debate below, between Daniel A. Bell and Michael Walzer, was originally printed in the Winter 2010 issue of Dissent, and is reposted here with permission. We’d like to invite our readers to share their thoughts on this discussion, and will run a response from Daniel Bell in the coming weeks. Please send your comments and questions to thechinabeat<AT>gmail.com.
Reconciling Confucianism and Socialism? Reviving Tradition in China
By Daniel A. Bell
Communism has lost its capacity to inspire the Chinese. But what will replace it? And what should replace it? Clearly, there is a need for a new moral foundation for political rule in China, and the government has moved closer to an official embrace of Confucianism. The Olympics highlighted Confucian themes, quoting the Analects of Confucius at the opening ceremony, and downplayed any references to China’s experiment with communism. Cadres at the newly built Communist Party School in Shanghai proudly tell visitors that the main building is modeled on a Confucian scholar’s desk. Abroad, the government has been promoting Confucianism via branches of the Confucius Institute, a Chinese language and culture center similar to France’s Alliance Française and Germany’s Goethe Institute.
Of course, there is resistance as well. Elderly cadres, still influenced by Maoist antipathy to tradition, condemn efforts to promote ideologies outside a rigid Marxist framework. But the younger cadres in their forties and fifties tend to support such efforts, and time is on their side. It’s easy to forget that the seventy-six-million strong Chinese Communist Party is a large and diverse organization. The party itself is becoming more meritocratic—it now encourages high-performing students to join—and the increased emphasis on educated cadres is likely to generate more sympathy for Confucian values.
But the revival of Confucianism is not just government-sponsored. There has also been a resurgence of interest among academics. Rigorous experiments by psychologists show striking cognitive differences between Chinese and Americans, with Chinese more likely to use contextual and dialectical approaches to solving problems. Economists try to measure the economic effect of such Confucian values as filial piety. Feminist theorists draw parallels between care ethics and the Confucian emphasis on empathy, particularity, and the family as a school of moral education. Theorists of medical ethics discuss the importance of family-based decision making in medical settings. Those working in the field of business ethics research the influence of Confucian values on business practices. Political surveys show that attachment to Confucian values has increased with modernization. Sociologists study the thousands of experiments in education and social living that are inspired by Confucian values.
The renewed academic interest is also driven by normative concerns: an increasing number of critical intellectuals are turning to Confucianism to think of ways of dealing with China’s current social and political predicament. Without entirely rejecting westernization, they believe that stable and legitimate political arrangements need to be founded, at least partly, on political ideals from their own traditions. Theorists of international relations look to early Confucian thinkers for foreign policy insights. Legal theorists search for less adversarial modes of conflict resolution grounded in traditional practices. Philosophers draw on the ideas of great Confucian thinkers in dealing with social and political reform. And Confucian educators work on long-term moral transformation by teaching the Confucian classics to young children.
These political and academic developments are supported by economic factors. China is a rising economic power, and with economic might comes cultural pride. Max Weber’s view that Confucianism is not conducive to economic development has been widely questioned in view of the economic success of East Asian countries with a Confucian heritage. Unlike Islam, Hinduism, and Buddhism, there has never been an organized Confucian resistance to economic modernization, and such values as respect for education and concern for future generations may have contributed to economic growth. Now, poised to become a global power, it’s China’s turn to affirm its cultural heritage.
But modernity also has a downside: it often leads to atomism and psychological anxiety. The competition for social status and material resources becomes fiercer and fiercer, with declining social responsibility and other-regarding outlooks. Communitarian ways of life and civility break down. Even those who make it to the top ask, “What now?” Making money, they realize, doesn’t necessarily lead to well-being. It is only a means to the good life, but what exactly is the good life? Is it just about fighting for one’s interests? Most people—in China, at least—do not want to be viewed as individualistic. The idea of focusing solely on individual well-being seems too self-centered. To feel good about ourselves, we also need to be good to others. Here’s where Confucianism comes in: the tradition is based on the assumption that the good life lies in social relationships, in responsibility and political commitment. Confucian ethics is the obvious resource to help fill the moral vacuum that often accompanies modernization.
In short, this mix of psychological, economic, political, and philosophical trends helps to explain the revival of Confucianism in China. These trends are likely to continue and intensify. But Confucianism is a rich and diverse tradition, and it’s worth asking which Confucianism(s) are being revived. Even more important, which interpretation of Confucianism ought to be revived?
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For more insight into the “Google + China” story, we turned to Mara Hvistendahl, a Shanghai-based journalist who has written on a broad range of China-related topics. Her work includes an exploration of “The Great Forgetting: 20 Years After Tiananmen Square” in The Chronicle of Higher Education, as well as “Conscience of a Nationalist” for The New Republic; additionally, last year, Shanghai Scrap interviewed Hvistendahl about the topic of China’s “patriotic” hackers.
Below is a short Q-and-A that Jeff Wasserstrom conducted with Hvistendahl via e-mail.
JW: Since I know you’ve tracked issues relating to hacking and the Chinese Internet in general for some time, can you think of 2 or 3 things that China Beat readers could read to help them put the current headlines relating to Google into perspective?
MH: First, a lot of coverage has pointed out that Google has a minority of the market in China, and that’s true. But the people who use Google and Gmail tend to be among China’s elite – academics, businesspeople, and other professionals. (After all, there are many reasons to prefer uncensored search engines and encrypted e-mail that have nothing to do with human rights.) These people don’t always have the VPNs necessary to bypass the Great Firewall, and Google’s withdrawal would put the Chinese government in an awkward position with this group. They have gotten used to living without Facebook, Youtube, and Twitter, but losing Google would be different.
Then again, people have underestimated the Chinese government before.
Second, many Westerners imagine Chinese hacking as the work of some central government cyber-bureau. I looked into this in a feature I wrote for Popular Science last year, and the truth is that many cyber-battles are fought by independent hackers scattered across China. They number at least 400,000, according to one conservative estimate – enough to hold a conference in Beijing every October. They have a nationalistic zeal that misfit Americans hackers lack. And their relationship with the Chinese government is fluid.
Incidentally, one Chinese hacker I trailed for the Popular Science piece briefly worked for Google after leaving China. He is now at another American institution, and I have no evidence that he has ever hacked for the Chinese government, or that he continues to hack. But it’s an interesting link.
JW: If you could ask the head of Google one question and get a straight answer to it, what would that be?
MH: Why? Why make this announcement now? Businesspeople I’ve spoken with seem genuinely stumped. Is this really about staying true to the company motto? Or is it a calculated decision directed at preserving Google’s global image?
JW: When you are wrestling with topics like this, what are the first two sites you go to online?
MH: The Dark Visitor This the obsessive quest of one man – intelligence analyst Scott Henderson — to explain how Chinese hackers operate. Scott’s work figured prominently in my Popular Science article.
China Digital Times Though probably already familiar to your readers, this remains a great source for round-ups of breaking China news, especially on tech issues.
JW: I’ve heard you are working on a book. Since we’ve pointed our readers to articles you’ve done in venues like the Chronicle of Higher Education and the New Republic, I think some of them would be very interested in seeing that longer work when it comes out. Can you tell us any details about the topic, the publisher, and when it is due out?
MH: My book is called The X-Y Problem, and it’s a narrative nonfiction work about sex selection and gender imbalance in Asia and Eastern Europe. It will be published in 2011 by Public Affairs.
The book grew out of a feature I wrote for Virginia Quarterly Review on China’s sex-ratio imbalance. I reported the piece in a Jiangsu province county where the sex ratio at birth is 152 boys born for every 100 girls, according to recent Family Planning Commission data. Later I expanded my research to India, South Korea, Taiwan, Vietnam, and the Caucasus countries.
Most journalism on this topic tends to focus on the cultural traditions that encourage son preference. I instead emphasize the link between sex-ratio imbalance and economic development – and connect what’s happening in Asia to new sex selection technologies in the West. I also look at the pernicious side-effects of tens of millions of “surplus” males: an increase in international marriage brokering, sex trafficking, and other forms of instability.
Stories about Google’s announcement that it will no longer censor its Chinese search engine, and that the company is reevaluating its presence in China, have been showing up at a breakneck speed over the past two days. While we anticipate that much more will be written about this development, here are some of the pieces that have caught our attention so far:
1. Rebecca MacKinnon at the Wall Street Journal, “Google Gets on the Right Side of History.”
2. Reuters (via the New York Times), “U.S., Google And China Square Off Over Internet.”
3. James Fallows, The Atlantic, “The Google news: China enters its Bush-Cheney Era.”
4. Joel Martinson at Danwei, “Google, Baidu, and wild speculation.”
5. Hat tip to China Digital Times for pointing us to this solid round-up at Shanghaiist on “Everything (almost) that’s happened with Google + China so far.” CDT is also compiling a page featuring links to news and opinions about this story.
6. Evan Osnos at the New Yorker conducted a Q-and-A with James Mulvenon of the Center for Intelligence Research and Analysis.
7. Juliet Ye and James T. Areddy at the Wall Street Journal’s “China Real Time Report,” “Flowers for Google in China.”
The Hopkins-Nanjing Center organized a trip to teach English at a school built for the disaster victims of the big earthquake that shook Sichuan in 2008. We’ve gone every semester since the earthquake. Before classes started, we took a trip to the old campus. There were still many remnants of that sorrowful day last year: pencils, backpacks, even English textbooks. Some of our volunteers climbed up to the top of the ruins. All we could do was lay flowers.
–Jonathan Hwang (photo taken by Jeffrey Lin)