As Chinese premier Xi Jinping makes his way to Washington, we are reminded that, among his notable efforts, he has wanted to return China to Confucian principles.
The Economist had the story last year. I duly posted about it on the blog.
Now the Wall Street Journal is noticing:
One Thursday morning in June, 200 senior officials crammed into an auditorium in the Communist Party’s top training academy to study a revolutionary idea at the heart of President Xi Jinping’s vision for China.
They didn’t come to brush up on Marx, Lenin or Mao, staple fodder at the Central Party School since the 1950s. Nor were they honing their grasp of the state-guided capitalism that defined the nation for the last 35 years.
They came to hear Wang Jie, a professor of ancient Chinese philosophy and a figure in the country’s next ideological wave: a renaissance of the traditional culture the Communist Party once sought to destroy.
According to the Journal, Xi is trying to “inoculate” China against Western ideas like individual freedom and democracy. One suspects that he also wants to fend off the idea of human rights.
In truth, Confucian thought has a place for individual freedom. It allows people to use discretion when it comes to obeying or not obeying the rules. Because it gave a place to liberty Confucian thought has for millennia been subjected to occasional pogroms, beginning with the first Chin emperor and extending through Mao’s Cultural Revolution.
What is Confucianism about? The Journal answers:
Thought to have lived in the sixth and fifth centuries B.C., Confucius emphasized respect for elders, social ritual and personal moral virtue, including among leaders.
Filial piety, check. Performance of public and social rituals, regardless of whether you like it or not, check. Leaders who try to instill virtue by setting a good example, not be drowning the nation in bureaucratic regulation and threats of punishment, check.
It is not an accident that Xi Jinping, as part of his return to Confucius has launched an anti-corruption drive that has already brought down some high ranking public officials and party notables.
And, Xi is also concerned with presenting a good public image abroad, an image of a nation of decent people living in an honorable nation.
So far, so good. This morning, however Journal columnist Bret Stephens offers up a somewhat different take on China. He does not see the need for a return for Confucian values. He proposes that China adopt more American values and a more American governmental system, with checks and balances.
Stephens sees in China an ungodly mess, led by a man who is not up to the job. One wonders whether or not he is thinking of another nation, but, be that as it may, he writes:
Now your stock market has fizzled, your economy is sinking under the weight of unsustainable debts and zombie companies, your neighbors despise you, and every affluent Chinese is getting a second passport and snapping up a foreign home. Even in Beijing, word is out that behind that enigmatic smile you’re a man overmatched by your job. And out of your depth.
This smacks of caricature, because, while it is nice to say that China could have achieved what it has achieved in the past three or four decades by enacting the American constitution, one retains some skepticism about the portability of political systems. However wonderful liberal democracy, it has no real roots in Chinese culture.
And besides, even in the West, the course of industrial development never did run smooth. Let’s accept that the Chinese economy is on the brink—its detractors have been saying that it’s on the brink for decades now—we recall that the advanced industrial economy of the United States has suffered the occasional market crash and great depression.
According to Stephens America prospers and thrives because it does not value such shopworn values like virtuous leaders. One might retort that those who want to make America great again are not exactly thrilled with the nation’s latest achievements or its moral fiber.
One would like to think that Stephens is being ironic, here, but one suspects that he isn’t:
Yes, America, perhaps the only country on earth that can be serially led by second- or third-rate presidents—and somehow always manage to come up trumps (so to speak). America, where half of college-age Americans can’t find New York state on a map—even as those same young Americans lead the world in innovation. America, where Cornel West is celebrated as an intellectual, Miley Cyrus as an artist, Jonathan Franzen as a novelist and Kim Kardashian as a beauty—and yet remains the cultural dynamo of the world.
It gives you hope for the future of America, doesn’t it? Or else, you might say that this mess of silliness is precisely the reason why other countries do not want to adopt American values. How can a culture be dynamic when it sees Cornell West as an intellectual and Miley Cyrus as an artist? It might not be suffering from financial corruption—for now we will leave the question open—but it is certainly suffering from cultural and intellectual corruption, from an encroaching decadence coupled with an overestimation of mediocrity.
Stephens suggests that America is great, despite the nonsense it produces, because its political system corrals the harsh tendencies and counterbalances them. One might ask how it happened, then that the Obama Iran deal is going to be enacted even though it is not supported by a majority of Congress.
Stephens also believes that China has been glorying in Confucianism, in a series of virtuous leaders. Previous stories in the Journal among other publications—see above-- have suggested that Confucianism is making a comeback, not that it offers up the ruling principles:
America, in short, which defies every ethic of excellence—all the discipline and cunning and delicacy and Confucian wisdom that are the ways by which status and power are gained in China—yet manages to produce excellence the way a salmon spawns eggs.
Is the country really producing that much excellence? Most people are persuaded that we are headed in the wrong direction. The economic recovery after the Great Recession was the most anemic in the post-war period, and people are enraged at the abuse of power and should be enraged at the flood of regulations that are damaging their economic prospects, Stephens feels just a wee bit too optimistic. We have produced more than our fair share of rotten eggs.
Especially, when he declares that we are experts at failure:
As for Americans, we’re the failure experts. We expect it, forgive it, often celebrate it. We do this partly because we’re soft, but also out of hardheadedness. If tolerance of failure is a prerequisite for success, then you need to love your failures as much as you do your successes.
Has anyone been more capable of overcoming political and economic failure than Deng Xiaoping? After all, he was a leader in Mao’s government and one of the first to try to institute economic reforms after its failures.
You might also ask yourself whether our government, in its current form has been giving us the best leadership available. Is there any way to measure the calamities that have been and will be visited on the world by the leadership of one Barack Obama? Stephens ought to be the first to notice that the situation in the Middle East and the European refugee crisis will remake the world in ways that are not favorable to traditional American values. Does anyone seriously think that we should love the failure of the Obama administration’s Middle East policy?
Stephens tries to make inadequate American presidents a virtue:
Limited government has another advantage, Mr. President. It means limited responsibility. Even George W. Bush’s or Barack Obama’s angriest critics can’t quite blame them for everything (though the Bush critics try). U.S. presidents don’t have the mandate of heaven, so they don’t have the burden of it, either.
What is the virtue in limited responsibility? Why do we make it easy for people to evade responsibility? Would it not be better if the record of achievement were more substantial? As for the “mandate of heaven” it is roughly equivalent to the consent of the governed, something that was granted in traditional China to a dynasty. When a dynasty loses the mandate of heaven the social fabric begins to disintegrate and a new dynasty will be called on to take over. Also, traditionally, the sign that a dynasty has lost the mandate of heaven is a massive calamity, like Hurricane Katrina, which cost George W. Bush the mandate of heaven. Hmmm.
On the other hand, America enjoys a level of political stability that is rightfully the envy of the world. Foreigners, including many Chinese, buy condos in America because they consider it a refuge, a safe haven. They are persuaded that their money will be safe in America and that no one is going to come along to confiscate their property. Even with the Kelo decision they have more confidence in America than they do in their home countries.
Compared to all other countries America is politically very stable. As it happens, the price of real estate is not exactly stable; it is driven by the market. The government will never confiscate your money here, but the market very well might. Some of us are old enough to remember when, forty years ago, co-op apartments that are now worth in the tens of millions were being sold for the tens of thousands.
As for the situation in China, without offering an extended analysis, the series of leaders who followed Deng Xiaoping have been seriously competent people. The jury is still out on Xi, but in the space of three plus decades they have dragged China—kicking and screaming—out of feudalism into the role of world leader and economic dynamo.
Could they have done it quicker and better by adopting the American constitution? They did not and they should be judged by what they accomplished, not for having failed to emulate America.
As I said, I would like to think that Stephens is being ironic. I hope he is. But if that is the best case for today’s America, one understands why Xi is not coming here to learn about the ways of democracy, the ways of a lawsuit culture, the ways of stifling bureaucratic regulations, the ways of cultural decadence and a corrupted marketplace of ideas.
No, he is coming here to measure for the drapes.