BEIJING — While many in China are proud of the nation's extraordinary economic achievements in the last two decades, there has been a price paid: colossal environmental degradation and a degree of inequality that might a hundred years ago have led to, well, a communist revolution.
The Third Plenum of the 18th Communist Party meeting ends Tuesday in Beijing, as 376 Central Committee members make decisions about the future direction of the Chinese economy. These decisions have the potential to impact every person on earth and the country's state media have indicated that change is coming.
But whether the party liberalizes financial rules and unleashes a torrent of Chinese money around the world — inflating prices for property markets and trophy companies — or whether it takes a more measured approach, it will likely be seen in terms of the revived symbol of Chinese civilization that is thousands of years old.
That symbol is Confucius.
All over the country there is a revived interest in the philosopher who lived 2,500 years ago. China during Confucius's lifetime was also going through dramatic changes. The Chinese sage lived in the Kingdom of Lu, which was torn apart by civil war and noble families warring with each other. He was a high-ranking official of the government and also a prominent teacher. Much of his teaching is an attempt to re-establish order in the society by reminding people of their traditional obligations: sons to fathers, subjects to rulers and all to the spirit of the ancestors who have gone before.
These teachings, some very direct, most rather obscure, are thought to hold a key for the Chinese people as they try to make sense of the unprecedented changes happening in their country. Speaking at the Beijing Forum last week, Prof. Weiming Tu, formerly of Harvard and now at Peking University, consistently analyzed contemporary problems in China from a Confucian perspective.
Given the terrible disruptions of the last 50 years in China — from the Great Leap Forward, Mao Zedong's disastrous economic policy — which led to famine and the death of more than 20 million people — to the Cultural Revolution‚ Confucius's ancient teachings may be the only cultural glue that can hold this throbbing mass of people together, Tu argued.
But China being China, and still ruled by the Communist Party, Confucius is more than a symbol of continuity and connection to China's ancient past: the government is using Confucianism as a tool of soft power.
The teachings of “the Master” — Confucius means “Master Kong” — spread throughout East Asia over the last 2,000 years. Thus Hhs very worldly prescriptions for right conduct and harmony in societies are familiar everywhere from Korea to Japan to Singapore. The Chinese government hopes that framing its plans for China in a Confucian context can smooth fears about the astonishing and, to neighboring countries, terrifying rise of China.
China's unprecedented emergence as an economic superpower to rival the US has made many in the West nervous as well. The Confucius Institutes at leading universities in America and Britain hope to offer a way to understand Chinese history and culture but the Institutes have been a source of controversy because of their close connection to the Chinese government.
At the Beijing Forum, Yang Rui, host of Dialogue, a leading discussion program on the English channel of CCTV, said, "I'm skeptical about how many Chinese nationals have an idea of what the symbolism of Confucianism actually stands for in the construction of China's soft power image. Especially, the implications of China's rapid development has on climate change and corruption and so forth."
Yang Rui went on, "The Cultural Revolution played a bad role in severing our ties to what we held dear in the past."
Indeed, Confucius was seen as a very conservative figure and studying him could land a person in a re-education camp.
I asked Yang Rui where was the Confucian spirit of harmony and balance to be seen in the warp-speed Chinese economy? Twenty years ago Pudong was an agricultural area across the Huangpu River from Shanghai. Today it is the first city of the 21st century with a skyline that arguably surpasses Manhattan's.
How is this an expression of balance, harmony, respect for the past and love of nature?
"You shouldn't get mislead by rising skylines." the TV host said. "The essence of Confucianism is to encourage people to work very hard and the high rise buildings in Shanghai and Pudong stand for the enormous commitment of migrant workers [from the Chinese countryside]."
Confucianism is still not recognized as a religion in China, although that doesn't stop people going to Confucian temples, lighting candles and kowtowing to his image for favors and help.
But it is what Confucius means in the political arena that outsiders should pay attention to. Many in the West see Confucianism, with its emphasis on filial piety and obedience to superiors, as inherently reactionary. Professor Tu says this is not the case, that Confucius was a "revolutionary" in his own time and that his ideas are actually quite subversive.
For example, he said, in Confucianism obedience and respect between rulers and ruled is a two-way street.
Prof. Tu wrote: "The Master says, the main cause of conflict in the political arena is abandonment of righteousness by the ruling minority. It is right conduct that allows the minority who govern and don't work for a living their privileges."
When rulers lose their way, those who work for a living can correct them, even remove them, without breaking the bonds of duty that hold society together.