Asia in a state of Confucian

Asian Values and Human Rights

June 4, 1999

This expose of political opportunism in East and Southeast Asia reminded me of a communications class at Singapore's Nanyang Technological University where a Chinese girl asked straight-faced for the GDP level that would allow people to qualify for political rights. Clearly, younger Asians are not taken in by leaders who extol "Confucianism", "Asian values" and the get-rich-first slogan to justify authoritarianism. William Theodore de Bary, a teacher at Columbia University and authority on East Asian civilisation, says that far from encouraging political relaxation, China's economic liberalisation has prompted bureaucrats and businessmen to collude in perpetuating the repressive but lucrative status quo.

Poor Master Kongzi must be turning in his grave - if he ever rested in one that is - for other American sinologists like Lionel M. Jensen, E. Bruce and A. Taeko Brooks now suggest that he was more myth than man. Blamed for China's backwardness, castigated during the Cultural Revolution, credited with the boom in Chinese-dominated countries, cited to denounce liberal values and democratic institutions ("undesirable formalisms", according to Liu Shaoqi), and exalted as a formal faith by Tu Wei-ming and the new Confucians, Confucianism is held up by de Bary as the fount of true liberty. He draws on indigenous sources, including little-known ancient texts, modern reformers and the Great Helmsman himself, to argue, as Amartya Sen did in his Hans Morgenthau Memorial Lecture, that Confucianism never extended blanket endorsement to totalitarianism. It upheld the right of "all-under-heaven", ie society as a whole, to organise against abuse of power and even overthrow bad rulers. Moreover, Confucianists helped to draft the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which Beijing signed belatedly (presumably because it could advance no Confucian argument for not doing so) though this has not stopped violations in Tibet and elsewhere.

De Bary's book should be compulsory reading for all pragmatists who hold with Percy Craddock and Henry Kissinger that the only way of improving the lot of 1.2 billion Chinese is to pamper Jiang Zemin and other beneficiaries of the Tiananmen Square massacre. It might also educate western businessmen dazzled by the thesis propagated by Lee Kuan Yew ("who most visibly dramatised the combination of authoritarian direction, high-speed economic progress, and the promotion of Confucian values") that economic success is impossible without stamping out the popular exuberance that animates life in countries like India and the Philippines.

Not that Confucianism exactly parallels modern ideas of civil liberty and democratic governance. Apart from a few thinkers who advocated institutions to protect public rights, the traditional emphasis is less on law and constitutionality than rites, family ties and social norms. This is only natural in a medieval ethic without a middle class to create a political infrastructure or civil society, and further confirms that the difference between East and West is not qualitative but of different stages of development.

De Bary's descent from culture to politics is somewhat abrupt, but much can be forgiven someone who demolishes the pretence "that modern human rights conceptions are exclusively western, culture-bound, and inapplicable to China or the rest of Asia" and shows that the dissident demand for a Fifth Freedom is rooted firmly in Confucian scripture. The Kongzi controversy need not overshadow this more important debate focusing on a living tradition and not a historical figure. But it would be the joke of the century if the prophet and the cult that Asians have invested in turn out to be Jesuit inventions.

Sunanda Datta-Ray is an essayist for Time magazine, and was formerly editorial consultant, The Straits Times.

Asian Values and Human Rights: A Confucian Communitarian Perspective

Author - William Theodore de Bary
ISBN - 0 674 04955 1
Publisher - Harvard University Press
Price - £17.50
Pages - 196

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