Iron fists in velvet gloves

January 8, 1999

Progress and tradition could go hand in hand in China but only if reformists will let them, Wang Gungwu argues.

The Indian regional elections went well for the Congress Party in November, but perhaps even better for the poor and neglected who had a chance to show their displeasure against the misdeeds of the ruling coalition.

Ravinder Kumar of the Nehru Library in Delhi told a conference in Sydney of the disillusion of Indian middle and intellectual classes at the fruits of democracy while the lowest castes and classes eagerly support the chance every four or five years to kick their corrupt political leaders out.

E. H. Carr half a century ago said that dons in Oxford stopped believing in the idea of progress when they had to do their own washing up. Many ruling elites in Asia feel this way about democratic progress when they are threatened by votes of the "unwashed".

In Europe, there has been growing scepticism about the usefulness of the concept of progress as a measure of human advancement. Some writings call progress "Victorian", which links it with ideas of self-help, thrift, hard work, discipline, authoritarian fatherhood and such illiberal and other such unfashionable ideas.

In Asia, this scepticism has yet to spread. Progress, however defined, is very respected and no place more so than in universities. At its simplest, universities themselves represent progress. The more universities there are, the better for the country because they offer more opportunities for the young and talented.

It is widely believed that progress would have come faster and countries in Asia would have become richer if only there had been more scientists and engineers. Progress here equals material advancement, and this means higher standards of living, more leisure, more freedom, the protection of a just legal system, and, wherever possible, the right to throw out failed political elites.

But there are other levels that are less certain. Faith in economists and business experts has slipped somewhat with the East Asian financial crisis.

More precarious is the concern for Asia's cultural traditions. A form of this, proclaimed by some politicians as Asian values, has been the subject of so much controversy this past decade that great divisions have opened up among thinking people.

Underlying the debate is the idea that tradition and progress are inseparable. There is a view that progress grew out of certain traditions, especially when there are traditional values that directly support material progress. But there is also the view that only with material progress can Asian countries restore greatness to their ancient and perennial values. Such restorations would be regarded as themselves signs of progress, at least new progress away from the dark days when revolutionaries equated progress with the rejection of tradition.

Progress and tradition have supported each other in the European historical experience and this could also happen in Asia.

This is what underlies the deep interest in the subject in China. Last year I counted no fewer than 15 national and international conferences and workshops on tradition and Chinese civilisation. A dozen or so more are being prepared for 1999. Although none uses the word progress on their banners, it has been the common ideal with which the West has challenged China for a century.

But the word has too many associations with the Maoist regime, where it was associated with everything revolutionary, and was left of even the leftists themselves. Today, when reformists are in charge and when revolutionary zeal has been swept under the carpet, the word is suspect if not embarrassing.

But it does not really help to avoid mentioning progress. Even if the word is no more than a shorthand for advances in ideas and institutions, or the tools needed to gain wealth and power and material betterment, it is implicit even in the very defence of tradition. Conference organisers should confront the word and not be afraid to use it. In the idea of progress, the Chinese would find an almost equal amount of philosophical and historical baggage as that of tradition.

Neither idea is clear-cut, but their relationship cannot be denied. To stress tradition, and shy away from its companion word progress, will distort debate. Tradition can be strengthened by changes that made China wealthy and stable, thus progress enhances and preserves tradition. If this did not succeed, then those who rejected tradition altogether for the sake of progress would have their way.

Modern Chinese history has a wealth of material about this tragic experience. The Chinese have been chastened by failures. Many now want the Chinese to return to the idea that progress can occur only when tradition is respected. The search for the universal and perennial in Chinese tradition is seen as the only way progress can become meaningful to China.

Finally, what about the possibility of arriving at a new tradition in which progress is in-built and self-generating? In our new age of enterprise and people's rights, there is no return to the nostalgic proposition, "Chinese learning as foundation and Western learning as application", the old axiom favoured by Chinese reformers at the start of the century. What the Chinese now want may be closer to the following: "The idea of progress is the iron fist, and Chinese tradition the velvet glove." This may be a poor substitute for ordinary people, and it may be a poor substitute for those who hanker for democratic progress, but the Chinese professors who have already been doing their own washing-up might find brandishing the velvet glove well worth doing.

Wang Gungwu is director of the East Asian Institute at the National University of Singapore.

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