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September 01, 2008


Hi Namit! I really enjoyed this!! I will be responding at my place to you later, but for now, a few quick things:

1) I don't think it's the mainland chinese government (CCP) that is agressively promoting the overseas confucian centers, but rather communities of overseas Chinese people in places like Canada or California.

2) Also, the mainland Chinese gov't's lukewarm co-opting of Confucianism for the Olympics is extremely new-- so I don't necessarily believe they are co-opting the sage to help drive voluntary repression (they don't actually require Confucius for that).

3) I really disagree that East Asian governments are utilizing Confucianism to repress their people as you imply. Places like Singapore, Korea and Japan with their paternalistic styles of government that hold up social harmony (sometimes even beyond individual liberty) are fine examples of a kind of confucian-style society-- I don't know. Having lived my entire adult life in East Asia I have never once felt that the People are struggling to break free of a repressive kind of government so they can form a free, more individual society like the US, for example. I would really argue the opposite, in fact.

4) The Philosophers Zone has a really good show on new confucianism last week that I highly recommend

Thanks Peony. I'll keep an eye on your place. I had planned a follow-on post to reflect in more detail on politics and society in modern China. Allow me a few days. For now here is a quick response.

It is one thing for a culture to not exhibit a thirst for democracy, or western-style individualism. I agree, this is generally true in Chinese cultural territories, and that these are aspects of diversity with no a priori moral disadvantages. But it is another thing for an authoritarian, single-party government to argue that certain rights in the UN charter are not relevant or desired by its people, because in their culture "individuals must put the states' rights before their own" (Chinese foreign minister at the Human Rights conference in Vienna), etc.

Who decides that freedom from indefinite detention without trial, justice, freedom of movement or religion, and intellectual dissent are non-Asian values? Or visiting any site on the web—like shunya.net, banned in China! Far more than "Asian values" (which do differ in many ways from "Western values")—each time the Chinese or Singaporean regimes invoke that term to justify their actions—all I see are the universal "values of power". Paying lip service to Confucius only helps legitimize their mission and methods (do read Sen on this).

Btw, check out Xinhuanet: "The Confucius Institute Headquarters [in Beijing] is a non-profit institute under the Chinese Ministry of Education. It sponsors courses of Chinese language and culture to promote better understanding of the Chinese language and culture around the world. It now has more than 260 headquarters in 75 countries [since 2004]" and has been criticized as "a platform for the Chinese government."

In brief, I think you will find the going rough if you lump together governments as diverse as mainland China's with Singapore or other "east Asian counties;" (Japan or Korea for example) many of which do, in fact, evoke the term Asian Values. The region is just much too diverse and "Confucianism" and "Asian values" mean different things in different places.

On the same note, I do think it mis-leading to imply that Confucian centers around the world are an arm of repressive regimes-- this may be true in some, not in others. Overseas South Korean communities, for example, organize such cultural programs. That's the thing-- East Asia and Confucian societies are amazingly diverse, as is the concept of Confucianism within the various societies.


PS: One more quick note: When the Chinese minister said what he said in Vienna--I would guess his reasons had more to do with Chinese communist party philosophy than with Confucius or Asian values, and again the "Asian values" made famous by Mahathir 10-15 years ago, are very different from the Confucianism of Korea or the neo-Confucianism we see being expressed very very recently in mainland China... Japan of course very rarely-- if ever-- uses any of these terms diplomatically as they have another very different model of being different from the Western values.

You might be interested in Daniel Bell's new book.
Looking forward to hearing more in your next post.

Have a great week!

I don't disagree with you but I'm puzzled by your reading. Where did I mention or imply Japan and S Korea? My post says "market-friendly authoritarian regimes of East Asia" -- Japan and S Korea are democracies. I then added that "authoritarian, single-party governments" (citing China and Singapore) are not to be trusted to represent or promote "Asian values" (and I only spoke of the Chinese Confucius Institutes, not S Korean or others -- where did I imply the latter?).

Indeed, "Asian values" and "Confucian values" are not the same and I'm not interested here in how they differ. My point is that all this talk of "cultural values" by authoritarian regimes (especially while opposing human rights at UN conferences) is designed to preserve their own power (and Confucius is now opportunistically co-opted as an ally, just as how the Hindu right wing simplifies and idealizes historical figures like Shivaji for legitimacy and nationalism). Among other things, it helps the CCP average 27 executions a day, many without trial. They are the ones who, with their "values talk", collapse the diversity within their own societies. As Sen notes,

The recognition of diversity within different cultures is extremely important in the contemporary world, since we are constantly bombarded by oversimple generalizations about "Western civilization," "Asian values," "African cultures," and so on. These unfounded readings of history and civilization are not only intellectually shallow, they also add to the divisiveness of the world in which we live. The authoritarian readings of Asian values that are increasingly championed in some quarters do not survive scrutiny...

Hi Namit-- If you go back and look at my original comment, I was trying to say 3 things: 1) That not all Confucian centers are aggressive arms of the Chinese Communist party; 2) there is a huge difference between China and Singapore (and then because you mentioned **East Asia** I added the so-called paternal-style governments of Korea and Japan-); and 3) that the Chinese government's flirting with what it calls "humanism" and the new Confucianism is very recent and to my mind has not be used to validate communist party philosophy to the extent you are implying here (their rhetoric, I think has more to do with Nationalism than any kind of "Asian Values"-- which I have rarely if ever heard coming from Mainland China).

These were my only points. The conversation unfortunately is going off on a real tangent ....

Too much is being conflated for my personal preferance.

Interestingly, China plays the "culture card" to a far less degree than Asian liberal democracies. I mean when Japan didn't want to buy American beef what did it say? What else could it have said? And, is the only alternative to playing the "culture values" card, just joining the dominate cultural hegemon? Malaysia and other southeast Asian nations often cite the "Asian values" card for that reason as well. France does as well-- but does this mean that French culture is being used to prop up an evil empire? No, it is more complicated I think.

Individual rights are subordinate to the state in varying degrees in many places around the world--and different countries cite different reasons.

Is a democracy with rampant corruption and corporate favortism preferable to a one-part state which delivers universal health care, safe streets and educational opportunities? Or what about an open society with corruption and organized crime at unprecedented levels? Singapore, of course, being a 1 party state without firewalls or executions. Don't you gloss over a hugely significant difference by lumping Singapore and China together just because they both are ostensibly Confucianism (and China only in like the last several years after decades of taboo??)

Anyway, I actually have nothing interesting to say on this topic so am signing off!


Peony, thanks for the clarification. You do have interesting things to say. A couple more observations on your last comment:

-- Yes, almost every government plays the "culture card", but few play it to deny human rights (that makes France different from China).

-- Are free speech and fair trials the most important human rights? No. I see this as a red-herring question that frequently comes up when criticisms of China emerge. China has done well on many fronts, but poorly on others. For an individual to call this out can be just that: a critical evaluation, empathy for a people, a hope for improvement, or the desire to not be on the side of the executioners. Why conclude that democracy is being proposed as the cure-all (maybe because some do that I suppose, but not me)? One can strive to be progressive without being self-righteous (I'm echoing Orville Schell). Nor should we assume that it is a zero-sum game, i.e., universal health care is mutually exclusive from the right to expression, or safe streets are mutually exclusive from freedom of religion. What do you think?

You know I always agree with you! :)

Note to readers:
Peony, a woman of her word, has a terrific response up on her blog. Check it out.

I couldn't help but notice, that while you said Confucius would have disapproved of Neo-Confucianism, you failed to support that point. I just happen to have the opposite impression after reading the Analects, so I was wondering if I had missed or had forgotten the evidence that you allude to when you say that. I'm simply curious, and in no way, am I trying to sound snide or flippant.


My reading of the Analects and commentaries on it by Simon Leys and Jonathan Spence persuaded me that Neo-Confucianism was much more conservative and hierarchical than what the sage stood for. For e.g., he did not elevate obedience or submission to authority to the extent that Neo-Confucianism did, and had encouraged resistance to unjust rulers, to the point of even sacrificing one's life for principles (don't ask me for full citations next). As I see it, Neo-Confucianism represented a "tightening of the screws" rather than a discontinuity.

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