Only Confucians can rule China, says Kang Xiaoguang

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Prof. Kang rejects "westernisation", advocates "confucianisation"

Some information and a disclaimer about this summary here can be found to the right – "Internal link"

Kang Xiaoguang (康晓光) is a professor at China´s People´s University (Peking). His major fields are said to be Economics and Ecology. One might think that Confucianism and its possible return would be discussed by the humanities, but then, Kang Xiaoguang isn´t researching Confucianism. He believes in Confucianism as a state religion for China. And it seems that he stumbled into this subject, rather than choosing it.

I. Summary of Kang´s Speech

(A detailed English translation of Kang´s speech, and an even more detailed original, can be found under "Online sources" at the right column of this page.)

I.1. Background

According to a speech quoted on, dated November 24, 2004 at the Chinese Institute of Sociology, and posted on in December 2004, Kang felt the need for this speech to clarify an interview that he had had with Singapore´s Lianhe Zaobao (联合早报) on November 8 - sixteen days earlier. In that interview, he had claimed that democratisation of China would "bring calamity to the country and the people" (祸国殃民, huo guo yang min). Instead, he had recommended "confucianisation" in the interview. According to the above article, his interview with Zaobao had earned him a lot of criticism, angry responses, and messy scolding.

His speech states two streams of thought: one that China should be "further westernised", and one that China should be "Confucianised".
The competing model of westernisation would be "liberal democracy". Kang makes it clear from the beginning that he wants Confucianisation for China.

To understand his ways of thinking, one has to look at his priorities:
- unity of the Chinese state (making sure that no provinces or entities break away), and
- leadership with and by a Confucian elite.

I.2. Status Quo description

This beginning of professor Kang´s actual speech is an assessment of China´s three decades of opening and reform so far, and its situation today. He lauds the economic growth that has been achieved, and its role in keeping China politically stable. And he points to a dramatic shift in Chinese class relations, which he welcomes, just as well: that the farmers and workers are no longer the elite (精英, jing ying), but that capitalists and intellectuals (知识分子, zhishi fenzi) are.
Kang, to put it mildly, is hard-headedly elitist. China´s leadership, he says, has switched its priorities, and class alliances – and rightly so. It wasn´t the majority that mattered, but the economic and social contributions of the classes. And what should matter most to China´s Communist Party, when choosing its allies, should be the influence of them, not their strength in numbers. Majorities should not be the issue, but the unity of the advantaged groups.

Kang´s statements and assessments are remarkably sober. It seems to me that only the West´s most critical intellectuals might be as specific when naming their own societies´ deficits and potentials. His article may earn him influential friends, through the same logic that he recommends to his country´s leadership for its general policies. On the other hand, it might not be difficult to make a case against him personally for cold cynicism and chumming-up, either.

That isn´t Kang´s concern. He demands that the "masses" should get sustainable lives, for the sake of China´s stability. He argues that China can´t remain stable if the poor starve, just because the rich have no moral compass. Kang suggests that with the current vacuum of moral standards, there can be no lasting stability for China.
Thus, for moral and practical reasons alike, Kang rejects the status quo and its lack of moral principles.

I.3. Rejection of "liberal democracy"

Kang then looks at what he calls "liberal democracy" (自由民主主义, ziyou minzhu zhuyi) – what he apparently sees as the equivalent to, if not a Trojan Horse of, "westernisation" (西方化, xifanghua).
Liberal democracy, says Kang, can´t solve China´s problems. Practicing it in China would amount to an irresponsible experiment, and instead of doing that, one should look at the actual performance of democracy where it is already practised. In a survey he refers to, he chose India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Russia, and former Yugoslavia. Outside Asia and Europe, the countries he looked at were Egypt, Argentina, Brazil, Mexico, and Peru. In addition to mainland China, Kang reviewed Hong Kong, Taiwan, Singapore, and China - the latter ones for their cultural proximity to the mainland.
He does not elaborate on his methodology in detail. However, he recapitulates his findings concerning these countries´ showings in terms of political corruption, GDP growth, and the Gini coefficient (measuring inequalities of income within a national economy). His sources are the World Bank´s World Governance Report, and Transparency International. Kang sees nothing that would suggest a positive influence of liberal democracy on any of the data he compared in his previous survey.
Again, he is not afraid of being "politically incorrect". He refers to China as an "empire system" (帝国体制, diguo tizhi), and not actually a nation state. He refers to the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia – democracy, he says, may go hand in hand with national break-up.

Thus, he argues, democracy would not solve China´s problems, and would be useless for China, as the common people wanted solutions in the first place.
He then claims that some of democracy´s values are bad. He mentions individualism (个人主义, ge ren zhuyi), the (allegedly Western) view of man´s "evilness by nature" (xing ´e lun 性恶论) and its view of government "as a necessary evil" (必要的恶, biyao de `e). Individualism without the state propagating certain mainstream values (主流的价值, zhuliu de jiazhi) would lead to instability, says Kang. The idea that people were "evil by nature" was no convincing concept, as man held both the potential of doing bad, or doing good. And he states that government was a "virtue", and refers back to Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (黑格尔) without elaborating here. To Kang, democracy doesn´t work, because it doesn´t fulfill its own promises. Democracy would require equality, says Kang, and for being market economies, liberal democracies could not bring equality about. As money controls elections and parliaments alike, the bourgeoisie would be the leading class, one-man-one-vote notwithstanding.
Kang´s assessment is that the status quo in China - money ruling all human and political relations - was quite the same in the United States and China.

I.4. Advocating "confucianisation"

Confucianism´s strengths, according to Kang, lie in its ability to commiserate with the miserable. The value it could thus offer China is compassion. With "benevolent government", China could maintain the advantages of the status quo, and eliminate its disadvantages.

Kang´s champions are Confucius (孔子, Kong) and Mencius (孟子, Meng). Both of them are mentioned in his article, while some others, like Xun Zi (荀子) and his disciples, are not. Neo-Confucianism doesn´t seem to play a role, either. Only the "virtuous" have the license to rule China, says Kang, and the "virtuous" are Confucians. No one else should be qualified, but also states that a virtuous (Confucian) government owes good governance to everyone - not just Confucians.

Kang issues a certificate for Confucianism in both the fields of maintaining benevolent government (仁政, ren zheng), and overthrowing governments that lack virtue. Of course, revolution would be a last resort only. Kang equates the way virtuous governments led and convinced by example in China´s classical past, with the way Deng Xiaoping (邓小平) passed political power on to Jiang Zemin (江泽民), and how power was transferred from Jiang to Hu Jintao (胡锦涛) more recently. And he also refers to Hong Kong´s ways of government which isn´t really democratic, but so far efficient, too. An administration may do without political parties, as long as it finds ways to act in accordance with a country´s or territory´s major interest groups - which requires some kind of dialogue to learn about these interests.

One could say that for being Confucian in an uncompromising way, Kang´s treatise is anti-marxist. It can be so, because China´s reality is not "marxist", either. No one in China would dispute that reality and marxism are different worlds. But while Marxism can´t reconcile its own values and China´s reality, Kang says Confucianism can. Adding to that, he says, benevolent government was a more convincing concept than Marxism, in terms of legitimacy.

Confucianism, according to Kang, must control the educational system, the party, and all of the government. In the long run, it must become a state religion, as well. Kang believes that this would make China a strong competitor with the West - in terms of values. He finalises his article with an old pattern. He uses the terms "instrumental" and "consummatory" culture. But he could use "wai yong, zhong ti", just as well. During the past 160 years of confrontation between China and the West, or Chinese and Western concepts, "zhong ti xi yong," (中体西用), or zhong ti wai yong – something like "using foreign tools, but remaining Chinese in substance" - has been a slogan. I haven´t seen it in the Chinese press as something actually advocated since the mid-1990s, and I have no idea about the previous decades. But if it is up to Kang, the old argument apparently should come back, and win the debate.

II. My perception

II.1. Blurred Boundaries of Religious Beliefs

Depending on one´s personal stance on religions, one might say that there have never been clear-cut boundaries between them. Religion isn´t about intellectual property rights. My guess is that the sources of Christianity are all Jewish, and those of Islam, just as well.

As for Confucianism and Taoism, things may be more complicated. It isn´t always easy to tell if someone who advocates either Confucianism or Taoism, or any bit of their ideas, is actually referring to them as philosophy, or as religion. (Kang´s sales effort, however, clearly includes a role for Confucianism as a state religion.) In fact, Confucianism and Taoism both have philosophical, plus religious, traditions.

Daily practice is much less distinguishable than the big, classical traditions. There are, of course, Chinese people who consider themselves merely Confucian, Taoist, Buddhist, Christian, or Muslim. But with the possible exceptions of Christians, Tibetan Buddhists, or Muslims from Xinjiang, people in China seem to be a bit of everything, or don´t care much about religion or philosophy at all.

The Classics themselves are clearly distinguishable from each other, but might cross their mutual boundaries, too. Sometimes, the Taoist works include Confucius himself – sometimes more, sometimes less respectfully depicted. When he is recognised as a wise man in some passages, it is because these passages make him talk in a way that suits the Taoist author. In those cases where Confucius doesn´t embrace Taoist ideas, he is made fun of or proven wrong.

But while Confucius is an occasional guest in Taoist works, Confucianism and Taoism are different schools of thought. Confucianism has always been conservative, has revered tradition, and advocated the status quo. Contrary to what Kang says, it has hardly ever, if at all, been revolutionary. Revolutionary movements, from classical peasant revolts during the old imperial days to the years of Maoism, were rather inspired by Taoism.
Taoism emphasises nature; Confucianism emphasises civilisation. Confucianism stood for tradition and conservatism, Taoism stood for curiosity and experiment. There were cases where Confucians or Neo-Confucians adopted Taoist ideas, and where Taoists, especially those of Huainan, adopted Confucian ones, in times of competition and debate between the two schools. Joseph Needham went as far as to claim that classical Taoist practice included "proto-science",: "The profound influence of Taoism on Chinese science, proto-science and medicine has been emphasized throughout our volumes." It may still be questionable to call Taoism the mother of Chinese science altogether – but I can´t think of Confucianism being its father, at all. Taoism matters in Chinese history and its present tense, and its importance can´t be denied in a serious argument. Kang´s either/or question at the beginning (either westernisation, or confucianisation) is already misleading.

II.2. Kang´s View of the West

The previous paragraphs were about Chinese philosophy and religion – now I´m going home to the West. When reading Kang´s reasons for criticising and rejecting "liberal democracy", I was confused, for a while. It then occurred to me that maybe Kang didn´t understand the way Western societies work. But Kang has apparently spent some or a lot of time in Western countries, and has experienced them by himself. So I can only speculate here. My impression of his approach is that he first inflates the standards and pretence of liberal-democracy values – to make them look only the poorer in daily practice. He adopts the idealising ways of Ronald Reagan or George Bush junior when they praised or praise democracy. When criticising Western shortcomings in the real world, Kang switches to a style as scathing as by a powerfully eloquent native American chief of the 19th century, lamenting the sad fate of his tribe.

This may be a smart approach if you want to make liberal democracy look unattractive to a Chinese audience. But it is no clever approach if you really want to research the Western ways. From Winston Churchill to Jacques Chirac, Western politicians and many of their electorate have viewed liberal democracy as no perfect model, but still the most practical modus operandi to reconcile the goals of the individual – rich or poor – with the needs of a nation, a society, or the world. Then again, these were European politicians, while Kang focuses on America. As for America again, he does so on neo-conservative ideas, which isn´t really talking liberal democracy. Kang´s approach looks quite distorted here.

He then suggests that Western culture thinks of mankind as evil by nature. This may actually be a referral to the biblical concept of original sin. Original sin may still be a concept of certain Christian schools, but was only mainstream before enlightenment. It hasn´t been an official Western doctrine for several centuries. Take this quote from John F. Kennedy, for example:
"Our problems are manmade – therefore they can be solved by man. And man can be as big as he wants. No problem of human destiny is beyond human beings." This is no official Roman Catholic position. Kennedy was a Catholic. But as a citizen and as a leader of his country, and as a faithful Catholic, he was free to disagree with Catholic dogma.

Isn´t it rather Kang Xiaoguang and not the Western mainstream, who believes in the evilness of humankind? His rather modest expectations for China´s future society – not a just one, but with luck just about fair enough not to let the poor die in the streets, almost seem to suggest that. And the way he is seeking alliances of the privileged looks like the approach of a privileged man who is scared of his own people.

II.3. Kang´s line about Hegel

Hegel pointed out the virtue of the state long ago, says Kang. I´m not sure why he wants to use Hegel as a reference. Orthodox Confucianism should be able to do without the old lecturer from Berlin. But if Hegel really matters in this context, Kang can hardly call him into the witness box. Hegel, after all, was clearly against philosophical advice to government. Ideally, philosophy was a private matter to him, not a public one. Philosophy, Hegel said, was not there "to teach the state" as to which shape or ways it should take. To him, the state in its current form was a moral universe that needed to be recognised and understood, and nothing that needed any kind of philosophical advice for change. So where would be the need to demand confucianisation of China´s ruling party, if Hegel were right?

As for the allegedly Western concept of government as a "necessary evil", Ronald Reagan didn´t speak for the West all alone, either. Neither John F. Kennedy, Lyndon B. Johnson, nor Franklin D. Roosevelt considered government a necessary evil – and in Europe, the welfare state is an almost undisputed virtue. If there is an argument about it, it is only about how to make it work best.

II.4. Conclusion

In the end, Kang´s only working point for Confucian orthodoxy, and a role for it as a state religion, as the exclusive doctrine for government and education, is that it had worked before. However, he says nothing that would prove its success in the past – and nothing that would suggest a successful role of it in the future.

He also fails to see how human nature and thought actually work. Diversity is nothing "Western" or "un-Chinese". Even if Kang had his way and "confucianised" the Communist Party of China (the Taoists, Buddhists, atheists and Marxists happily and idly watching from the sidelines), the "alliance of the privileged" won´t accept it. Kang can´t wash peoples´ brains, and the more Chinese people pass the threshold of modest prosperity, the more will demand their own say in politics. And that say will be Confucian only in individual cases.

Besides, a monopoly on education and government is not helpful for development. Kang never refers to innovation and creativity in his speech. Doesn´t he understand that competition and innovation – not only in business – are inevitable drivers of economic growth? The world is full of examples where religiously inspired political rule has ruined nations, and all zealots had previously considered themselves saviours. Hard to believe that a Chinese scholar is advocating more of the same for his own country.

Kang himself acts like a religious zealot. That makes him unable to acknowledge the achievements of others. He refers to the role of revolution – as a last resort – as if it had been included in the historical Confucian toolkit. But as shown before, revolution or rebellion have not been the business of Confucians, but rather of Taoists. As a reader of the Economist from Singapore puts it in his letter to the editor:
"Confucius taught that people should have undivided faith in and obedience to authority, irrespective of the nature of the establishment."

There is no future in the past.


Internal links
Disclaimer, sources, and motivation for this article

An Italian view on Taoism

Online sources
Professor Kang´s speech in Chinese
December 10, 2004


An English translation (most or all of the original core message)
Spring 2006

Further external links
Wang is not unusual, there are nearly a billion and a half other people just like him. He is a product of his society, and this is his life... June 28, 2007

CSIS say: Confucius part of Chinese bid to win over western hearts
article online since May 28, 2007

Confucius makes a comeback
May 17th 2007

Daniel Bell: From Marx to Confucius: Changing Discourses on China´s Political Future
Spring 2007

Teaching Political Theory in Beijing: Prof. Daniel A. Bell sees more liberties in mainland seminars, than in Singaporean ones. A detailed account of personal experience.
Spring 2006

"Kang Xiaoguang in the strong currents of Confucianism": Biography and a summary of theories (in Chinese)
November 2005

"There is no fundamental conflict between Confucianism and the value of democracy."
Keqian Xu, research report of April 27, 2004

Antonio Gramsci and cultural hegemony

Related internal links
Hong Kong: One country – two systems?
autonomy matters

Sources and Tools

Kang Xiaoguang links (see top of this page, right column, "Online sources"

Cleary, Thomas (editor): Das Tao der Politik (The Tao of Politics), translated by Ingrid Fischer-Schreiber, Bern, Munich, Vienna, 1991.

Concise English-Chinese Chinese-English Dictionary, Shangwu yinshuguan, Beijing, 1986, 1997.

The Economist, London, May 19th, 2007: "Confucius makes a Comeback", page 55.

Franke, Herbert / Trauzettel, Rolf (editors): Das Chinesische Kaiserreich, Fischer Weltgeschichte volume 19, Frankfurt a. M., 1965, 1988, 1989 (revised)

Gadamer, Hans-Georg (editor): Philosophisches Lesebuch, vol. 3, Frankfurt a. M., 1965, 1988, 1989, 1990 (revised), page 97 –109, excerpts from a lecture by Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel: "Grundlinien der Philosophie des Rechts, Vorrede, Berlin, June 25, 1820.

Needham, Joseph: Wissenschaft und Zivilisation in China (The Shorter Science and Civilisation in China), edited by Colin A. Ronan, translated by Rainer Herbster, Frankfurt a. M., 1984.

Tan Boon Tee, Letter to the editor, The Economist, London, June 2, 2007, page 18

Xin Han De Cidian, Das neue Chinesisch-Deutsche Wörterbuch, Shangwu yinshuguan, Beijing, 1985
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