07 October 2014

Where are the Confucians in Hong Kong? (And are they in Beijing?)

So asks Kai Marchal over at Warp, Weft and Way. The terms of the debate set by the Umbrella Movement have not drawn practically at all from the intellectual tradition. Even in places and instances where the thought of, say, Mencius or Dong Zhongshu might be applicable here, the dearth of input from Confucian-influenced sources is very noticeable and troubling. Even though Hong Kong was spared the revolutionary upheaval of 1911 by the blunt fact of British colonial rule, it was by Sun Yat-sen’s own admission the peace, order and good government of Hong Kong (which he compared unfavourably to the corruption of the Qing Dynasty on the mainland) that turned him into a revolutionary in the first place.

The tension between the history of British colonialism in China (along with the liberal free-trade ideology which drove it) and Chinese tradition is one of long standing, particularly in Hong Kong. The fancies of James Palmer aside, a great deal of the traditionalism on display in Hong Kong is as much an expression of independence from Britain as it is a form of resistance against mainland Chinese communism. Traditional Chinese medicine (to give but one example) was banned by the British government in Hong Kong, and stayed banned until 1999. As a result, it was for a long time an underground practice in Hong Kong, one that has only begun to resurface after the handover.

The current protests only manage to scratch the surface of this lingering tension. But they do indeed touch on it. The same concerns I have mentioned above are not lost on many Hong Kongers. Which is why I am incredibly loath to dismiss the current protests out of hand as mere extensions of that imperialism: assertions of Chinese state-run media to the contrary, they simply aren’t. Which leads directly back to Kai Marchal’s question. Where are the Confucians in Hong Kong these days?

For one thing, the critique of New Confucian thinkers of Taiwan and Hong Kong from thinkers like Jiang Qing, that they have unfortunately exempted themselves from any relevant political discussion in East Asian contemporary affairs by reason of their having latched onto Western (specifically German idealist) metaphysical categories and (liberal and democratic) political concepts, is relevant here. The degree to which it is correct remains to be seen, however. Certainly even the institutionalist Confucians would have something to say about these protests; given their well-noted antipathy to entrenched financial and speculative interests, they are likely to express a high degree of sympathy with the protesters. On the other hand, though, they are likely to take exception with the means demanded (Western-style parliamentary democracy) to achieve the ends of greater equality and a higher degree of human dignity. I should note that this is only the idea that I have gotten from having read the writings of Jiang Qing, Kang Xiaoguang and Fan Ruiping. I have not spoken directly with any of them on this subject, though I do look forward to doing so this coming month.

As an interesting counterpoint to the Umbrella protests in Hong Kong, Xi Jinping has given a speech to the International Confucian Association in Beijing which provides some tantalising directions for a possible direction to the new generation of CCP leadership (if indeed they are sincere!):
In the present-day world, human civilization has made amazing progress both materially and spiritually. Material abundance, in particular, is beyond the wildest imaginations of ancient times.

Meanwhile, contemporary human beings face such outstanding problems as widening wealth gaps, endless greed for materialistic satisfaction and luxury, unrestrained extreme individualism, ever-degrading ethics, and increasing tension between man and nature.

Resolution of such conundrums not only entails utilization of the current wisdom and strength of mankind, but also calls for that of the wisdom and strength human beings have accumulated over time.

Some people of insight believe that the traditional culture of China, Confucianism included, contains important inspirations for solving the troubles facing us today.
It may signal a dramatic shift from Jiang Zemin’s governing style to Xi Jinping’s, if indeed he is sincere about bringing Confucian-motivated policy ideas to bear on the problems of ‘widening wealth gaps, endless greed for materialistic satisfaction and luxury, unrestrained extreme individualism, ever-degrading ethics and increasing tension between man and nature’! That he has made a promising start of things is evident, but it is clear that the real bulk of the work cannot be done by the CCP leadership unless it is through setting a good example. Personally, I am highly sceptical of this attempt; it would not be the first time that the CCP has tried to appropriate the legacy of Confucius. But I would be among the first to welcome genuine signs of the manifestation of a more explicitly Confucian style of governance.

It would be best for China as a whole, including Hong Kong, if Hong Kong could bring its (much-needed!) spirit of alarm and revolt to bear upon the adoption of means which are not so overtly aligned with the geopolitical and ideological aims of a post-Christian West, and if the government in China could respond by applying itself to a critical self-examination in the spirit of Xi Jinping’s recent address.

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