11 April 2012

Kang Youwei and China’s own radical Tory tradition

Kang Youwei 康有為 (Image courtesy Encyclopaedia Britannica)

The current political situation of China is, to put it mildly, grim. Bo Xilai, a confident breath of fresh and honest wind into a political culture characterised by secrecy, paranoia and opacity, has been effectively snuffed out by precisely the authoritarian structure he sought to challenge, hoisted upon precisely the political rhetoric he sought to make political hay from. His wife is accused of the murder of Mr Neil Haywood (whose death, it cannot be emphasised enough, was thought by his closest friends and next-of-kin, including his wife, his sister and his mother, to be perfectly natural and who had no suspicion of foul play), and it is likely that Mr Bo will be safely swept under the rug, into house arrest, into the hinterlands or into a prison where he may suffer a very politically-convenient and not-at-all-suspicious death in a game of hide-and-seek.

Yet the alternatives to the CCP presented by the two current strongest political factions – the Maoists and the neoliberals – are very little better. In fact, it is quitearguable they aren’t really even alternatives: they merely represent the two extremes of the range of opinions which have already been evinced by high officials within the Party apparatus, with a few variations from the party line tacked on from orthodox Marxism or from orthodox Washington Consensus thought. But this is not to claim that all alternatives have been exhausted. The non-Maoist elements of the Chinese New Left remain. Also, patriotism remains very strong in China, even amongst Western-educated Chinese youth, as does the suspicion that not every political solution needs arrive in China neatly prepackaged and posted from the sociology or economics departments of Western academia. Indeed, the time may be ripe for a re-evaluation of the thought of Kang Youwei 康有為.

Kang Youwei, a thinker influenced heavily by Buddhism, by the Wang Yangming school of neo-Confucianism and by the textual-critical school of Confucianism popular in late Qing China, was the most influential of the Confucian philosophers to see Confucius not as a reactionary but rather as a humanist reformer, and build on this interpretation from a careful reading of the Classics. His magnum opus, the Datongshu 大同書, sets out an idealised vision of a Confucian society in which class, race and age conflicts have been overcome, in which property has been circumscribed and in which everyone enjoys a dignified standard of living – though, like St Sir Thomas More’s Utopia, it is to be read with a few grains of salt given Mr Kang’s Confucian and Buddhist background. He set out a vision of reform for the Qing Dynasty which borrowed inspiration from the British model of constitutional monarchy and from pre-Marxist socialist thought, but which remained firmly grounded in a Confucian cosmogony and legitimation of power. (Sadly, from the thought he encountered he borrowed several racist, eugenicist concepts which his work could well have done without – though thankfully his respect for human dignity did not allow him to take these concepts to the anti-human extremes of sterilisation and euthanasia for those deemed ‘inferior’.) His thought had a great influence on the young Aisin-Gioro hala-i Dzai Tiyan (the Guangxu Emperor 光緒帝), and inaugurated the abortive Hundred Days’ Reform. Though Kang is often blamed for causing the Hundred Days’ Reform to have failed by virtue of his arrogance, of his naivety in his dealings with the British and of his miscalculation of the political will of the Qing diehards, it speaks to his own credit that he kept the Guangxu Emperor apprised of his every move (including his dealings with the Welsh Baptist missionary and diplomat Timothy Richard).

The quashing of the Hundred Days’ Reform by Cixi provoked Kang’s subsequent flight to British Columbia, where he founded the reform-monarchist society Baohuanghui (the ‘Protect the Emperor Society’ 保皇會, with the Emperor in question being Guangxu), one of the largest civic organisations amongst Chinese-Americans and Chinese-Canadians in the world at that time. The Baohuanghui, led by Kang Youwei and his pupil, Liang Qichao 梁啟超, competed primarily with Sun Yat-Sen’s revolutionary, republican United Society 同盟會 for political influence amongst overseas Chinese. Eventually, as history played out, the Tongmenghui (which later merged with the Xingzhonghui 興中會 into the Nationalist Party or Guomindang 國民黨) would win the hearts and minds of most Chinese people, and Kang Youwei’s later efforts to uphold the Qing Dynasty would come to be seen as the last futile gasp of a reformist whom time had passed by. Though Kang Youwei’s thought had indeed become more leftist over time, he had never really lost his faith in a monarchical system of government or in Confucianism – the fact that he went from being considered a dangerous radical in his youth to being a misguided reactionary in his old age showed how greatly attitudes in China itself had changed. The man of the hour was not to be the radical reformer Kang Youwei, but rather the even more radical revolutionary Sun Yat-Sen.

It is quite tempting to see in Kang’s cautious Anglophilia and his attachment to the monarchy the work of a form of Tory radicalism finding a comfortable ally in traditional Confucian thought. But all the more so when his work is being adapted to a modern Chinese outlook on politics by Kang Xiaoguang 康曉光 of the People’s University in Beijing. Though in his early career he collaborated with Chinese New Left intellectuals such as Wang Shaoguang 王紹光 on articles tackling poverty issues and regional imbalances in development, and though he retains a radical and economically-egalitarian bent in his politics, recently he has taken up the intellectual mantle of Kang Youwei and the cause of re-Confucianising Chinese society. His thought shares much in common with Catholic social teaching: he wants to see good government first, and an economy with a basis in compassion and morality, with an emphasis on securing the basic welfare of the poorest and most vulnerable. However, Dr Kang’s Tory side begins creeping in with his well-thought critique of liberalism, methodological individualism and political interest groups. The primary criticism I have of his work, though, is that theologically he rejects original sin as the underpinning of liberalism and capitalism – even though both are based on warped versions of the concept which find resolution (or lack of resolution) through means other than the Christian narrative of salvation. Thus it isn’t actually original sin he is attacking, but the misinterpretation and misuse of the doctrine by secular mythologies of economy and power.

Still, it is refreshing to see Kang Youwei receive a second opinion from Chinese academia eighty-five years after his death. And it is refreshing to see a revaluation of Confucianism more generally in Chinese culture. Let us hope to hear much more from Dr Kang Xiaoguang and those of like mind with him.


  1. I am finding these China posts very interesting as it is all new to me, although this naturally makes them challenging reading.

    I am as ignorant about China as the average westerner but perhaps I shouldn't be-- I lived for 4 years in Hong Kong and Taiwan as a child. My younger sister was born in Hong Kong and my older brother has been living out there for the last 3 or 4 years. My family home in the UK is full of Chinese nick-nacks.

    Is there any chance of a 'Current Chinese Politics For Complete Beginners' post, including a brief what's what of ideological camps and a who's who of important names?

  2. Hi Czarny! Welcome back to the blog!

    Actually, that is a great idea. It may take some time and will probably be a huge, wall-of-textish blog post, but you're definitely right that such an introduction might make my China-related writing a bit more accessible. I just want to say, from what you told me, there's no obligation on your part - politically speaking, even though Hong Kong and Taiwan are closely related to the mainland and even though a few of the mainland's greatest political and economic theorists come from Hong Kong, Hong Kong and Taiwan's political situations are vastly different from the mainland's, and involve very different ideological and policy debates.

    I actually don't know as much about HK / Taiwan stuff as I probably should, either. I know the basics of the history of the Guomindang on Taiwan and a bullet-point sketch of the pan-Blue / pan-Green divide, but that's about it. Except for the yearly protests and the pro-Beijing / pan-democrat divide, I know absolutely zilch about Hong Kong politics.