October 12, 2019 - 6:30am

This week’s long read recommendation, from T.H. Jiang and Shaun O’Dwyer at the excellent Palladium Magazine, looks at the rise of authoritarian Confucianism as an increasingly dominant state doctrine in modern China.

This revival of Confucianism has become part of the Zeitgeist of contemporary China. What lies at the core of this project is to redefine the relationship between the Communist Party, the Confucian tradition, and Chinese history […].

Liu Xiaofeng, a professor of classics at Renmin University, promotes the idea that the CCP, as an elite group, is the modern incarnation of premodern Confucian literati-bureaucrats, whose superior intellectual and moral virtues entitle them to function as the grand tutor of the people.  In contemporary China, argues Liu, the task of the CCP is to uphold lofty moral ideals (moral politics or “the Kingly Way”) in order to resist the nihilism and relativism of liberal modernity, exemplified by the way of life and normative political ideals of the United States.

- Jiang and O'Dwyer

The authors describe a more liberal version of Confucianism that briefly held sway in Chinese thinking following the Opening Up of China in the 1980s, that stressed greater ideological diversity and space for individual rights. But since the turn of the century, a self-confident, authoritarian, universalising version of Confucianism has increasingly aligned itself with the CCP and is growing in power, with prominent liberal Confucians even being dismissed from university posts and banned from overseas travel.

This version presents itself explicitly as a morally superior alternative to the decadent and destructive doctrines of the West:

Confucianism, they argue, with its emphasis on the sacred “heavenly mandate,” the idea of harmony, the use of rituals to regulate personal desires and interpersonal relationships, and the respect for the educated elite, is better at “settling down the restless mind of the modern people,” pursuing moral excellence, and achieving good governance.
- Jiang and O'Dwyer

Confucian ideas in this context are seen as a set of universal values far better suited to bringing about the good life than the decadent liberal ones of human rights, equality and democracy. As the NBA remains under pressure to apologise for Daryl Morey’s tweet regarding Hong Kong, Extinction Rebellion calls for the total dismantling of Western civilisation and The American Interest worries about the structural internal fragility of the West, it may be time to turn look further east than the dubious appeal of Salafism to consider whether authoritarian Confucianism might not, in the end, be the stronger competitor as 21st-century ideological and geopolitical axes continue to shift.

Mary Harrington is a contributing editor at UnHerd.