Millennium Post

Of Confucius and China

The widespread famine in China from 1958 to 1962, which reportedly caused at least 45 million deaths, was not only because of drought and poor weather, but also due to the policies of the Communist Party of China. 

And it was during this period from 1958 to 1960, that Mao Zedong’s “Great Leap Forward” failed, followed by an economic crash. He then gathered a group of radicals, including his wife Jiang Qing and defense minister Lin Biao, to help him attack the then party leadership and reassert his authority. 

In August 1966, at a meeting of the Plenum of the Central Committee, Mao launched the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution. Shutting down schools countrywide, he artfully began his massive programme of indoctrinating the youth to take current party leaders to task for their “bourgeois values and lack of revolutionary spirit”. The Little Red Book with Mao’s quotations was distributed to the masses. Then came the student’s force called the Red Guards, who attacked and harassed China’s elderly and intellectual population and soon after a personality cult formed around Mao. The Cultural Revolution resulted in over 1.5 million people being killed, while many millions more suffered imprisonment, seizure of property, torture, and general humiliation.

Confucius, during this “cultural” revolution, was vilified by way of posters distorting his image and some of which had captions bordering on the obscene.

The author believes that there “change is in the air” in China which makes it both “very interesting and unpredictable.” Her book dwells on China experiencing a revival of Confucianism and traditional culture as citizens’ unrest and frustrations grow. She argues that Confucius evokes much interest today because going back to China’s value systems and seeking national identity was considered important, once China recovered from the excesses of the Cultural Revolution. The present leadership feels that resurrecting Confucius, with his emphasis on promotion of social harmony, could help it deal with the problems of transition, corruption, and rising inequities. “Confucian thought and values definitely lurk in the shadows of the Chinese landscape”, she asserts.

<g data-gr-id="61">Surie</g> aptly cites Confucius who said that understanding what the future holds requires grasping the lessons of the past. By this <g data-gr-id="62">yard stick</g>, it is indeed essential that, as she puts it, “we must understand where China has come from and what has shaped it. She delves into the psyche of the Chinese people and its leadership. History, traditions, beliefs, and the lasting impact of various systems of thought – Buddhism, Confucianism, Daoism, and Communism. Drawing liberally from poetry, art, paintings, personal observations during her travels in China, and her extensive interactions with common people and scholars, the author presents a panorama of glimpses of contemporary China.

Propelled by Confucian structures of benevolence, caring, and social cohesiveness comes the Confucian understanding of <g data-gr-id="73">law</g>. Confucius said that rule of law should be preferred to rule by law. The people should be law abiding by choice, by <g data-gr-id="72">membership</g> to their community, not simply because they are punishable by law. In this version of restorative justice arbitration and mediation were prioritised over litigation.

The head of the Communist Party of China being the <g data-gr-id="69">patriarch,</g> also looks after the women in the family and it is interesting to look at gender issues in relation to this. Of late there has been a lot written and said in the media about the five Chinese feminists who planned a huge public awareness programme against sexual harassment on Women’s Day this year by passing around pamphlets and putting stickers on public transport. The feminists have been detained and discussions are rife on social media networks about whether when President Xi Jinping talks about a Confucian patriarchal state, he means protecting the women, or whether they should be rising up for themselves. Such issues are being discussed with great fervour.

Over 300 Confucious Institutes have been set up worldwide covering 78 countries and a number of Chinese universities have included “Studies on Confucian Thought” in their curriculum. Obviously it is not because the Communist Party favours or follows Confucian values, but finds it convenient to project the same to counter the invasion of Western culture. 

In April 1989 protests were triggered by the death of former Communist Party General Secretary Hu Yaobang, a liberal reformer, who was deposed after losing a power struggle with hardliners over the direction of political and economic reforms. University students marched and gathered in Tiananmen Square to mourn Hu and also voiced grievances against inflation, limited career prospects, and corruption of the party elite. 

The protesters called for government accountability, freedom of the press, freedom of speech, and the restoration of workers’ control over <g data-gr-id="82">industry</g>. At the height of the protests, about a million people assembled at the Square, most of them were university students in Beijing.

The government initially took a conciliatory stance toward the protesters. The student-led hunger strike galvanised support for the demonstrators around the country and by mid-May the protests spread to 400 cities. 

Ultimately, China’s paramount leader Deng Xiaoping and other party elders resolved to use force. Party authorities declared martial law on May <g data-gr-id="70">20,</g> and <g data-gr-id="71">mobilied</g> as many as 3,00,000 troops for deployment in Beijing.

Widespread arrests of protesters and their supporters were made countrywide, foreign journalists were expelled and coverage in the domestic press was strictly controlled. Police and internal security forces were strengthened. Officials deemed sympathetic to the protests were demoted or purged. Zhao Ziyang was ousted in a party leadership reshuffle and replaced with Jiang Zemin. Political reforms were largely halted and economic reforms did not resume until Deng Xiaoping’s 1992 southern tour. The Chinese government was widely condemned internationally for the use of force against the protesters. 

Having delved deep into Chinese society and meeting a wide range of people, the author has produced a well-researched book, worth reading and referring to. Meanwhile, millions in China and millions in its neighbourhood can only hope that Confucious will someday come out of the shadows and shine over governance in China.
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