Home »Articles and Letters » Articles » China’s economic development: Confucian values

  • News Desk
  • Apr 3rd, 2016
  • Comments Off on China’s economic development: Confucian values
China's dynamism is as much a function of its burgeoning economy as of following Confucian ethics. For the first time the birthday of Confucius (551-478 BC) was officially celebrated in 2010. Since the last decade globally in general there has been revival of interest in values and teachings of philosopher-teacher, Confucius. The official discourse often expresses emphasis on traditional Confucian values such as 'harmony,' 'hard work,' 'austerity' and 'peaceful development.' In February 2005, the then Chinese President, Hu Jintao first stated: "Confucius said: 'Harmony' is something to be cherished."

In pursuit of this the Chinese government has engaged in a large-scale promotion of Confucian heritage through many ways: school textbooks, university courses, lectures, seminars and setting up of hundreds of Confucius centers throughout the world. Ironically, today Confucian philosophy, once seen as taboo to modernisation and socialism, are zealously promoted.

Historically, Confucianism has survived for nearly 2000 years in China and continues to exert strong influence on the lives of peoples of Chinese and East Asian nations, including Japan. Confucius (551-478 BC) is considered China's 'first teacher.' His name is Latinized version of Jesuit missionaries then working in 19th century China. The Confucian ethics are derived from his teachings and subsequent interpreters of his work, eg, his disciple Mencius (Meng-tse), Hsun-Tzu and others. With his writings best known to the outside world in his analects - collection of wise sayings. At the centre of his teaching is Jen as a core social virtue, meaning benevolence, humaneness, loyalty and reciprocity.

Albeit having undergone many changes over time as other religions and ideologies, yet the core values remain the same with emphasis on family collective values over individualism, interdependence, discipline, work ethics, harmony and stability in society with stress on education, loyalty, hierarchy and rule of law.

China is presently pursuing peaceful 'scientific' and 'harmonious development' under socialism with 'Chinese characteristics.' The 'Four Modernizations' since the late 1970s started with progressive changes but in the process created societal problems with negative effects of Westernization viz., individualism, self-seeking and ruthless competition, corruption, materialism, societal conflict, permissive morality and undue fascination for things Western.

One can therefore understand the logic in Chinese government's policy of harking back and promoting values of Confucianism. Due to fast paced modernisation many stresses and strains are placed on traditional Chinese values as societal protests, family breakups, corruption, discontent and domestic violence have increased. Hence, it is felt that there is an urgent need to dampen and arrest these tendencies and maintain Chinese cultural identity that will not be 'contaminated' by alien value systems and destabilise society.

It is moreover argued that harmony and peaceful development would not only moderate conflicts and tensions at home but also impart Chinese nation cultural pride and facilitate economic development without much dislocation through trade, economic interactions and foreign investments.

Domestically, the Confucian emphasis on respect for authority, order and discipline is considered valuable for a Party whose objective is to deliver and legitimize its paramount status. The social unrests and disparities, it is argued, call for temperance and restraint as enshrined in the Confucian values. After all, the Party leadership has acquitted itself well in raising a large chunk of Chinese society from dire poverty and projected its accomplishments on the global scene.

Besides, invoking these norms the aim is to mobilize, discipline and motivate people by invoking traditional values. In fact, the surge in interest about Confucianism has taken a life of its own, and presently it is studied and researched in Western cultures. Previously, the German intellectuals such as Max Weber, Johann Herder and the Swiss theologian John Calvin did not view Confucian work ethics in positive light. They thought that family and social ties would hinder development and productivity as Confucian values promote authoritarianism, nepotism and conformity. Instead, they opined it was the 'protestant ethic' that was responsible for the material well-being of Western societies. Also, they pointed out that in non-Western societies that emphasise group and community at the cost of the individual was unhelpful. But these observations did not prove right at least in China and some other non-Western societies.

Some detractors even postulate that Confucianism is closer to socialism than capitalism, notwithstanding the spectacular economic progress made in China under the socialist system. They, however, charge that during China's history when Confucianism held sway as official doctrine it remained generally underdeveloped and the economy stagnated notwithstanding its cultural rise. In fact, it is added that its economic progress jumpstarted only after the 1978 reforms and this phenomenal progress was an achievement of three decades of socialism under Chairman Mao.

If Confucianism was such a powerful engine for economic development, it is reasoned, what about Thailand and Myanmar as Buddhist societies' poor levels of economic development as compared to China? In other words, critics contend that it is not the cultural variable of Confucianism but the role of leadership and revolutionary historical forces that were responsible for the Chinese economic miracle.

For detractors, Confucianism is deployed for identity forming and serves politically legitimizing role in China such as anti-colonialism, communism and anti-communism did and as a bulwark against infiltration of unwarranted 'Western values'. Also, it is berated for emphasising the collective over individual, preventing human rights development and other social welfare functions. Together, they are seen as remnants of pre-modern area: emphasis on patriarchal authoritarianism, familism, inequality of sexes, ritualism - which are considered alien to modern democracy and liberalism.

Furthermore, classical Confucianism is also pilloried for 'intellectual elitism' and passive role consigned to the common Chinese people. It is observed that Confucianism became only a vogue in China and East Asian countries when these countries emerged on the global scene as economic success stories and not before.

For the supporters, however, Confucian values of filial piety and family responsibility could act as an antidote to limitations of national social welfare system, fast track modernisation and help restore altruistic values. Interestingly, the Chinese cultural values differ from West's, especially the US. The Chinese culture uses contextual and dialectical approaches in solving problems while Western philosophy is based on hard pragmatism, individualism; the former takes a long-term view as opposed to quick fix or technological solutions; and ancient wisdom comes from Confucianism grounded in family and communitarian values.

The Chinese culture is furthermore risk-averse and uncomfortable with abrupt changes whereas the US' is risk-taking, innovative, aggressive and impatient with gradual change and relies on military power than political solutions. The Chinese values inculcate cultural norms of restraint and healthy interdependence unlike the American obsession with 'go-it-alone' independence and individuality. In business relations, too, the Chinese managerial approach is premised on collectivism, centralized control, authoritarian and paternalistic mode, and family connections.

Ironically, despite some of the aforementioned misgivings Confucianism as a dogma is now studied and understood as a philosophy in the world. Whereas Confucian values and Chinese form of capitalism may seem challenging to US model of free enterprise (based on individualism and separation of public and private sector) they are more acceptable from the angle of social corporate responsibility, eg, both systems emphasise hard work and thrift, some form of spiritual fulfillment through hard work and aim at betterment of quality of life in this world.

The difference, though, lies in group and community-based approaches. The Chinese system is now incorporated in form of market-driven and capitalist economy with trust-based clan and family connections. This aspect is appealing to the Western companies for substantive output and performance and better work culture. No wonder, companies are outsourcing their businesses in China to avoid disruptions in work and derive higher profits.

For South Asia, the Confucian values also hold much validity. The region is challenged by problems of illiteracy, poverty, economic disparities, haphazard urbanization, crimes, terrorism, drugs and environmental damage. These problems require incorporation of Confucian ethics too. The fact that none of the Islamic or African countries has achieved such success proves that their normative models are either redundant or unworkable. No wonder China holds a role model for many South Asian countries after having attained economic and social power global stature in such a short time.

The mammoth China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) enterprise will hopefully bring China and Pakistan together and most of Confucian norms might be reflected in the joint projects and the consequent contagion effect on Pakistan could follow; especially the work ethics and result-oriented performance.

One must not lose sight of the fact that Confucian values are universal in nature and hardly threatening to any local value systems. In fact, its core values are embedded in all traditional religions. For, China is not only rising but has already 'risen' - confounding many developed and developing nations in the world.

(The writer is the Head of Department of International Relations, NUML and former President of Islamabad Policy Research Institute)

Copyright Business Recorder, 2016

the author