By Teshu Singh
China hosted the fourth World Confucius Conference from September 26 to 29 September 2011, in the city of Qufu, Shandong Province, which is also the birthplace of this ancient philosopher. The basic objective of the conference was to gain more friends for the nation through the conference and promote the study of Confucianism worldwide. Initiated in 2007, the aim was to provide a spiritual power for the modern world. Further, it aimed to strengthen international cultural exchange and promote global cooperation. It was primarily co-sponsored by the Ministry of Culture, the provincial government of Shandong and the China Institute of Confucius Studies. The importance of Confucius in Chinese History needs a closer look in contemporary times and Chinese foreign policy making.
The Chinese Communist Party has undertaken an official rehabilitation of imperial China’s preeminent social philosopher Confucius (Kong Zi/Kong Fuzi). China is setting up Confucius Institutes around the world to help foreigners learn Chinese. By end of 2010, there were a total of 322 “Confucius Institutes” (affiliated with universities) and 369 “Confucius Classrooms” (affiliated with primary schools) in 96 different countries the highest concentration being in US. Confucianism, along with Daoism and Buddhism, has become a part of National Studies (guoxue) in major Chinese Universities.
These Confucius Institutes worldwide are China’s answer to the Alliance Francaise, Germany’s Goethe Institute and the British Council. These are a core component of China’s soft power strategy, or campaign to increase its influence via its language and culture. This renewed interest in Confucianism appears in many guises and is directed to various segments of the Chinese and international audience. Confucianism is not a religion but a way of life that can be applied in day to day life teaching one morality. Perhaps it is not just foreign Policy tool but is used in varied ways: a form of culture, an ideology, a system of learning, and a tradition of morally normative values.
Historically, according to Confucian Mencian narrative China had “mandate of Heaven” to dominate, exploit, and even assimilate those people which the Chinese believed to be culturally backward. But with the decline of the Qing dynasty this narrative was abandoned and subsequently ‘socialism with Chinese characteristics’ became the bedrock principle of Chinese Foreign Policy.
In a pioneering article on soft power written by Wang Huang in 1993, he argued that culture is the main source of a state’s soft power. This is discernable in various speeches by Chinese leaders and numerous scholarly writings. At the 11th People’s National Congress the word ‘happiness’ replaced ‘economic growth’ as the official mantra. This change may predict future adjustments in the Chinese foreign policy as well, for ‘happiness’ is a word used more frequently in Chinese traditional political thought than in Marxist political philosophy.
The current generation of leadership has embraced his ideas to such an extent that some scholars believe President Hu Jintao to be an undeclared Confucian. (Confucius said “Harmony is something to be cherished,” which Hu Jintao reiterated in 2005 at the National People’s Congress). Confucianism is often cited by Chinese leaders visiting foreign countries as evidence of China’s great civilization. Further, Confucianism is especially valuable in promoting amicable relations with China’s East Asian neighbours. Some argue that the revival of interest in Confucianism was actually sparked by western interests in Confucianism as a significant component of East Asian Capitalism. Another important stimulus for this revival was the Singapore government’s decision in 1982 to insert Confucian ethics into the secondary school curriculum.
The CCP in recent years has tried to wrap itself in the mantle of Confucian virtues and is using Confucius as a cultural monument to propagate its traditional culture. The CCP finds Confucianism attractive because it is an ideological pillar of support for the ruling political order and gives it an opportunity to clad itself in the themes of ‘benevolence and humanitarianism’.
The CCP is also facing widespread social unrest sparked by different factors such as income inequality, environmental pollution, and official corruption. Confucian themes of virtuous public service have been particularly highlighted for the senior party leaders in the state press, accompanied by Confucian exhortations to lower-level CCP cadres to avoid the temptations of corruption. Alarmed by the potential threat this unrest could pose to the party’s ruling status, the Chinese authorities have repeatedly invoked the need for “social stability.” To overcome this, Confucian iconography is being applied by the Chinese state propaganda apparatus at many for a. For instance, during the opening ceremonies for the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games and in an historical epic Confucius (Kong Zi) produced by a state-owned film company in 2009.
By holding world Confucian conferences and opening Confucius Institutes, China is managing its soft power pragmatically but it remains to be seen how much influence it will actually have on its own domestic policy and foreign relations.
Research Officer, CRP, IPCS