Taking a Confucian road to ruin

By Chu Ping-tzu 祝平次  / 

Tue, Jul 02, 2013 - Page 8

Not long after Premier Jiang Yi-huah (江宜樺) took office he gave an interview to Shih Chih-yu (石之瑜), a former colleague in National Taiwan University’s political science department, in which he advocated what he calls “Confucian democracy.”

Simply put, Confucian democracy does not emphasize the checks and balances that one expects to see in a democratic system, but rather stresses the concept of “harmony.”

Yet harmony is a value the centralized Chinese Communist Party regime is often heard praising. This could be read as a sign that Jiang and President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) intend to handle relations between Taiwan and China by forcible and undemocratic means.

If we take a closer look at what Confucianism represents, we find that its favored political ethos is one in which a wise ruler is assisted by able and virtuous ministers.

In the context of thousands of years of imperial Chinese history, this ethical outlook formed the basis for the kind of fawning culture that prevailed in the imperial palace.

The culture of fawning could be seen from the palace etiquette in which most court officials were forever bowing to one another, and from the letters, documents and everyday language of the court, in which officials referred to the emperor as wise and saintly, while demeaning themselves as “unworthy ministers” or “slaves.”

The government structure was set up such that “able and virtuous ministers,” who were senior to everyone except the emperor, fawned upon the supreme ruler and were in turn fawned upon by their subordinates.

Generally speaking, grovelling to one’s superiors was the main way for court officials to stay in favor, while less consideration was given to the expertise needed to carry out their duties effectively.

Besides this culture of fawning, the entire Confucian political system was controlled by a scholarly elite whose main feature was that they saw ordinary people as “the governed,” needing to be governed because they were incapable of governing themselves.

The whole system was designed in such a way as to put ordinary people at the receiving end of officials’ instructions and decisions.

It was very far removed from the notion of popular sovereignty that is fundamental to democracy.

The cross-strait service trade agreement that was signed on June 21 was set up and negotiated behind closed doors by Ma and Jiang’s administration, and Ma’s team of advisors seems thoroughly pleased and complacent about the outcome.

This is a perfect embodiment of the Confucian political culture that prevailed in imperial China.

Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) legislators originally played along with the government, intending to give it carte blanche to implement the agreement. Only under pressure from various civic groups, have they been put on guard and agreed to vote on the terms of the new agreement item by item, instead of in one package.

However, Jiang immediately called an inter-ministerial meeting, insisting that there was nothing wrong with his policies. He said that he had no intention of explaining to the public how the government plans to ensure that people working in sectors impacted by the new pact can carry on with their livelihoods under conditions of economic deregulation. Meanwhile, he instructed the Council for Economic Planning and Development to explain the pact to overseas businesspeople and investors and directed the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to improve its communication with foreign diplomats.

This attitude of attaching more importance to outsiders than the lowly domestic populace is a fine example of the way that Confucian political culture makes the common people entirely the object of governance.

Hot on the heels of Jiang’s Cabinet meeting, Ma made a speech in which he talked about how “service” is one of Taiwan’s strong points.

He did not stop to reflect on all the broken pledges and failed economic measures that have marked his time in office, still less give any respect to the public’s political opinions or improve the channels for civic groups to take part in decisionmaking.

The president and premier — the wise ruler and his virtuous minister — obstinate and conceited as they are, may well be on the way to throwing Taiwan’s domestic market and social wellbeing into widespread confusion and panic.

The performance of Ma and Jiang’s government in relation to the service trade agreement proves that the Confucian democracy they espouse is really a slogan that involves loyalty to Beijing’s cultural unification strategy, along with suppression of democracy in Taiwan.

If Taiwanese allow them to gradually implement this undemocratic concept, Taiwan will be headed toward integration into China’s centralized system.

This is the road to ruin.

Chu Ping-tzu is an associate professor of Chinese literature at National Tsing Hua University.

Translated by Julian Clegg