All thanks to Confucius

THE opening ceremony of the Beijing Olympic Games was a thrilling spectacle. Yet it was much more than a mere show, it was a confident statement of China's position in the world and a major shift in the political propaganda of the Chinese regime. Nothing could have been less Maoist than the symbolism that was chosen. So far as I could see on television, Mao Tse-tung himself, though the centrepiece of Chinese official propaganda for a generation after his death, didn't even make a cameo appearance.

By William Rees-mogg

Published: Tue 12 Aug 2008, 9:44 PM

Last updated: Sun 5 Apr 2015, 4:12 PM

There was a brief showing of the red flag, but even that was associated with the People's Army, the most popular of the institutions established under Chinese communism.

I first visited China in 1977, the year after Chairman Mao had died, shortly after his widow and the rest of the Gang of Four had been arrested. When we arrived at Beijing airport, there were five huge portraits fixed to the front of the terminal: Marx and Engels, as the founders of Marxist theory, Lenin and Stalin, as the two great Russian communist leaders, and Mao.

I am not sure that Mao has been taken down yet, but Maoism is no longer effective as the Chinese state doctrine. It has been replaced by the policies of Deng Xiaoping, who died in 1997.

Even so, the opening ceremony did not celebrate the achievements of Deng's modern China, but the history of Chinese civilisation, which stretches back at least to Confucius in the 6th century BC.

When Mao was in power, the teachings of Confucius were more or less obliterated, except that one cannot really destroy the influence of a cultural tradition that has survived for 2,500 years. After Mao's death, Confucius remained a non-person for 20 years, though there has been a gradual process of rehabilitation. Last week, however, his thoughts were made the centrepiece of China's prologue to the Olympic Games.

When the Jesuits went to China in the 16th and 17th Centuries, they were delighted to find how advanced was the Confucian ethical code. They reported to Rome that the core doctrine of Confucius was the golden rule: 'Do to others what you would wish to have done to yourself.'

Confucius believed in an ethical system of government administered by an honest bureaucracy under a benevolent prince with a commitment to public duty. In the 19th century, this mandarin system proved too rigid to adapt to the needs of a modern commercial society. China needed entrepreneurs rather than civil servants. In the 20th Century, the system broke down. Nevertheless, Confucianism comes much closer to the needs of a modern society than Maoism.

Chairman Mao's doctrine centred on the idea of 'permanent revolution'. It would not be possible for a modern Chinese government to carry on successfully under conditions of permanent revolution. Bureaucrats need stability to do their work and Confucianism is a system based on a stable bureaucracy.

One of Confucius's sayings was: 'Those whose ways are different cannot lay plans for one another.' President George W. Bush has not taken this advice. He felt he had to intervene; he made a speech outside China, calling on the Chinese government to accept higher standards of human rights.

Few would disagree with that, but President Bush may not be the best person to argue that case. He is under attack for having lowered American standards. Torture and the lack of due legal process at Guantanamo have weakened America's reputation.

In any case, the Chinese resent advice from those Western powers, including Britain and America, that exploited China commercially in the past. In the balance of rights and wrongs between China and the West, the Chinese believe themselves to be the injured party. They also believe their civilisation is older and wiser. They are, however, impressed by American science and technology.

It is easier to make the Chinese case with Confucius as the representative of Chinese political thought than with Mao, who may have been a brilliant revolutionary, but was also a genocidal tyrant.

Chinese history is cyclical. The Chinese used to believe each successive dynasty required the 'mandate of Heaven', which was manifested in terms of continued success.

Some of the successful dynasties did last for several hundred years. The Tang Dynasty, which brought in Buddhism as the official doctrine of China, lasted from 618 to 907 AD; the Ming Dynasty lasted from 1368 to 1644. China is now going through another period of success — with its export figures.

The whole transformation since 1977 has been an economic miracle. The country's economic growth is likely to continue for many years to come. China needs to find work for 250 million rural workers who are looking for the higher pay and better conditions of modern industry. This will not be easy to achieve; continued growth is a necessity.

Historically, China has alternated between periods when the central authority became stronger and those in which there was a high risk of division. The Chinese probably now have more to fear from Islamic separatism than from Tibetan separatism. China and Tibet need to reach a major reconciliation, as advocated by the Dalai Lama.

China is not going to replace America as the sole superpower, but the process that has led the Asian powers to grow faster than Europe or the United States is likely to be continued. But China is not about to become a standard Western liberal democracy. In China — on the evidence of the Olympic opening — Confucius has beaten both Mao and Marx.

For China, the Olympics is a superb opportunity, coming at a time of rising confidence and prosperity. In the Warring States Period (475-221 BC), imperial minister Li Si observed: 'This is the one moment in 10,000 ages.' China and the rest of the world should enjoy it.

Lord William Rees-Mogg is a former editor of the Times. This column first appeared in the Mail on Sunday

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