In a recent article written by Michael Schuman, a Beijing-based journalised and author of books on Confucianism, it is argued that China needs to adopt a Confucian oriented foreign policy approach. In the article, Schuman states that:
For centuries, Chinese dynasties held a role in world affairs that looked very much like what Xi appears to want today. They sat at the center of an East Asian diplomatic and economic order that was stable, peaceful and prosperous over long periods.
Here Schuman is referring to China’s East (and South East) Asian tributary system in which China as the “central heart” (zhongxin) of the region maintained stability by keeping threats under control. It did this by legitimising the Emperor’s ‘All Under Heaven’ mantra, strengthening its military capabilities and guaranteeing the exchange of military resources, and offering states a trading channel through which they could peacefully pursue their economic policies. The flexibility of the system allowed China to adjust its foreign relations through several theatres of action, including traditional diplomacy by gift exchanges.
This system was based on Confucianism, which was the main political ideology that informed the rules, customs, and values of the courts and provided guidance as to how rulers and ministers were expected to behave. In Confucianism, to keep order and stability, relations were expected to be hierarchical. However, the superior person/country had a duty to treat their subordinates fairly and with kindness for the most part. For example, Mencius is noted to have said that “When one by force subdues men, they do not submit to him in their hearts…[but] when one subdues men by virtue, in their hearts’ core they are pleased, and sincerely submit”.
For the most part, the tributary system worked. Apart from the ongoing Sino-Japanese rivalry, most surrounding states received trade and diplomatic support from their allegiance to China as well as military security. Occasionally, as Schuman notes, China even made concessions that were not in their interests like allowing Vietnam’s Tây Sơn regime (1789–1802) in the 1800s to reclaim its lost lands and move part of its border into Chinese territory to access copper mines. Apart from taxing the regime, the Chinese authorities allowed for territorial transgressions to keep the tributary system running.
In the present, China has expanded its influence in the Asia-Pacific region by putting forward another “peaceful rising” vision of Asian regionalism and community-building. The link between internal and external stability is crucial for China’s development with the search for energy resources and logistic routes being one of the key factors in Beijing’s domestic and international policies. For Schuman, although the tributary system is unlikely to return in the twenty-first century, to reinvigorate a Confucianist approach and avoid setbacks and tensions in the region, China needs to avoid further militarizing areas of the South China Sea, and instead find a compromise with other claimants to maintain foreign policy support in others areas that will assure China’s development, including the geostrategic Belt and Road project. Further, to resolve the trade war with America, Schuman argues that China could use the Confucian principle of reciprocity and be willing to treat foreign companies in its borders the way its companies are treated overseas.
But it is questionable as to how likely these responses will be since militarisation of South China Sea is China’s reaction to wide-scale American military activity in both the East and South China seas. From China’s perspective, the country has irrefutable sovereignty over the Spratly Islands and defensive deployments are necessary for its national security needs and are not being aimed at any country. In fact, no American property is endangered by Chinese encroachment and as it currently stands, China can deploy capabilities that threaten American and regional forces at a considerably lower cost than the US can deploy counter-measures. The Belt and Road project will further complement the developments in the South China Sea rather than be considered a separate issue that needs resolving before the Belt and Road project becomes a reality.
Finally, Beijing cannot simply accept America’s decision to impose new tariffs on Chinese goods. The plan to impose counter tariffs on agricultural and energy products from the US is one of the more fair responses to America’s protectionist policies. Once implemented, American producers will have to pay higher costs to sell their goods to China, while losing existing revenue as Chinese buyers seek cheaper imports from other countries. To avoid future humiliation, China is already finding alternative sources for trade products like soybeans, which was generating US$14 billion in sales annually for American suppliers.
In the policy world of tit-for-tat, Confucianism continues to play an important role in China’s diplomatic rhetoric. However, as to how much it can inform China’s actions is a whole other issue.
China’s strategy of setting up institutions in partner countries to teach Chinese language and culture is increasingly being seen with suspicion and contempt. Swinburne University professor John Fitzgerald, who lived and studied in China, argues that with more than 500 Confucian Institutes in 140 countries, it should be widely recognised that the institutes have been directly instructed to promote particular aspects of Chinese governance that would make Chinese rule seem appealing. For example, some aspects of Confucianism that promote obedience and hierarchy are being pushed to make the Chinese Communist Party’s centralised and unified leadership acceptable to foreign publics.
Even at the recent annual conference for Confucian Institute directors, the Beijing-based Office of Chinese Language Council International made it clear that directors were expected to promote the strategic and foreign policy objectives of the government, especially with the recent Belt and Road Initiative announced as a major geo-political project that could transform global trade. The implication is that Confucius Institutes are going to be essential to China’s strategic planning for the government to maintain strong business and people-to-people links. Thus, while the US cuts its budget to African countries and makes inappropriate comments, with President Donald Trump describing African nations as “s***hole countries”, China and its consistent engagement is considered to be a stable alternative.
However, the nature of how Confucius Institutes are being used around the world has made some American and Australian authorities concerned whether Chinese professors and students could exploit access to universities to gather intelligence and sensitive research. Singapore has also been vocal over China’s covert “influence operations”, with former diplomat Bilahari Kausikan stating that as with the presence of any foreign power, Singaporeans should be aware of Beijing’s manipulations. By using a range of tactics, from official diplomacy to covert deployment of agents and influence operations, to sway decision-makers and public opinion leaders, the question remains: where does this leave Confucianism, and can the philosophy be separated from state propaganda?
In China’s long history, Confucian teachers performed priestly roles and justified the existence of the state as a legitimate form of rule, while the state, in turn, promoted Confucianism as the official ideology. The state apparatus functioned to institutionalise Confucian teachings like respect for authority through education courses, and by making Confucian texts the only content of imperial civil service examinations since the Sui dynasty (581–618). However, Confucianism was never a religion with an organized and exclusive membership, and there was no Confucian place of worship. Instead, Confucianism functioned as a belief system and ethical code throughout East Asia, where “to study religion and politics is to study the relationship between Confucianism and political practice” (Fetzer & Soper, 2010, p. 499). Even though few people identified themselves as Confucian followers, Confucian ethics and behavioural norms were part of how ordinary Chinese people saw the world.
Recently, the aim to modernise Confucianism has been a premise of many attempts to make Confucianism a compelling and relevant philosophy. Sometimes, this reconstruction takes the form of translating classical Confucian ideas in terms of extracting modern concepts like ‘justice’ and ‘social welfare’ from early texts (see for example Bai, 2008 and Fan, 2010). It may also involve the identification of timeless ‘core values’ of Confucianism that are recited in contemporary analysis, even as others that support practices that are now considered to be problematic, including gender discrimination or class hierarchy, are simply dismissed without any compelling explanation (Bell, 2006).
Moreover, it is not only about what is being interpreted in Confucianism, but who is doing the interpreting and application. The association of Confucianism with historically non-democratic states has led many to defend a kind of ‘authoritarian Confucianism’, which the government of China has used to its advantage. Confucian values are being used to construct a national identity to replace what is now seen as the ineffective ‘foreign’ ideologies of Marxism–Leninism in an attempt to secure the party-state’s leadership (Bell, 2015).
At the same time, others have approached interpreting a modern Confucianism through a commitment to liberal doctrines like human rights. Yet, it is important to ask whether these reconstructions of a ‘progressive Confucianism’ are only a reflection of the individual author’s philosophical commitments. The assumption is that Confucianism can only be relevant if it is adapted to liberal ideas of modernity, which are typically linked to democracy. But in doing so, a line is drawn between a past in which Confucian thought was relevant to analysing social and political life in China, and a present in which historical Confucianism is abandoned for a version that is conducive to Western standards of living.
Therefore, far from broadening Confucian thought to foreign audiences in a meaningful way, the philosophy ends up becoming interpreted to the extent where it is no longer recognisable as a Chinese political philosophy, or it simply becomes a narrow source of scholarly knowledge. As Jenco (2017) states, the problem is not that recent reconstructions are somehow ‘inauthentic’, but that they fail to consider the historical aspect of Confucianism that explains how Confucian philosophy was constructed in the first place. This approach involves reading the many versions of canonical texts and how they were interpreted by influential commentaries and key thinkers in different East Asian contexts. For example, Nylan argues that while current scholarship sees Confucius as the originator of Confucian philosophy, reading the texts in context will reveal “the marked propensity of the early compilers to borrow ideas and switch personae, which renders modern sectarian talk about ‘schools’ wildly anachronistic” (p. 425). Even by examining how Confucius is portrayed in the Zhuangzi reveals that Daoism and Confucianism are not diametrically opposed schools of Chinese thought, but two strands of single tradition.
Consequently, rather than placing one’s own modern spin to Confucian thought to pursue some political agenda, to understand Confucianism in modern times requires a recognition and appreciation of the philosophy in its original context, and how it interacted with other philosophies that comprised the many intellectual traditions of ancient China.
While most of the literature on Confucianism focuses on the application of Confucian philosophy in China, little attention has been paid to the development of Confucianism in Korea and Japan. One Religion, Two Countries: Classical and Neo-Confucianism in Korea and Japan with Dr. John Goulde explores the different adaptions of Confucianism to Japan and Korea’s bureaucratic, government and educational institutions.
The Serpentine Pavilion Beijing in China is the galley’s first feature outside of the UK. Serpentine Galleries partnered with Chinese architecture company WF Central to co-commission the structure that is located 600 metres from the Forbidden City at the WF Central site. Comprising of 38 steel rods that curve like an archer’s bow, the building is held by cables stretched between steel plates.
According to the Serpentine Pavilion Beijing announcement, the building was built to have a focus on “society, community and a respect for local context and vernacular craftsmenship.” Furthermore, it “aims to address contemporary architectural issues with a sense of realism, an approach inspired by folk wisdom.” In that sense, the design “takes inspiration from Confucianism with an architecture that is a physical representation of the traditional pursuit of Junzi,” loosely defined as a moral exemplar. The “pavilion’s integral structure aims – like a Tai Chi master – to conquer the harshness of [the external forces of fierce winds and unpredictable earthquakes] with softness.” The archer figure, in the form of a curved cantilever beam that incorporates the forces of elasticity through cables stretched between steel plates, has long been related to military skill, and good political governance in Chinese philosophy while bow metaphors are used in The Analects to highlight practices of morality.
For chief architect at Jiakun Architects, Liu Jiakun, what the project “ultimately wanted to present is a spatial installation that goes beyond mere function to push the boundaries of contemporary architectural practice.”
The Serpentine Pavilion Beijing is now a featured public space for cultural activities, events and social encounters, with a programme of cultural activities programmed across five Pavilion Weekends over the summer.
In the last ten years, China has begun transitioning to a lower greenhouse economy in an attempt to fix widespread environmental destruction that resulted from policies that prioritised quick economic growth over nature conservation. To achieve this goal of creating what president Xi Jinping called an “ecological civilisation”, China faces the challenge of balancing industrialisation and community well-being with environmental protection through reform programs. These programs are based on the Confucian principle of maintaining harmony between social production and the environment by, for example, protecting natural resource rights; establishing better systems for protecting arable land and water; and creating a green financing system (Chun, 2015). The government has also proposed conducting natural resource audits when officials leave their posts so that there will be an incentive to consider environmental impacts since one will be held accountable for any damage during their time in office. Regular audits are already being carried out in locations such as Hulunbuir, Inner Mongolia.
According to Dr. Heidi Wang-Kaeding (2018) from Trinity College Dublin, with the idea of “ecological civilisation” China seeks to become a global leader in climate change cooperation and support its economy by developing its own renewable energy sector. Strategically, the push for energy transformation makes sense. For one, China remains the world’s second largest energy-consuming country after the United States, and coal accounts for more than 75 percent of total commercial energy use (International Energy Agency, 2018). This not only makes China dependent on countries that it imports coal from, but it also increases environmental risks as poor mining practices lead to large-scale solid waste, water and land contamination, and increased methane emissions. Secondly, becoming a leader in sustainability means that other countries that lack technological capacity and resources will rely on Chinese expertise to show them how to adopt alternative energy practices. It allows China to become an even more important partner when countries deal with present and future challenges as they will be inclined to reach out to China for assistance and investment. Finally, although “ecological civilisation” was primarily aimed at domestic audiences as the Communist Party sought to promote the idea that an environmentally friendly future has its base in an authoritarian one-party system, the concept also signals to the outside world that China is shaping the existing rule-based order in its own way (Xinhua, 2017). For the government, the ‘Chinese way’ means to look to its Confucian and socialist traditions to introduce eco-friendly policies that are grounded in commercial production. As President Xi stated in 2017, “clear waters and green mountains are as valuable as mountains of gold and silver” (lushui qingshan jiushi jinshan yinshan). In other words, environmental and commercial development should go hand in hand and are not necessarily conflicting concepts.
Although in the past, the United States was seen as the ‘leader of the free world’ and protector of human rights, America is now becoming one of the greatest obstacles to world peace and cooperation, according to Chinese officials. The delay of signing the Kyoto Protocol and exiting out of the Paris Climate Accord exacerbates the global warming problem significantly since increases of greenhouse gases in America, especially carbon dioxide, over the last few years is fuelling global warming at a significant rate. Consequently, the rise of global governance in China signifies that the country could step up to the opportunity of becoming a new global environmental leader.
In a recent report, it was highlighted that China’s domestic environmental policies were making clear positive impacts. As Gretchen Daily, professor of environmental science at Stanford notes: “In the face of deepening environmental crisis, China has become very ambitious and innovative in its new conservation science and policies and has implemented them on a breathtaking scale.” For instance, by enacting policies and funding software that monitor environmental areas that should be protected or restored, concentrations of PM2.5, the tiny particles that indicate the level of air pollution, decreased by 40 percent in 2017 from 2013 levels in the Beijing-Tianjin-Hebei region. Considering that high levels of PM2.5 were responsible for the deaths of more than 5.5 million people who contracted diseases relating to air pollution, the World Bank stated that economic loss for high air pollution has been about US$5 trillion annually since 2013. Moreover, following the progress of the Ministry of Environmental Protection (MEP) campaign in 2016, local government have also been active in closing illegal mines and unlicensed hydropower plants in Gansu Province while increasing monitoring of sewage treatment plants. Although mining in general is a significant part of China’s economic expansion, the far western Xinjiang region suspended mining in one of its biggest natural reserves. The official Xinhua news agency reported that poor regulation and a lack of enforcement standards led to soil contamination, making parts of land and water supplies unfit for human use, potentially threatening public health. All up, 69 mining projects in Xinjiang’s Altun national reserve were stopped and mining activities within the reserve, which also threatened endangered species such as Tibetan wild yak and donkey, were banned.
The introduction of the Environmental Protection Tax Law since the 1st of January, 2018 was another way of providing companies with a reason to cut emissions and improve production technology since businesses were being fined based on the amount of pollutants they discharged each year. After being the first company to get a tax reduction for having lower pollution discharge than China’s national standard for the chemical sector, a financial representative from BASF Application Chemical Co. released a statement highlighting that the company will continue to “optimize our manufacturing techniques to reduce pollution.” All around China, over 260,000 companies, public institutions, and business operators were required to pay environmental tax. Such initiatives show that through funding, improved technologies and tight policies, China is making environmentally sustainable outcomes in the short-term.
For some analysts, these results even have the potential to produce positive developments in less-developed countries under the Belt and Road Initiative. Gianluca Ghiara, the national vice chair of Environment Working Group at the European Union Chamber of Commerce in China stated that the Belt and Road Initiative was an attractive opportunity for African countries who could gain from enhanced cooperation in areas that promote ecological and inclusive development. The idea is that China will use its growing experience in transitioning towards being a green energy source country in the infrastructure developments it is setting up along the Belt and Road. However, loan recipient countries should not assume that the infrastructure and technology from China will create a rosy economic future for their economies. Some of the projects along the Belt and Road have the potential to drain local resources and produce infrastructure deficits that have little benefit to surrounding communities (Arewa, 2016). As Biswas and Hartley (2017) argue, so far the Belt and Road Initiative “may grab headlines but it is no panacea.” For instance, at present Sri Lanka is unable to pay back debts to Chinese banks for largely unused ports, airports, and highways. The Mattala Rajapaksa International Airport in Southeast Sri Lanka was designed to handle one million passengers every year but now currently deals with 12 passengers per day or less than one percent of the original projections that cost the country US$210 million.
Environmental issues are also of concern. Even though President Xi declared that the Belt and Road Initiative development would be “green, low-carbon, circular and sustainable”, a significant amount of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor investment is powered by coal-fired power plants. In Bangladesh, concerns about pollution led to violent protests in 2016 against the coal-fired power plant that was constructed by Chinese firms. Professor William Laurance, a James Cook University researcher even warned that China’s trillion-dollar infrastructure program is the “riskiest environmental project in human history” as over 1,700 critical biodiversity areas will be impacted by Chinese funded projects for roads, oil and gas pipelines, and hydroelectric dams. Although China has claimed that the Belt and Road will be distinguished by its sustainability portfolio, there have been many examples of exploitative Chinese firms going into developing nations who are unable to enforce and monitor environmental standards. On the one hand, it may seem that China is doing a much better job at improving its environment domestically than through its international interactions, but a publicly released national inspection found that environmental protection in areas like Tibet did not meet the requirements of the central government and public. In the Tibet case, more than 240 rural road projects were started without environmental protection approval, and a majority of scenic spots did not have sewage treatment facilities. In addition, management of hazardous solid waste was problematic as more than 6,000 officials were held accountable for environmental damage, according to the region’s Ministry of Environmental Protection.
Using Confucianism’s principle of harmony to underpin efforts to protect the environment has had only a minor impact and much of this Confucian rhetoric is used to appeal to the public. Improper afforestation in China’s drylands, for instance, was designed by some local governments as a response to growing concerns about the region’s tree felling. This project resulted in more environmental degradation in the area. Such mistakes show that long-term environmental protection involves coordination and supervision of environmental protection bureaus as well as increased engagement with the science community. Relying on short-term successes and quick profits could negatively affect China’s economy and reputation by undermining both its domestic and international initiatives.