Questioning Human Nature in Confucianism

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Part 12 of the 2018 interview with Dr. Alan Chan at Bond University, Australia. On the one hand, scholars have argued that human nature is inherently evil and that the state should play a key role in educating and civilising citizens. However, there are also those who argue that human nature is inherently good and that the role and influence of the state should be limited to allow for individuals to fulfil their potentials. In this section of the interview, the various perspectives on human nature in Confucian thought are discussed.

The Future of Confucianism in a Globalised World

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Part 7 of the 2018 interview with Dr. Alan Chan at Bond University, Australia. Today, the increasing travel of Chinese students, tourists, and businesses shows that the Chinese are cosmopolitan citizens of the world. The recent revival of Confucianism in China has been associated with cultural nationalism and philosophically, Confucianism and its collective, top-down, hierarchical view of relationships and governance is incompatible with liberal conceptions of cosmopolitanism, which emphasise individualism and human rights. This interview explores the potential for Confucianism to influence countries outside of Asia in a globalised world.

Confucianism and Business

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Part 2 of the 2018 interview with Dr. Alan Chan at Bond University, Australia. In the context of East Asian businesses playing a greater role in political and academic organisations, the interviewer asks what the relationship is between Confucianism and business in contemporary times.

Introduction to Confucian Principles in our Age

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The introductory video of the 2018 interview with Dr. Alan Chan at Bond University, Australia. Stay tuned for the rest of the interview!

Social Capital in Non-Confucian Asian Contexts: The Case of Laos -社会资本在非儒亚洲语境:老挝为例

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In the last ten years, a significant amount of literature has developed around the concept of ‘social capital’. Put simply, social capital refers to the social relations and shared norms that promote trust and cooperation between individuals and groups. The concept was first developed by the World Bank and the OECD through American political scientist Robert Putnam, who argued that high levels of social capital had a positive impact on well-being, health, educational performance, economic growth and security because the more a society cooperates, the easier it is for services to function and deliver political goods. On the other hand, the lack of social capital was believed to account for problems such as social inequalities, underdevelopment, and the level of delinquency and crime in some countries and neighbourhoods. In this way, the concept showed “some theoretical insights by identifying social capital with the building up of social connections and sociability… (through) goodwill, fellowship, sympathy, and social intercourse” (Castiglione et al., 2008, p. 2).

Although there is much debate over the different types of social capital, the literature tends to divide it into three main categories: first, bonds through links to people based on a common identity, including the nation, local community, and family. Second, through the links that one develops beyond your immediate relationships, for example to colleagues and associates. Finally, through links to people or groups who are prestigious and influential. By developing information channels through these links while following norms and social expectations, the social capital theory posits that people can become more socially and economically secure. In the United Kingdom, for instance, a government survey showed that more people gained jobs through personal contacts than through external job applications and advertisements. In places where the justice system is weak or dysfunctional, gangs and criminal organisations with high social capital are able to fund education for their members, find them work, and even temporarily provide for their family.

For Alejandro Portes (1998), the perceived benefits of social capital make it look like knowing the right people automatically translates into solving all of one’s social problems. His comments highlight that the term can be overused and misleading as there is often confusion over the meaning of social capital, and various presumptions of the social mechanisms that are used to explain it. But considering that humans are social animals that need community and contact to survive in an increasingly globalised world, it follows that establishing and maintaining relationships with people, groups, and organisations is essential. While social capital exists in all communities, Confucian cultures have particularly been found to emphasise the concept much more than in non-Confucian cultures (Carpenter, 2004). This is illustrated by concepts like guanxi in China, inmak in Korea, and joge kankei in Japan, all of which refer to social networks and socialization practices that facilitate business and other dealings. Local businesses in these countries often establish strong network ties in their domestic markets to stay competitive against international firms and to easily transfer technical knowledge and resources within borders. However, when it comes to non-Confucian Asian countries, the importance of social capital is less understood.

For Sorensen and Nielsen’s research, the case of Laos, a country that predominantly adheres to Theravada Buddhism, was an important contribution to expanding the general understanding of social capital in different Asian contexts. For instance, their initial analysis showed that in contrast to Confucian countries, the Lao language had no single word that accurately represented social capital. The most suitable word to refer to the concept was teun tang sangkhom, a direct translation of social capital that lacks any traditional definition or conceptualization rooted in the Lao language. This differs from the situation in China and Korea, where guanxi and inmak are recognised by mainstream society and thus consciously used by people to build and expand their businesses and employment opportunities. Because social capital is less defined and understood in Laos, people are less calculating in their use of social capital practices even though connecting to the right people and expanding one’s social networks is extensively used in Lao society. As one respondent in Sorensen and Nielsen’s study explained, for the people of Lao whose geostrategic location made the country vulnerable to colonialism and civil war, “The family union and secondary social connections have been their life source. Without it they could not”. Another respondent added that in Lao society, a person can be “completely lost without connections. No matter what you look at, if you haven’t got the connections it won’t happen”. The lack of strong legislative frameworks was also found by Gunawardana and Sisombat (2008) to contribute to an environment where social capital was used to accommodate lack of transparency with practices that increased the cost of doing business, such as informal red tape.

Just like in the neighbouring countries of Myanmar and Thailand, family and strong kinship connections were found to be the core of Laos’s bonding communities. As a collectivist society, the emphasis values such as trust and security were the main reasons why strong bonding through family has traditionally been the key support system for Lao society (Evans, 2013). For non-Lao people, it is possible to gain access to these bonding communities when groups choose to encompass looser relationships in business contexts, allowing stakeholders to join and over time become part of the stronger social capital networks. Sorensen and Nielsen confirmed that Lao people generally enjoyed meeting new people, which made it relatively easier for outsiders to gain access to bonding communities compared to places like China which places a greater emphasis on shared culture and identity than social capital development. In that case, consistency in engagement was seen to strengthen bonds and social capital in Laos and so developing a sense of humour, patience, and showing modesty were found to be highly regarded in Lao culture.

In China, the Confucian ruler-subject system and the communist principles of governance provided rules for a social order that was clearly defined by interpersonal relationships and obligations (see the “five human relations” of Confucianism in Dau-Lin, 1970). The absence of such a system explains why social capital, while existent and even essential in some cases, is less clearly defined in Theravada Buddhist Laos. For instance, while gift exchanges were used in China to symbolize respect, appreciation, and goodwill, the use of gifts was significantly less common in Laos as people often preferred getting straight to business, especially when strong bridging and bonding relationships were already in place. Sorensen and Nielsen’s research highlights that the use of social capital can be quite ambiguous yet just as important in non-Confucian contexts such as Laos. Further research should be done to expand these findings.

Does ‘Xi Needs a Confucian Foreign Policy’- 习近平需要儒家外交政策 ?

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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.

Video series: Classical and Neo-Confucianism in Korea and Japan 古典与新儒学在韩国和日本

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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.