Observations of an ex pat: China, Hong Kong and Confucius

We are all the prisoners of history. Our present and much of our future is determined by the sum of our past experiences, both individually and collectively.

Europe, for instance, is now a secular continent. But its laws, politics, philosophies and society have Judaeo-Christian foundations. On the other side of the Eurasian landmass, the structures of Communist China owe more to the 2,500-year-old teachings of Confucius than to Marx and Lenin. And, if you are searching for pointers on Hong Kong it is best to do so within the context of China’s long-standing religion-cum-philosophy.

In fact, Confucianism was China’s official state religion until the monarchy was overthrown in 1911.  It was ditched by Sun Yat-sen and Chiang Kai-shek as part of a drive to westernisation. Confucianism was deemed to be too old and too Chinese to comply with the demands of modern western-dominated society which the Kuomintang believed China had to become to compete and survive.

Mao Zedong was even more anti-Confucius. Attacks on the old Chinese philosopher were one of the pillars of the Cultural Revolution. Confucianism argues that authority is derived from a powerful imperial individual. This was anathema to Mao who saw his power as coming from the mass of revolutionary Red Guards.

Since the death of Mao, successive Chinese governments have gradually moved towards Confucianism. Xi jinping is probably its strongest proponent in a hundred years. That is not to say he worships Confucius. Xi is a communist and communists are atheists (at least officially).  But he regularly quotes the philosopher, has set up hundreds of overseas centres which teach Confucianism; uses Confucianism as an alternative to Western values  and argues that Chinese history and culture is compatible with his appointment as president for life and  the all-embracing power of the Chinese Communist Party.

Western society is based on the rights of the individual.  Confucius said that Chinese society should be based on the duties of the individual. To protect individual rights, Western societies gradually moved towards systems of representative government. To insure that duties were fulfilled, China has always had a totalitarian system.  The masses, wrote Confucius, lacked the intellect to make decisions for themselves.  Everyone is not created equal and therefore only a few have the right to participate in government.

In pre-1911 China, the followers of Confucius were discouraged from asking questions or expressing opinions and the role of the merit-based civil service appointerde by the imperial court  was emphasised. Under Xi, freedom of speech is denied; opinions are kept to yourself and carefully trained party apparatchiks administer  government at all levels.

Hong Kong’s position in Xi’s Confucian structure is particularly interesting. The official phrase is “two systems in one country.” This fits in nicely with Confucianism’s emphasis on, self-discipline, moderation and compromise. The western word might be pragmatism. Confucius called it “the middle way.”

China and Hong Kong need each other.  Prior to the end of British colonial rule in 1997, Hong Kong was the main port of entry for foreign companies seeking business in China. When the British left, it was thought that much of the trade would shift to the six Chinese-controlled free ports led by Shanghai. Not so. In 2018, 61 percent of all foreign investment in China went through Hong Kong. This is because any business (or person) registered in Hong Kong is protected by The Basic Law which took effect at the time of the 1997 handover. That law is based on British law which is regarded as the international legal gold standard.

Hong Kong Basic Law also says that capitalism—not socialism—will be the guiding economicj policy of Hong Kong. Furthermore that Hong Kong will enjoy freedom of speech, association, assembly, procession, religion, trade unions and the right to strike. Finally, the former colony will be governed by a legislature directly elected by universal suffrage.

This arrangement is meant to last until 2047 when Hong Kong and China will merge. It is hoped that the merger will be seamless with China moving closer towards Hong Kong’s free-wheeling capitalism and the former British colony accepting China’s heavily centralised totalitarianism. Unfortunately for Beijing, the millennials who will middle-aged in 2047 have decided to fight the merger until the bitter end. They want to either continue the current system of autonomy ad infinitum or secure a  completely independent  Hong Kong. Any steps towards union—such as the proposed extradition treaty—will be opposed.

How will China react. At the moment there is a great deal of hot rhetoric. The commandant of the 5,000 strong Chinese garrison in Hong Kong has issued stern warnings. The CIA has reported that an estimated 10,000 military police have gathered on the Chinese /Hong Kong border. The West can do nothing. They did nothing during the Tiananmen Square Massacre and the British decision to leave Hong Kong Island was based on the reluctant pragmatic view that defending it against 1.3 billion Chinese was untenable. Sanctions? Possibly, but the Trump Administration has already imposed or threatened swingeing tariffs which are hurting American and European economies as well. Both Germany and Britain dipped into negative growth in the last quarter. Sanctions would further damage Western economies, possibly as much as or more than the Chinese.

But does that mean that the Chinese troops will cross the border? Maybe. Maybe not.  Confucius says: “if a government’s conduct is correct his government will be effective without the issuing of orders. If his conduct is incorrect, he may issue orders but they will not be obeyed.” Government is controlled by a powerful centralised ruler and the citizens have a duty to follow his orders, but the orders, says Confucius, must be based on self-discipline and mutual respect. Finally, according to the tenets of Confucianism, moral force is preferred to physical for and the people should be persuaded to submit willingly.

If force is necessary and is used unjustly, says Confucius, then the  people have the right to rebel and remove the “Mandate of Heaven” from the government.

* ToTom Arms is the author of the Encyclopedia of the Cold War and is currently working on a major book on Anglo-American relations. He also broadcasts on foreign affairs for American radio and writes a regular column for US newspapers.

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6 Comments

  • Andrew McCaig 16th Aug '19 - 9:13am

    Very interesting read Tom, thanks.

    Do you think a continued hope for an eventual take over of Taiwan and a spreading of economic and political influence in all the West Pacific islands will also restrain China in Hong Kong?

  • David Warren 17th Aug '19 - 1:48pm

    I have long hoped for democracy in China, the fact that a previously Stalinist style regime has introduced capitalism whilst maintaining a totalitarian political system is a contradiction that I believe cannot and must not endure long term.

    In the West the development of capitalism and a working class brought with it demands for political reform which in turn resulted in genuine parliamentary democracies.

    The students and young people protesting in Hong Kong are raising their voices now but I can’t help thinking the workers of China will also heard sometime in the near future.

  • Robin Bennett 17th Aug '19 - 9:40pm

    This is a helpful article.

    I hope and pray for HK’s status to remain undisturbed and, like David Warren, that democracy will spread into China.

    But there are voices in HK and among the Chinese diaspora which are strongly against the demonstrations, which they think are being instigated by the Taiwanese or Trump. (Is there evidence of this in the reliable press? Perhaps I have missed it).

    What they do not accept are that (a) leaders appointed for life tend eventually to head regimes which become lax or corrupt or both and (b) human rights in China are, with the help of technology (for example, facial recognition) becoming curtailed to what many of us would consider a terrifying extent.

    Their line is that China has achieved far more economic progress without democracy in the last 40 years than any democracy could achieve. This has led to a widespread reduction, if not elimination, of poverty. This, in the human rights context, is far more important. And of course China is still progressing economically far faster than the West. Our infrastructural projects look puny by comparison.

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