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Recap: Can Confucius Save the World? 5.6.20

Recap: Can Confucius Save the World? 5.6.20

China Institute hosted our fourth and final virtual program in the ‘Beyond COVID-19’ series on ““Can Confucius Save the World?”,” examining how the teachings of Confucius have made a comeback in China, and, according to author Daniel Bell, it has the potential to be a beneficial force in the rest of the world. Bell’s writing on what he describes as China’s meritocracy has stirred heated debate among academic circles. Drawing on a new book Just Hierarchy: Why Social Hierarchies Matter in China and the World, Bell and WANG Pei argue that Confucius-inspired hierarchies can help deal with the ongoing health crisis and other modern global challenges.

The event was co-presented with the Cheung Kong Graduate School of Business (CKGSB) and included additional commentary from WANG Jianbao of CKGSB in Beijing.

Selected Quotes From the Program

  • Daniel A. Bell (DB)
  • WANG Jianbao (WJ)
  • WANG Pei (WP)

  • Why talk about Confucius today?

    DB: Confucius defends hierarchies based on virtue and abilities. Much of the debate in China is how to select and promote readers with above average virtue. If they serve with compassion and gain the trust of the people, these hierarchies are justified.

    WP: What is the opposite of hierarchy? Equality for most. But from a Confucian perspective, the opposite of hierarchy is chaos.

    DB: We can overcome this propensity for self-interest…so long as the people with power have compassion towards those without it. For example, Canada benefits through a hierarchal relationship with the US because the US invests more in security (making the region more stable) so Canada can direct more funds to social programs.

    Confucianism has come into vogue in China over the last several decades. Why is the business community so interested in Confucian concepts?

    WJ: Confucian culture was the one with the highest degree of modern economic thinking. We have achieved brilliant success, but (the free market) also brings challenges and problems, like the gap between the poor and wealthy, not to mention ecological challenges and social mobility. Confucianism says anyone that has more resources should have more responsibilities; that is fair. Confucius is a spiritual source for cultural identity…the challenge is that very few business people have such self-awareness. It is our job to discover Confucian values.

    In the Han Dynasty, the spiritual Confucian tradition was corrupted by power. So, the tension between power and wealth is a thousand-year debate in China.

    Today, (business people must consider) rationality, rule of law, and the freedom of the market. Meanwhile we have to think tactically to care about justice of our society and for the sustainable development. Chinese businessmen face more challenges than their western counterparts. I hope more and more business people can commit and embrace Confucian values.

    These are all great and beautiful ideas. But where does reality come in?

    DB: Any form of government has to prevent abuses and empower government to do good things. For example, fighting against COVID-19, lots of things were wrong in China- especially in the beginning—and we recognized that that was a mistake. There are heroes such as Dr. Li Wenliang and Zhong Nanshan, these are real junzi (or Confucian exemplary people.) But (then the government took action.) And now, in Shanghai, and in the rest of China, we are basically free from the disease.

    WJ: We have to discover Confucius beneath the ruin of (other systems). According to the master’s teaching, the normal people represent heaven. So normal employees are at the highest level, rather than the big boss or CEOs. Without this humble attitude, leaders cannot succeed in business.

    DB: Large companies are inevitably hierarchical and that isn’t inherently a problem. If there is a hierarchy that serves employees and others with compassion, that is not a problem. Confucian ethics provides a standard for judging whether a company is good. That is the thing to look at, whether or not they are hierarchical is not as important. The idea that we have to choose between tradition and a progressive outlook is ridiculous, we need both.

    Knowing this, is authoritarianism acceptable?

    DB: In political systems you need hierarchy. The relevant question is: what standard should we use to judge if these hierarchies are morally justifiable or not? Are they serving the people and gaining the trust of the people? Then that works and that is the standard we should use to judge whether these political hierarchies are legitimate.

    Without a clear system of laws, how can you fight corruption?

    WP: Confucian is about self-cultivation rather than social relationships (guanxi). Self-awareness and cultivation is most important. The tension between power and wealth is the key reason for corruption. In the beginning, Confucian schools were identified as independent. But then Confucianism got power and lost its independence. Our job is to rediscover Confucian values to continue the good stream. Corruption is due to the market economy and the market society. After 1978, we transferred to economic development, but we lost something—like virtues, morality and ethics. So we have to recover them to find our wandering soul. Where are we from? We need awareness of self and identity, and a critical spirit. This is a big debate in China and a long-term challenge; it will take another three to five generations.

    How could this system gain traction in the US, where we have a streak of individualism? What can the role of the Confucius Institute be?

    DB: On the question of hierarchy, the Founding Fathers wanted to select people based on virtue as opposed to family background. This was represented by the Senate. This became marginalized by popular discourse and it is hard to restore that…especially with the excesses of populism . There is a need to select political officials based on ability as opposed to money or background.


    How can outsiders use Confucian ideas to engage with China?

    WJ: The golden rule is (paramount). We should respect each other. I should not try to teach you something, I should try to learn something. I establish myself, but I should establish others. Sympathy and empathy are universal.

    DB: We should also look at common values shared between Confucianism (and other religions or systems). The idea around respect for elders, for example, is (minimized) in liberal countries but so important in the rest of the world. As people become older they should become better morally and socially. Let’s focus on what we have in common.


    Full Video of the Virtual Program

    The Beyond COVID-19 series presented expert perspectives on the impact of COVID-19 on the global order, the restaurant business, and the world economy. Explore our full playlist featuring all four programs, as well as additional select public programs.


    Visual reporting by artist Sophie Ong.