What would Confucius do? Photo: iStock
What would Confucius do? Photo: iStock

The campaign to eliminate the Confucius Institutes from American education marks a level of ideological insecurity that has characterized this country for a long time. Willful ignorance about China has been an important part of that insecurity. The mission of the institutes is not ambitious; it is mainly devoted to offering Chinese language courses in colleges that lack them or have fledgling programs. As for Confucius himself, in America, interest in his thinking has never been strong; in China relatively greater attention is given to American thinkers and writers.

The US Defense Department, which funds some Chinese language programs, has advised colleges that they have to choose between US funds and Confucius Institutes; they cannot have both, even if that means degrading the programs. Other college administrators have called for a quarantine. So now some institutes and their illustrious namesake will be sent back to the place from which they came. There continues to be equally little appreciation of Confucian thought and traditions – and not just in China. It could equally be true for Japan, Korea, or Vietnam, where Confucius has long been venerated. In all four nations, Confucius’ challenging maxims and provocative aphorisms about ethics and politics and their mutual dependence remain important, to one degree or another.

What is the problem with Confucius anyway?

Confucius advocated a form of authoritarian meritocratic conservatism that challenges our plutocracy with its pseudo-egalitarianism and authorities who eschew responsibility especially when things go wrong. Confucius treats responsibility as something that must be commensurate with power before it can be called authority. Should a problem arise in the family or the state, he does not point down, he points upward. “If the father is not fatherly, the son will not be filial; if the ruler misrules, his ministers will be disloyal.” This call for responsible authority is one reason for Confucius’ reappearance in China, a call now heard in many other countries, including the US.

American conservatives and a wide variety of other influential figures are committed to the opposite principle: faulting those below for domestic social problems, usually singling out minorities. Moreover, ethics is linked to religion, not to politics, contrary to Confucian teaching. As for international conflicts, across the political spectrum fingers mainly point outward.  Steeped in narcissism, the big strategic thinkers and their media cast stones at others for their own failures, disdaining reflection or reform. Narcissism is always dependent on scapegoats.

The campaign against Huawei is a glaring example of such projection: the corporation stands accused of potentially conducting the kind of universal surveillance programs that the National Security Agency (NSA) had long been running. The whistleblower Edward Snowden exposed these wholesale violations of law and human rights – a connection rarely recalled in media reports on Huawei. Indeed, Snowden had already revealed that the NSA had itself hacked Huawei. Such official surveillance is now a global norm.

Even a limited study of the Chinese language may have some use in getting students to think more clearly, if not empathetically, about how the Chinese think about a range of issues

Apart from ethics, linguistic nativism is another aspect of the problem. Even a limited study of the Chinese language may have some use in getting students to think more clearly, if not empathetically, about how the Chinese think about a range of issues. At the least, students confronting the difficulties of learning the language may gain a sense of the difficulties of thinking across the gap and recognizing the inadequacy of the platitudes that form the controlled borders of our public discourse about China. For example, the simplistic opposition of democracy and authoritarianism is woefully inadequate. Are we to lump China in with a whole range of other countries described as authoritarian? Are the two terms really in Manichean opposition? Is there no authoritarianism in democracy, and vice-versa?

Language teaching is not the core issue, of course, the global role of China is. By modernizing its economy, reducing domestic poverty, and reaching out to other developing countries with examples and resources never before made available to them, China is becoming more attractive as a development model.

Extractive western expansionists perceive this alternative as a threat. By objecting to the Belt and Road Initiative, for example, Washington is accusing Beijing of entangling the governments of developing countries in debt for useless projects. This is exactly the way the World Bank and the IMF have been hamstringing developing economies and diminishing their sovereignty – a partial form of regime change. For decades these bankers have done precious little to alleviate global poverty and inequality; indeed they have in too many places created more of it, ever to their own benefit. Nothing new here. Washington has looked on the economic nationalism (and political sovereignty) of other nations as a security threat since the end of World War II. The inconvenient truth is that the most poverty alleviation in the world has been in China.

Aside from the precarious developing economies, intermediate ones like Russia, Iran, Turkey, India and some in South America have formed advantageous relationships with China, without compromising their sovereignty. This makes it difficult for Washington to impose its preferences on these governments, in part because China is strong enough to backstop a measure of resistance. The resort to sanctions and tariffs indicates an attempt on Washington’s part to reassert its supremacy, at the very moment when various global crises need US-China cooperation more than ever.

Beijing’s westward oriented land-and-sea-based project to integrate the Eurasian continent involves too many countries for Washington to handle as easily as it once could, especially now that it has busied itself on virtually every side of the Middle East wars. Accordingly, Washington has re-centered the main conflict with China in the South China sea, site of the opium wars and Japan’s invasions. On water, US military threats can be put in place without too much pushback from other countries.

Beijing is as aware as Washington that China can never dominate its region the way the US dominates the western hemisphere. Japan, the Koreas, Vietnam, etc are never going to accept China’s preferences the way Canada, Mexico, etc have always yielded to Washington’s. And the Chinese government, for its part, does not want that rather costly level of domination, which has entailed gruesome episodes of US violence in Central and South America.  For that reason, the simplistic label “super-power,” disavowals aside, does not fit China as it did Russia and the US.

The pivot to Asia, announced at the beginning of this decade by the Obama administration, re-awakened Beijing to Washington’s designs. Accordingly, they began fortifying islands in the South Sea, after Taiwan, Vietnam, etc made claims on various rock formations. After all, it’s not as if Washington has a solid record of peacekeeping in East Asia, however widely that record is ignored. It’s worth a moment’s pause to recall that the death toll  – Chinese, Koreans and Vietnamese – in American wars runs into the millions. Understandably, China builds coastal and island defenses.Washington calls this aggression and styles itself a peacekeeper.

The Paracels, for example, roughly equidistant from Vietnam’s eastern and Hainan’s southern shore, were originally granted to Vietnam by the colonial French; China was not consulted. In 1974, as the Vietnam War was coming to an end, Beijing knew that the South would fall to the North. However, the North was then close to Moscow, and Beijing had fought a short war with the Russians five years earlier over Zhenbao/Damansky island in the Ussuri River between China and Russia. At the time Beijing had reconciled with Washington and had welcomed president Richard Nixon two years earlier, in the spring of 1972. Under these circumstances and with tacit US approval, Beijing seized the Paracels lest they become a base for the Russians.

Farther south about midway between the Philippines and Vietnam is Taiping/Itu Aba Island, occupied by the government of the Republic of China since 1956. It has a military base and a small economy. The island is the largest of the Nansha/Spratly island group, which is claimed by several nations including China. Taipei’s threats to augment military forces there are opposed by Hanoi and Manila, as well as by Beijing. Taiwan’s occupation of Taiping (but no other Nansha) was “legalized” by the Japanese Peace Treaty of 1952, a document imposed on Japan by Washington during the Korean War. Neither China nor Korea is bound to respect the treaty, among whose outcomes was forcing Japan not to trade with China if they wanted the US occupation of their country to end. (Even though the occupation officially ended, a massive military presence of US forces continues, largely confined to Okinawa (with 70% of the bases and 30% situated elsewhere in Japan.)

However one judges China’s recent moves in the South China Sea, it is relevant to bear in mind the vast territorial sea-island claims by London, Paris, and Washington. This issue is explored in “Imperial Archipelagos,” by Peter Nolan, the acclaimed British China scholar and business adviser. In the 2013 issue of New Left Review, Nolan writes: “Thanks to their island holdings, the EEZs [exclusive economic zones pursuant to UNCLOS, the UN Law of the Sea, 1982] of the US, UK, and France dominate enormous stretches of the Pacific, Indian, and South Atlantic Oceans.” Russia, Australia, and New Zealand have smaller holdings.  All told, “the six have 54 million square kilometers, of which almost three-quarters is separate from their home territory.” China’s own EEZ comes to just under 1 million; the disputed zone it claims adds another 2 million. Given the tailored narratives that dominate western journalism on China, it is no surprise that these telling details are rigorously excluded from discussions about China and the South China Sea.

Confucius condemned “proclaiming the wrongs that others have done,” insisting on rigorous self-examination in order to deal with one’s own wrongdoing first and foremost. Such demanding standards of thought and conduct by East Asia’s iconic educator, ethicist, and religious skeptic could not be more unwelcome to the US elites today.  This is not to say that the Confucius Institutes are an ideal way to raise the level of American thinking about China. There is no such ideal way. But the move to deport the innocuous institutes in a small way measures our willful ignorance. However, Confucius himself does pose a bit more of a threat.

Moss Roberts

Moss Roberts has been a professor at NYU's Department of East Asian studies since 1968. He has released dozens of publications on Asian language and culture, including multiple books and translations. He currently teaches courses on East Asian civilization and serves as the Director of Undergraduate Studies.

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1 Comment

  1. This is propaganda! A. Article about how bad the west is. The west has the most advanced societies in the world. The west allows individuals to achieve according to their will to try. China chains people to the will of the government. Don’t be fooled.

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