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September 15, 1999
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Beijing embraces Confucian communism
By Antoaneta Bezlova

BEIJING - After decades of scathing denunciation of Confucianism as the source of the country's backwardness, China is again embracing the philosophy of its most prominent sage and is celebrating his 2,550 birthday in lavish fashion.

The reasons for this turnaround are both international and domestic. On an international scale, China's modern-day ideologues believe the Confucian virtues of benevolence and tolerance can serve the country in shaping its international image as an important purveyor of peace.

Looking inward, they hope that the sage's spirit of striving and fortitude will fill the spiritual vacuum created by the materialism unleashed with the economic reforms of late leader Deng Xiaoping.

This year's anniversary of Confucius's birth will be commemorated by the issue of golden statuettes of the sage and silver badges with his image and that of his most famous disciple, Mencius. Each statuette of the philosopher is made of 300 grams of gold and special permission from the Ministry of Finance was obtained for the making of each one.

Discussions and exhibitions will be held in the run up to the celebration of Confucius' birthday on September 27, as China's academics mull how to refresh Confucian thought and apply it to the modern world. ''To commemorate Confucius is to cherish the tradition of Chinese culture,'' declared Liu Weihua, vice-chairman of the China Confucius Foundation.

In the half-century history of communist China, however, Confucian thought was not always celebrated as an enduring symbol of Chinese civilization. In one famous passage written in 1969, the Great Helmsman Mao Zedong boasted that he had outdone by ''more than a hundredfold'' the first emperor Qin Shihuang, who buried alive 460 Confucian scholars and burned their books. ''I think he [Qin Shihuang] killed too few Confucian scholars,'' wrote Mao. ''All those Confucian scholars were indeed counter-revolutionaries.''

While he wholeheartedly denounced Confucianism, Mao admired the political philosophy of Legalism, expounded by Han Fei, a rival of Confucius. In the midst of the Cultural Revolution, from 1966 to 1976, Mao even launched a nationwide campaign ordering everyone to study the Legalists.

In contrast to Confucianism, which stresses benevolence and the importance of morality, Legalism emphasizes the absolute power of the state over its subjects. Everyone except for the ruler can be punished, and law is a tool to keep the population under control.

''It is widely believed that Confucianism is the most influential philosophy in Chinese culture, but in fact, all China's rulers subscribed to the legal codes of Han Fei,'' reflected Beijing university professor Zhao Zumo.

Adopting a policy of ''ru wai, nei fa'' - or outwardly Confucian, but inwardly Legalistic - is how the emperors of China succeeded in wielding absolute power over their subjects. ''While the severe system of punishments introduced by the Legalists was used to run the state and avoid social chaos, the ethical doctrine of Confucianism was essential in holding the social fabric together,'' explained Zhao.

Yet it was Confucianism and its ''cannibalistic feudal ethics'', not the draconian codes of Legalism, that came under fire during the May 4th Movement of 1919, when China's new intellectual elite tried to embrace Western humanitarian thought.

The onslaught against Confucianism continued under the communists. Because Confucius wanted to eternalize certain privileges and powers for the aristocracy, modern proletarian leaders saw his followers as counter-revolutionaries.

During the Cultural Revolution, Mao, who himself reverted to absolutism, called on the Red Guards to smash all historic relics and eradicate old thinking, habits and customs. More than 20 years later, China is warming up to Confucian doctrines. Modern interpretation sees the master's thought as a spiritual resource in its determination to build a new multi-polar world order, or an order that is not dominated by the West.

Along these lines, Gong Dafei, former vice-minister of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and a member of the China Confucius Foundation, noted: ''By Confucian tradition, hegemonism is not prevalent, while benevolence and humanity stand in essential positions. If this tradition is reflected in international relations, the most important thing for a country is to understand and attend to others even at the expense of one's own interest.'' To illustrate the point, Gong cites China's decision not to devalue its currency during the Asian financial crisis.

By preaching Confucian-style benevolence and tolerance in international relations, China's leaders hope to avoid a Kosovo-like crisis within their own borders, where minority tensions in restive regions like Tibet and Xinjiang continue to simmer.

''Confucianism has always been useful to China's leaders because it stresses benevolence,'' commented Zhao. ''But do they know it is also the weapon of the weak?''

(Inter Press Service)

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