The Ethics of Human Rights (5): China, Confucianism and Authoritarianism

Confucianism, the traditional Chinese ethical and philosophical system based on the teachings of Confucius (551 BCE – 479 BCE), is often blamed for the lack of freedom and the authoritarian and anti-democratic form of government in China. This post examines the merits of this attack.

Confucianism is not a religion, although many believe it is, perhaps because of its emphasis on morality and the extent to which it has shaped and become synonymous with the culture of much of East-Asia, including of course China but also Japan, Korea, Taiwan, Singapore, Vietnam and many other countries with large Chinese communities. It is rather a philosophy and a culture.

Although vigorously attacked by the Chinese communists, it is beyond doubt that Confucianism still remains a strong force in Chinese thinking.

Arguments against the link between Confucianism and authoritarianism

Confucianism does not have to lead to authoritarianism. Indeed, Confucianism places more value on internalized morality than on external repression of deviant behavior:

Confucius argues that under law, external authorities administer punishments after illegal actions, so people generally behave well without understanding reasons why they should; whereas with ritual, patterns of behavior are internalized and exert their influence before actions are taken, so people behave properly because they fear shame and want to avoid losing face. (source)

The exercise of rituals or rites (not in the religious sense but in the sense of everyday ritual actions or routines) teaches people to internalize norms and respect them voluntarily, not because of fear of punishment. Formalized behavior through rituals becomes progressively internalized. Laws and governmental power are relatively unimportant to Confucianism.

Another reason why Confucianism is not necessarily autocratic is the teaching that the king’s personal virtue spreads a beneficial influence throughout the kingdom. With a virtuous king, the need for the use of force is limited.

Arguments in favor of the link between Confucianism and authoritarianism

Rituals are not only used to internalize morality and to instill a sense of propriety or politeness, but also to assign everyone a place in society, a kind of relationship to others and a form of behavior towards others.

While juniors are considered in Confucianism to owe strong duties of reverence and service to their seniors, seniors also have duties of benevolence and concern toward juniors. (source)

This leads to a strict hierarchy in society, which is opposed to equal rights, universality of rights and the equal influence that is found in a true democracy.

Social harmony is the ideal that results from every individual knowing his place in society, assuming his role and responsibilities towards others and establishing the right kinds of relationships and forms of behavior. However, this social harmony is clearly opposed to adversarial democratic politics.

There is government, when the prince is prince, and the minister is minister; when the father is father, and the son is son. (Confucius, Analects XII, 11).

There can be no objection to filial duties and filial piety. But the duty of benevolence and concern of the older towards the younger, and the extension of this duty to the rulers with regard to the people, can lead to paternalism and an infringement of the right to chose one’s own style of life.

Confucianism sees a moral role of government, and a responsibility of the government for the physical and moral well-being of the people. Filial piety is extended within Confucianism to political loyalty of the subjects of a state or even outright submission to authority. This leads to political inequality and elitism which is hard to reconcile with democracy.

However, the original teachings of Confucius forced the subjects to obey only as long as the rulers showed moral rectitude and responsibility for the well-being of the people. When the rulers assume their duties, strict obedience is required. But when they fail, the people can rebel. So no “might is right” or absolute power. Later rulers of course interpreted Confucianism in a more authoritarian way, for their own benefit.

Other aspects of Confucianism, such as the priority of the state and the community over the individual, meritocracy etc. make it hard for a democratic culture of freedom to take root.

Incompatibility of Confucianism and democracy, human rights and freedom?

Democracy, rights and freedom are not the exclusive product of the West and they are compatible with all cultures and religions. However, all cultures and religions also contain elements that inhibit the development of freedom. But it is possible tochange these elements.

Other causes of authoritarianism

One should also be careful not to overstate the importance of culture. First of all, culture is often used by rulers to justify themselves, and in doing so they tend to distort the real meaning of the culture in question. As is evident from the examples above, many elements of Confucianism cannot justify authoritarianism. Secondly, authoritarianism has other, non-cultural causes. In the case of China: the legacy of communism, the priority accorded to the economy (a priority that is supposed to warrant human rights violations) etc.


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