Archive for June 6th, 2009

Saturday, June 6, 2009

EU Elections: Yes, You Must

The one that you want?

The one that you want?

Bremen – “You really ought to cast your vote,” says U., looking at me sternly. This comes all of a sudden. We weren’t talking about politics.
U. is a publican, and I’m having a coffee in her place.
I object. “They aren’t doing their job properly. It seems to me that I’d legitimize the wrong people if I do vote, no matter for whom I vote.”
“That’s what I’ve heard from several people,” she says. “But if you don’t vote, you’ll have no right to complain about their decisions later.”
My feelings seem to be mixed. And I’m wondering how she could read my thoughts about the elections.

U. is usually a voice of reason, and she’s constructive. And she’s very old-fashioned – in a good sense of the word.
But is it true that people who don’t vote must not complain? Aren’t abstentions – and there are going to be many all over Europe – messages from the people, too?

When more than half of the people eligible to vote in America stay away, it’s no drama. Here in Germany, a lot of people – not only politicians –  think that a high abstention rate is bad.

U. is in her sixties. When she was a small born, much of Bremen was still in ruins. Some of her relatives, and many other people she knew as a child, were probably suffering from battlefield injuries, from a war between European countries. A war started by my country. It’s the 65th anniversary of D-Day today. Many more people she knew as a child probably had big psychological problems because of the war. Many older people are probably aware of that, consciously or semi-consciously. That may be their main motivation to vote anyway, despite frustrations. Especially, memory may be their motivation to vote for the European Parliament. The EU parliament is full of people whose parents, grandparents, or great-grandparents had been at war which each other.

Besides, more in general, at least some of my idea to abstain is based on resentment. It isn’t merely the desire do the thing which makes the most sense. But resentment leads to bad karma, and to no improvement.

I was determined to join the ranks of those who don’t vote. Just this exchange of a few words with U. makes me think again.
It’s true – many of our politicians don’t address the real issues. They prefer to campaign about things  which aren’t really about fundamental problems: bad smoking habits, good gun control, and bad, bad paintball. Behind the scenes, they give in to lobbies. They give in to populist demands, too, for fear of becoming unpopular otherwise, and losing their seats. The China Global Times should have correspondents in Brussels and Strasbourg – they could collect tons of ugly material about democracy at work there.

But the sovereign – that’s us, the people -, is no easy client either. How informed and constructive are people who voted the Social Democrats and the Greens into Germany’s government twice, and filled the upper house (which held a veto on lots of legislation) with oppositional politicians most of the time, to axe the federal government’s projects? How can a government perform under such circumstances? And how can we properly assess its performance, if the opposition becomes a co-government?

In the end, I’ll still cast my vote. I’ll vote, although I’m not sure that it’s the right thing to do. I’ll simply trust the experience of an elder.

Saturday, June 6, 2009

June 4 and the Over-Simplifications

Let’s see if the Financial Times will keep the article accessible without registration. If not, the link there, and a short introduction to James Kynge‘s article is there at Danwei.

(…) But to say the demonstrations were to “demand democracy” is an oversimplification.
The truth is that the students in the square had only the haziest understanding of western-style democracy. To the extent that the protests were directed at abuses of an existing system by an emerging elite, they were motivated more by outrage at the betrayal of socialist ideals than by aspirations for a new system. The mood in the square was at least as much conservative as it was activist. (…)

Kynge also sees more distrust among average Chinese people against foreigners (for reasons of historic imperialism) than in 1989. He attributes that – probably correctly – to a narrative from China’s propaganda: the CCP as the only possible warrantor of Chinese sovereignty, and collective dignity.

It’s probably true that democracy was only one demand out of the huge crowd on Tian An Men Square and elsewhere in China. There were many platforms and voices, and maybe Kynge’s suggestion that the mood in the square points to a great deal of conservatism, side by side with activism, sounds realistic. Demands for stopping corruption, for example, were deeply conservative (and appropriate).

On a seminar on June 4 held in Beijing on May 10, human rights lawyer Teng Biao (滕彪) pointed out that today’s efforts to transform the political system were based on the foundations of the 6-4 movement, but both because of a changed political environment, and because of the existence of the internet, addressed relevant cases such as copyright infringement, last year’s Sanlu milk powder scandal, the Weng’ An County incident one by one, in a much more diverse way, thus promoting the rule of law and human rights.

Even with a changed political environment, it would be hard for activists today to formulate coherent platforms – censorship and an official catalog of vaguely defined paras concerning “subversion” and other causes for prosecution would make that a difficult task.

But certainly, democracy was one of the demands twenty years ago – although it would be difficult to quantify its influence in the movement. And it may be true that the students in the square had only the haziest understanding of western-style democracy. Well – many of them, anyway. And having been there twenty years ago, Mr Kynge probably talked with many of them back then, and bases his judgment on the impressions he gathered.

But the students were not to blame for their lack of understanding of certain “foreign” concepts twenty years ago. Besides, it is still only a minority of the Chinese people who can freely gather information on western-style democracy (why Western?), The uninformed majority is not to blame for that. I got the feeling in the past years that the Chinese leadership does its best to make sure that the majority won’t be able to get a better understanding of the concepts in question these days, either.

Certainly, Mr Kynge isn’t obliged to point that out. But he’s a journalist. He should take issue of censorship.

Saturday, June 6, 2009

Confucianism and Modernity (2)

Part (1) – with the usual excuses – is here.

Based on an article by Prof Wang Zhicheng.

Tu Weiming (杜维明) sees a similar future role for Confucianism. During the recent ten years, he has arranged Confucianism in front of the big Western background, hoping that Confucianism can find its own position within the existing system. He wants to define a globalized background for Confucianism. In “Confucianism and Civilization”, Tu spells out four big background factors of which Confucianism must be aware: ecology, feminism, religious plurality, and the concept of globalization.

In fact, a lot of ecological awareness can be found in traditional Confucianism, such as “man and nature are one” (天人合一)1), “the benevolent is at one with everything” (仁者与天地万物为一体) can be found in Zhang Zai’s Western Inscription (西铭).
These ecological contents have become factors in Confucianism’s revival. Traditional Confucianism didn’t look at women with a great deal of esteem, and has even been condemned for having no respect for women. Feminism has developed greatly, especially during the 20th century, influenced by the Humanities, and has become an epochal question, unavoidable for Confucianism.

Religious pluralism seems to be a striking characteristic within the reality of globalization, and has found broad introduction and appraisal. Prof Tu points out that with this background, if Confucianism wants to take part and play a role in this era, it must see itself as one religion out of many, and take part in a global dialogue with all the world’s major religions. By playing a role in dialogue, Confucianism will further itself. A standard which is part of every major religion – the Golden Rule – provides resources for a global logic. Global logic is a prerequisite of global harmonious co-existence. The Lunyu’s “What you don’t desire yourself, don’t do to others” (己所不欲勿施于人), clearly states this golden rule. Undoubtedly, Confucianism can contribute to the global dialogue.

Tu Weiming is regarded as one of the representatives of Contemporary New Confucianism (当代新儒学), and he is strongly and critically aware of Confucianism’s own problems. He says that “you can severly criticize Confucianism on different levels, be it the petty peasant economy2) (小农经济), clanship, authoritarianism, 工具理念3), people’s development of self-awareness, and so on.” Tu Weiming uses two examples which I believe are particularly important. The first is about the concept of the sage king. A fundamental belief of traditional Confucianism is the inner-sage, outside-king concept. But China’s cultural reality isn’t the sage king, but the king sage4). Tu believes that a thoroughly politicized Confucianist society would be more into persecution and coercion than a purely Legalist society, because Confucianism didn’t only dominate peoples’ body, but also wanted to control peoples’ minds, whereas Legalism only wanted to control those who didn’t obey the law. The other example is about the understanding of the Three Cardinal Guides or sangang (三纲)5). He says that the sangang had entered Confucianism with the Legalists from the beginning of the Han Dynasty. The sangang were seen as lasting concepts: “monarch guides subject, father guides son, and husband guides wife.” Seen from the perspective of modern culture, 君为臣纲 stands for despotism, 父为子纲 stands for authoritarianism, and 夫为妇纲 stands for male-centeredness. All of these should be abandoned. In fact, they were abandoned under the influence of the May Fourth Movement.

Tu Weiming defines the value of Confucianism in our times. As a representative of [contemporary] New Confucianism, he sees Confucianism as a local resource of wisdom which can add a useful common resource to global cultural diversity. One can find some fundamental values within Confucianism, and these values, as the local wisdom which they are, can serve all humankind, and participate in global cultural diversity and religious dialog.

Clearly, neither Yu Yingshi nor Tu Weiming see much likelihood that in this modern era, Confucianism would become institutionalized again in its traditional way. Confucianism and its revival require post-modern, critical reflection. Prof Yu’s idea of letting Confucianism become part of daily life deconstructs Confucianism’s grand narrative; the Confucian sage king‘s ways have taken the nature of daily life6).

Roughly translated from Prof Wang Zhicheng’s essay. To be continued. Update: continued here.


1) also often translated as Harmony of Man with Nature.

2) petty peasant economy in itself is just a stage in economic development – the reason to criticize Confucianism for it may be that it kept approving of this kind of isolated, local slave society long after one could – and should – have moved on as an economy, and as a society.

3) 工具理念 seems to be similar to, but not identical with utilitarianism (功利主义). Your input on 工具理念 would be very welcome.

4) I’m not sure of that meaning, but maybe these lines by a prof in Taiwan points into the direction – just maybe:
(…) This could help to explain why Confucian societies, including Taiwan, are based on control rather than on trust: A “sage” or a leader cannot fail or make any mistakes.
Therefore, these “infallibles” have to be somehow isolated from the people they dominate. They are endowed with the aura of a “sage” or an untouchable, and critical analyses of their words and deeds are deemed inappropriate. This status has to be permanently secured. (…)

5) “君为臣纲,父为子纲,夫为妇纲” – “monarch guides subject, father guides son, and husband guides wife.”

6) to take the nature of daily life seems to imply that the sage king’s way has become more trivial.

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