Liberal Confucianism6 min read

Yan Xuetong’s qualified acknowledgement of liberalism – Sam Crane


For many years the Chinese Communist Party has identified “Western values,” including various manifestations of liberalism, as a threat to political and social stability in the People’s Republic.  From the 1983 movement to “eradicate spiritual pollution,” through repeated jeremiads against “bourgeois liberalization” and “peaceful evolution,” to more recent efforts to promote “socialist core values,” Party leaders have consistently attacked liberalism as a “hostile foreign force.” All the while, they attempt to appropriate and redefine certain liberal values – freedom, democracy – to support the illiberal authoritarianism that sustains their power.

It was somewhat surprising, then, to read Tsinghua University Professor Yan Xuetong’s recent article: ‘Chinese Values v. Liberalism: What Ideology Will Shape the International Normative Order?’ The “v.” in the title suggested a reiteration – perhaps a more sophisticated one, given Yan’s academic pedigree – of the usual anti-liberal diatribe. But instead of uncompromising condemnation or distorted appropriation, Yan recognizes the power of liberalism at the level of international relations, and advances tentative ideas for a reasonable accommodation between traditional Chinese values and liberal ideals.

There are, of course, limits to how far Yan is willing to go in embracing liberalism. He is not calling for the liberalization of domestic Chinese politics. And Yan himself is not a liberal. He is an international relations realist, trained at Berkeley in the tradition of Henry Kissinger, Hans Morgenthau, Machiavelli, and Thucydides. From this perspective, foreign policy is driven, in Morgenthau’s terse phrase, by “interest defined in terms of power.” States must struggle for power, most importantly military power, and they must balance power against actual or potential rivals. In these terms, liberalism has a decidedly subordinate status in realist policy. Morgenthau bluntly states: “Realism maintains that universal moral principles cannot be applied to the actions of states in their abstract and universal formulation.”

This is where Yan is coming from. When he analyzes liberalism, he does so from a power politics vantage: ideas can be useful in bolstering the power of leading states. For realists, liberalism, which informed the creation of post-World War II institutions such as the United Nations and International Monetary Fund, has served the interests of the US, underwriting global hegemony. Yan observes, however, that US world power is now in decline and, concomitantly, the appeal of liberal ideas is also eroding. This raises the question: with the relative increase in PRC material power, might certain “Chinese values,” often understood as distinct from liberalism, gain greater global prominence and become an ideological element of PRC influence?

Yan does not call for a complete overthrow of liberal values. He recognizes that US global power is still significant, and that liberalism remains deeply entrenched in international institutions and practices. His rather pragmatic power-political calculations lead him not to a direct confrontation between Chinese values and liberalism, but a combination of the two.

“A modernized Confucianism, Yan argues, must be combined with liberalism”  

He focuses on three liberal values – equality, democracy, freedom – and three traditional Chinese values – benevolence (ren), righteousness (yi), rites (li).  Although he does mention that these Chinese values can be found in various schools of classical thought, those familiar with ancient philosophy will immediately recognize their Confucian pedigree. In effect, he is searching for a synthesis of Confucianism and liberalism, a task that has occupied Chinese intellectuals since at least the time of Liang Qichao at the end of the Qing dynasty.

Yan can only cover so much in 22 pages, but he produces a rudimentary formulation: Confucian benevolence can be conceptually fused with liberal equality to produce a new norm of fairness; righteousness combines with democracy to yield justice; and rites merges with freedom to form civility. The ultimate goal of this undertaking is the creation of a global normative order of “humane authority” (wangdao), as opposed to a mere power-based hegemony (ba). These are all topics that he explored at length in his 2010 book, Ancient Chinese Thought, Modern Chinese Power, edited by Daniel A. Bell and Sun Zhe.

There are problems with his analysis, to be sure. Readers of John Rawls’ A Theory of Justice will observe immediately that liberalism in itself, without any help from Confucianism, can generate robust norms of fairness and justice, through a deep inquiry into what is required to secure social equality while maintaining certain political freedoms. Yan recognizes this and cites Rawls, but goes on to assert that Chinese thought is a distinct theoretical source for these same norms.

Yan’s descriptions of liberal values are rather thin. He notes that democracy, at its core, it is a matter of “majority consent,” but he does not mentions its requirement of protecting minority rights or other values, as is usually the case in constitutional democracy. When thinking about how justice might be secured at the international level, he does not mention the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which is designed to protect core values from even democratically-determined political actions. Without that kind of consideration, it is not clear the extent to which traditional Chinese values really enhance international justice above and beyond existing liberal principles. Liberalism writ large can address several of the problems he finds in his overly narrow definition of it.

Be that as it may, the tone and substance of Yan’s article are more open and accommodating to liberal ideas than the standard critiques advanced by Party-controlled media and institutions. As documented in the excellent report last October from the Mercator Institute for China Studies, ‘Ideas and Ideologies Competing for China’s Political Future’, Chinese leaders work assiduously to pursue a “dual strategy” of ideological work, “developing and promoting ‘Chinese’ ideas and values while attacking and limiting the influence of supposedly dangerous ‘Western’ ideas.” Yan is certainly advancing “Chinese values,” but he is eschewing the usual assault on “Western” ideas.

It is a small consolation that Yan refrains from rejecting liberalism only because he sees it as still embedded in certain structures and practices of global power. He is not arguing directly for an inherent good in liberalism itself, only a realistic need to accept the continuing global influence of liberal ideas. But his pragmatism preserves political space for liberalism in China as a system of thought that must be respected and accommodated. A modernized Confucianism, he argues, if relevant to the world, must be combined with liberalism.

A further implication of Yan’s analysis, though one that he does not make explicit, is that liberalism is good insofar as norms derived from it are consistent with the inherent good of Confucian values. That could raise some eyebrows on the Party’s Leading Small Group on Propaganda and Ideology, the highest level political organization tasked with overseeing ideological work.

Yan even presses further in suggesting a certain inconsistency between Confucian “humane authority” and existing politics in the PRC. He notes that the continuing emphasis on Marxism in domestic ideology runs counter to the revival of Confucianism. Although the Party is attempting a reconciliation between the two, he writes that this “is an ambitious goal not easily achieved; nor is any effective method of doing so in sight.” The implication here is that if China is to play a larger role in shaping global norms, through a synthesis of liberalism and Confucianism, it will have to abandon Marxism at home.

None of this amounts to a full-fledged endorsement of liberalism. But in the increasingly repressive ideological environment of the PRC today, it might give Chinese liberals something to work with. Within the constraints Yan sets, there is modest promise here for the prospects of liberalism in contemporary China. ∎


Header image: The dragon, image, and demon, from Wikimedia Commons.