Jiang's appeal to virtue harks back to Confucius

South China Morning Post  |  Feb 20, 2001

By Sin-ming Shaw

It would have been unthinkable at the height of the Cultural Revolution. At the Communist Party Central Committee's recent propaganda conference, President Jiang Zemin raised the slogan of "rule by virtue".

The concept, with its roots in 2,200-year-old Confucian tradition, has never appeared in political documents of the ruling party,

In his January 10 speech, Mr Jiang told his audience that governing the nation by the rule of law alone was not enough. In addition, there must be the "rule of virtue".

He did not explain what he meant by virtue, but the official press is now full of propaganda cadres' columns celebrating the new slogan, quoting tirelessly from the Confucian classics.

This is viewed by some Beijing intellectuals as part of the leadership's effort to fill a vacuum in Marxist political theory caused by the collapse of most of the Leninist states.

This need is especially important as the 80th anniversary of the Chinese communist movement approaches. It could also help communism compete with the influence of Falun Gong's moral teachings.

Reaction has been mixed. For the intelligentsia, Confucianism is part of traditional culture and far more familiar than Marxism. At the same time, intellectuals also fear that, as happened in the past, Confucianism can easily be abused and used to justify bureaucratic and conservative rule.

A researcher at the National Library said Mr Jiang was the first Communist Party member to officially, and unashamedly, inject such a key element as Confucianism into communism. "This man is no longer living under the shadow of his predecessors - Mao Zedong or Deng Xiaoping or whoever. And now he wants to show us that he can also make history," the researcher said.

The concept of the rule of virtue does bring new dilemmas. For example, it also requires rule by virtuous people, which could be seen to place the emphasis on the personality of leaders rather than on the rule of law, which China is trying to establish.

"That's why today's politicians have to be very careful when they play with an ancient concept like this," said a staff member of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. "It's also why Jiang can only use it as an additional proposal to that for the rule of law."

But the emphasis on the rule of virtue highlights the leadership's main concern: the crisis of legitimacy which the Communist Party faces, due in part to widespread corruption.

Mr Jiang has pointed out that most government servants who grew up during Mao's endless political campaigns, including one against Confucius, have never received any kind of moral education.

An enormous effort is now under way to make Communist Party officials peruse Confucian classics in party schools.

Mr Jiang's other concern is Falun Gong - not so much with its institutional or financial power, which cannot match Beijing's, but with its appeal to people from the lower economic classes.

It is believed that Mr Jiang's policy advisers have told him that Falun Gong and the Taiping Rebellion, led by a self-styled Christian sect about 150 years ago, share the same weakness.

Just as Mao once noted that the Taiping Rebellion failed because it was unable to enlist support from the Confucian gentry and scholars, Falun Gong has never won endorsement from any of the nation's top scholars.

The Beijing leadership's strategy may be an attempt to undermine Falun Gong's moral appeal by promoting Confucian virtue as an alternative.

"It would be a clever move," commented a Western-trained political scientist. Just as Deng Xiaoping advocated socialism with Chinese characteristics, Mr Jiang may be trying to crea

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