Image of Prof Daniel A. Bell

On the revival of Confucian communism in contemporary China

The China Forum seminar on Thursday 16 November 2023 was delivered by Professor Daniel A. Bell (Professor and Chair of Political Theory, Faculty of Law, The University of Hong Kong; and former Dean of the School of Political Science and Public Administration, Shandong University (Qingdao)).

Professor Bell is the leading western scholar of Confucianism. His lecture reviewed the ebb and flow of Confucian influence in China over the reform period since the late 1970s. He framed this against his recent book (The Dean of Shandong) recounting his unique experience of serving as a mid-level official in China’s bureaucracy. Professor Bell is the only foreigner to have served as Dean of a university faculty in China. He was responsible for more than 1,000 students and 80 professors at Shandong University for four years. In this role he saw the Chinese bureaucratic system from the inside. He observed that Chinese officials tend to have above average IQ, above average EQ, a capacity for hard work and possess virtue. In the early stages of reform in the 1980’s, China adopted some aspects of a more liberal capitalist system. However, there was a belief that there would not simply be ‘one modernity’. China should learn from the West but not blindly copy it. In the 1990’s, there was an unexpected comeback of Confucian and Communist ideals. Confucianism has survived for so long, in part due to its ability to incorporate ideas from other traditions, such as Buddhism, Taoism and Legalism, and more recently even liberalism and feminism. It teaches that the ‘good life’ lies in compassionate and harmonious social relations starting with the family, but that the ‘best life’ comes from selfless service as a public official. It has little to say about the afterlife.

The comeback of Confucianism reflected the need within a capitalist system for deeper emotional grounding. It reflected also consideration of the economic success of Japan, South Korea and now Vietnam, where the Confucian values of self-improvement, education and the nurturing of future generations had contributed to economic development. The question arose: ‘could Confucianism replace Communism?’ In fact, the Confucian comeback stalled, particularly after the GFC in 2008, which provoked a realisation that capitalism is prone to crises and that it tends to serve the rich. By 2012, the Chinese leadership felt that capitalism had gone too far and there was a need to swing back to more socialist methods to reduce the gap between rich and poor, promote environmental stability and deal with corruption. This resulted in a move towards the system in Karl Marx’s  ‘lower stage of communism’, which makes use of ‘distribution according to contribution’, where material rewards are determined by hard work accompanied by equal opportunity. Professor Bell concluded by noting the contradiction between the ‘higher stage of communism,’ when classes disappear and the state withers away, and the Chinese conviction that the state is a necessary protection against the perils of climate change, rogue AI, nuclear weapons and other dangers that are bound to arise in the future.

Issues raised in the Q&A session included: whether there could be a role for Confucian-style selection of political leaders in the West; whether these changes were a fundamental shift of ideology or merely a pragmatic adjustment to deal with rising inequality and slowing growth; role of gender blindness in meritocratic selection; the effectiveness of Confucian ideals to inspire and motivate ordinary people; comparisons with the Renaissance in Europe in the 15th and 16th centuries, which resulted in enhancement of the classical tradition; how to resolve the conflict between Confucianism, with its emphasis on harmony and stability, and Marxism, with its emphasis on class struggle and perpetual crisis; and what might be learned from other Asian regions, such as Taiwan, Macau, and even Malaysia, where the tradition of Confucianism was not interrupted by the Cultural Revolution.

Daniel A. Bell  (貝淡寧) is Professor, Chair of Political Theory with the Faculty of Law at the University of Hong Kong. He served as Dean of the School of Political Science and Public Administration at Shandong University (Qingdao) from 2017 to 2022.   His books include The Dean of Shandong (2023),  Just Hierarchy (co-authored with Wang Pei, 2020), The China Model (2015), The Spirit of Cities (co-authored with Avner de-Shalit, 2012), China’s New Confucianism (2008), Beyond Liberal Democracy (2007), and East Meets West (2000), all published by Princeton University Press.   He is also the author of Communitarianism and Its Critics (Oxford University Press, 1993).  He is founding editor of the Princeton-China series (Princeton University Press) which translates and publishes original and influential academic works from China. His works have been translated in 23 languages. He has been interviewed in English, Chinese, and French. In 2018, he was awarded the Huilin Prize and was honoured as a “Cultural Leader” by the World Economic Forum.