Confucius Corrects The Communist Party

The return of Confucius as a notable figure in the Chinese government's public presentation has been the subject of substantive scholarly discussion. Unlike much of this work, however, the present paper engages two questions difficult to assess within pure academia: how does the government fare when judged from a traditional perspective it now uses to justify its own actions, and what effects, if any, would closer adherence to that tradition have on modern governance?

Jonathan English is an attorney in Washington, DC. Recognizing that The Analects still has much to say to the modern world, including China, he has recently pursued scholarship on Confucius. He also writes short stories, narrative nonfiction, and other creative genres, besides writing on law.

[Editors’ note: The present article enters a challenging space, that which all outside observers of Chinese politics and political history enter when writing substantive commentary; in this space, it is important to contextualize what an article is and is not. This work is premised on the contemporary CCP’s, and particularly President Xi Jinping’s, own explicit allusions to and use of the writings of Confucius to justify political action. The return of Confucius as a notable figure in the Chinese government’s public presentation has been the subject of substantive scholarly discussion. Unlike much of this work, however, the present paper engages two interdisciplinary questions difficult to assess from a single perspective: how does the government fare when judged from a traditional perspective it now uses to justify its own actions, and what effects, if any, would closer adherence to that tradition have on modern governance? In publishing work on such topics, it is increasingly necessary to pre-emptively address the potential for romanticization and especially for unjust and inappropriate “civilizational” arguments; in this article, the author argues for precisely the opposite of such positions. As always, the editors welcome respectful and serious discussion from all perspectives.]

The explicit goal of the Chinese state, under the Constitution of the People’s Republic of China, is to attain “Chinese-style socialism,” or to Sinicize socialism.[1] Even more emphatically, the Constitution of the Communist Party of China states—17 times—that it must move toward “socialism with Chinese characteristics.”[2] Yet the Party arguably has not succeeded in this respect. It has, I argue, neglected Confucius and key elements of Chinese political wisdom. Ironically, in importing Marx and Lenin, the Party has forgotten Confucius’s teaching.[3]

Even so, the Party has sought to capitalize on Confucius’s name, and Confucius has become the standard bearer of Chinese culture internationally, due in part to the more than 500 Confucius Institutes sponsored by the Chinese government worldwide.[4] This was a shrewd choice, as Confucius is widely considered a profound, exemplary, and influential thinker, with wisdom for both East and West.[5] But as this article will show, if the Party better remembered and appreciated Confucius—waking to the Chinese dream—it would strive to: (1) rule by virtue and law/propriety rather than by coercion, (2) hold Heaven and the Way higher than party and partisanship, and (3) value moral and spiritual welfare above materialism. In a final section focusing on the examples of the Great Leap Forward and the one-child policy, the article notes how, even from a utilitarian perspective, a departure from these principles has harmed China significantly. As will be seen, these principles involve important implications for essential human rights.[6] Perhaps surprisingly, by truly remembering and following Confucius, the Party would achieve greater harmony not just with its own citizens, but with the rest of the world as well.

Confucius says, “When you love someone, how can you not encourage him to work hard? When you want to do your best for someone, how can you not try to instruct him [to do the right thing]?”[7] Analects 14.7. As a result of his sagacity, Confucius still has impartial instruction for the Communist Party of China.

Coercion—Neglecting Rule by Virtue and Propriety

“The Master said, ‘If you guide the people with ordinances and statutes and keep them in line with [threats of] punishment, they will try to stay out of trouble but will have no sense of shame. If you guide them with exemplary virtue and keep them in line with the practices of the rites, they will have a sense of shame and will know to reform themselves.’” (Analects 2.3)

“The Master said, ‘He who exercises government by means of his virtue may be compared to the north polar star, which keeps its place and all the stars turn towards it.’” (Analects 2.1)

Confucius teaches that proper government must govern by virtue and example to the greatest extent possible, thereby avoiding and minimizing coercion as far as possible.[8] Analects 2.1, 2.3. (For shorthand, this could be called the principle of non-coercion.) Corollary to this, Confucius’s teaching implicates an inherent sphere of freedom for the individual (e.g. in speech, learning, religion, culture, human endeavor) that is mandated by the golden rule and that enables individual moral development and responsibility.[9] “A humane person wishes to steady [or establish] himself, and so he helps others to steady themselves. Because he wishes to reach his goal, he helps others to reach theirs” (Analects 6:30). “Do not impose on others what you yourself do not want [others to impose on you]” (Analects 15.24). In addition, The Analects instructs that everyone is entitled to reverence/respect (jing), even people in distant lands or minority cultures, so that everyone must be treated with humaneness (ren). “Do not leave them [reverence, respect, and effort for others] even when you go and live among the Di and Yi [border] tribes” (Analects 12.2, 13.19). The obligation of humaneness applies even in times of crisis. “The gentleman does not abandon humaneness, not even for the duration of a meal. He holds on to it whether he is in a hurry or in a crisis” (Analects 4.5). And to realize this humaneness, Confucius had the profound insight that one must think through another’s perspective, coming to “know others,” considering their needs and desires by analogy with one’s own (e.g. through the aforementioned golden rule; Analects 6.30, 12.2, 12.22). Yet despite the time-honored teaching of Confucius, too often, the Party rules by power, not by virtue or law/propriety. It coerces without inspiring trust. This is apparent in several ways.

Unfree Speech

The Party controls speech and press, despite the Constitution’s provision for freedom of both. Some topics[10] or terms[11] may be completely censored online; others are selectively and surreptitiously censored so that only “carefully selected results” show up in an internet search.[12] And certain websites are blocked entirely or at least in Chinese, including The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, BBC, Reuters, The Economist, Time, Amnesty International, Radio Free Asia, etc.[13] Even more misleadingly, “the government fabricates and posts about 448 million social media comments a year” in order to distract, change the subject, and voice pro-government perspectives, according to a 2017 study in the American Political Science Review.[14] Similarly, state newspapers are required to reflect, and not criticize, Party positions.[15] Finally, books may only be published by approved publishers; and publishers must be approved by the government,[16] adhere to political orthodoxy, and have significant capital.[17]

Yet this approach contradicts the teaching of Confucius. Rather, Confucius teaches that a gentleman[18] must “learn broadly”; that he “listens to what others have to say”; and that he doesn’t merely “echo” the sayings of others, he “harmonizes,”[19] allowing multiple sides of an issue to be discussed, to find a wise and balanced policy (Analects 19.6, 12.20, 13.23).[20] A gentleman even speaks up (carefully) against misgovernment (Analects 14.3, 13.15).[21] Indeed, Article 27 of the Constitution requires that “[a]ll State organs and functionaries must rely on the support of the people, keep in close touch with them, heed their opinions and suggestions, accept their supervision and do their best to serve them.”[22] But how can the Party be in close touch with the people and their thoughts if the people are kept uninformed or misinformed? Or if enormous, historic segments of Chinese society (religious segments in particular, as discussed below) are precluded from representation in the Party?

Confucius knew that wise rulers “know others,” and that humane rulers “love others” (Analects 12.22). To know and love the people, consistent with Confucius, the Party must expand freedom of speech[23] and allow people to be informed by the actual state of affairs, rather than by a fictional construct. The alternative, acting based on public opinion that is ill informed or misinformed, can be dangerous. By misleading its own people, the Party leads itself and its people into ignorance and danger, making the nation vulnerable to threats of unchecked subjectivism, historical detachment, chauvinism, xenophobia, and international disharmony, threats which can ultimately turn and victimize the Party itself.

Unfree Religion and Culture

On a more intrusive level, the Party coerces and proscribes religious and cultural identities of Chinese citizens. The Party requires that Party members subscribe to its official atheistic, materialist belief system,[24] thus excluding hundreds of millions of Chinese who adhere to religious beliefs that have been part of China for well over a millennium, far longer than the Party itself. Christianity was present in China by the 7th century[25]; Islam came during the 7th century[26]; and Buddhism came much earlier.[27] People belonging to these and other religions are excluded from Party membership[28] regardless of their wisdom, experience, talent, character, or other leadership merits, and members who have developed religious beliefs are being purged.[29] Overlooking merit in favor of partisanship goes against the teaching of Confucius (Analects 2.19, 13.2, 20.1). And because these individuals are not represented in the Party, the Party is out of touch with the people and these traditions within China. This broad exclusion will tend to undermine the legitimacy of the Party as it unfairly excludes people of merit and it fails to truly represent the Chinese people.

While the Party coerces and proscribes the beliefs and practices of those inside the Party, it often coerces people outside the Party more severely. Recently, the Chinese government has torn down crosses[30] and churches[31]—both registered[32] and unregistered—as other churches have been forced to close.[33] In one province, people were required to replace images of Jesus with posters of Party Leader Xi Jinping as part of a poverty relief program.[34] In some provinces, children are banned from attending Bible studies on Sunday,[35] while registered churches nationwide must agree to exclude congregants under 18.[36] The Party also tries to circumscribe what churches may teach and who may do the teaching,[37] and as of last year the government now bans online sales of the Bible.[38] More frighteningly, the government has arrested[39] and imprisoned[40] members of unofficial, unregistered churches, with more than 100 detained and arrested in Chengdu, China on December 10th, 2018.[41] The pastor, his wife, and 11 others “are still being held incommunicado without access to a lawyer,” according to a March 25, 2019 follow up article in the New York Times.[42] The New York Times also reports, citing China Aid data, that China “last year detained Christians about 100,000 times.”[43]

Uighur Muslims in China’s western Xinjiang region have suffered more comprehensive coercion. It is estimated that close to one million or more[44] Uighur Muslims have been locked up[45] in re-education camps because of their religious-cultural identity, with children of detainees often sent to orphanages.[46] The government has labeled the camps vocational training schools or boarding schools for adults.[47] But if they were simply vocational training schools, schools for adults, they would be voluntary, not involuntary. The government’s alternative, underlying rationale is that the Muslims who are detained are already infected by religious extremism and require inoculation through re-education with the camps being effectively psychiatric “hospitals.”[48] But this explanation also strains credulity.

It is true that there has been some extremist violence in the region, with some separatists and terrorists claiming a right to independence of what they call East Turkestan. And it can be justifiable, in order to protect the human dignity and rights of others, to detain an individual when it is proven through due process that the individual is a criminal and intends or plans on harming others. It is implausible, however, to think that approximately a million (or more) individuals are such extremists or that adequate evidence or due process has been used in detaining them. Indeed, local officials have confirmed that detentions were directed to be made based on quotas.[49] A Chinese scholar has concluded that “[r]ecklessly setting quantitative goals for transformation through education has been erroneously used… The targeting is imprecise, and the scope has been expanding.”[50] Other arrests have been made on bases that are not illegal, including using WhatsApp, communicating with relatives in other countries, or learning Arabic.[51] In addition, the government has banned or curtailed normal Muslim practices, including fasting by public employees and service employees during Ramadan[52] and giving children certain Muslim names.[53] These are not extremist activities. To treat people as guilty without justification, before they are proved guilty of an actual crime through due process, is a violation of the duty to respect human dignity.[54]

Such coercion is likely to foster more resentment, not less. One Muslim who was detained for reading a verse from the Quran at a funeral put it this way: “That was not a place for getting rid of extremism. That was a place that will breed vengeful feelings and erase Uighur identity.”[55] Thus, given present practices, these internment camps could become dissident factories rather than ethnic assimilators. As Confucius understood, “If the people are infuriated with men who are inhumane, this, too, will lead to chaos” (Analects 8.10.).[56]And the government’s inconsistent explanations and labels will only undermine trust in the government (Analects 13.3).

To step back from its current approach, officials will have to think through the perspective of the Uighurs themselves, and imagine their needs, desires, and dreams. Majority Han Chinese will have to think beyond themselves to consider and appreciate minority Uighur points of view, Confucius’s golden rule would say. This empathy would move the state toward humaneness, harmony, and respect for dignity and rights.

The Constitution of the PRC guarantees freedom of religious belief and activity (Article 36). Likewise, the Constitution promises equality of nationalities or ethnic groups within China, including minorities (Article 4). And it ostensibly protects freedom of speech and of the press (Article 35). Yet ironically, when lawyers have spoken up for these incontrovertible Constitutional rights (Article 5 states, “[n]o laws or administrative or local regulations may contravene the Constitution”, and, further, “[n]o organization or individual is privileged to be beyond the Constitution”), they have been subjected to unjust arrest and imprisonment for defending the people’s transcendent rights. This radical disparity between the Constitution’s ideals and the state’s coercion and punishment can only alienate people and undermine trust in the Party (Analects 13.3). To make necessary progress, the Party must abide by Confucius’s instruction and, at the very least, by the promises of its own Constitution.

Partisanship—Neglecting Reverence for Heaven and the Way

“The Master said, ‘A gentleman, in his dealings with the world, is not predisposed to what he is for or against. He sides only with what is right.’” (Analects 4.10)

“Confucius said, ‘The gentleman stands in awe of three things. He is in awe of Heaven’s mandate, of great men, and of the words of sages. The petty man is unaware of the presence of Heaven’s mandate; he belittles great men; and he regards the words of sages with mockery.’” (Analects 16.8)

“The Master said, ‘Set your heart upon the Way…’” (Analects 7.6).

Confucius also says that a gentleman does not act out of mere “petty loyalty” (Analects 14.7). “He is not a tool” (Analects 2.12).[57] He does not merely “echo” what others in the Party may say, as that would deprive the Party of potentially valuable counsel and wisdom. “The gentleman puts rightness at the top” (Analects 17.23).

Moreover, he recognizes that apart from any particular partisan group, and transcendent over partisanship, exist Heaven[58] and the Way.[59] The Book of History (or Book of Documents), one of the ancient Five Classics of Chinese learning, conveys this idea as well: “Heaven loves the people; and the Sovereign must obey Heaven.”[60] This understanding is critical, as it limits the power of the government to oppress and it safeguards human dignity and human rights. As indicated earlier, Heaven and the Way both mandate reverence for all individuals, regardless of culture or class, and they require that all people be treated with humaneness, and thus with dignity and with fundamental human rights (Analects 12.2, 13.19). Thus, rulers must respect Heaven and the Way, and the human dignity and rights that flow from it, and they must not insist on a “petty loyalty” that ignores the Way or hides from Heaven. Because if the Party ignored the Way or pretended it doesn’t exist, it would become corrupt, disrespectful, unbalanced and unmoored from what is right, intent on its own power and interests and unmerciful toward perceived threats or dissent. In that event, it would recognize only itself as the highest power and it would soon begin to exercise overbearing, excessive power, which can build distrust and pressure that can actually destabilize the coercive power itself.

Several practical implications flow from this teaching. First, reverence for Heaven and the Way entails an objective higher law and necessarily implies respect for human dignity and rights protecting that dignity, consistent with the teaching of Confucius.[61] This respect is a kind of internal constraint. Second, there must be an external constraint through impartial judicial independence in order to protect basic human dignity and rights from abuse of power and undue coercion.[62] Third, to enable Party members to revere Heaven and the Way, Party members must be permitted to hold personal religious beliefs.

One Chinese victim and protester aptly summarized the problem with consolidated Party control over the judiciary and the legal system, with lack of judicial independence, and with disrespect for basic human dignity and rights given by Heaven and the Way:

“Why is it that people with grievances (yuanqing) have no recourse, that the courts cheat us, and that staff of the Supreme Procuratorate beat me into this condition? The Police won’t even file your case. They say, we’re all under the control of the Supreme Procuratorate, none of us dares to handle this case. That means there’s no respect for law or heaven. They can beat people for nothing.”[63]

To remedy this prideful, unlawful spirit, as proper internal constraint, the gentleman in the Party must set his heart upon the Way, and thus avoid blind partisanship (Analects 7.6). He must be in awe of Heaven’s mandate (Analects 16.8). And he must side with the right (Analects 4.10; see also Analects 6.27, “The gentleman . . . holds himself back with the practice of the rites [or ritual propriety, not unlike due process]. And so he is able not to go beyond the bounds of the moral way.”). In doing so, it will be helpful to remember how Confucius said, “Heaven has given me this power—this virtue. What can Huan Tui do to me!” (Analects 7.23). He trusted Heaven’s role for him in impartially teaching and pursuing the Way. As a result, he did not fear the finite government official. Heaven’s perfect mandate was greater. The mandate of a man, we all know, can be flawed. But if members of the Party all strive to pursue the Way, they will avoid corruption, find wisdom, and inspire the people through their example.

As a necessary external constraint, there must be non-partisan (as Confucius emphasized) judicial independence that adheres to higher law and constitutional rights, to protect human dignity and rights from improper government coercion.[64] This teaching entails adherence to basic principles—adherence to higher law through rule of law, to fundamental human rights and dignity inherent in that higher law, and to some (structurally effective) form of judicial independence to properly and fairly uphold recognized human rights. Impartial judicial ruling must be independent from the momentary, partisan political will. (See, e.g., Analects 15.36: “When encountering matters that involve the question of humaneness, do not yield even to your teacher”; see also Analects 6.27, 11.24, 18.2, 18.6). And to respect the Way and higher law, the people (i.e. individuals) must be permitted to appeal to fundamental rights enumerated in the Constitution of the PRC. As Qianfan Zhang has written, one “should be concerned, above all, with establishing fundamental rules that can prevent these institutions themselves, especially the state, from exercising powers in such a way as to defeat the very aim for which they are erected.”[65] This adherence to fundamental higher law and human rights, which functions as a limitation on the abuse of power by government, similarly flows from the principle of non-coercion discussed in the first section. On this issue, President Xi was not exactly correct in asserting recently that judicial independence, constitutionalism, and separation of powers constitute merely a Western path.[66] They also constitute a Confucian and a Chinese path,[67] one that helps protect the people from oppression.[68]

Lastly, to enable Party members to revere Heaven and the Way, as Confucius teaches, the Party obviously must be open to religious believers.[69] Otherwise, the Party would be keeping out the very junzi who should be included in government. (This inclusion is required by the principle of non-coercion discussed above as well.) This would have the added benefit of keeping the Party more informed and closer to the people, and it would build more harmony in society and trust in government. In fact, had the Party been opened to religious Muslims, Christians and Buddhists earlier, it is very possible it would have acted with more sensitivity and less undue, overbroad coercion toward religious believers, thereby achieving greater harmony and legitimacy,[70] and provoking less resentment—even in Xinjiang and Tibet.[71]

Materialism—Neglecting Character and Spirit

“The Master said, ‘The gentleman understands what is morally right. The petty man understands what is profitable.’” (Analects 4.16)

“The gentleman worries about the Way. He does not worry about being poor.” (Analects 15.32)

“The petty man is unaware of the presence of Heaven’s mandate . . .” (Analects 16.8)

Confucius understood that both petty men and rulers have a tendency to pursue material things and wealth to the detriment of deeper things like morality and justice. But that kind of materialism can lead to long-term problems, including unethical, unloving behavior and conflict, corruption, and over-consumption. The overly materialist philosophy of the Party, centered on economic growth, can tend toward that direction. The Party’s constitution and policies tend to focus primarily on economic and material concerns, such that economics seems to displace people in importance. There is a danger of conveying the idea that money takes precedence over higher things like love, humanity, benevolence, and the Way.

This is one area where President Xi himself has quoted Confucius at times, an area where he seems to offer a corrective by appealing to Confucius—to promote the importance of character rather than corruption or avarice. In a speech on July 4, 2014, for example, he quoted the second sentence of Analects 7.16: “I can live with coarse rice to eat, water for drink and my arm as a pillow and still be happy. Wealth and honors that one possesses in the midst of injustice are like floating clouds.”[72] For President Xi, then, this Confucian disposition represents a step toward transcending the materialistic mentality of the Party.

But there is another sense in which the Party espouses extreme materialism. It tends to pursue not just economic materialism, it also (unnecessarily) puts its faith in philosophical materialism, requiring Party members to adhere to this doctrine. In doing so, it goes against Confucius and the tradition of China—it denies the mandate of Heaven and proper reverence for the Way. Instead, the Party has yielded too much to the foreign influence of Marx and Lenin.[73] It has failed to Sinicize the Party itself.

Death, Destruction, and Other Defects: Departing from Confucius’s Virtues/Principles

Beyond any inherent virtues and justice in Confucius’s philosophy, the historical consequences coinciding with rejection of these principles also provide a strong utilitarian rationale for following his teaching.[74] From the devastating coercion of the Great Leap Forward to the demographic overreach of the one-child policy, Chinese society’s incapacity to effectively constrain leadership, and the center’s own failures of leadership, have contributed to the death of millions. And should the lessons of the Way continue to be rejected, the Party can only expect further compounding negative repercussions. Even barring the repeat of anything like the Great Leap Forward, China faces the future prospect, due to declining demographics, of a much weaker economy than it otherwise could have anticipated. Several examples illustrate how radically destructive consequences can stem from a failure to heed Confucian values of respect for individual human dignity and the rights that flow from that dignity.

Led by Mao Zedong and the Communist Party, the Great Leap Forward (1958-1962) was intended to industrialize and modernize China’s economy in just a few years. Unfortunately, the plan was rash and coercive in nature. Yet criticism was unacceptable, and officials would provide false data to fit the Party’s expectations.[75] The Party simultaneously collectivized farmland, controlled the market for (and consumption of) grain,[76] experimented with unproven agricultural techniques,[77] shifted millions of farmers from agricultural work to (largely ineffective) iron and steel production,[78] while still predicting unrealistic increases in agricultural production. Then, based on those untenable predictions, the Party took more and more grain from the countryside, allocating more of it for exports, even as people began to starve. In 1959, China exported a reported 4.74 million tons of grain.[79] Yet people in the countryside were starving, and Mao knew this. “On one batch of reports in April 1959 he noted that there was severe starvation in half the country: ‘a big problem: 15 provinces—25.17 million people no food to eat.’”[80]

This perfect storm of coercive, unreflective planning, along with erratic rainfall, soon produced avoidable mass starvation, on a scale unknown in human history before or after. Yang Jisheng estimates that 36 million Chinese died from famine during the Great Leap Forward.[81] Similarly, Jung Chang and Jon Halliday estimate that 38 million died during the famine.[82] And Frank Dikötter estimates that at least 45 million people died overall during the Great Leap Forward as a result of government policies, including two to three million who were beaten/tortured to death or summarily executed.[83] By 1962, President Liu Shaoqi, aware of the catastrophe and the leadership’s responsibility, told Mao, “history will record the role you and I played in the starvation of so many people, and the cannibalism will also be memorialized!”[84] Frank Dikötter also writes that Mao knew of the starvation, yet diverted food anyway. “Mao was sent many reports about what was happening in the countryside, some of them scribbled in longhand. He knew about the horror, but pushed for even greater extractions of food.”[85]

Economist Amartya Sen has made the point that had China been more democratic, thus allowing broader input into government policies along with freer speech, the famine likely would have been averted or greatly reduced, sparing millions of lives. According to Sen, “no substantial famine has ever occurred in any independent and democratic country with a relatively free press,”[86] and it is “hard to imagine that anything like this could have happened in a country that goes to the polls regularly and that has an independent press. During that terrible calamity the government faced no pressure from newspapers, which were controlled, and none from opposition parties, which were absent.”[87]

Another example of intrusive and undue coercion, with grave consequences on the personal and national level, came after Mao’s death. Fearing (and predicting) that the population would grow too quickly, the Party implemented its (in)famous one-child policy in 1979, which was eventually shifted to a two-child policy in January 2016.[88] There were various consequences, some immediate and highly personal, others longer term and broader in effect.

On the personal and family level, over 336 million abortions have been performed due to the government policy, required of women who became pregnant with another child, in an ultimate invasion of privacy. Other women, 324 million according to government statistics, were required to have contraceptive intrauterine devices (IUD) surgically implanted after a first child was born. Still others, 107 million, were forced to have tubal ligations upon illegally having two children. Taking one woman as an example, the New York Times reports how Ai Xiaoming, a well-known documentary filmmaker, “had to have a hysterectomy when surgery to remove her IUD was botched.”[89] She says, “In the eyes of the government, women are labor units… When the country needs you to give birth, you have to do so. And when they don’t need you to give birth, you don’t.”[90]

On the national level, other negative consequences have emerged. Sex-selective abortions have resulted in a gender imbalance (given a common desire for male children), with China now comprising markedly more men than women, making marriage prospects for men somewhat more challenging. As of 2016, the Chinese population reportedly had 33 million more men than women.[91] In addition, the average age of the population has risen, with more retirees and fewer children and workers to support the elderly.[92] China is said to be “aging faster than any other country in the world.”[93] Mei Fong describes this as a “huge crushing demographic crisis as a result of the one-child policy.”[94] This demographic shift in age will ultimately drag the economy, according to economists. It is this demographic decline that may prevent China from overtaking the United States economically. For example, Yi Fuxian calculates that China’s declining birth rate and population, the rising median age, and the shrinking proportion of working age adults contributing to the economy will prevent China’s GDP from overtaking that of the United States.[95] And if his estimation is correct, this consequence will have been the result, largely, of the misguided (and unduly coercive) one-child policy. Thus, had China not enforced its harsh one-child policy, it likely could have anticipated more robust economic growth ahead (and overtaken the United States), as its birth rate would have declined with modernization anyway (or through non-coercive measures),[96] but it would not have declined so drastically. As the New York Times has reported, “The looming demographic crisis could be the Achilles heel of China’s stunning economic transformation over the last 40 years.”[97]

For this policy also, writers have highlighted information and process deficiencies involved in the institution of the one-child policy, and in the slow shift from that status quo. Authors of a Brookings Institution analysis of the one-child policy have described its “rushed” adoption as “primarily a political decision based on little understanding of demography and society.”[98] Likewise, the authors attribute the slowness of the Party to recognize the demographic dislocation/decline stemming from the one-child policy to a compromised public discussion and understanding of the issue. “[T]he Chinese public has been thoroughly indoctrinated by the Malthusian fear of unchecked population growth and by a social discourse that has erroneously blamed population growth for virtually all of the country’s social and economic problems.”[99] The Chinese birth rate had already declined significantly by the time the policy was implemented.[100] And while some have argued that the policy helped reduce poverty in China, Mei Fong responds that “the policies economists identify as having been the most useful [in lifting people out of poverty] were other things the Chinese government did, such as encouraging foreign investment and lifting barriers to private entrepreneurship.”[101] Ultimately, according to the Brookings report, “China’s one-child policy will be remembered as one of the costliest lessons of misguided public policymaking.”[102]

There are lessons to be learned from mistakes of the past, if they can be acknowledged. Yet, as one writer commented on the abandonment of the one-child policy, “without so much as an expression of regret or an admission that it had perhaps made a mistake, the party pivoted from punishing couples for having a second child to encouraging them to get on with reproduction.”[103] Still, one hopes the sober facts above will lead to more sober, less coercive and prideful thinking in the future—thinking more open to input, facilitated by free speech.


The Constitution of the Communist Party of China states, aspirationally, that it promotes “cultural and ethical progress, combines the rule of law and the rule of virtue in running the country and works to raise the ideological and moral standards.”[104] The Party has a great distance to cover in order to achieve these ideals, however, in light of the critical issues discussed above. As the Party’s Constitution suggests, it still needs to progress, conforming to the rule of virtue. “The Party must meet the requirements of reform, opening up and socialist modernization.”[105]

For this needed reform to occur, to open up and Sinicize the Party, it should reject partisan, petty loyalty to the European materialism of Marx and Lenin, enact actual meritocracy by opening the Party to people of merit, including religious believers, and ensure impartial judicial independence—not merely reflecting a Western path, but with reverence for the Way. Further, and fundamentally, Confucius recognized an inherent sphere of freedom for the individual (e.g. in speech and religion), mandated by the golden rule, enabling individual moral development and responsibility (Analects 6:30, 15.24). So should the Party.[106]

In adopting such needed reform, Confucius still provides relevant, traditional and universal instruction for the Party. The Party has intermittently revived aspects of Confucian thought, and President Xi himself has quoted Confucius in justifying policy positions. Will the Party truly listen, though, and heed the underlying lessons? Or are its calls to Confucian wisdom hollow echoes to justify politically expedient action? The Party could still find and pursue the Way, with all its attendant benefits to the Chinese people—and though it does not appear to believe this, even to the Party itself. Far from being merely a Western path, China’s own political and philosophical legacy lends itself to the establishment of such stabilizers as judicial independence, constitutionalism, and separation of powers. The Party should heed the historical lessons not only of what weakened China, but what can strengthen it: rule of law, respect for human rights, and meaningful representation of its people. Such would be to the benefit of all in China. Should the Party continue its current course, far from the Way, it will be the ultimate weakness of the nation it has so fervently sought to strengthen.

– Confucius, Disciple X (Jonathan English)


[1] Preamble, Constitution of the People’s Republic of China. Full text after amendment on March 14, 2004. Accessed April 30, 2019.

[2] Constitution of the Communist Party of China. Revised and adopted Nov. 14, 2012. Accessed April 30, 2019.

[3] The Party’s condemnation and censoring of Confucius earlier in the twentieth century has negatively impacted knowledge and understanding of Confucius even in China. As William Theodore de Bary has noted, “For most of [the twentieth century] educated Chinese have learned nothing about Confucianism except the Party’s negative characterizations of it as ‘reactionary’ and ‘feudal.’” William Theodore de Bary, Preface to Confucianism and Human Rights, ed. Wm. Theodore de Bary and Tu Weiming, (New York: Columbia Univ. Press, 1998), xvi. This point is addressed primarily to official education and information channels as opposed to domestic family life, though, as he notes that President Jiang Zemin at a conference on Confucius in Honolulu, in something of a turning point for the Party, “reminisced fondly about how his old-fashioned father had taught him in the home, outside school hours, the Four Books of Confucianism.” Id. An actual revival of Confucian learning, however, “would require the retraining of a whole generation of teachers” for it to amount to anything “more than spoon-feeding and mass indoctrination in official formulae.” Id. For more information on the anti-Confucian campaign, see, e.g., A. James Gregor and Maria Hsia Chang, “Anti-Confucianism: Mao’s Last Campaign,” Asian Survey 19, no. 11 (1979): 1073-1092. The authors cite attacks on Confucius by the Party and note that the Party’s condemnation of Confucius began even before the official “Criticize Lin, Criticize Confucius Campaign” in the 1970s. One colorful poster from 1974, during this official campaign proclaimed: “Criticize Lin, criticize Confucius – it’s the most important matter for the whole party, the whole army and the people of the whole country.” See “Criticize Lin, Criticize Confucius,” Wikipedia.,_Criticize_Confucius.

[4] Rachelle Peterson. “American Universities Are Welcoming China’s Trojan Horse,” Foreign Policy, May 9, 2017. Accessed April 30, 2019.

[5] As acknowledged, there is much to learn from Confucius. Still, it is worth noting that over time some authorities sought to (mis)appropriate Confucianism for more authoritarian or self-serving purposes. For example, Confucius teaches respect for parents, elders, and rulers—and, indeed, he teaches respect for all people—but some, especially those in authority, have at times heavily stressed respect and obligation and duty toward those in authority, producing an imbalanced understanding, tilting proper balance away from respect due the dignity of the individual in a lower or younger position. Such an imbalanced approach can come to treat common people like mere tools or servants of others, diminishing their dignity. Yet Confucius clearly teaches that “a gentleman is not a tool.” Analects 2:12. Expressed another way, a virtuous person is not a doormat. Further, Confucius teaches that filial piety and respect for elders or those in authority still permits a dynamic relationship in which the younger person or the citizen may respectfully offer correction when the authority figure is in the wrong. See, e.g., Analects 13.15, 14.3.

[6] While some have contended that human rights are native only to the West, not the East, that perspective in fact reflects “West-centric” misperceptions of Asia, according to Professor Inoue Tatsuo and others. Inoue Tatsuo, “Liberal Democracy and Asian Orientalism,” in The East Asian Challenge for Human Rights, ed. Joanne R. Bauer and Daniel A. Bell., (New York: Cambridge Univ. Press,1999), 27-59. “[T]he assumption that Asia has its own cultural essence fundamentally different from that of the West owes its roots to Western intellectual imperialism, that is, ‘Orientalism,’ the very force that is being criticized by Asian critics of human rights.” Joanne R. Bauer and Daniel A. Bell, introduction to The East Asian Challenge for Human Rights, 6 (describing Professor Inoue’s argument); see also William Theodore de Bary, preface to Confucianism and Human Rights, xix (rejecting “idea that unbridgeable value differences separate East and West, wherefore human development in Asia must take a basically different course from Europe and America”); Sumner B. Twiss, “A Constructive Framework for Discussing Confucianism and Human Rights,” in Confucianism and Human Rights, 41 (arguing, in part from a Confucian contribution to Article 1 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, that “(1 international human rights are not, contrary to the common perception, simply an ethnocentric Western construction, and (2) the Confucian tradition may well be compatible with and have more to contribute to a proper understanding of these rights”); Irene Bloom, “The Moral Autonomy of the Individual in Confucian Tradition,” in Realms of Freedom in Modern China, ed. William C. Kirby, (Stanford: Stanford Univ. Press, 2004), 19 et seq. (challenging flawed or stereotyped views of Confucianism and explaining that “the notion of ‘imperial Confucianism’ is misleading if it is taken to imply a compliant Confucianism . . . in supine and self-interested service of absolutist rulers and of the dynastic system”); Tu Wei-ming, “A Confucian Perspective on Human Rights,” in Confucianism, Chinese History and Society, ed. Wong Sin Kiong (Singapore: World Scientific Publishing Co., 2012), 1 (arguing “that Confucian Humanism, with belief in and commitment to the intrinsic worth of being human . . . is profoundly meaningful for rights-consciousness as well as the sense of duty”). Finally, Qianfan Zhang notes that “[w]hile human dignity [taught implicitly by Confucius] implies a universal demand for its protection and respect, and thus is primarily a duty-oriented concept, the universal duty imposed on the state and society does confer definable rights to the individual.” Qianfan Zhang, Human Dignity in Classical Chinese Philosophy: Confucianism, Mohism, and Daoism (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2016), 17-18, see also 37-38.

[7] Quotations are from the recent (2014) translation of The Analects by Annping Chin (except for 2.1 which uses a classic translation by James Legge, 2.12 which links to an interesting discussion on translations, and 7.6 which uses a translation by Arthur Waley). Confucius, The Analects, trans. Annping Chin (New York: Penguin, 2014).

[8] “Thus, in the Chinese context, the ‘rule of law’ (as the negative sense of cheng) signals the failure of spontaneous voluntary ordering based on ritual and targets merelya minimum standard of orderly conduct’ for ‘the sake of general harmony.’” Mark C. Modak-Truran, “A Process Theory of Natural Law and the Rule of Law in China,” 26 Penn. St. Int’l L. Rev. 26, no. 3 (2008): 607, 620 (emphasis added) (quoting David L. Hall & Roger T. Ames, Thinking Through Confucius (Albany: State U. of N.Y. Press, 1987), 157-58). See also Carolyn R. Waha, “The Teachings of Confucius: A Basis and Justification for Alternative Non-Military Service,” 2 Rutgers J. Law & Relig. vol. 2(2000/2001): 3 (explaining that “Confucius favored li [moral propriety] over fa [legal sanction]” in government though he recognized that sometimes “the sanction of force [fa] is required to maintain public order”—“Fa acknowledges the human reality that some people and some situations would not be effectively ordered by moral force.”).

[9] See Irene Bloom, “The Moral Autonomy of the Individual in Confucian Tradition,” in Realms of Freedom in Modern China, 19 et seq. (arguing that inherent within Confucianism is a sense of moral autonomy and philosophical and psychological freedom, even if well-developed doctrines of political freedom had not developed); but cf. Robert Weatherly, The Discourse of Human Rights in China: Historical and Ideological Perspectives (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1999), 45 (acknowledging the role for “moral self-development or self-cultivation” in Confucianism but asserting that “self-cultivation was not meant to serve the personal ends of the individual” but “[r]ather it was encouraged for the sake of improving the moral character of others and for bettering the moral fabric of society as a whole”).

[10] “Keywords Used to Filter Web Content,” Washington Post, Feb. 18, 2006. Accessed April 30, 2019.

[11] “Blocked on Weibo: What’s not found on China’s most important social media site.” Accessed April 30, 2019.

[12] “China Is Experimenting with a New Form of Internet Censorship,” Business Insider, from Agence France Presse, June 1, 2013. Accessed April 30, 2019.

[13] “Websites Blocked in Mainland China,” Wikipedia. Accessed April 30, 2019.

[14] Gary King, Jennifer Pan, and Margaret E. Roberts, “How the Chinese Government Fabricates Social Media Posts for Strategic Distraction, not Engaged Argument,” American Political Science Review, 111, no. 3 (2017): 484-501. Abstract available at

[15] Tom Phillips, “’Love the Party, Protect the Party’: How Xi Jinping is bringing China’s media to heel,” The Guardian, Feb. 27, 2016. Accessed April 30, 2019.

[16] Congressional-Executive Commission on China, Appendix to “Choices and Consequences Faced by Authors in China” Flowchart. Accessed April 30, 2019.

[17] Articles 3 and 11, Regulations on the Administration of Publishing (2001.12.25). Accessed April 30, 2019.

[18] A junzi, which has also been translated as “noble man” or “profound person” or “exemplary person,” among other versions. This article uses “gentleman” simply to follow the translation of Annping Chin quoted elsewhere. But the reader, who is free from such constraints, may prefer to substitute a gender inclusive form. In ordinary language, a junzi originally referred to a person of a certain elevated social class. However, Confucius instead used the term in a more meritocratic way to refer to anyone who achieves an exemplary moral status. See, e.g., Qianfan Zhang, Human Dignity in Classical Chinese Philosophy: Confucianism, Mohism, and Daoism (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2016), 20. In fact, even Mao Zedong at one time recognized this egalitarian, democratic direction in Confucius, acknowledging that “Confucius . . . was rather democratic.” A. James Gregor and Maria Hsia Chang, “Anti-Confucianism: Mao’s Last Campaign,” Asian Survey 19, no. 11 (1979): 1077 (quoting Mao Zedong, “Talk on Questions of Philosophy, 18 August 1964,” in Chairman Mao Talks to the People, ed. Stuart Schram, (New York: Pantheon Books, 1974)).

[19] As scholars have noted, the concept of harmony intended by Confucius has been misinterpreted and mischaracterized by various groups for various reasons. As one professor explains, “In the Analects, Confucius himself emphasized this notion of ‘harmony’ as loyal opposition.” John Delury, “’Harmonious’ in China,” Hoover Institution Policy Review, Mar. 31, 2008. He adds historical context: “[C]ritical officials insisted that ‘harmony’ was not simply the absence of discord and dissent. On the contrary, they argue that the antonym of ‘harmony’ is ‘agreement’ (tong). When a self-satisfied king praises his fawning councilor for being ‘in harmony’ with him, an outspoken advisor chides the ruler for confusing ‘harmony’ with conformity and subservience. A truly ‘harmonious’ minister points out flaws in the ruler’s thinking and presents him with alternative courses of action. Open difference of opinion is in fact essential to ‘harmonious’ decision-making. The good minister is like a chef who combines flavors to make a well-balanced dish, or a composer who harmonizes notes and instruments to create a lovely melody. Who eats soup made by adding water to water? Who listens to musicians all playing the same strings on a single instrument? What kind of ruler wants to silence dissenting views?” Id. For an example of a more stereotyped (and somewhat exoticized) view of harmony as a monolithic sameness or agreement—and thus a view that is distinctly non-Confucian (as far as The Analects are concerned)—see Boye Lafayette De Mente, The Chinese Have a Word for It: The Complete Guide to Chinese Thought and Culture (New York: McGraw-Hill Education 2000), 148-50 (originally published in 1996 as NTC’s Dictionary of China’s Cultural Code Words by NTC Pub. Group).

[20] Filial piety also requires free political speech. As recorded in The Classic of Filial Piety, when Confucius is asked “if (simple) obedience to the orders of one’s father can be pronounced filial piety,” he answers unequivocally: “What words are these! What words are these! Anciently, if the Son of Heaven had seven ministers who would remonstrate with him, although he had not right methods of government, he would not lose his possession of the kingdom. . . . And the father who had a son that would remonstrate with him would not sink into the gulf of unrighteous deeds. Therefore when a case of unrighteous conduct is concerned, a son must by no means keep from remonstrating with his father, nor a minister from remonstrating with his ruler. Hence, since remonstrance is required in the case of unrighteous conduct, how can (simple) obedience to the orders of a father be accounted filial piety?” The Classic of Filial Piety, in Sacred Books of the East, vol. 3, trans. James Legge (1861). Available at

[21] See also Carolyn R. Waha, “The Teachings of Confucius: A Basis and Justification for Alternative Non-Military Service,” Rutgers J. Law & Relig. vol. 2 (2000/2001): 3 (citing Confucian scholar Sumner B. Twiss for the claim “that Confucianism like every other ‘cultural moral tradition’ is universal and creates a duty to act when morality, whether ‘virtue-based or rights-based’ is violated by the government. Therefore, the action of the individual is used to call attention to the need of the government to conform to the higher law. . . . His actions are similar to the Confucian minister who corrected the Emperor at the risk of personal loss. This morally driven conduct provides a valuable service to the community and protects the stability of the government by calling attention to moral issues.”).

[22] Article 27, Constitution of the People’s Republic of China. Full text after amendment on March 14, 2004. Accessed April 30, 2019.

[23] As one commentator observes, consistent with the preceding discussion, “The Confucian sages were, from a modern perspective, early advocates for freedom of speech. For example, Confucius insisted that a person’s true loyalty lay in his sincerity in admonishing his king, father and friends—not uncritical obedience.” Man Yee Karen Lee, “The Chinese People’s Struggle for Democracy and China’s Long Quest for Dignity,” Conn. J. Int’l L. 27, no. 2 (2012): 207, 234.

[24] Karen Lee, “Religion still has no role to play in communist politics,” South China Morning Post, July 16, 2013. Accessed May 1, 2019. Ben Blanchard, “China targets rumors, religion in updated party rules,” Reuters, Aug. 27, 2018. Accessed Jun 10, 2019.

[25] “Christianity in China,” Wikipedia. Accessed May 1, 2019.

[26] “History of Islam in China,” Wikipedia. Accessed May 1, 2019.

[27] “Chinese Buddhism,” Wikipedia. Accessed May 1, 2019.

[28] Joe Gamp, “China Tightens grip on power: MPs to be OUSTED if they believe in God,” Express, Aug. 27, 2018. Accessed May 1, 2019.

[29] Piao Junying, “You Shall Have No God Before Marx and Lenin,” Bitter Winter. Accessed May 1, 2019.

[30] Tom Phillips, “China’s Christians protest ‘evil’ Communist campaign to tear down crosses,” The Guardian, July 27, 2015. Accessed May 1, 2019.

[31] Charlie Campbell, “China’s Leader Xi Jinping Reminds Party Members to Be ‘Unyielding Marxist Atheists,’” Time, April 25, 2016. Accessed May 1, 2019.

[32] Jamil Anderlini, “The rise of Christianity in China,” Financial Times, Nov. 7, 2014. Accessed May 1, 2019.

[33] Joyce Huang, “Crackdown on Christian Churches Intensifies in China,” Voice of America, Sept. 7, 2018. Accessed May 1, 2019.

[34] Cristina Maza, “Christians in China Must Replace Jesus with Pictures of Xi Jinping or Lose Social Services,” Newsweek, Nov. 14, 2017. Accessed May 1, 2019.

[35] Joyce Huang, “Crackdown on Christian Churches Intensifies in China,” Voice of America, Sept. 7, 2018.

[36] “The Battle for China’s Spirit: Christianity,” Freedom House. Accessed May 1, 2019.

[37] Ibid.

[38] Ian Johnson, “China Bans Online Bible Sales as It Tightens Religious Controls,” New York Times, Apr. 5, 2018. Accessed May 1, 2019.

[39] Lily Kuo, “In China, they’re closing churches, jailing pastors – and even rewriting scripture,” The Guardian, Jan. 13, 2019. Accessed May 1, 2019.

[40] “China: 6 Christians jailed as pressure on churches increases,” WorldWatchMonitor, Jan. 23, 2018. Accessed May 1, 2019.

[41] Ian Johnson, “Chinese Police Detain Prominent Pastor and Over 100 Protestants.” New York Times, Dec. 10, 2018. Accessed May 1, 2019.

[42] Ian Johnson, “This Chinese Christian Was Charged With Trying to Subvert the State,” New York Times, Mar. 25, 2019. Accessed May 1, 2019.

[43] Nicholas Kristof, “China’s Orwellian War on Religion,” The New York Times, May 22, 2019. Accessed June 10, 2019. Available at

[44] Stephanie Nebehay, “UN says it has credible reports that China holds million Uighurs in secret camps,” Reuters, Aug. 10, 2018. Accessed May 1, 2019.

[45] Peter Martin, “How China Is Defending Its Detention of Muslims to the World,” Bloomberg, Apr. 19, 2019. Accessed May 1, 2019.

[46] James A. Millward, “What It’s Like to Live in a Surveillance State,” New York Times, Feb. 3, 2018. Accessed May 1, 2019.

[47] Michael Martina, “China says Xinjiang has ‘boarding schools’, not ‘concentration camps,’” Reuters, Mar. 12, 2019. Accessed May 1, 2019. Lily Kuo, “Internment camps make Uighurs’ life more colourful, says Xinjiang governor,” The Guardian, Oct. 16, 2018. Accessed May 1, 2019.

[48] Sigal Samuel, “China Is Treating Islam Like a Mental Illness,” The Atlantic, Aug. 28, 2018. Accessed May 1, 2019.

[49] Shohret Hoshur, “Nearly Half of Uyghurs in Xinjiang’s Hotan Targeted For Re-Education Camps,” Radio Free Asia, Oct. 9, 2017. Accessed May 1, 2019.

[50] Chris Buckley (quoting Qiu Yuanyuan), “China Is Detaining Muslims in Vast Numbers. The Goal: ‘Transformation,’” New York Times, Sept. 8, 2018. Accessed May 1, 2019.

[51] Durrie Bouscaren, “How China’s detention camps for Uighurs are separating families,” PRI, Feb. 11, 2019. Accessed May 1, 2019.

[52] “China bans Ramadan observance in Muslim region,” The Times of Israel, June 1, 2017. Accessed May 1, 2019.

[53] Benjamin Haas, “China bans religious names for Muslim babies in Xinjiang,” The Guardian, Apr. 24, 2017. Accessed May 1, 2019.

[54] One can appreciate the Chinese government’s need to protect citizens and provide security in Xinjiang in light of past acts of deadly violence there. To that end, one can imagine the government choosing to offer incentives to incentivize people to voluntarily take certain defined, time-limited, non-coercive classes (in which case they would be free to leave, as they would be voluntary). Or, one could imagine the government creatively sentencing individuals who have actually, demonstrably committed a (real, non-nominal) crime to take certain defined, time-limited educational classes in lieu of other punishment. Perhaps this would be somewhat similar to community service. However, to be just, the sentencing would have to depend on proof of the individual’s crime, punishment could not be excessive, and the duration of detention would have to be reasonable and not indefinite. Looking back at U.S. history, which Chinese government-controlled media has in the past, one recalls unjust treatment of Native Americans, including disrespectful and coercive attempts to erase Native American culture through (mistaken) education programs. In making this historical comparison, however, it is worth remembering that it was only after the U.S. government began treating Native Americans with a greater degree of respect and fuller legal protection (e.g. after development of the American Indian Movement), that a higher degree of peace and respectful coexistence emerged. This peace through respectful and just treatment, cognizant of the golden rule advocated by Confucius (and by Christ), is the path to deeper, lasting security and harmony.

[55] Buckley, “China Is Detaining Muslims in Vast Numbers. The Goal: ‘Transformation,’” New York Times, Sept. 8, 2018.

[56] See Joanne Smith Finley, “The Wang Lixiong Prophecy: ‘Palestinization’ in Xinjiang and the Consequences of Chinese State Securitization of Religion,” Central Asian Survey 38, no. 1 (2019): 88-94 (citing support for the argument that excessive restriction on religion and harsh treatment by authorities helps to fuel opposition and provoke violence); Patrik Meyer, “China’s De-extremization of Uyghurs in Xinjiang,” New America Policy Paper (June 2016) (available at (arguing that China’s overbroad anti-extremist tactics in Xinjiang suggest that China’s goal is not merely countering extremism but erasing Uyghur religious and cultural identity and that this “will produce a hopeless and angry group of Uyghurs that will undermine Xinjiang’s long-term security, stability, and development” and “that a significant minority among them will resist it and adopt a more radicalized stance against the Chinese state”); Shohret Hoshur, “22 Killed in Farmers’ Market Attack in Xinjiang’s Kashgar Prefecture,” Radio Free Asia, Oct. 18, 2014 (available at (stating, for example, that “Uyghur groups have blamed the violence on heavy-handed rule, including violent police raids on Uyghur households, restrictions on Islamic practices, and curbs on the culture and language of the Uyghur people”); Brian J. Grim and Roger Finke, The Price of Freedom Denied: Religious Persecution and Conflict in the 21st Century (New York: Cambridge Univ. Press, 2011) (concluding that increased religious freedom tends to reduce/prevent conflict while “in many places denying religious freedoms has resulted in less order and more violence,” and citing a Hudson Institute Center for Religious Freedom study finding that “wherever the level of religious freedom is high, there tends to be fewer incidents of armed conflict, better health outcomes, higher levels of earned income, prolonged democracy, and better educational opportunities for women”); Brian J. Grim and Roger Finke, “Religious Persecution in Cross-National Context: Clashing Civilizations or Regulated Religious Economies,” American Sociological Review, vol. 72, August 2007. Available at Eva Pils also provides poignant anecdotes and quotes in this regard. Eva Pils, Human Rights in China: A Social Practice in the Shadows of Authoritarianism (Cambridge: Polity Press 2018), 9-11, 55-56, 98. As shown in the 2010 documentary Emergency Shelter, while protesting on behalf of a temporarily homeless couple, fighting against demolition of their home by the local government, several friends shared about their experiences “petitioning and complaining against the authorities” and about the erosion of trust in government officials and institutions. Id. at 9-10. One woman says, “If you infringe ordinary people’s rights (quanli), you should correct your mistake without delay. If you correct it, they will not complain against you, right? But the longer you fail to correct it, the more they will complain.” Id. at 9 (emphasis added). Another woman, with teeth missing from a run-in with the authorities, says, “Are they afraid of you, or are you afraid of them? Why is it that people with grievances (yuanqing) have no recourse, that the courts cheat us, and that staff of the Supreme Procuratorate beat me into this condition? The Police won’t even file your case. They say, we’re all under the control of the Supreme Procuratorate, none of us dares to handle this case. That means there’s no respect for law or heaven. They can beat people for nothing.” Id. at 9-10. Finally, one man “cites the proverb, ‘No injustice (yuan) without perpetrator, no debt without creditor,’” suggesting his conviction “that corrupt and undutiful officials will get what was coming to them one day.” Id. at 10.

[57] An interesting discussion of translation of this saying is provided by Linda Jaivin, “Found in Translation: In Praise of a Plural World,” Dec. 9, 2013. Accessed May 1, 2019.

[58] Tian, or sometimes Romanized as t’ien. Arthur Waley provides this explanation: “Apart from cases where Heaven (t’ien) merely means ‘the sky’ (for example in the common phrase t’ien-hsia, ‘that which is under heaven,’ i.e. the whole world), it clearly corresponds to our word Heaven and to the German Himmel in the sense of Providence, Nature, God. Heaven is the dispenser of life and death, wealth and rank (XII, 5). The chun-tzu must learn to know the will (ming) of Heaven and submit to it patiently, a hard lesson that Confucius himself did not master until the age of fifty (II, 4).” Arthur Waley, Introduction to The Analects of Confucius (New York: Vintage 1989), 41. Waley goes on to speculate (or “fancy”) that some references to Heaven were less substantive and more “pious formulae.” Id. at 42. However, at the same time, he says that such formulae were used as “signifying confidence in God’s protection.” Id. Indeed, when Confucius says—“Heaven has given me this power—this virtue. What can Huan Tui do to me!”—it’s difficult to think of this as only non-substantive formula. Analects 7.23. There seems to be the sense that Heaven has highest power, it has will, and it is personal and good—it bestows its wisdom and protection for Confucius, it gives its Mandate to the virtuous, and it ultimately withdraws its Mandate when virtue has been abandoned. In this regard, Professor Jeff Richey offers a fascinating discussion: “As A. C. Graham has noted, Confucius seems to be of two minds about Tian. At times, he is convinced that he enjoys the personal protection and sanction of Tian, and thus defies his mortal opponents as he wages his campaign of moral instruction and reform. At other moments, however, he seems caught in the throes of existential despair, wondering if he has lost his divine backer at last. Tian seems to participate in functions of ‘fate’ and ‘nature’ as well as those of ‘deity.’ What remains consistent throughout Confucius’ discourses on Tian is his threefold assumption about this extrahuman, absolute power in the universe: (1) its alignment with moral goodness, (2) its dependence on human agents to actualize its will, and (3) the variable, unpredictable nature of its associations with mortal actors. Thus, to the extent that the Confucius of the Analects is concerned with justifying the ways of Tian to humanity, he tends to do so without questioning these three assumptions about the nature of Tian, which are rooted deeply in the Chinese past.” Jeff Richey, “Confucius,” Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy (available at Another excellent (and more thorough) discussion of this concept in The Analects is provided by Robert B. Louden, “What Does Heaven Say?: Christian Wolff and Western Interpretations of Confucian Ethics,” in Confucius and The Analects: New Essays, ed. Bryan W. Van Norden (Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 2002), 76-81. Louden concludes that Heaven has real religious and moral significance in The Analects, though it is not necessarily perceived as personal in nature. Id. at 79 (explaining, in part, “[t]he fundamental message that I see expressed in each of the above passages is a very strong conviction on the part of Confucius that tian is the most important moral force in the universe and that human beings who wish to be morally good must therefore seek to discern and follow it.”). Similarly, Annping Chin notes this usage as well. She apparently observes three categories of usage of tian—“heaven meaning nature,” “Heaven meaning the supreme moral force and that which decides human destiny,” and “heaven meaning sky”—with all but three uses of the term falling in the second category. Appendix 2A: Chinese Terms, in The Analects, trans. Annping Chin (New York: Penguin, 2014). While some scholars have argued that tian was merely used in a secular, non-sacred, non-transcendent sense in The Analects, given the above, this seems unlikely. Finally, as coda, consider the eloquent statement of Lu Zhengxiang’s (or Lou Tseng-Tsiang’s) father regarding tian upon Lu Zhengxiang’s leaving home, available here. Daniel Hsu, “The Civil Theology of Confucius’ ‘Tian’ Symbol,” in Voegelin View, Nov. 16, 2014 (available at His father was a Christian, and Lu Zhengxiang considered himself both a Confucian and a Christian.

[59] Dao. See, e.g., Carolyn R. Waha, “The Teachings of Confucius: A Basis and Justification for Alternative Non-Military Service,” Rutgers J. Law & Relig. vol. 2 (2000/2001), 3, Part II. “Confucius recognized a ‘higher law’ and explained: ‘Heaven vested me with moral power.’ . . . For Confucius, the ultimate authority was ‘the Way’. . . [S]uperior virtue or moral law was answerable to a higher ‘law’ which ‘constituted a moral constraint on the exercise of power.’” Id. “[N]o historical figure or dynasty could claim full [sic] to embody the Way and thereby assert absolute authority to speak for it.” Id. at n. 94 (quoting William Theodore De Bary, Asian Values and Human Rights: A Confucian Communitarian Perspective (Harv. Univ. Press, 1998), 99). In contrast to this sense of a higher law, another author observes that in communist states, law “is not respected for its own value” but rather “communist law is a tool of the government or, more precisely, of the governing party.” Franz Michael, “Law: A Tool of Power,” in Human Rights in the People’s Republic of China (Boulder, Colo: Westview Press, 1988), 35.

[60] See Lo Chung-Shu, “A Confucian approach to human rights,” The UNESCO Courier 2018-4 (quoting The Book of History) (available at

[61] For example, Jiang Qing writes: “Applied to Confucian constitutionalism, this means that heaven is the ultimate source of constitutional sovereignty. . . . Heaven is the higher law background of Confucian constitutionalism or its transcendent value.” “The Way, in Confucianism, is the way of heaven, and is the source of the way of humanity. As the way of heaven, the Way is ultimate existence and does not exist among human beings. The Way, in this sense, is not in the will of the people. This is because, in Confucianism, the Way is absolute, external, transcendent, sacred, ultimate existence. . . . Precisely because this Way exists outside the will of the people, the Book of Historical Documents says, ‘The way of Heaven is to bless the good and publish the bad.’” Jiang Qing, A Confucian Constitutional Order: How China’s Ancient Past Can Shape Its Political Future, ed. Daniel A. Bell and Ruiping Fan (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 2013), 48, 175.

[62] Qianfan Zhang likewise articulates the need for respect for higher law and judicial independence with its separation of powers that is implicit in Confucius. He explains that “[t]o imitate the absolute justice of Heaven” one must respect human dignity. Further, because “[h]uman dignity requires universal respect,” this necessitates “laws and social institutions to secure such an end, that is, to prevent everyone from taking actions that would diminish anyone else’s (and his) dignity.” Consequently, one “should be concerned, above all, with establishing fundamental rules that can prevent these institutions themselves, especially the state, from exercising powers in such a way as to defeat the very aim for which they are created. We thus need a constitution that can limit the powers of the state and social organizations, and provides basic rights to every individual against public encroachment. Although, historically, the Confucians were not always conscious of the need for the institutional balance of powers, it seems to be reasonable to derive these basic institutional requirements from the Confucian concept of dignity.” Qianfan Zhang, Human Dignity in Classical Chinese Philosophy: Confucianism, Mohism, and Daoism (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2016), 26.

[63] Related by Eva Pils, Human Rights in China: A Social Practice in the Shadows of Authoritarianism , 9-10 (quoting a woman interviewed in the 2010 documentary Emergency Shelter).

[64] Qianfan Zhang writes that to protect human dignity, “society is obliged to establish an equitable constitutional system of basic rights. Construed in this way, the Confucian idea of human dignity can provide a sound philosophical basis for the modern notions of human rights and freedom, together with a balanced theory of reciprocal duties.” Qianfan Zhang, Human Dignity in Classical Chinese Philosophy: Confucianism, Mohism, and Daoism, 38.

[65] Qianfan Zhang, Human Dignity in Classical Chinese Philosophy: Confucianism, Mohism, and Daoism, 26.

[66] Charlotte Gao, “Xi: China Must Never Adopt Constitutionalism, Separation of Powers, or Judicial Independence,” The Diplomat, Feb. 19, 2019. Accessed May 1, 2019.

[67] Linda Lam, “The truth about the US-China clash of civilizations? There isn’t one,” South China Morning Post, Mar. 9, 2019. Accessed May 1, 2019.

[68] Previous Confucians have advocated judicial independence and adherence to fundamental higher law. See, e.g., Jiang Qing, A Confucian Constitutional Order: How China’s Ancient Past Can Shape Its Political Future, 47-64 (citing earlier Confucians including Huang Zongxi in the seventeenth century). However, it is important to distinguish the modest proposal here from the “Academy” proposed by Jiang Qing with its far broader range of powers.

[69] Professor Wang Shaoguang has written about the importance of including diverse economic classes, especially lower classes which are economically less powerful, in political representation in China. Wang Shaoguang commenting on Jiang Qing’s writing, in Jiang Qing, A Confucian Constitutional Order: How China’s Ancient Past Can Shape Its Political Future, 150. This concern suggests a need for representation of diverse religious groups in China as well, particularly in the Party where it counts, as such groups are often also subject to abuse or oppression.

[70] The unnecessary, simplistic rejection of religion by the Party logically leads to unnecessary alienation and distrust of government. In Xinjiang, for example, one government official expressed Party hostility in this way: “One has to choose which road to take, one cannot walk with one foot in Islam and one foot in socialism.” In response to such sentiment, an imam there once said, “Allah has given man only one heart. Either you believe in Islam or in communism.” Tiziano Terzani, Behind the Forbidden Door: Travels in Unknown China (New York: Henry Holt and Co., 1986), 226. If the Party did not unnecessarily exclude people, it would avoid unnecessarily alienating its own people.

[71] “Fan Chi asked about humaneness. The Master said, ‘Remain reverent in your private life; be respectful in handling affairs; do your best in your relationship with others. Do not leave them behind even when you go and live among the Di and Yi [border] tribes.’” Analects 13.19; see also Analects 12.2.

[72] Zhang Fenzhi, Xi Jinping: How to Read Confucius and other Chinese Classical Thinkers, (Beijing Mediatime Books Co., Ltd., 2015), Part 5, No. 20 (quoting the translation of A.C. Muller).

[73] For example, Franz Michael argues that “[c]ommunist concepts of law, as of state and society, are contrary to both Chinese and Western tradition. . . . The communist system, which is based on class struggle, is the antithesis of the harmonious order to which Confucianism aspired.” Franz Michael, “Law: A Tool of Power,” in Human Rights in the People’s Republic of China 34-35. Likewise, Daniel A. Bell, describing the thought of Jiang Qing, alludes to “several tragedies ultimately dating from the early twentieth century in which an alien Western ideology was imposed on the Chinese people. The Chinese people had been asked to forsake their traditional cultural life and reject Chinese political ideals so that they could become ‘modern’ Marxists or liberals. No other civilization had been subject to such sustained attack for nearly a century.” Daniel A. Bell, Introduction to A Confucian Constitutional Order: How China’s Ancient Past Can Shape Its Political Future, 47-64.

[74] I am indebted and grateful to the editor, Jonathon Sine, for suggesting this argument, especially concerning the Great Leap Forward.

[75] For example, “[o]n 12 June [1958] People’s Daily reported that in Henan, Mao’s No. 1 model province, a ‘Sputnik Co-operative’ had produced 1.8 tons of wheat on one mu (1/6th acre)—more than ten times the norm.” Jung Chang and Jon Halliday, Mao: The Unknown Story (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2005), 427. According to the authors, “[c]laims in this vein were not, as official Chinese history would have us believe, the result of spontaneous boasting by local cadres and peasants. The press was Mao’s voice, not the public’s.” Id. By September 1958, the “People’s Daily reported ‘the biggest rice sputnik’ yet had produced 70 tons from less than 1/5th of an acre, which was hundreds of times the norm.” Id. at 428.

[76] As an example, “80 per cent of all the villagers in one region of a quarter of a million Chinese were banned from the official canteen because they were too old or ill to be effective workers, so were deliberately starved to death.” Frank Dikötter, Mao’s Great Famine: The History of China’s Most Devastating Catastrophe, 1958-1962, quoted by Ronald Radosh, “Mao’s ‘Great Leap Forward’ and the Power of History,” Hudson Institute, Sept. 20, 2010 (available at

[77] Confucius said of such things, “I suppose there are those who try to innovate without having acquired knowledge first. I am not one of those.” Analects 7.28.

[78] Jung Chang and Jon Halliday, Mao: The Unknown Story, 431-32.

[79] Jung Chang and Jon Halliday, Mao: The Unknown Story, 428.

[80] Jung Chang and Jon Halliday, Mao: The Unknown Story, 428.

[81] Yang Jisheng. Tombstone: The Great Chinese Famine, 1958–1962, trans. Stacy Mosher and Guo Jian (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2012), 12-13.

[82] Jung Chang and Jon Halliday, Mao: The Unknown Story, 438-39.

[83] Frank Dikötter, “Mao’s Great Leap to Famine,” New York Times, Dec. 15, 2010. Accessed May 5, 2019.

[84] Yang Jisheng, Tombstone: The Great Chinese Famine, 1958-1962, 15, 507. See also Jonathan Mirsky, “Unnatural Disaster: ‘Tombstone: The Great Chinese Famine, 1958-1962,’ by Yang Jisheng” New York Times, Dec. 7, 2010. Accessed May 3, 2019.

[85] Frank Dikötter, “Mao’s Great Leap to Famine,” New York Times, Dec. 15, 2010. At a meeting on March 25, 1959, Mao “ordered the party to procure up to one-third of all the available grain—much more than ever before. The minutes of the meeting reveal a chairman insensitive to human loss: ‘When there is not enough to eat people starve to death. It is better to let half of the people die so that the other half can eat their fill.’” Id. This illustrates an interesting, deadly danger latent in pure utilitarianism (especially materialist utilitarianism). In calculating the greatest good or happiness for the greatest number, once a certain segment of the population ceases to exist due to death (from a materialist perspective), they no longer count toward the suffering of the human race, and their elimination could actually be imagined/calculated to lift and unburden those who remain. (This rationale could justify any number of deaths. One can easily imagine a reductio ad absurdum scenario here.) As Mao said on December 9, 1958, “Deaths have benefits. . . . They can fertilise the ground.” Jung Chang and Jon Halliday, Mao: The Unknown Story, 439. Or, as he said in May 1958 at the commencement of the Great Leap Forward, “There should be celebration rallies when people die. . . . We believe in dialectics, and so we can’t not be in favour of death.” Id.

[86] Amartya Sen, “Democracy as a Universal Value,” Journal of Democracy 10, no. 3 (1999): 3-17. Quoted by Yang Jisheng, Tombstone: The Great Chinese Famine, 1958 – 1962, 16.

[87] Amartya Sen, Development as Freedom (New York: Anchor Books, 2000), 181.

[88] Scott Neuman and Rob Schmitz, “Despite the End of China’s One-Child Policy, Births Are Still Lagging,” NPR, July 16, 2018. Accessed May 5, 2019.

[89] Sui-Lee Wee, “After One-Child Policy, Outrage at China’s Offer to Remove IUDs,” New York Times, Jan. 7, 2017. Accessed May 1, 2019.

[90] Ibid. (quoting Ai Xiaoming).

[91] Didi Kirsten Tatlow, “In China, A Lonely Valentine’s Day for Millions of Men,” New York Times, Feb. 14, 2017. Accessed May 5, 2019.

[92] See, e.g., Yi Fuxian, “Why ageing China won’t overtake the US economy as the world’s biggest – now or in the future,” South China Morning Post, March 29, 2019. “If China is fortunate enough to stabilise its total fertility rate at 1.2, the total population will fall from 1.28 billion in 2018 to 1.08 billion in 2050. This decline will be accompanied by an ageing population structure. The proportion aged over 65 will rise from 12 per cent in 2018 to 22 per cent in 2033, and 33 per cent by 2050. In comparison, the proportion of those 65 and over in the US will rise from 16 per cent in 2018 to 21 per cent in 2033 and 23 per cent in 2050.” Further, “China’s median age is forecast to increase to 47 by 2033 and 56 in 2050. In the US, the median age will be 41 in 2033 and 44 in 2050. China’s working-age population aged 20-64 began to shrink in 2017, while the US working-age population will not reach its peak until 2050.”

[93] Maylin Meisenheimer, “China’s Baby Blues: When Better Policies for Women Backfire,” Council on Foreign Relations, July 5, 2018. Accessed May 5, 2019.

[94] Quoted by Simon Worrall, “How China’s One-Child Policy Backfired Disastrously,” National Geographic, Oct. 30, 2015.

[95] “From the above, we can conclude that China’s GDP growth may start to fall below the US’ in around 2033, when the proportion aged over 65 begins to exceed that of the US. Assuming that China and the US will have GDP growth rates of 6.3 per cent and 3 per cent in 2019, and then fall to 2.2 per cent in 2033, the size of China’s GDP, which was 66 per cent of the US GDP in 2018, will peak at 84 per cent in 2033.” Yi Fuxian, “Why ageing China won’t overtake the US economy as the world’s biggest – now or in the future,” South China Morning Post, March 29, 2019.

[96] See, e.g., Feng Wang, Baochang Gu, and Yong Cai, “The end of China’s one-child policy,” Brookings Institution, Mar. 30, 2016. Accessed May 1, 2019. See also Yi Zeng and Therese Hesketh, “The effects of China’s universal two-child policy,” Lancet, (Oct. 15, 2016). Accessed May 1, 2019. “In addition, many scholars believe that rapid economic development alone would have reduced fertility substantially, as has been the case in many other developing countries, such as Thailand where the total fertility rate decreased from 5·6 in 1970, to 2·1 in 1990.” Id.

[97] Steven Lee Myers, Jin Wu, and Claire Fu, “China’s Looming Crisis: A Shrinking Population,” New York Times, Jan. 21, 2019. Accessed May 1, 2019. The article notes that Chinese academics have sounded the alarm themselves. “Chinese academics recently delivered a stark warning to the country’s leaders: China is facing its most precipitous decline in population in decades, setting the stage for potential demographic, economic and even political crises in the near future.”

[98] Feng Wang, Baochang Gu, and Yong Cai, “The end of China’s one-child policy,” Brookings Institution, Mar. 30, 2016.

[99] Ibid.

[100] “Contrary to the claims of some Chinese officials, much of China’s fertility decline to date was realized prior to the launch of the one-child policy, under a much less strict policy in the 1970s calling for later marriage, longer birth intervals, and fewer births. In countries that had similar levels of fertility in the early 1970s without extreme measures such as the one-child policy, fertility also declined, and some achieved a level similar to China’s today.” Ibid.

[101] Quoted by Simon Worrall, “How China’s One-Child Policy Backfired Disastrously,” National Geographic, Oct. 30, 2015.

[102] Ibid.

[103] Sui-Lee Wee, “After One-Child Policy, Outrage at China’s Offer to Remove IUDs,” New York Times, Jan. 7, 2017.

[104] Constitution of the Communist Party of China. Revised and adopted Nov. 14, 2012. Accessed April 30, 2019.

[105] Ibid.

[106] Or, on the other hand, perhaps the Party’s present course is to be desired, as its unreasonable coerciveness keeps pushing people into more attractive religious communities until the Party is vastly outnumbered and its legitimacy fades to near nothingness. If the Party wants to undermine its own legitimacy further, it should simply continue on its course of coercion.

Jonathan English
Jonathan English

Jonathan English is an attorney in Washington, DC. Recognizing that The Analects still has much to say to the modern world, including China, he has recently pursued scholarship on Confucius. He also writes short stories, narrative nonfiction, and other creative genres, besides writing on law.