What’s Left of Confucianism?

In today's China, constraints imposed on public discussion of liberal-democratic institutions have been eased precisely because few Chinese are inspired by Western-style liberal democracy. For the authorities, the most dangerous proposals for reform stem from a reappraisal of deeply rooted Confucian values.

BEIJING – The Chinese government’s very public display of compassion and transparency in response to the devastating earthquake in Sichuan province appears to have strengthened its authority and its bonds with ordinary Chinese people. The government and army worked hand in hand with legions of volunteers and private networks to rescue quake victims. Even die-hard cynics were won over by Prime Minister Wen Jiabao’s emotional comforting of the survivors.

But heroic rescue efforts will not be able to help the government forever, so it is worth asking what can provide long-term political legitimacy. After all, communism has lost its capacity to inspire the Chinese. So what should replace it?

Most Westerners think the answer is liberal democracy, as did many Chinese liberals in the twentieth century. But there is another answer, which takes the form of the old and venerable tradition of Confucianism, which is being revived by government officials, critical intellectuals, and ordinary citizens.

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