On The Benevolent Exercise of State Power

A commentary by Bao Tong
china-mao-and-deng-1974.jpg A retouched picture released by China's state media shows Mao Zedong (L) shaking hands with Deng Xiaoping (R) in Beijing, in 1974.

Sixty-five years ago, the ruling Chinese Communist Party seized power by force, putting into effect two radical provisions of the Communist Manifesto: the break with traditional property relations and with traditional ideas.

Of the two traditional Chinese thought systems ... Confucianism suffered the greatest harm.

Confucius was a humanist who advocated benevolence. The benevolent exercise of state power is a key political ideal of Confucianism, and Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping attacked and ridiculed it, for the state they built was to be a dictatorship. Its task wasn't the benevolent exercise of state power, which in their hands was merely a tool of dictatorship.

Confucius was a compassionate nobleman, who treated others as he wished to be treated himself. He was a firm opponent of harming others, and believed nothing should be imposed on others; rather, they should be helped to develop. "If one wants to establish oneself, one should first establish others: if one wants to succeed, one should first help others to succeed."

But in Mao's eyes, this wasn't only the view of the "enemy"; it must be opposed by the entire party. What's more, Mao used to joke in private conversation that if one wants to establish oneself, one should first put pressure on others. I heard this myself from [former president] Yang Shangkun.

Everybody knows about the Lushan conference, where Mao cursed out Peng Dehuai for his "bourgeois world view." But not many people who weren't there know exactly what this meant, and it has been a secret closely guarded by the highest echelons of leaders.

Controlling everything

The background lies in the collaboration of communist and nationalist forces during the war of resistance against Japan. Mao had instructed Peng to establish himself by imposing on others, but Peng took the Confucian view, and sought to establish others first.

Mao was furious, and criticized Peng in meetings for weeks. Mao and Confucius clearly couldn't inhabit the same universe.

And Deng Xiaoping was the same. He may not have been so happy when it was him who was being struggled against, but he was quite happy to struggle against the "rightists." And of course he knew that the students [in 1989] were patriotic. He ordered that bloody crackdown to achieve specific aims.

Both Mao and Deng insisted on controlling everything, so you can imagine the fate of Confucianism while they were in charge.

If they had been adherents of Confucianism, Mao would never have got as far as [proclaiming the People's Republic from] Tiananmen Gate, and Deng Xiaoping would have been incapable of sending hundreds of thousands of troops to Tiananmen Square.

As a monarch, the [legendary] emperor Shun was highly skilled in the art of governance. He would always ask humble questions and carefully examine all sorts of apparently trivial matters.

He would study the advantages and disadvantages of different ideas, and finally take the middle way, so it can safely be said that his was a great mind.

Path of moderation

Confucius always strove to cleave to the path of moderation, too. The problem is that it's very hard for a great mind to do.

What is moderation? Who is best-equipped to find it? What if they can't find it? What if they choose the wrong path? Maybe they could end up finding Mao and Deng, a system of lifelong tenure in power, exercised behind a screen: a recipe for holocaust.

So, hopes are slender and the danger is great for the wise person who tries to take it upon themselves to find the middle way.

Fortunately, there is now such a thing as a constitutional democracy, so that the job of running the country no longer rests on the shoulders of a monarch.

The citizens can now be the masters of a country, while a plethora of diverse civil society groups balance diverse interests and a plurality of cultures. They act collectively through their individual power and will to exert checks and balances, helping to avoid bias and rigidity.

In this way, ancient Confucian philosophy, along with other aspects of our cultural heritage and the latest achievements of civilization, gets a new lease of life in civil society.

'Class-based' party

Confucius lived under a monarchy, so naturally his ideas revolved around notions of an esteemed gentleman sovereign and his ministers. I think, however, it's important to point out three things here:

1. The party, which is outwardly so critical of the class stratification in feudal societies, has assiduously created the most comprehensive and closed class-based system possible.

2. Confucius advocated ministerial criticism of monarchs. "If the monarch isn't a monarch, then the minister will cease to be a minister."

3. Confucius opposed tyranny and tyrants. The "revolutionary" stories about Shang Yang overthrowing the tyrant Xia Jie, and about Zhou Wu overthrowing the tyrant Shang Zhou are among the most mentioned in his body of work.

In short, there are many things which can feed a civil society, ancient and modern, Chinese and foreign. There are some outdated elements of Confucian doctrine, but we should be allowed to sort these out for ourselves.

Is there any less shameful material in the treasure troves of our saviors Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping, in spite of the dedicated team of highly trained people who carry out cosmetic surgery on them daily?

Translated by Luisetta Mudie.

Bao Tong, political aide to the late ousted premier Zhao Ziyang, is currently under house arrest at his home in Beijing.

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