A rise in Confucianism will make China’s leaders more eco-conscious

Concern about the environment is driving a Confucian revival in China, with implications for the new regime, Daniel Bell, professor of philosophy at Tsinghua University, tells chinadialogue.
<p>The Great Hall of the People in Beijing, where China&#8217;s 18th Party Congress is taking place. (Image by shutterstock)</p>

The Great Hall of the People in Beijing, where China’s 18th Party Congress is taking place. (Image by shutterstock)

Olivia Boyd: You have written that Confucianism is on the rise in China. How are you seeing that manifest itself and what’s the impact on the environmental agenda?

Daniel Bell: It’s being manifested at different levels. Partly it’s driven by the government because some of the language that they’re using – promoting social harmony and the teaching of more filial piety in schools and so on is driven by the government. But we also have it in what we can call civil society. Many intellectuals and NGOs are promoting Confucianism in different forms – Confucian rituals and so on. And it also has a critical edge because many of the intellectuals who are promoting it think that Confucianism should have more influence in society and in government. So what sort of moral system can hold people together and provide a sense of social responsibility and many people think Confucianism should play an important role. 

One of the key Confucian values is social harmony and what does that mean? It means three things. It means peace and it means diversity and it means promoting harmonious relations. Now, which relations matter? Relations between the family members, relations in society within a country, relations between countries, relations between humans and the environment.

Many Confucians think it’s important to promote a sense of environmental responsibility and Confucianism can help with that. One of the most well-known Confucian thinkers in China today is called Jiang Qing and he’s explicitly critical of democracy for not being able to deal with ecological crisis because nobody represents the interests of future generations, nobody represents the interests of the environment in political debates and he thinks that Confucianism in China can help China take more seriously the environmental issues in a way that not just the current system can’t in China but that western democracies often cannot. And that’s part of what drives the Confucian revival in China too is a concern with environment. 

Read: China’s new leaders must respect environmental rights or face crisis

OB: How do you see that playing out right now in terms of the leadership transiti
on – it’s obviously a big week for China. 

DB: It relates to this idea of political meritocracy. There’s been this revival of meritocracy, this emphasis on choosing leaders who have ability and morality and it’s institutionalised by means of examinations, by means of performance at lower levels of government. Now regarding performance of lower levels of government, how is that measured? In the past 20-30 years, the main issue was whether you could contribute economic growth, and that’s pretty easy to measure. But that’s a problem obviously, because you can destroy the environment in the process and be promoted on the basis of economic growth.

So now, for example, Li Yuanchao, he’s the head of the organisation department, and he may or may not be on the next Standing Committee. When he was leader in Jiangsu, he explicitly promoted leaders not just according to how well they helped to promote the economy but also on environmental sustainability issues. It’s harder to measure than economic growth, but it’s obviously very important. So I think after the 18th Party Congress, hopefully they’ll change the promotion incentive system so that how well leaders do in terms of promoting environmental issues would also matter for promotion. 

OB: What about the problem of implementation  China has great environmental laws on paper for instance, but they’re not always implemented. 

DB: Again, I think that relates to this point. The reason it wasn’t implemented is because officials were not promoted on a basis of how well they did in preserving the environment. Quite the opposite, they’re promoted on the basis of economic achievements and often that had disastrous, or bad, environmental results. So if they could change the promotion system, not just at the top but throughout the whole structure of government, including local levels then I think it could help to improve those issues. The problem is it’s easier said than done. Not just because it’s hard to implement measures from the top, but because it’s hard to measure that. Sometimes the officials might have great ideas but then they might get affected by environmental problems elsewhere. Environment doesn’t have borders, so it’s hard to measure that contribution.

: Isn’t it also about vested interests  ties between local officials and polluting businesses, say, and corruption. How do you deal with that? 

DB: It’s a problem. One of the big problems in China now is that the economic system is very skewed in the interests of state-owned enterprises, and it’s not a level playing field for small and medium sized enterprises. So that has to be addressed. It’s partly related to the environmental issue because the economic model driven by investment and manufacturing and where SOEs play a major role is generally bad for the environment. So if there’s a different economic model that allows for more medium-run enterprises, it might have better environmental consequences.

OB: But ultimately you’re optimistic about China and it’s ability to deal with its environmental issues? Its rivers are polluted, its deserts are expanding…

DB: Sure. But I’m not very optimistic that democratic countries, especially big ones like the US or Canada, where I’m from, are dealing with them in terms of per capita carbon emission. China has the advantage that it doesn’t have to worry so much about being re-elected and they can do more for future generations than in a purely democratic system. Whether they’re going to do it, it’s still to be seen. But they’re doing a lot of promoting alternative forms of energy. Obviously not enough, but I do think that very key is changing this promotion system so more emphasis is placed on environmental sustainability. If they could do that, it might make a big difference. 

OB: People often talk about an advantage of China’s system being capacity for long-term planning. But isn’t the Chinese government having to be more and more responsive to public demands? We’ve seen decisions getting reversed suddenly after protests and so on.

DB: Yes, but that isn’t necessarily bad, because one of the lessons that you learn from western countries is that it’s only when you have green NGOs and citizens getting together and putting pressure on government that you have effective measures to deal with environmental problems. So to the extent there’s more pressure on the government to deal with environmental issues, it might be actually a good thing.

The only risk is that it’s rich people doing this not in my own backyard stuff, then the only thing is to move it to poor areas – that’s not going to help. So there has to be a more centralised, let’s say a more coordinated, movement for civil society to deal with environmental issues, not just at local level but national. And I think there is more room for environmental NGOs than before. So I think if that trend could continue that could be a good thing. 

: What are the other major challenges for the next generation of leaders?

DB: Again, corruption is the big issue. China, if you look at it compared to other societies at similar levels of economic development, it’s not that corrupt. You have many democracies – Indonesia, India and so on – that are more corrupt. But it’s more of a problem in China precisely because the top leaders don’t have democratic legitimacy, they get legitimacy from being seen as more meritocratic, leaders have ability and virtue. Obviously if they’re very corrupt or seen to be very corrupt, then they lack legitimacy, meritocratic legitimacy. Until recently, most of the dissatisfaction was directed at lower level government officials, but now the accusations of corruption are getting closer to the top which is really dangerous for the legitimacy of the regime. So they’re going to have to attack that in a much more serious way after the 18th Party Congress. And I think they might do that. We’ll see. 

OB: How do those issues affect China’s ability to export its values?

DB: If meritocracy is to be seen as a desirable model, and especially in places that are developing, South Africa is a good example where you had a revolutionary party that has to become transformed into a more modern administrative state and they do look to China as some sort of model. But if China is viewed as thoroughly corrupt, then it won’t inspire people anymore. So if China wants to serve as a good model for others, it very much has to address its corruption issue. 

OB: Transparency 
 or lack of it  is also a major issue. Can the "political meritocracy" you talk about succeed without it? 

DB: There is more transparency than before. But it won’t be as transparent as a democratic system. But there’s a need for more transparency in the system. And I think social media and the internet is playing a role in pushing towards it. But I think the big issue in China is whether you can maintain a meritocracy with more open and transparent society without going to one person, one vote. I think there’s good arguments to make against one person, one vote, and I think if China could become a more open society while remaining meritocratic at the top, democratic at the bottom, with lots of room for diversity and experimentation in between, it would be a good alternative model and it could do some things better than democracy.