China has a long political history and a long history of political philosophy, and many contemporary Chinese pretend to know more about them than they really do. The durability of Chinese tradition is, in itself, a point of pride. But a mastery of its details is usually too great a burden for one person. Besides which, few traditions have been so subject to reinterpretation.

"Confucianism," the simplest term for two millennia of Chinese speculation about society and politics, has had a manic time these past couple of centuries. It was once thought an insuperable barrier to China's entry into the modern world. It was then used to explain Chinese successes in that same modern world, whether in China itself or in the Chinese diaspora beyond. And more recently still, it has been humbled by panic in Asia's markets. Thus, the debate about "Asian" and "Western" values has taken yet another turn.

It is in the West that much of this debate has occurred, for it is here that a good portion of the inherited wisdom of the East has been neatly stored away. One thinks of the late 1940s, when efforts were made to tap into the Chinese political tradition for what was supposed to be, after all, a "universal" declaration of human rights. In short order, however, these efforts were suspended by the appearance of selfisolating Communist regimes in China, Vietnam, and Korea.

Then, in the 1950s, it was Wm. Theodore de Bary and his colleagues at Columbia University who began the project of collecting and presenting in English the classic intellectual works of the East Asian tradition. This and related enterprises -- once thought to be lost in time -- are surprisingly contemporary, and they have been continually expanded and updated. The Columbia University Press has now published a new anthology, Confucianism and Human Rights, edited by the tireless de Bary, who is still going strong as a professor emeritus, leading a serious, energetic, and deeply informed discussion.

As we should expect, there is a range of opinion represented in this volume, for a tradition as rich as China's can be invoked for more than one purpose. For his part, de Bary embraces the idea that there is a "liberal" tradition in Confucian thought that is of great contemporary value and relevance, so that Chinese and Western notions of individualism are conceivably reconcilable. His co-editor, Tu Weiming of Harvard, on the other hand, sees the Confucian tradition reasserting itself more as a religious than as a secular creed, as "a way of life that demands an existential commitment on the part of Confucians no less intensive and comprehensive than that demanded of the other spiritual traditions, such as Judaism, Christianity, or Islam."

How will this high-minded discussion influence the actual practice of politics in the Chinese world? What does it imply for the establishment of democratic institutions in particular? Some on the frontline are optimistic. Not long ago, for example, Taiwan's recently installed premier, Vincent Siew, explained to an American editorialist that Taiwan's energetic democracy is, in part, a product of traditional Chinese culture. Confucianists, according to Siew, are in fact quite open-minded and, after an appropriate period of study and reflection, willing to incorporate worthy ideas and practices from other cultures -- a judgment that Taiwan's "new politics" seems to confirm.

But as reports from the mainland continually remind us, Taiwan's democratic system is not the only mode of governance at work in the Chinese world, and not all Asian political leaders are as eager as Siew to proclaim the compatibility of Confucianism and democracy. In Singapore, for example, Confucianism is posed as an alternative to Western political thought, one that can protect those "rights" worth protecting without embracing the cultural decadence increasingly associated with American-style democracy.

More interesting still is the case of Hong Kong, soon to celebrate (if that is the right word) its first anniversary as a Special Administrative Region of the People's Republic of China. For on the face of it, a Chinese claim to open-mindedness is impressively confirmed by Beijing's stated policies toward the former British colony. In 1984, when the plans for retrocession were first announced, China said it was perfectly happy to have on its sovereign territory a self-governing enclave of some 6.5 million people, where the ancient Common Law would still hold sway, where the local government could make a wide range of international agreements on its own, and where Britain's prior assent, on behalf of Hong Kong, to various international conventions concerning individual rights would be respected by Beijing. These principles were further elaborated in the 1990 Chinese statute that serves as Hong Kong's de facto constitution.

Cynical or no, the Beijing regime understands that such declarations, merely as declarations, have, as party theoreticians like to put it, important theoretical implications, and perhaps even more important practical implications. They create a standard against which future conduct can be judged. Moreover, Hong Kong's unique regime obliges China to consider its own constitution and what it means. Thus, one Beijing newspaper referred a letter it had received to one of the country's most eminent law professors. How, asked the letter-writer, could it be consistent with the PRC's constitution to create, within the territory of China, an avowed non-Communist political entity, such as the new Hong Kong? The professor's authoritative reply, both encouraging and unsettling, was that the National People's Congress could create on the territory of China any kind of political entity it wanted. The late Deng Xiaoping, who had conceived the Hong Kong arrangement, spoke of "one country, two systems." Then why not three or four?

Chinese all over the world are conducting a raucous discussion among themselves about such future political possibilities in the Sinic world -- China itself, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Singapore, and the farther diaspora. This noisy free-for-all is a fortunate consequence of the collapse of the Soviet Union and the persistence of Deng's reforms in China. It occurs at a time of widespread peace inside China itself, the past twenty years marking the longest continuous period of civil peace in the last two centuries. Besides being boisterous and exuberant, the discussion is also conflicted, factionalized, and often petty.

For ordinary outsiders, whose general understanding of the "master narrative" of modern Chinese history is about two decades behind the times, the debate can be hard to follow. We now have to re-open old questions that the triumph of communism in China was supposed to have laid to rest. We now have to regard as relevant things that, only a short while ago, were thought to be of academic or antiquarian interest only.

In the older account, all roads led to the founding of the People's Republic of China. If, in the century before "liberation," other courses seemed possible, they were but false starts. Now, the not-very-well-kept secret about China is that communism there, both as a doctrine and as a system, is quite dead, its occasional signs of life merely post mortem twitching.

The deep-seated worry of attentive Chinese, whether in the regime or opposed to it, is that no one has a very clear idea of what will emerge in communism's place, since the process of replacement, analogous to the replacement of the old imperial system in the last century, is an ongoing one. It is carried on with great bursts of human energy that the present regime in Beijing is trying desperately to channel. But just as the collapse of the old imperial system did not in itself create anything even remotely resembling an orderly transition to the next thing, the process whereby China is now dissolving inherited Maoist arrangements could prove threatening not only to peace inside China itself, but also to the peace of East Asia and, possibly, the world.

This realization is what has brought older debates about the governance of this huge country to the fore, debates sometimes instigated by the regime in Beijing, sometimes harassed by it. The regime's intermittent brutalities actually bespeak the weakness of the system, not its strength. For all their cruelties, the current repressions lack real conviction. The regime, after all, claims to be one and the same as the Communist Party of China, a party with an awesome history of mass murder. In this respect, its current crimes are unimpressive, especially to the people it seeks to intimidate.

These crimes are widely understood as part of a rearguard action, embedded in a complex de facto political strategy. For there appears to be a so far unshakable consensus among the leadership that the great structural reforms in the country must go forward, even as there is an increasingly clear realization that the reforms will inevitably dissolve the old "substructure" of Chinese politics.

Thus the rediscovery of older debates, the queries about roads not taken, and the open ruminations about the meaning of the Communist period in China's history. Does China really have much to show for the decades of Maoist mayhem, or was Chinese communism just as Ronald Reagan once described communism everywhere -- a bizarre interlude?

China's reexamination of its own modern history looks, first, to the influences of Western political doctrines in play since the mid-nineteenth century. Older interests in constitutions, provincial assemblies, federalism, and confederalism are no longer the quaint and fanciful speculations of the early-twentieth-century Chinese political thinkers who delved into them. Instead, they speak to the practical issues of the day, whether in Tibet or Taiwan. Likewise, Deng's call for "socialism with Chinese characteristics" causes Chinese to recall decades of debate among partisans of neither the Nationalist nor the Communist cause; consideration of a "third way" is, today, comparably pragmatic. And, to this, there is the daily addition of every imaginable cultural and intellectual influence from the outside world. Chinese everywhere have long had networks of their own, which the telecommunications revolution has made more rapid and capacious.

What is less apparent, but probably more important, is the role China's own tradition will play in this ongoing discussion. Long trained to disdain it, China's intellectuals are coming only slowly to a reappreciation of it, and how some of it can be seen as supportive of "liberalization." More significantly, just as Chinese have relied on Westerners to interpret the Western tradition, they have also been substantially reliant on Westerners to interpret the Chinese tradition. This anomaly reflects the chaotic conditions of modern China that seriously disrupted normal intellectual life. It also mirrors the aims and ambitions of Western Sinologists who, in different ways and for different reasons, have long been united in their efforts to link Chinese tradition not only to the renovation of China itself but to a larger world civilization.

What gives high Western Sinology, even that of comparatively recent origin, its credibility to Chinese and Westerners alike is, first, the persistence of its ambition over decades, even centuries. Second is an astonishing erudition and a high scholarly standard, which puts to shame the superficiality of almost all contemporary "China watching." Third, and most important, is a kind of durability -- the focus on the subject itself, the study of the thing at hand, without too much regard for evanescent political enthusiasms.

The non-Chinese world's preservation of the Chinese tradition in modern times has been the work of men and women from all over the world, of many different religious and political outlooks. These various Sinologists have embodied the range of political sentiments, from Hayekian to pro-Beijing sentimentalist, from conventional liberal to conventional conservative. So they would probably not agree with one another very much about most things having to do with politics or religion. But about the importance of keeping the Chinese tradition alive in China -- and alive and influential in the world -- they have been pretty much of one mind.

The cumulative effect of all of this is to establish a foundation for serious philosophical examination of the commensurability of Chinese and Western political thought. Can political methods in both the Sinic and Western worlds come more to resemble one another in actual practice, as distinct from the merely outward similarity of having "constitutions" and "parliaments"? Can enough knowledge be developed both there and here so that we can at least understand what we are arguing about? Are we stuck with a pleasingly polemical but rather superficial exchange of epithets about "Western" and "Asian" values?

In the end, one can wonder also whether China's renewed interest in the durability of Confucianism in the modern world is somehow an emulation of the West's willingness to be more assertive and confident about its own core convictions, especially in the realm of human rights and international protection for them. We know that in Bosnia (though not yet in Central Africa) the world is doing better in enforcing the law against mass murder, and, to take another example, that a Special Rapporteur of the U.N. Human Rights Commission, despite the many personal risks inherent in such a project, has publicized recent political murders in Iraq, whose secular radical regime was once protected against such revelations. Is yet another benefit of the collapse of communism the notion that there can be a more politically diverse group of "violators of human rights"?

One must resist the temptation to overinterpret. And yet there is the apparent fact that our own Department of State wanted Pol Pot tried for his crimes by a properly constituted international tribunal at The Hague and now proposes a trial for his surviving henchmen. Even the Chinese government, in what could prove to be one of the greatest tributes vice ever paid to virtue, may consider it prudent to acquiesce quietly in the proposal.

We cannot expect the regime in Beijing to take our interest in human rights and the rule of law any more seriously than we ourselves take it. Is Beijing coming to appreciate that there is no longer a Left to shield it from international criticism and even sanction, especially as China itself moves ever more to the right in its own social and economic programs? If we can make that case -- that perverted versions of the West's own political tradition will no longer serve to protect arbitrary rule in the Forbidden City -- we may now be poised to make the case that a perverted reading of "Confucianism" cannot protect it either.

For our ability to do so, we will remain indebted to scholars like de Bary, who have seen in traditional Confucianism its potential in modern times for promoting precisely that which the creators of the doctrine themselves sought in their own time -- a cultivated and humane administration of civic affairs, one that need not rely on threats, coercion, or brutality for public order and progress, but rather on an ethical consensus, freely fashioned and accepted after rational deliberation.

Charles Horner is a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute and an adjunct professor of politics at Washington and Lee University.

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