THE RHETORICAL OUTBURSTS in Beijing at the United Nations women's conference, directed against the Chinese government and answered by the Chinese regime in kind, are only the most recent exchange in a long-running argument between West and East. Whose standards about individual liberty and the sway of the state -- ours or theirs -- are to be afforded pride of place in the world? Newly rich and increasingly courted, some of the Asian "tigers" have spent the past few years talking back to their Western critics; they have also taken to questioning the very legitimacy of those criticisms -- categorizing them as merely Western ideas applicable only to the West.

But what about the applicability of their ideas to their practices? Western conservatives have been quick to praise the "Confucian ethic" as an analogue of our own ethic of self-restraint and moral concern, and have seen the success of East Asians, both at home and in the United States, as a vindication of those "traditional values." But some political leaders in the Confucian part of the world have just as quickly gone us one better, taking the West's admiration for Confucian personal traits and attempting to graft onto it their justifications for arbitrary government.

In this, they reveal ignorance of Confucianism's vast and varied teachings. Besides, they are probably confident that they can continue to use the idea of distinctive Confucian/Asian values to counter criticism of their behavior, because we ourselves will not do the work required to learn about the tradition but will, instead, continue to rely on their misinformation.

But, at best, that will hold only for the short term. In China itself -- where, after all, Confucianism got started and whence its influence spread to Korea, Japan, Vietnam, and beyond -- people are discovering that the argument over the role and conduct of government, the proper dividing line between public and private, and the boundary between state and society can, in large measure, be carried on within their own tradition. Their own thinkers have had much to say on these subjects; they have made arguments which are reminiscent of the arguments that we in the West have carried on among ourselves. This reliance on their own traditions will come about, more or less, by a process of elimination, as the various Western schools of thought - - Communism, principally-on which the Chinese have relied for an examination of these questions fall by the wayside.

In fact, without having to rely all that much on Western liberal thought, or Western religious-based political ideas like natural law, Chinese who seek to argue against the excesses of their government can indeed find much in their own history to help them out. Confucius (551-479 B.c.) left only the sketchiest outlines of his own thought in the form of pronouncements written down by his disciples. And, like other great teachers, he passed on a legacy embracing a multitude of sins. As for Confucius himself, we might think of him as a moral authoritarian, but not necessarily a political one in the sense we use the term today. Indeed, he mused that the presence of harsh laws and severe punishments is a sign that a state is in bad shape, not good. High taxes, large armies, conscripted labor, and vainglorious aggrandizement were not good signs either. Indeed, the men in charge were supposed to edify and not intimidate. If they had a claim to rule, it was only that they were better people, not more ruthless ones.

Over the centuries, these ideas influenced both personal and institutional codes of conduct. The proper mandarin was obliged -- as we would put it -- to tell truth to power, often paying with his head. Each new dynasty was obliged to write a long, detailed, multi-volume history of the dynasty it superseded. Invariably, the account of every dynasty's downfall confirms established principles. Each of these great works is a cautionary tale about the need for rectitude and restraint, about the threat of profligacy and decadence, about the fate of a state which overreaches itself. These themes reverberated in both high and popular culture and helped create the beau ideal of the official as scholar, moralist, poet, and artist. None of them ever believes in capital punishment.

Now, the Chinese, as we know, were inventors of the state, and when their state was working, it worked powerfully. In modern times especially, when the country was beset by foreign enemies, the need for a strong state was unquestioned by Chinese, whatever their political affliation. But now, with a worldwide trend against the growth of state power, fuelled in part by the (temporary?) collapse of great-power rivalry, it is hard to see the Chinese state as the solitary manifestation of a countertrend. Indeed, by every measure, it has become weaker these past several years, as it has swallowed a stiff dose of capitalism's creative destruction.

But for the Chinese, there is nothing startling here. Consider one set of examples. Back in the 13th century, when an extraordinary economic boom was creating unprecedented new wealth (this is the same country whose wealth astounded Marco Polo when he visited it in the late 1200s, let us remember), there was careful consideration of the longer-term meaning of this efflorescence. In the preceding century, a host of foreign and domestic problems had provoked thoroughgoing debate about an appropriate government response. On one side were advocates of enlarging the government's role in the economy, setting up the government in competition with private merchants and traders, and, in general, refilling the emperor's coffers by more astute fiscal and administrative interventions. On the other side were scholar/officials, known even then as "the Conservatives," who argued that the bureaucracy was already bloated, that government interventions sopped up wealth and did not create it, and that, in any event, reliance on the enlargement of government rather than on the cultivation of individuals would prove destructive. Should the poor be made dependent on the state, the better to control them, or should they be encouraged to become independent of the state, more reliant on their own efforts and on the efforts of local notables?

The Conservatives did not fare at all well at the beginning of this debate. But, as some students of Chinese history have recently come to argue, the debates of those times established an outer boundary for governmental intervention, a boundary which later dynasties were reluctant to cross. There was also set in motion a spirited habit of individual charitable and educational initiatives that continued across the centuries.

This is not in keeping with the image of "oriental despotism," as developed for us by European philosophers. It certainly does not track with our experience of Chinese totalitarianism, post-1949. But, on the other hand, it surely reminds us that China's powerful strand of traditional thought -- Confucian values, if you like -- is no impenetrable smokescreen, and that Confucian values are not, in and of themselves, an excuse for high-handed authoritarianism or denial of social and political rights.

Not so long ago, it was obligatory to distinguish between the traditional and the modern in those parts of the world coming to grips with the onslaught of the West. Throughout most of our century, the argument for the centralization of national power in the state seemed almost self-evident, as the world lived through world wars and a cold war. But that argument seems less relevant now, when the trinity of entrepreneurial expansion, technological advance, and post power-bloc politics is grinding down "big government" everywhere.

As this happens, we have rediscovered our own older thoughts about "civil society." We should surely marshal them against regimes in the world that still refuse to accord human beings their proper due. But we will make as much progress by encouraging them to enter into an argument with their own inherited wisdom, even as we continue polemical exchanges with them about ours.

Charles Horner is adjunct fellow in Asian studies at the Hudson Institute.

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