China: Move Over, Karl Marx Here Comes Confucius

China watchers have noticed a subtle shift in the behavior of President Jiang Zemin. Long a colorless party boss, Jiang is showing another dimension. He has begun sprinkling his speeches with classical poetry. He urges youths to rediscover Peking opera. And he praises the values of Confucius, the ancient Chinese philosopher long scorned by the communists.

With communism rapidly losing relevance, Jiang and other senior leaders are casting about for something to replace it in the post-Deng Xiaoping era. Their new mantras are old ones: patriotism and so-called Chinese values, particularly respect for authority. "When leaders speak in communist terminology, nobody--including most of the government--listens anymore," says Ding Xueliang, a former mainland ideological theoretician now based in Hong Kong. "So they are using nationalism and Confucianism as substitutes for a discredited ideology."

MORAL COMPASS. It's far from clear that this image makeover will be enough to make Jiang the next paramount leader. But whoever the next strongman is, he will likely keep harping on the social stability and high ethical standards that are at the heart of Confucianism. That's because China's leaders are searching for a way to maintain a grip on an increasingly skeptical and fragmented society. And they realize that the public, alarmed by the corruption, crime, and sheer greed that have accompanied China's economic takeoff, wants its moral compass restored.

This renewed interest in Confucianism is somewhat bizarre because until recently, the communists denounced it for fostering an elitist class system that kept the masses down. Now, the national best-seller lists feature books on such figures as Zeng Guofan, the 19th century Confucian scholar-turned-warlord credited with saving the corrupt and crumbling Qing Dynasty by putting down a popular rebellion. And in November, Beijing hosted the inaugural meeting of the International Confucian Assn. The featured speaker: Singapore Senior Minister Lee Kuan Yew, the most vocal advocate of "Asian values."

Traditional values have been talked up in Jiang's recent anticorruption sweep. The official news agency, Xinhua, recently prescribed a revival of Confucianism as "good medicine" to treat the "crisis of morality" that it blamed on Deng's market reforms. But despite such high-minded rhetoric, Jiang seems to be mainly interested in ousting such political rivals as deposed Beijing party chief Chen Xitong.

Still, the search for a way to adapt traditional social norms to modern China goes beyond the cynical self-interest of politicians. A number of bureaucrats, businesspeople, and intellectuals believe today's Singapore, Taiwan under Chiang Kai-shek, and South Korea under late dictator Park Chung-Hee are all useful models for China in its transition phase. All three promoted Confucianism to underpin one-party rule but left management of the economy to a technocratic elite. If China follows these models, technocrats are likely to gain a larger say in running the economy.

But whether the present communist elders can pass themselves off as the standard-bearers of China's glorious past is another question. Clearly, Jiang's paeans to classic opera and poetry are falling on deaf ears among younger Chinese, who are more interested in pop music and getting rich. And Jiang himself, who also wants the support of party hard-liners, hasn't thrown away his Mao suits. Not long ago, he declared that "to achieve communism is the highest pursuit of our life." Such mixed messages suggest the party will go with whatever works as it tries to avoid history's ash heap.

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