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Confucian values and China’s development trajectory

China’s dynamism is as much a function of its burgeoning economy as of following Confucian ethics.

Since the last decade, there has been revival of interest in the values and teachings of the philosopher-teacher Confucius. The official discourse often expresses emphasis on traditional Confucian values such as harmony, hard work, austerity and “peaceful development.”

In pursuit of this concept, the Chinese government has engaged in promotion of Confucian heritage through many ways: textbooks, university courses, lectures, seminars and the establishment of hundreds of Confucius centers throughout the world. Today Confucian philosophy, once seen by some as antithetical to modernization, is zealously promoted.

Confucianism has survived for nearly 2,000 years in China and continues to exert strong influence in the lives of peoples of Chinese and East Asian nations, including Japan. Confucius (551-478 BC) is considered China’s “first teacher.” His name was Latinized by Jesuit missionaries working in 19th century China. The Confucian ethics are derived from his teachings and subsequent interpreters of his work, like his disciple Mencius, Hsun-Tzu and others. His writings are best known to the outside world by his “Analects,” a collection of wise sayings. At the center of his teaching is Jen, a core social virtue, meaning benevolence, humaneness, loyalty and reciprocity.

Albeit having undergone many changes over time, the core values of Confucianism remain the same, with an emphasis on collective family values over individualism, interdependence, discipline, work ethic, harmony and stability in society with stress on education, loyalty, hierarchy and rule of law.

Some people charge that during China’s history when Confucianism held sway as official doctrine it remained generally underdeveloped and the economy stagnated.

On the other hand, supporters make far more robust arguments. Confucian values of filial piety and family responsibility, it is said, can act as an antidote to the limitations of national social welfare system, fast track modernization and help restore altruistic values.

Interestingly, Chinese cultural values differ from the West’s. The Chinese culture uses contextual and dialectical approaches in solving problems while Western philosophy is based on hard pragmatism and individualism.

Despite some of the aforementioned misgivings, Confucianism as a philosophy is now studied and understood around the world. Whereas Confucian values may seem “challenging” to US model of free enterprise, they are more acceptable from the angle of social corporate responsibility. Both systems emphasize hard work and thrift, some form of spiritual fulfilment through hard work, and aim at betterment of quality of life in this world.

The difference, though, lies in group and community-based approaches. The Chinese system is now incorporated in forms of a market-driven economy with trust-based family connections. This aspect is appealing to Western companies for substantive output and performance and better work culture. No wonder, companies are outsourcing their businesses in China to avoid disruptions in work and derive higher profits.

Added to this, one must not lose sight of the fact that Confucian values are universal in nature and hardly threatening to any local value systems.

The writer is Visiting Professor of International Relations at Department of Defence and Strategic Studies, Quaid-i-Azam University, Islamabad, former President, Islamabad Policy Research Institute and former Adviser, COMSATS Institute of Information Technology, Islamabad. Shanghai Daily condensed the article.

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