From the Magna Carta to John Locke and Jean Jacques Rousseau, Western tradition is saturated with the idea that individuals have the right to resist tyrannical oppression. Our American heroes, history, and political attitudes make the challenging underdog a bestselling character. But when the virtue of resistance is so thoroughly encoded in our philosophical DNA, it is difficult to recognize legitimacy in a narrative that would condemn the underdog in the name of higher virtue. The tension in Hong Kong — a city built between the fault lines of liberal democracy and communism — crystallizes these differences. Protesters are either heroic individuals fighting for their rights or selfish rebels endangering the collective harmony. By exploring the teachings of Confucius, the main philosophical authority from which Chinese authorities legitimize their control, the philosophical tension surrounding the Hong Kong protests might be better understood.
A decade ago, Marxism began to decay in China. Without an ideological backbone, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) knew it could not maintain power, so it began flirting with philosophy. It was then that Beijing fell in love with Confucius. Confucianism was a well-renowned ethical philosophy tracing back to 479 BC. Intellectually respected, popular, hierarchical, and uniquely Chinese, Confucius was the natural choice for an authoritarian government striving to legitimize itself and preserve a Chinese identity. So, Confucius was politically embraced. Hundreds of Confucius Institutes promoting soft party propaganda spawned throughout the world, Confucius became the most referenced authority in China, and the CCP kept liberal democracy’s influence at bay while simultaneously replacing revolutionary communism as the collective ideology.
But does Confucius defend the CCP’s authority in the conflict with Hong Kong? To begin uncovering the answer, we must inspect Confucianism at a deeper level.
First, most of the literature depicts Confucianism as a social theory that molds individuals into group-oriented and socially dependent beings. Individuals achieve their humanity through interacting with others in prescribed norms. If one fails to do so, others are not required to honor their responsibility toward the individual. What differentiates Confucian collectivism from other forms of collectivism is the ethical norms engrained in five cardinal relationships: ruler and ruled, father and son, husband and wife, between brothers, and between friends. The relationship between the ruler and ruled serves as the foundation for all virtue, specifically loyalty and piety, which, in turn, defines all human relations. If protesters encourage disloyalty and create hostility between subjects and ruler, there must be no right of resistance in a Confucius framework. Ultimately, these disturbances erode the bedrock of virtue, harming the protesters’ humanity.
However, people must not be merely tools of the state. This reduces individuals into tools, depriving society of personal wisdom and counsel. Moreover, if “Heaven loves the people; and the Sovereign must obey Heaven,” then the government is legitimate only if it is ethical. Heaven and the Way require that all people be treated with humanness and dignity — the foundation of human rights. Western values, especially those found in Locke and Rousseau, echo Confucius here. But Confucius takes the idea even farther because, if heaven is disobeyed and the relationships between rulers and rules are corrupted, then the entire bedrock of virtue crumbles.
Given the people’s experiences in Hong Kong, it would seem that the state is failing in this area. According to protesters, the courts cheat, the police beat, and the Supreme People’s Procuratorate ensures that no recourse remains for aggrieved individuals. If the protesters are to be believed, then Confucius is a dangerous authority because, according to him, the party condemns itself by its treatment of Chinese citizens.
Secondly, the right of resistance depends on the assumptions of human nature. According to Locke, a person’s natural state is reasonable and free. One agrees to join a social contract to protect their original rights as individuals. This is not true for Confucius. For him, society exists to cultivate persons into moral individuals, not merely to protect original rights. While Western societies struggle for rights to achieve a fuller individual potential, Chinese societies struggle for relational constructions and affectionate ties. Thus, a protester’s economic and political demands are not as important as maintaining societal relationships. The act of protest arguably ruins them. Once again, Confucius seems to discourage protesters by forbidding the prioritization of rights over relationships.
However, a disproportionate esteem for keeping relational ties at all costs creates diseased relationships. In his natural state, man’s desires and needs are rough, but not wrong, and require properly channeled relationships to fulfill their purposes. Twisted channels must be straightened. Thus, the Hong Kong protesters might have a lighter philosophical burden. If they can prove that their demands value right relational order, or that the CCP is destroying healthy harmony in Hong Kong, then Confucianism would work against the party.
No matter how current events, Confucius clearly cannot be used to blindly support authoritarianism based on hierarchical harmony and virtue. The CCP might pick and choose supporting arguments, but Confucius advocated for much more than political power. We would, in both the East and West, do well to remember that legitimate power should be ethical and that resistance narratives differ depending on the philosophical bedrock from which they are carved.