Written By Jiawen Ai.

On 11 January 2011, a statue of Confucius was unveiled on the east side of Tiananmen Square. The 9.5-meter bronze sculpture depicted a robed Confucius with a serious expression, facing in the direction of Mao’s portrait. It seems that the central government did not announce any news of this sculpture until it was unveiled. Before the construction of the statue, there was no public debate or open governmental discussion of it, nor was there any news released to the Chinese media.

Confucius and Mao stood face-to-face. The confrontation between the two conflicting ideologies — Confucianism and Marxism–Maoism — aroused criticism of the statue of Confucius. One criticism of the construction was that any admiration for Confucius went against previous Communist policy. The history of criticising Confucius which had been a feature of the 1911 revolution was continued by the Communist party-state after its establishment in 1949. A contemporary appreciation looks odd since it is not compatible with previous policies on Confucius.

The appreciation of Confucius did not accord with the principles of Marxism–Maoism either. For Mao, Confucius was part of “selecting the essence and discarding the dross”, as discussed in his article entitled “On New Democracy” in 1940. This policy had been embraced by Mao’s successors, including Deng Xiaoping, Jiang Zemin, Hu Jintao and Xi Jinping. Though Deng manifest a positive attitude towards Confucius, the policy of “selecting the essence and discarding the dross” was still the guiding principle behind the party policy on Confucius. Any appreciation of Confucius by the contemporary regime seemingly went against this principle.

On 15 March 2011 the statue was removed from Tiananmen Square, suddenly and mysteriously in the space of one night. According to a newspaper report, a spokesman of the National Museum of China, Tian Shanting, said that he did not know what had happened, and sculptor Wu Weishan and city officials would not comment. Some said the statue had been moved inside the museum.

The government did not provide any reason for this removal just as they had not for its construction. The sudden appearance and disappearance of the statue of Confucius caused a buzz of public speculation. According to a newspaper report, Chen Lai, a Confucius scholar at Tsinghua University, speculated that the Central Party had opposed having the statue on the square. Kong Weidong of the International Confucius Descendants Reunion Association, a 75th-generation descendant, said official Marxist–Maoists were behind the removal.

From the mystery of the appearance and disappearance of a statue of Confucius in Tiananmen Square, it is clear that the contemporary Communist regime has a skeptical attitude towards Confucius and Confucianism. Since the 1980s the party had been interested in Confucianism. Several journalists and scholars have already dealt with the party-state’s interest in Confucianism. Officially, the legitimacy of the party-state is Marxism–Maoism. Marxism–Maoism is therefore the key starting point for examining the Communist party-state’s attitude towards the dispute over Confucianism and Marxism–Maoism. It is true that the Communist Party-state no longer emphasises class struggle, hatred of the rich, or opposition to private property. In fact, capitalists can now join the Communist Party and the legal system is being reformed so that it now more closely approximates that of capitalist countries. Chinese officials and scholars rarely talk about Communism and hardly anybody really believes that Marxism should provide the guidelines for thinking about China’s political future. The ideology itself has been so discredited through misuse that it has lost almost all legitimacy. In reality, even the “Communist” government does not allow itself to be confined by Marxist theory if that theory conflicts with the imperative to remain in power and to provide stability and order. As a result, there is a felt need for Chinese traditions, and essentially Confucianism, in Chinese politics. There is no felt need for the party-state to abandon its commitment to Marxism–Maoism as its long-term goal so long as it recognises that poor countries must go through a capitalist stage on the way to that end.

In discourses on the political use of Confucius some of the most official Marxists, such as Fang Keli, Li Jinquan, Li Cunshan, Shi Zhonglian, Song Zhiming and Qiao Qingju, have gone so far as to propose that Marxism should be sinicised by incorporating elements of Confucianism. Through a process of negotiation and renegotiation with Chinese Confucians and liberalists, and in a constantly changing social and political environment, official Marxists in mainland China are able to present a tailor-made Confucianism to their Chinese audience. The party-state seems to find this tailor-made version of Confucianism attractive as a means to legitimise its authoritarian rule and promote a market-oriented economy.

However, the use of Confucianism does not mean that the party-state is blind to the ideological thrust of the political agendas of Confucians and liberalists. Nor is it unaware that Confucianism could lead the nation away from Marxism–Maoism. It warns against a dialogue between Marxism–Maoism and Confucianism, forcefully reminding their official Marxist colleagues of the risk of Confucianism eroding Marxism–Maoism.

The biggest danger with Confucianism, official Marxists argue, is “its negation of Marxism and its attempt to revive Confucian capitalism”. More importantly, they emphasise that Confucianism, as an “unenlightened and feudal” ideology, needs to be studied and modified within the boundaries of the “four cardinal principles” and under the “principles of Marxism, Leninism and Mao Zedong Thought”. Given the manipulation of Confucius by the party-state, it is no wonder that there is “little evidence of a sustained or robust philosophical creativity in Confucianism philosophy”.

At the moment, the future of Confucianism is wide open. Given the party’s interests, there might be at least two alternative outcomes. First, with the growing use of Confucius and his teachings, Confucianism might be manipulated by the party-state for a legalisation purpose. In this case, a dying Marxism–Maoism, equipped with Confucianism, would be more legitimate than Marxism–Maoism alone. Second, Confucianism might get rid of the control of the party-state and influence Chinese politics in its own might. Then the legitimacy of the party-state would be radically challenged by this native and influential political ideology. Confucianism might then have the chance to gain in strength and become an independent political ideology. However, it would face the challenge that the world is evolving towards modernity. Whether it has the capacity to do this is open to question.

Jiawen Ai has taught at the University of Melbourne, Deakin University and La Trobe University. She is the author of “Politics and Traditional Culture: the political use of traditions in contemporary China” (Singapore, World Scientific, 2014). Image Credit: CC by Rob Web/Flickr.