Daniel Bell: What would Confucius make of free speech in the internet age?

Confucianism’s defence of political speech does not necessarily apply to other forms of expression, says Bell.

In this interview, Daniel Bell, professor of ethics and political philosophy and director of the Centre for International and Comparative Political Philosophy at Tsinghua University in Beijing, explains that the Analects by Confucius contains a passage defending political speech to ensure government is held to account. This privilege, he adds, doesn’t necessarily extend to other forms of expression. On Principle 3, Bell says that as societies with a Confucianism culture would adopt a more paternalistic model of the media, as a result, they would most likely prioritise funding and resources for media that would do less well in a free market such as those reporting on the interests of future generations.

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Comments (3)

Automated machine translations are provided by Google Translate. They should give you a rough idea of what the contributor has said, but cannot be relied on to give an accurate, nuanced translation. Please read them with this in mind.

  1. This is a very interesting interview. According to Bell not everyone in China is entitled to make use of the principle to criticize the government though. I would thus argue that Confucianism, which can be best summarized as a concept of “know thy place”, fundamentally differs from Western principles?

  2. Chinese philosophy is an inherent characteristic of the Chinese society and in order to understand its functioning it is essential to understand the former. Each aspect of the current society shows aspects of the past, which is slowly recovering after the brutalities of the Cultural Revolution. The Chinese ethos is founded on a research for balance and harmony, which can be observed in behaviours, customs and daily habits. Chinese values are founded on Confucius school of though, Legalism and Daoism. Chinese values have to be born in mind if a westerner wants to establish partnerships or start a business in China. The milestones of the Chinese values are: community before the individual, Guanxi, hierarchy, harmony, Confucianism, Renqing and Mianci.
    What is charming about the Chinese philosophy is how it is extremely elitist and how this concept has evolved during the communist era, leading to a more communitarian approach.
    What has interested me the most is how Chinese philosophy expresses its self and how it can lead to the fulfilment of human potentials. It gave further proof to my belief in the existence of potential, which can be maximized thanks to education and critical thinking. Those elements are the basis to make an individual independent and autonomous within a given society. Chinese philosophy is a great experience of wisdom and subtle reasoning; it is not for everyone, but it is for the ones that can read between the lines and find new meaning. Confucius aphorisms are really short and direct but the meaning beyond are unlimited and up to the reader’s potentials and aspirations. Nevertheless, I have to admit that I will never be able to fully understand Chinese philosophy due to my lack of knowledge of the Chinese language. While translating philosophical pieces most of the content is lost in translation, lacking of the original ethos. For this reason my analysis is still superficial and soaked of western values and pre-concepts.

    Recently I have started doubting the foundations of the western civilization and especially democracy. During the lecture at Fudan University I did not solve my interrogatives but the lecturer gave me good cues, which may contribute to construct better my reflections. China is a rampant example of how democracy is not the best political system and how development can coexist with totalitarian control of the population. Firstly it is vital to consider the foundation of the Chinese philosophical writing and how it subtly suggests that not every individual has a role in the political order. Accordingly, bright people do not need a systematic explanation of concept but they can, thanks to their intelligence, fill the gaps and understand what is beyond the material representation of the words. Implicitly this concept suggests that not everyone is prone to understand and achieve a better understanding of knowledge. Consequently, this theory can be translated to the sharing of power and how just a limited elite has the capabilities to go beyond the meanings and understand what is the good for the community. As far as I am concerned democracy is not the best system because people are ignorant and they do not know how to vote. It takes time to make your mind and decide wisely. Additionally, a strict number of representative, wise and experienced are able to take faster and more efficient choices, promoting a healthy functioning of the state bureaucracy. Therefore, humans are irrational, driven by primeval instincts, but they exist at different levels of irrationality, where knowledge and experience makes them less irrational. Nevertheless, the Chinese political system is not totally undemocratic but it suggests a different model of democracy, which differ form the western prototype: democracy sans elections. Therefore, this model excludes the majority of the population from decision-making limiting it to an intellectual elite.
    Consequently it has to be considered the concept of rationality and limitation of knowledge. If we assume that knowledge is limited, because not human, how can elites be more able to decode the complexities of the world? According to Confucius the people in power should be the brightest ones and the system should be founded on meritocracy. A person social position is not granted but it is continuously challenged in order to produce a better society. Those concepts promote the establishment of a constructive and healthy political system, where the elites are not motivated by self-interests but they act in the name of the community.

    • This rely amazed me a lot.

      As a real Chinese, I never think the political and social structure of modern China is bad enough. In fact, it has positive affects once in a while. The reason why we consider it as an awful matter is that we spend all over life in proving the ratinality of the system regulations.

      To find out a balance is urgently needed and definetely we accompanied with people from the whole world still have a long distance to look for the best choice.

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Free Speech Debate is a research project of the Dahrendorf Programme for the Study of Freedom at St Antony's College in the University of Oxford. www.freespeechdebate.ox.ac.uk

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