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Kit-Chun Joanna Lam says that a “basic challenge facing modern Confucians is how Confucianism is going to respond to a moral evil of the knowledge economy—the growing economic disparities among different countries and among different groups in the same country.” It has been apparent for some time now, and there is much evidence to conclude that “inequalities are growing in knowledge economies.1” Income inequality is rising both within and between nations in the international community. Confucianism and Capitalism both continue to exist as major contemporary world ideologies. However, Confucian principles may need to be explained for many western readers who may be unfamiliar with Confucian ideology. The philosophical problem that exists involves identifying how, or if, these two ideologies might potentially face-off against one another. How can contemporary Capitalist ethics work in the face of a much older Confucian style of ethics? Can these two ideologies co-exist for much longer with a rising Asian presence in the world economic order? Many Confucian practices, as anyone travelling Asia or spending time in an Asian culture extensively would realize, are still very apparent in modern Asian societies. For instance, the idea of the group takes precedence over the idea of the individual, i.e. Individuals serve the needs of the group first and themselves as individuals only if it does no harm to the group. In order to make this cross-ideological comparison, I will attempt to provide a working definition of contemporary Capitalism; highlighting the inequalities of wealth distribution that occur within this system. I will also attempt to demonstrate how the current Capitalist system is fundamentally anti-Confucian in its very nature. I posit that changes would need to be made to Capitalism if Confucian values are to be upheld; but, that such a change would result in something fundamentally unCapitalistic. First, I will provide an overview of some of the main tenets held by both Confucians and Capitalists. Where I see possible conflict between these two ideologies, I will attempt to highlight it in order to critically analyze the contemporary situation within the contemporary Capitalist global economy.

Before I attempt to describe Capitalism as it exists today, I feel it is necessary to introduce Confucianism in a more broad and general sense; and also in a more case specific sense. Most westerners are increasingly familiar with the tenets of capitalism and its problems. For instance, it has become a rather astonishing fact of Capitalism that roughly 80% of the worlds wealth and resources are found in the hands of merely 20% of the worlds population.2 However, it is much less the case that westerners understand what is meant by Confucianism. Since this paper pertains to both issues, introducing Confucianism works best at the beginning in order to avoid any possible confusion any reader unfamiliar to the topic may have.

Confucianism, in a general sense, is designed as a sort of guide to a socially harmonious society. While it stresses a socially patriarchal hierarchy (the state is the head of everyone, the man or the master is the head of the household), an idea that many western countries have fought to rid society of, the purpose is clear in Confucianism: It is about establishing a certain set of norms to abide by in the pursuit of a society free from social chaos. Following tradition; understanding one’s place in society; understanding that the individual exists in, and has a responsibility to, the group; and a strict set of moral values and virtue ethics, are the core foundations of Confucianism. While this general explanation might appear to be slightly compatible with some western idealism, the west tends more to view the individual as a powerful, autonomous, and independent entity who works for the betterment of him or herself. The west, to a much lesser degree, stresses the importance of social unity and duty to the group; and, instead, stresses the importance of the individual. This idea will be revisited in more depth in the pages to come. For now, differences will be set aside in order to further expose Confucian idealism.

The introduction of several Confucian terms will help to establish a further understanding of the topic at hand. After I introduce several important Confucian terms, I will attempt to illuminate where there may be contrast with contemporary Capitalist ideals, the reader may have already noticed where contrast is apparent (and possibly problematic) between Capitalism and Confucianism. The following list of terms is incomplete for a full examination of Confucianism; however, once each term has been explained with primary textual reference, it will provide a grounding enough for a general understanding of key ideas espoused within Confucian philosophy. The terms that will be introduced are: Dao, Tian, Ren, Xin, Li, and De. Once these terms have been introduced, I will provide a working definition of Capitalism and compare the two ideologies at that time. Introducing these terms should provide sufficient grounds to base a comparison of the differences in values held between Capitalists and Confucians.

Dao is perhaps one the oldest concepts in recorded history. It is intended to mean the “the Way”. This “Way” is the path on which one leads his or her life. This path is a culturally conditioned “proper” way to live life and go about one’s affairs. While the path is a sort of culturally produced way of travelling through life, it is also about the path that the individual walks. It is “the Way” the person chooses to live. As Dao is explained by Ames and Rosemont, “to realize the dao is to experience, to interpret, and to influence the world in such a way as to reinforce and extend the way of life inherited from one’s cultural predecessors. This way of living in the world then provides a road map and direction for one’s cultural successors.3” It is about a constant effort to live up to cultural ideals; as well as it is about trying to create new cultural ideals. A most fitting example of dao from the Analects of Confucius reads: “The Master said, “People who have chosen different ways (dao) cannot make plans together.”4 By this logic, Confucius himself says that Capitalism and Confucianism, since they follow different dao, are incompatible. We will revisit this idea in the final comparison of Capitalism and Confucianism. For now, the other terms need to be explained.

Ren (Authoritative conduct) is about acting in accordance with, and valuing, other human beings. Ren is about realizing that one should act in a way that is best for society. Acting in a way that is best for society is living in accordance with nature or the heavens (Tian) (This notion of heaven is more akin to harmony in nature than to the Judeo-Christian conception of heaven).Living with authoritative conduct means realizing that the self involves the recognition of other human beings; and acting for the benefit of the whole rather than merely acting alone for the individual. The self is dependant upon other people. A harmonious community or a community that follows Tian is one in which individuals realize that they are required to act in accordance with the community that they belong to. This is authoritative conduct and how it relates to Tian. In a major regard, Ren is about acting according to societal customs, morals and a shared code of ethics (li). For instance, Analects 2.1 demonstrates that Ren is about acting morally towards other people: “As for filial and fraternal responsibility, it is, the root of authoritative conduct.” In other words, authoritative conduct comes from realizing the responsibility of the “self” toward other people. While Ren is a somewhat recognized philosophy in the western world, cold war rhetoric did much to tarnish this philosophical standpoint. Such thinking immediately strikes up anti-Communist sentiment in many westerners to this day; an idea that will be revisited.

The next Confucian term that needs to be defined is Xin. Xin is most closely translated as heart and mind. To act with Xin might make sense as acting with compassion. A saying that comes to mind form the Judeo-Christian tradition is: ‘Treat your neighbour as you would like to be treated”. For the most part, the Analects says of Xin that it is about not going back on one’s word; it is about honouring agreements, and following through on promises to others. Confucius says in Analects 17.6, “if you make good on your word, others will rely upon you.” In order for any kind of social harmony to occur, Xin is required of people. Without Xin social chaos would very likely ensue.

Confucian ritual propriety (li) means conducting ones state of affairs in accordance with ritual and custom. In some regard, social harmony and social cohesion requires people to act according to established customs and shared ways of behaving. It is about behaving morally but also about behaving in a way that is considered proper in society. Li are sets of customary values in personal conduct that can be found in all sorts of acts like waiting for the head of the household to begin eating first; or something as simple as holding the door open for someone. Li is about practising good values and respecting others in society (even respect for the deceased is considered ritual propriety). Li is about conducting oneself in a well mannered way.

The last Confucian term that I wish to acknowledge in this paper is de. De is best translated as virtue. Virtue can be understood as acting to the best of ones ability. Since Confucianism stresses that people attempt to live according to all of the terms that I have introduced, a truly virtuous person would attempt to live according to all of these Confucian principles; not merely some of them. A quote that relates to de (as well as Capitalist ethic to a degree) is expressed when Confucius says in Analects 12.21: “Get only once you have given—is this not accumulating excellence?” My ideal form of Capitalism would see this as a statement of truth about Capitalism. However, in so many cases, Capitalism is about profit seeking: Capitalism, it often seems, is about getting the most profit for the least amount of effort. Capitalism according to de, would involve giving something in order to obtain something. The accumulation of wealth, unfortunately, all too often involves exploitative means of wealth appropriation.

Capitalism involves a different sort of ethic than Confucianism. In order to highlight this difference in ethic, I will revisit each of the six Confucian terms introduced and place them in light of Capitalism. In so doing, I hope to both establish a critical view of Capitalism; and to demonstrate how the two ideologies differ. Along the way, I will highlight how Capitalism would have to change in order to allow Confucianism to flourish. Unfortunately, the result will look less like Capitalism than Communism; an ideology hugely destroyed by the Cold War. Perhaps, the harmonious society sought by Confucianism cannot exist with Capitalism in the mix.

When speaking of the dao, Confucius said: “People who have chosen different ways (dao) cannot make plans together.” The dao that Capitalists have walked is different than the dao that Confucians have walked. By the logic of Confucius, people following Capitalist ideology cannot work with people who follow Confucian ideology. In fact, the result of following Capitalism is a completely different world view. Capitalists are profit seeking. The individual is the measure of his or her own success. The Capitalist system is not so much about about the success of everyone as it is about the success of the few over the many. To illustrate this point I can refer back to the fact that one-fifth of the world’s population holds four-fifths of the world’s wealth. Confucians would view this kind of lifestyle as greedy. In Capitalism, there appears to be a lack of moral servitude that is found in Confucian authoritative conduct (Ren).

How is it possible, in a system that values individual profit seeking, to act according to authoritative conduct? The answer is that it is not possible. Authoritative conduct, itself, stresses acting for the betterment of the whole of society (rather than merely acting for the individual). An argument can be made from the Capitalist perspective that acting for what is best for the individual is acting for what is best for society. However, this argument easily falls apart once put to scrutiny. If the result of Capitalism is starving masses and a gluttonous few, there is no sense of authoritative conduct within the system. Acting for the individual results in social disharmony. The dao of Capitalism, in this regard, does not follow Tian.

Xin is about acting for others and living up to one’s word. It is about respecting people that you come into contact with and make agreements with. There is a certain social contract that people enter into when a society is formed. Societies are formed so that life isn’t, as Thomas Hobbes says in Leviathan, “Nasty, brutish, and short.” But life is still nasty, brutish, and short for many in society; especially if the social contract that is made results in massive social inequality. Tell one of the many who live in dire poverty under the Capitalist social contract that life is not nasty, brutish, and short; the stark reality is just the opposite for this large group. It is rather common knowledge that people who live in poverty situations suffer and die young because of it. Looking out for the best interests of the many is not a part of the Capitalist mentality. For Capitalists, living up to one’s word is about accepting the harsh realities of wage labour: The owners, and the owned. The social contract is meant to ensure that life isn’t nasty, brutish and short: Ensuring that for people in society is what Xin regards. If the many are not looked after in the Capitalist social contract because they live on less than a sustainable income, then no social contract of any inherent value is being lived up to. In order for Capitalism to exist in accordance with Xin, wealth needs to be distributed much more evenly throughout society.

The Li found in the Capitalist society is one that honours profit seeking. What of honouring one another as human beings? What of taking care of the needy? A few wealthy philanthropists and taxation for social programs still does not seem to function according to honouring the well being of all. It appears that the Li of the Capitalist dao, is respecting acts of imperialism in the name of personal profit seeking. Not only is this type of ethic anti-Confucian, it is morally reprehensible.

The last point of comparison is one that I wish to spend considerably more time on. Moral excellence is something that the western Capitalist world is not entirely foreign to. Virtue ethics is found throughout the western world from Plato, to Aristotle to modern day scholarship. Confucian moral excellence (de), however, is unique from contemporary Capitalist ethics. As I mentioned earlier on, my ideal form of Capitalism would see accumulating wealth in a measure sustainable for society’s social harmony. In fact, if Capitalism were to be guided, not by an “invisible hand” as Adam Smith would wish, but by a Confucian ethic of social responsibility, the world would be on a more harmonious path. An economics based on global financial sustainability for global society as a whole would mean looking after humanity. Globally, following the dao, we would be more in tune, so to speak, with Tian. 

While Capitalism, in the form that it exists now, eventually leads to imperialism (as V.I Lenin articulated in Imperialism: The Highest Stage of Capitalism) the goal of Capitalism could be set within limits to allow for a globally sustainable and morally virtuous world economy. Why is it that there is not a wage cap of wealth accumulation? No human needs billions of dollars. It is an unfortunate aspect of human existence that the stronger often brutalize the weaker in war for personal economic gain. While it often appears that even imperialism is what is best for a nation, often only a select few reap the most benefits. After all, as I’ve now twice mentioned, 80% of the worlds wealth and resources rests in the hands of roughly 20% of the population. Capitalism has lead to an income inequality gap that leaves millions starving while it leaves a small group of others like Bill Gates. Is this de? No. Is this following Tian? No. Is this in line with an ethic that concerns humanity or an ethic the serves greed?

Capitalism is not the same as Confucianism. By Confucian standards in fact, Capitalism is a path toward social disharmony. But much of the world still lives by Confucian ethics. Many societies throughout the world aim at working for the group. Most Asian families work for the whole group. For instance, if a friend or family member has no money, the friends with money treat them to the festivities that they all attend. In some Japanese companies, if times are tough companies will take on losses to ensure that employees are not let go. It is seldom if ever the case in the western world.

In the face of Capitalism, which rewards some at the expense of others, Confucianism may lose ground to serve those who wish to gain. Many modes of socialization, such as the mass media, is owned by the most wealthy. The governing class itself, has it’s own best interests in allowing Capitalism to flourish with little restriction. It seems preposterous to assume that those in power would talk badly against a system that rewards them so grandly as individuals. The guns and bombs, the means to socialize the masses, the law, and the world’s resources are in the hands of the wealthy. It is unlikely that those who are pampered by this system would give it up for the betterment of the many.

Unless the world’s majority fights for one another, the Capitalist ethic that harms them will likely continue to flourish. Social Harmony, however, in the Confucian sense will never take form with the Capitalist ethic as the dominant economic paradigm.

1Kit-Chun Joanna Lam. Business Ethics in the Global Knowledge Economy. Journal of Business Ethics. Vol. 43, No. 1/2, March, 2003. 160.

2See Pareto’s principle.

3–. The Analects of Confucius. Trans. By Roger T. Ames & Henry Rosemont, Jr. (New York: Ballentine Books, 1998)

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Life is almost entirely about deliberation. The choices that we make in each moment affect the choices that we can make in the future; they affect the choices that others make. What I do now is almost inextricably linked to the choices I have made in the past. My choices were put before me not merely by my own accord, but also by the choices and actions of others in this world. I am as much a product of my own deliberation as I am a product of circumstances created outside of my own deliberation; I am a product and a producer. I will revisit these ideas shortly. First, I would like to tell a story about the world and my conscious and unconscious actions within it.

I have a deep appreciation for diversity. Diversity is color. Diversity is plenitude of experience as opposed to one experience. I could constantly see blackness and all that I would experience would be a kind of blind existence. I could constantly see white with similar result. It is only when the kaleidoscope of colors unfolds before me that I can distinguish all of the various shades in between; between the extreme opposites of  black and white.  Diversity is worth fighting for.  Being able to choose a favorite color from the existing colors is in every regard superior to being fated to an existence without free choice.

In this world, East and West are as extreme as the opposition of black to white. Knowing both directions, reveals various shades of existence; it reveals subtle cultural nuances; East and West together reveal the subtleties of human nature; the varying modes of human action; and the otherwise unviewable truths of human potentiality. China and Canada together reveal this East/West divide more than any other two countries I have spent considerable time in. But, we are all still human. The Orient and the Occident really are different; but not so different that we cannot know or understand one another.

There is a whole world of difference between our ways of being. Our ways of governing and our ways of acting and reacting to situations is different. We can line up in neat ques a mile long; or we can fight for our place at the front of the line. We can act as if there is only one mind among many; or we can act as there are many minds directed at individual pursuits. We can eat with chopsticks; or we can eat with a fork and knife.  We can eat off of our own plate; or we can share the same plate with many. Our ways of acting and deliberating are diverse. Our cultures are unique.

Since we share this planet, and since the East and West need to know each other as black knows white and up knows down, my deliberations find me both consciously and unconsciously enamoured with the possibility of having a life in both countries: One life in Canada; and another life in China.

Our countries together will decide the fate of this world that we find ourselves in. It is integral that some people know both worlds in order for us all to recognize the importance of diversity. I do not want to exist in a world of mono-culture. Westernizing or Easternizing the world, or choosing only one shade rather than all the colors between opposite shades, will not do diversity any justice.

Many have asked me recently, why I am so drawn to a country like China. My answer to this is that it is partly by my own choice to choose a color that I like in this world; and it is partly because of the difference in the Chinese way of life, their people, their society, their different way of being and existing that appeals to my innate desire for diversity. I want, more than anything, to be exposed to as many shades as the extremes present between East and West can offer; knowing our similarities and our differences is so valuable to understanding the nature of being human. I would like the freedom to deliberate about my existence from the vastest shades available to me in this world; shades brought to this world by deliberation not of my own but of a culture and a people so different (and yet so similar) from the shade I find beneath the great Canadian Maple.

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When I was younger I liked to write a lot of poetry. I don’t find the time to do this anymore. I am just about to graduate from university and I have decided that one of my options is to move back to China for a couple more years and teach. I’ve been looking through old journals that I wrote when I was living there almost a decade ago. I’ve been trying to remember what it was like to live in a foreign land. The memories flush over me as I sift through the pages of journals full of travel poetry and random ideas that I had almost all but forgotten. This one poem jumped out at me and I would like to share it with you in this blog posting. It is partially a concrete poem; meant to be symbolic of the winding railroad tracks; and the slopes of tea out the window; and the inside of the train car. It is a glimpse into a third class seat aboard a train crossing China. I took the cheap seats to see what it would be like. It took me almost three days to get from northwest China to southwest China. Here is a .pdf copy of what I wrote in my journal:

China Train Car

I also found a video that reminds me of what it is like riding third class on a train in China. Check it out:

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A stronger Chinese currency (RenMinBi (RMB) or Yuan to which it is also referred) would change the world as we know it. The US has long been trying to persuade the Chinese to increase the value of their currency with very little success. If the RMB were to rise drastically in value (becoming closer to the US currency in value), the cheap consumer goods that the world purchases from China would cost more. This would have several possible effects: we may pay more for our goods here; our goods would compete more with Chinese goods on the international and domestic markets and within China itself; some other country, besides China, with a lower currency would more than likely attract massive foreign investments; China’s growth would effectively slow due to disinvestment in favour of a country with a lower currency (perhaps Mexico???) leaving the US in its position as the sole global superpower;  China’s US foreign currency reserves would be less valuable in relative terms…etc., etc. The list of changes that could ensue is long.

Since most of these scenarios puts the US at an advantage over China, and since the losses would outweigh the gains for China, it is likely that the Chinese will not increase their currency very much; if at all.

The US is now looking to Brazil to support them in their demand that China increase the value of the RMB; Brazil would also likely serve to gain with an increased value in RMB through an increase in Brazilian exports. While having other countries back the US demand may put more pressure on the Chinese to increase their currency, it is still unlikely that the Chinese will do so.

The US is also unable to drastically lower its own currency value since this could result in many nations dropping the US currency as the stable world currency in favour of another currency like the Euro.

The US is in decline and it needs China to slow down in order to maintain its current position at the top. The latest January/ February 2011 Foreign Policy cover story suggests that the US is on a path of permanent decline. China knows that this is the case and they have demands on the US that the US is unwilling to meet. For example, China has concerns over US military presence throughout the Asia pacific region (most notably in South Korea and Japan; but the Chinese are also concerned about weapons trading between Taiwan and the US). China can continue to rise in power if it holds its currency at its current value. At the same time China knows that it can wait for the US decline to force them out of their military and geo-strategic position in the Asian-Pacific. For all of these reasons, I see it as very unlikely that the Chinese will sabotage their own gains by increasing the value of their currency so that the US can remain as the world superpower.

However, it will become an increasingly important goal of the US to do something about this situation. All we can do is wait and see what that is. It most certainly will not be war with China, and the US will have to be cautious in its approach to avoid diplomatic and trade retaliation from China itself.  How do you think this situation is most likely to play out?

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China is on the rise, there is no question. But many people in the west still view China as a threat; and propaganda campaigns are beginning to appear here to transform negative western sentiments. (Watch MSNBC for the most recent one that aired today). Pro China TV ads that glorify and extol the greatness of China can be used to transform how the west views the Chinese in a favorable light; but it can also have the effect of detracting from perceptions of our own cultural greatness and potential in the process. National pride campaigns beamed to our airwaves from foreign countries, compete with our own national pride campaigns here at home: The media is a powerful tool for creating mass public opinion.

I have demonstrated in a previous post that the real threat comes (not from China, itself but) from how we have chosen to organize our society around valuing consumerism over production and self sufficiency. However, if we are continuously fed media that shows how great China is, is it possible that we will overlook the mistakes we are, ourselves, making to the Chinese advantage? It may be a little far fetched but the issue is worth noting at the very least.

I’m not saying that our nations cannot mutually benefit one another–In fact, we will have to find a way that a win-win situation can, and does, happen into the future; or there could be one ugly war on the horizon. Geopolitics in the Asia-Pacific region is a very sensitive world issue that cannot be ignored for much longer. It is imperative that we view each other in a friendly light. There is no need for hatred, xenophobia, or racism in a civilized society. However, we can, and must not forget that we both must benefit from our relationship in more ways than cheap consumer goods in exchange for a boost to the Chinese economy alone.  China’s rise comes with a whole set of other issues that need to be addressed–economic issues (currency value of both US and Chinese currencies), geopolitical issues (US presence in the Asian-pacific; Korea, Japan, Taiwan etc.), and issues of trade reciprocation (is the west merely going to keep buying without selling back products of it’s own?).

Pro-Chinese propaganda campaigns on our airwaves are a great way to shape public opinion of China in a positive light as they emerge as one of the world’s great nations once again. But, we must be cautious and aware of the world that we live in, our position within it, and how each side serves to gain and to lose in our future partnership.

~Justin Allen Philcox

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For several years now China has been steadily gaining on the U.S. to become a major economic rival. A recent Foreign Policy blog posting by Joshua Keating entitled, “Did China’s Economy overtake the U.S. in 2010” ( http://blog.foreignpolicy.com/posts/2011/01/14/did_chinas_economy_overtake_the_us_in_2010 ) suggests that the Chinese economy overtook the U.S. economy in 2010. This is much earlier than what previous estimates had indicated. One interesting thing that was not mentioned in this article, however, is the growing amount of U.S. debt that China has purchased: China now owns, by some estimates, roughly 8% or near a trillion dollars in US debt; this is the largest single foreign holder of U.S. debt. With these statistics taken into account, it puts China at a major  strategic advantage, economically. The industrial revolution that put the U.S. in it’s position at the top, is the very same industrial revolution that the U.S. (and Canada) has freely given to China. The cheap products we find at Walmarts etc. are the new riches of China; and the specter of the vanished western industrial base. The west is effectively transferring to China, the very economic power base that put it on top in the first place: the industrial revolution. So long as cheaper consumer products are available in China, Western manufacturing bases will vanish one after the other. U.S. gains in cheap consumer goods comes to the detriment of the U.S. as an international powerhouse. What was the major strength of the U.S. economy has, over the past 20 years vanished due to the ideas espoused in Neoliberal/Neoconservative  ideologies and Globalization. Is it too late for the U.S. to reinvent its manufacturing base; or will countries who make the products cheaper like China, Mexico, and India take the lead in the world economy of tomorrow? Chances are, the U.S.’s decline will be long lasting and permanent if they choose not to recognize their grandest mistake. Once these “countries of tomorrow” make their big gains, what is holding their currencies from increasing to meet the U.S. currency in value? Where will the U.S. find its cheap products then? What will U.S. currency look like as their debt continues to grow to feed its hunger for the cheapest goods around?

-Justin Allen Philcox

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