The Confucian Return in an Age of Extremes

The tenth anniversary of the establishment of the global network of Confucius Institutes was celebrated in China with a letter of congratulations from China’s CoE (Chairman of Everything) Xi Jinping, a conference in the Chinese capital organised as part of the Hanban Open Day, and official editorials and opinion pieces claiming that it was time ‘to invite Confucius back’ 把孔子请回来. (Confucius has, in reality, been back in Chinese life since the 1980s.)

On 28 September, the birth of the Master some 2565 years ago, was marked with ceremonies throughout the Chinese world. Even the Global Times had been clamouring for the pre-Qin philosopher to be ‘brought back from exile‘ since early in the year. This time around, however, it wasn’t the feudal Confucius decried during the May Fourth period of a century ago, the state Confucianism that supported patriarchal oppression and autocracy, but a Confucianism mellowed by the ‘core socialist values‘ of today’s Communist Party. Some wags referred to remarks made by Mao Zedong to his nephew Mao Yuanxin in the 1960s to the effect that the Party was facing its End of Days when it felt it had little choice but to retrieve the discredited traditions of Confucius and his followers (毛泽东在和毛远新谈话时说:你看看历代,革命的时候都是对从批孔开始,等到他掌权的时候,都要把他请回来,干什么呢?把他作为对人民统治的思想专制的工具……。我们共产党人,是从批孔起家的,但是我们决不能走前面他们的路,批了再尊,等到我们为了巩固自己的地位再把孔子的思想来与老百姓的思想时,落入历史的一种循环,这是不行的。如果共产党也到了自己没法统治或者遇到难处了,也要把孔子请回来,说明你也快完了。参见:乌有之乡刊载的访问毛远新:《如果再请回孔子 说明共产党快完蛋了》).

Confucius has been a feature of the ‘China Dream’ era under Xi Jinping, but it is striking that, at the time of the Confucian clamour in Beijing, a teacher in the Chinese capital noted for his moderation was sentenced to a lifetime in prison on charges of subverting the state. Tragically, given the long shadow of Confucian respect for knowledge and teachers, some of his students played a role in their mentor’s cruel downfall (see ‘温和学者’还是分裂分子?)

David Brophy is a specialist in the social and political history of China’s northwest, particularly Xinjiang, and its connections with the Islamic and Russian/Soviet worlds. A former post-doctoral fellow with the Australian Centre on China in the World, he is now a lecturer at the University of Sydney. He has recently finished a book on the politics of Uyghur nationalism between Xinjiang and the Soviet Union in the early twentieth century.—The Editors


In Uyghur, the name Ilham means ‘inspiration’. The Uyghur professor of economics Ilham Tohti has indeed been an inspiration — to his students and friends in China, and to many around the world with an interest in a peaceful resolution to the conflict in China’s far western region of Xinjiang. But now, convicted of trumped-up accusations of separatism and facing a life sentence in prison, China’s president Xi Jinping is presumably hoping that this particular inspiration has come to an end.

Someone like him? Someone so moderate? So supportive of engagement with the Chinese and Chinese politics? That’s the response that many have had to the sentence handed down on Tuesday 23 September to Ilham Tohti, a Communist Party member who lectured to his students in Beijing in fluent Chinese, and seemed to be saying all the right things. While many Uyghurs hoped for some saviour from on high to deliver them from the Communist Party — be it the Soviet Union, Turkey, or the US, Ilham insisted, as did the Party, that this was a problem for China to solve itself.

Even if we accept China’s claims to be waging a ‘war on terror’ in Xinjiang, it’s hard to make this brutal punishment fit into any kind of anti-terrorist strategy. Indeed, it’s unlikely that Ilham’s jailing will have any impact on those few desperados actually fighting for Uyghur independence in the far west. Ilham had a loyal following among his students, and among Uyghur human rights activists in the diaspora, but to those wedded to Xinjiang’s traditions of nationalist or Islamic militancy, he was already far too embedded in the Chinese party-state system to serve as much of an inspiration. If anything, sending Ilham to prison will only strengthen the hand of those agitating for armed resistance in Xinjiang, by demonstrably quashing hopes for dialogue with the party-state.

Ilham’s home institution, the Central Minzu (Minorities) University, is an old cadre-training school, through which many of China’s ethnic minority political elite have passed. It was a place that Uyghur students once found liberating, at least in comparison with the constrained climate of Xinjiang’s own tertiary institutions, where loyalties were policed more closely. It was a place where students could acquire the trappings of an intellectual — one of the few positions of status available to ethnic minorities in China — but also the realpolitik and savvy required to work within the Chinese-dominated system. If any Uyghurs in China were likely to gain the credibility required to serve as a bridge between Beijing and the Uyghurs, they were those studying with Ilham. Yet the round-up has claimed a number of his students too. China already struggles to put a convincing Uyghur face on its Xinjiang policy, and this will only make it more difficult.

What, then, is the Party thinking? How does it benefit from this? It seems that the real goal here is not so much silencing the Uyghurs, or suppressing the recent groundswell of violent attacks in Xinjiang, but scaring off the Chinese who have begun to take an interest in the Xinjiang question — thanks largely to figures like Ilham.

With a few exceptions, Chinese dissidents have historically shown little interest in commenting on affairs in Xinjiang and Tibet. They have mostly accepted the Party’s framing of the issue as one of defending the nation’s sovereignty against misguided ethno-nationalists in league with foreign anti-Chinese forces. In China, as in Australia, Islamophobia also plays a part in isolating Muslims from the wider community.

But Ilham did not fit the stereotyped profile of a splittist. He spoke about fulfilling the terms of the Chinese constitution, of university graduates struggling to find jobs, and the distribution of resources between local and national interests. He took seriously Chairman Mao’s dictum that ‘the national problem is in essence a question of class conflict’, and warned that breakneck development policies were creating a disenfranchised Uyghur underclass in Xinjiang. These were concerns that were possible for many Chinese to grasp, and sympathise with.

The real threat to the Communist Party is not that Uyghurs will succeed in splitting Xinjiang from China, but that they will increasingly find allies among Chinese who haven’t bought into Xi Jinping’s China Dream. Stopping Ilham is about stopping that.