An Unyielding Relic: The Confucian Revival as Shown in Gu Mu’s Autobiography

by Leon Bohan Zhang



Gu Mu: Pioneer of China's Reform and Opening Up, by Gu Mu (Foreign Language Press, 2016).


In September 1984, former Chinese Vice Premier and then incumbent State Councilor Gu Mu was appointed to a rather peculiar position. Often credited as one of the main architects of China's reform and opening-up policy, Gu devoted almost all his life to China's economic development. However, at the age of 70, Gu was named the honorary president of the China Confucian Foundation—an international Confucius study foundation supported by China's governmental special fund to promote Confucianism.

Deng Yingchao, the then chairwoman of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference, the nation’s top political advisory body, explained the rationale behind this appointment, that coming from Shandong province (the philosopher’s hometown), Gu had a "natural affinity to Confucius." But that perhaps was not the only reason. Gu Mu knew that, in addition to the so-called "affinity," his Confucian style of leadership, his "golden middle way" (zhong yong zhi dao), justified his appointment to this special position.

Gu's career transition, along with the Confucian Foundation, marked a critical moment in the evolution of ideology in modern China's history. First, it demonstrated the acceptance of Confucianism by the central government, which was frequently despised during the Cultural Revolution in the 1960s. Second, putting such a senior government official in a leadership position in the institution meant that China in the 1980s no longer saw Confucianism as an obsolete ideology but as an important part of the state apparatus. Lastly, as the foundation continued to grow, Confucianism began to emerge in the state's guiding doctrine, forming what Sinologists called "New Confucianism in China." Confucianism, in short, has enjoyed a renaissance since then.

Although not explicitly stated by the government, Confucianism has become a vital part of China’s contemporary politics, with its values deeply ingrained into the country’s governance, economic development, and education. What confuses people, though, is the rationale behind this revival: why would the Communist Party of China, just a decade after the Confucius-condemning Cultural Revolution, completely change its attitude toward the ideology? Gu’s memoir, an often-ignored piece for the study of modern China’s Confucian revival, provides a fresh perspective.

Having led and been intimately involved in both China’s economic liberalization and Confucianism revitalization, Gu disclosed numerous details about the critical signs of progress, providing us with the opportunity to interpret one key reason for the Confucian revival: the result was somehow an ideological necessity to effectively govern the country during the era of reform and opening up.

In his memoir, Gu highlights the Chinese Communist Party's effort to build a vibrant market economy, to which he devoted almost his entire life. The attempt started as early as the pre-Cultural Revolution era. The 1955 speech made by Mao Zedong, "On the Ten Major Relationships," marked the beginning of the leadership's effort to develop an economy that was different from the Soviet model. According to Gu (the then-deputy head of the State Construction Commission), Mao had made it clear that the party's main goal would be to transition from a focus on class struggles to one on economic development, which would require officials to loosen their control over the economy as well as politics. Following this initiative was a series of progressive political and economic reform policies, including tolerance of new thoughts and decentralization of party power. The final goal, according to Gu, was to establish a well-balanced relationship between the state and enterprises with an emphasis on social and political responsibility for firms. That was very much similar to that of the modern management theory blueprinted by Peter Drucker.

To Gu's surprise, the progressive reform faced major obstacles in terms of implementation. The problem lay within ideological disturbances: as the country continued to liberalize its economy, a revival of rightwing political ideology strongly collided with the leftwing party doctrine. This right-wing faction, motivated by the so-called “corruptive” foreign ideology, had become a powerful political force within the country, challenging the legitimacy of the government. The agitating social atmosphere that followed forced the state to focus on engaging in political struggles, took a heavy toll on Gu's implementation of economic policies. Many well-designed reform plans were crushed by radical political movements and were eventually disrupted. The result of this ideological conflict was unscientific, immature policies that set unrealistic economic goals. The attempt to develop the economy was politicized and led to the “Great Leap Forward” campaign.


Gu and other revolutionaries soon realized that governing China was much harder than defending it at war. As the new regime started to struggle with effective governance, class-struggles were no longer effective means to reach the goal, as ideological conflicts stifled successful economic development. Moreover, a vicious cycle began forming between the country’s ideological system and economic development: liberal economic policies would lead to the rise of right-wing sentiments, and, therefore, a left-wing backlash would follow to resist the liberal policies. Although not explicitly stated, the reformers were very much aware that, to liberalize the Chinese economy, the government had to settle this deadlock.


The ideological dispute escalated after Deng Xiaoping rose to power. Gu became the person at the center of the turmoil. The then Vice-Premier Gu was tasked to be in charge of a large part of China’s open and reform policy, a much bolder and more controversial attempt to liberalize the Chinese economy. Gu had to take the necessary actions to decentralize China’s political power and introduce market elements to the Communist state. This received massive opposition from both within the party and society at large. On one hand, reformers like Deng firmly supported Gu’s policies. On the other hand, orthodox Maoists and Marxist-Leninists believed China would be eroded by corrosive foreign ideologies, like capitalism, if the policies were adopted. In a famous story, a senior party leader visited Shenzhen (the city where Gu first tried his reform policies) and commented that the city had nothing Communist left except the national flag. Gu, facing such harsh criticism, responded that he would not stop until he was beheaded by the conservatives.


It was obvious that the ideological clashes over China’s economic policies had intensified. Although Gu risked his life to defend these measures, it is undeniable that the Mao era problem reemerged: for economic growth, the government had to first resolve internal ideological conflicts. And, as the reform and opening up policies began to show signs of progress, the inflow of new foreign ideas created more aggressive disputes. It was at this point that the China Confucian Foundation was established to promote Confucianism across the nation and the world. Following this move was a series of high-profile governmental campaigns to promote Confucian ideology publicly:

· In 1982, the then General Secretary of the CCP Hu Yaobang ordered the reconstruction of Confucian temples destroyed during the Cultural Revolution.

· In 1984, Deng Yingchao appointed Gu to be the honorary president of the China Confucian Foundation.

· In 1986, the foundation established the academic journal Confucian Studies Quarterly to publish Confucian literature abroad.

These seemingly non-political actions immediately alerted Sinologists. Remarking on the establishment of the Confucian Foundation, Columbia University’s William de Bary argued that it was a direct response to China's opening and was inspired by equally important political-economic and cultural considerations. He argued that China had created "new Confucianism" to defend against external ideological disturbances and maintain political stability while opening up. This bold assertion was only credited decades later by another great Sinologist, Daniel Bell, who similarly argued for the existence of "China's New Confucianism".

In his memoir, as the de facto leader of the foundation, Gu responded: "Many things in Confucianism that feudal ruling classes always used can still be used by the Chinese working class political party." Furthermore, the future generations of supreme party leaders, such as Jiang Zemin, had publicly claimed that the Confucian education he had received when young was an important part of his governance philosophy. Jiang's successor, Hu Jintao, had even incorporated the Confucian concept of constructing a "harmonious society" (he xie she hui) into the state doctrine. It was on the foundation laid by Gu that China’s Confucianism revived. It not only restored its recognition in Chinese society but also took a further step into China’s everyday politics.


Gu’s account revealed that during the process of China’s opening up, Confucianism was a tool used to solve China’s long-haunting ideological confrontation on economic policies. Gu himself was very clear that the main ideological conflict in China was focused on defending vulgar foreign ideologies. His idea, though, was to abandon this defense strategy and build a new ideology that the so-called corruptive forces could not shake. Later in his memoir, Gu acknowledged that the re-study of Confucianism he led served a “utilitarian” purpose of “inheriting our traditional culture” while “building socialism with Chinese characters.” He further argued that, as China continued to open up, it would be important to use this particular strategy to build a “socialist spiritual civilization.” Specifically, he argued that the new ideology for China needed to mix the newly developed Maoism, with foreign Marxist-Leninism, and traditional Confucianism. In other words, Gu believed that Confucianism served an important role in defending the state ideology. This idea was not new: in the 11th and 12th centuries, the modified version of Confucianism, Neo-Confucianism, successfully defended the Song dynasty’s mainstream ideology against invasive Buddhism. Once added to the state ideology, Confucianism’s great influence on society would effectively ward off foreign ideology’s invasion. Specifically, it provided a “traditional” criterion in Chinese society. Moreover, Gu and other major academics repeatedly emphasized in the Confucian Foundation’s academic journal, Studies on Confucious Quarterly, the idea of blending Confucianism with mainstream Chinese ideology. Interestingly, after Gu retired, Wang Huning, often regarded as the architect of China’s state ideology over the past three decades, also repeatedly argued in his early professor career for Confucianism’s significance in maintaining the stability of state ideology.


Confucianism also helped China implement its economic policies at that critical time of reform and opening up. As previously noted, Confucianism could serve to defend the state ideology, which would therefore allow the country to shift its focus from political struggle to economic development. However, it would be also worth noting that Confucianism itself is a powerful ideology in promoting political stability. Confucianist ideas, such as that of a harmonious society, have proved beneficial to maintaining political stability. Many other east Asian countries in the Confucian culture circle have claimed this particular ideology beneficial to economic development. Singapore's former Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew, for example, argued at the Confucian Foundation's annual meetings that Singapore's success in economic growth was supported greatly by the political stability that Confucianism brought to society. The ideology promotes the idea that, as long as the leaders take care of the people, people will obey. This is notably similar to John Locke's Two Treatises of Government which claims that, as long as the government maintains its legitimacy by providing people with economic prosperity, people would not care so much about equality. Economic-growth-focused governance, with Confucianism's emphasis on efficiency, would face little opposition when pushing forward reforms. Gu himself favored this idea. The values of Confucianism such as “harmony in diversity,” as he repeatedly mentions in his memoir, are crucial to economic progress.


Finally, within the party, Confucianism also provided the necessary mobilization of party members during the market economy reform. This was primarily because Confucianism is a vertically integrated ideology that can become a shared value among party members at all levels.


Gu, when discussing this particular topic, noted that Confucianist values could serve as a moral code to regulate the party members. As this ideology, which emphasized individual altruism, was adopted into party doctrine, Gu expected the disorganization and corruption within the party to effectively decrease. Such attempts were also precedented: the previous Chinese President Liu Shaoqi also tried to use Confucian classics to set up a moral code for party members in his 1939 book “How to Be a Good Communist.” This type of vertical integration of ideology could also boost the effectiveness of China's governance greatly and was especially useful in carrying out economic policies. With its massive bureaucracy, the country could mobilize as many social resources to pursue its economic goal at a rapid speed. According to Columbia’s Arvid Lukauskas, it was this particular feature that made China so successful in its market economy reform.


According to Gu's memoir, China's Confucianist revival was an important part of the reform and opening-up. China's new Confucianism, out of its many other identities, was effective in helping the country succeed in its once-failed economic liberalization. The ideology existed within China's political, economic, and ideological structures and gave the country unprecedented power of productivity and social mobilization. It is also notable that the Confucian revival, although gaining momentum a few decades later, was first started by Gu's generation of Chinese leaders. Gu Mu, as the pioneer of China's reform and opening-up, captured the articulated use of this particular ideology in a particular era. As a technocrat and one of the main architects of China's economic miracle, he made Confucianism an essential part of China's politics. In the meantime, Confucian revival, in turn, has made Gu an important figure in modern China's history.



Leon Bohan Zhang is an intern at the Global Governance Institution. Studying China’s Vice Premier Gu Mu, Leo has written extensively on China’s opening up and has worked under direct supervision of the Gu family. His works have been published by SCMP, Journal of Marketing and Supply Chain Management, and the Columbia Political Review. He grew up in Shenzhen, China, and is studying political economy in the US under Professor Arvid Lukauskas.





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