Diplomatic Insight from Dr Reg Little

reg little

Q: What are your professional and personal ties to Confucianism?

For more than half a century, my life has been shaped by an exploration of the manner in which Confucian culture has informed an economic strategy that has reshaped the global economic and political order. I was an Australian diplomat for a quarter of a century, during which time I received advanced in-country training in the Japanese and Chinese languages, served in both the Tokyo and Beijing Embassies, was deputy or head of five Australian overseas missions and used at least 20 of those years to explore professionally the nexus between culture and economics. In the more than a quarter of a century since leaving diplomatic service, I have furthered this exploration participating annually on average in more two Asian, but predominantly Chinese, conferences on the Confucian renaissance. I became a Founding Director of the Beijing based International Confucian Association in 1994 and was elected a Vice President in 2009.
I have co-authored The Confucian Renaissance (1989), published several times in both Japanese and Chinese, and The Tyranny of Fortune: Australia’s Asian Destiny (1997) and sole authored A Confucian Daoist Millennium?” (2007) and a short e-book Chinese Mindwork (2015).

Q: Your presentation was titled, “Confucian Ethics and the 21st Century Global Business.” How do you think the audience responded to your opinions? How were you hoping they would respond?

My presentation focused on the fact that global business has been in the process of being reshaped over the past half century by a Confucian ethos, which could be loosely described as ethical but which the West has refused to recognize. The high price paid for this will, of course, be addressed very differently, if predictably, by Chinese and Western members of an audience. The former are polite, discreet and knowing while the latter are still uncertain how to manage the imperatives of political correctness. As most members of the audience were familiar with my thinking, it is unlikely that my words could do more than emphasize the urgency of the work being undertaken by the conference.

There are two major challenges ahead, both of which will take time to address. The first is the need to find ways to gain a much broader audience for the themes addressed during the two days. The second is perhaps more formidable. It requires the exposure of the misguided political correctness that has imposed a type of “intellectual apartheid” on Western thought, prohibited serious exploration of the fundamentally different tradition of Confucian thought culture and effectively left Western leaders ignorant and vulnerable before the soft and subtle strategies of Asian partners. The Asian members of the audience understand this situation well but the Australian members still have to work within a culture that is unsupportive and at times hostile.

Q: What new insights did you take with you from the presentations at the symposium?

I think the symposium demonstrated that, given the supportive environment provided by the occasion, there are intellectual resources available to address the challenges posed by China’s rise. However, as noted above, the major obstacles to necessary progress are to be found in an anachronistic and self-defeating political environment, which demands loyalty to failing Western intellectual orthodoxies and seems to be incapable of finding practical responses to mounting problems. The fact that Confucian thought culture leaves few Western intellectual and political certainties unchallenged deepens these problems but the symposium suggested that the major difficulty is more political than intellectual.

Q: You noted in your presentation that phrases like Confucian ethics, wisdom and thought are interchangeable, but misleading. Would you care to explain how they are interchangeable, but misleading?

The issue here is that these phrases are familiar concepts in the English language but do not translate accurately into the character of thought that emerges from the Confucian classics. Western thought traditions of abstraction, rationality and theory, reinforced with faith or belief, contrast in fundamental ways with the Chinese classical holistic, fluid and intuitive search for practical understanding and action. Often, phases from Confucian classics can seem to have mixed qualities of ethics, wisdom and thought, something that is rare in more abstract and theoretical Western thought. These differences, of course, pervade millennia of history in complex ways. It is difficult as a Westerner to explain and explore such contrasts without a wide diversity of experience, study and exploration shared by speaker and listener.

Q: In your presentation you discussed how Confucians have used finance to pursue community strategies and priorities. For those who were unable to attend your presentation, could you elaborate on this?

This was what first attracted me to explore the Confucian tradition. As a diplomatic language student in Tokyo in the 1960s, I observed Japan was defying all the economic theories and orthodoxies I had studied at university and growing at 10% annually. Eventually, I concluded the answer had to be cultural because the economic theory I had studied seemed irrelevant, even an obstacle to understanding. As much of Japan’s culture and administrative practice derived from the Chinese classics, I decided that the answer was to be found in the Confucian tradition.

In 1976, when I arrived in Beijing as Deputy to the Ambassador and after 15 months language study in Hong Kong, I became somewhat assertive and irritating in arguing that China would emulate Japan’s 10% annual growth. My Hong Kong Chinese studies had, for the first time, given me access to the original Confucian classics and, surprisingly, many of the Cultural Revolution’s “Criticize Lin Biao, Criticize Confucius” articles deepened my appreciation of the living tradition. This gave me a strong conviction that the Chinese could and would match what the Japanese had done. Although my colleagues (none of whom shared my Japanese experience) were little persuaded by my arguments, my Ambassador drafted a dispatch reflecting on the implications for Australia were such projections to be realized. Prime Minister Fraser welcomed and used the dispatch to positive ends in Australia’s China policy but it is my understanding the few in the Department of Foreign Affairs were impressed. Even so, 31 years later, in 2007, the Department’s second annual R G Neale Lecture commended this and other reporting from the Beijing Embassy in 1976.
Japan, China and other Confucian Asian societies have all had administrative leaders who have organized their economies to maximize high value production, build up large financial reserves and nurture the dependence and vulnerability of Western communities that prioritize consumption. Australia and other Western countries have displayed an inability or unwillingness to draw lessons from this type of economic culture. They are now unprepared for the world that Chinese thought and strategy is now shaping for the global future.

Q: In your opinion, what steps must be taken for the western world to implement Confucian ethics, wisdom and thought? Additionally, do you feel there is anything in the western world that is already well attuned to Confucian practice?

As explained above, the West has been slow and reluctant to take the measures necessary to respond effectively within a global community where it was in a leadership position. It will be much more difficult now the centres of influence and decision are no longer London and Washington but cities like Beijing, Shanghai and Chongqing. The challenges are daunting. This is, however, one of those “End of Empire” moments when the defence of past certainties is the worst possible preparation for future inevitabilities.

A close reading of contemporary events, whether economic, financial, institutional, political, military or technological leaves little doubt in my mind that the whole global community is entering a period of major turmoil and transition from which few past certainties will emerge uncompromised. Already, over recent decades, Chinese soft strategies have led to its economic rise, the bankruptcy of the West, the growing primacy of Chinese influence in Asia and Eurasia, the steady but increasing disintegration of Western purpose, assurance and coherence and China’s rapid progress to imminent technological leadership.
It is heretical to say so, but the West can only prepare for the future now by recognising that it is imperative to accept what it has long denied. This is that mastery of Chinese language and culture will be fundamental to understanding a rapidly changing global community. In the recent past many peoples needed to master a foreign Western language and culture to understand the global community, but now the English speaking people face the same imperative. This time, however, the imperative is to master Chinese language and culture.

Given the fundamentally unique qualities of Chinese language and culture this will only be adequately achieved by having very young children commence from around the age of three the rote learning of Chinese classics in their original language from several millennia in the past. The shocking unacceptability of such an assertion is indicative of the West’s total unpreparedness for a future that is nevertheless becoming increasingly undeniable if one looks beyond mainstream media. Already, growing numbers of young people and their parents throughout East and South East Asia are seeking such an education. Indeed the Rev Heng Sure referred to Master Hua’s mission to support such learning. Other similarly inspired and dedicated leaders are active, but still almost exclusively in Asia.


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