Confucius promises a government that cares for the people, that makes their well-being its primary concern. This is to govern by virtue. And virtue creates its own legitimacy: paternalistic, affectionate care of the people by the rulers is sure to be reciprocated by the people's trust and obedience. Hu Jintao's appropriation of the language of Confucianism not only fills the ideological void left by Marxist-Leninism's demise but also suggests to the governed that, in seeking to create a harmonious society and a harmonious world, he and other officials take their "Confucian" responsibility of moral leadership to heart. Their expectation is that the people, in turn, will place trust in the government and be obedient to it, with minimal dissent.
China's government appears determined to address the fissures and tensions born of almost three decades of unrestrained economic development. But it seems equally determined to bring about such change without reforming the prevailing one-party system of governance. The regime in Beijing, eager to keep its power intact, to maintain the political status quo, has chosen, for the time being, to goad the Chinese toward social harmony through traditional ideological and moral exhortations.
Resuscitating the sage today thus serves the party's political aims. But to conclude that cherry-picking soothing phrases from Confucian writings is the same as a genuine and enduring commitment to the vision of Confucius would be a mistake.
Daniel K. Gardner is a professor of history and the director of the program in East Asian studies at Smith College.