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Society & Culture

The Confucian and Jeffersonian Ideals in the United States

Apr 25, 2019
  • Patrick Mendis

    Visiting Professor of Global Affairs, National Chengchi University

Will This Be the Beginning of the End of Democracy?


Thomas Jefferson.jpg

3rd President of the United States (March 4, 1801 – March 4, 1809)

The University of Minnesota has had over one-hundred years of historic connection with China and nearly a ten-year relationship with the Confucian Institute. To comply with the National Defense Authorization Act of 2018, the Land Grant university has now suspended its ties with China and the global 5G telecommunication leader, Huawei. Concerned about national security and the “trade war” between China and the United States, the Trump White House has given American educational institutions a choice between Chinese organizations or US government funding.

All but six states have at least one of the 100 Confucius Institutes in their American universities. More than 360,000 Chinese students make up over one million foreign students in the US. Chinese spending has contributed about $14 billion annually to the local economies, employing more than 250,000 people. These students and Chinese visiting scholars are now being treated as national security threats by the Trump administration.

In November, White House adviser Stephen Miller proposed a ban on student visas for all Chinese nationals in addition to the controversial Muslim ban. Former Iowa governor and current US ambassador to China, Terry Branstad, convinced President Donald Trump to reject the Miller proposal. The ambassador argued that a ban would not only damage American higher educational institutions but also cause diplomatic fallout.

For the Trump White House, the national security concerns are real; however, they are as intricately interconnected with Sino-American trade and investment links in many congressional districts in almost all states -- as they are associated with the businesses of President Trump and his cabinet members. More importantly, trade in knowledge and information enterprises is global, involving corporate supply chains; thus, technology proliferates quite easily. This is more illustrative in the cases of President Trump’s allies and friends—like Israel and Saudi Arabia—whose growing high-tech commercial relations with China continue despite the White House’s restraining requests.

When it comes to the Confucius Institutes, White House policy formulations are equally ill-advised and counterproductive. The Confucius Institutes—also known as Hanban—operate under the Chinese Ministry of Education but the American host institutions have oversight responsibilities. Understandably, Washington lawmakers are increasingly worried that the Chinese government has prohibited Confucius Institute teachers and students engaged in discussion on sensitive issues like Taiwan, Tibet, and the Uyghur ethnic minority. A report titled “Outsourced to China” by the National Association of Scholars found no evidence to support the allegations of censorship coming from Beijing. The US Government Accountability Office also provided its report to Congress on Confucius Institutes and concluded that the accusations were largely unfounded.

For political expediency, banning and blaming the best and brightest of Chinese students in American universities have their own counterproductive consequences as well. The US National Science Foundation reported in 2013 that 92 percent of Chinese students with American PhDs —known as “sea turtles”— still lived in the US after graduation. The trend reversed as these sea turtles are prized more in China than in America—only 45 percent of graduates now chose to remain abroad. Bloomberg News pointedly states that the “US-trained Chinese-born talent is becoming a key force in driving Chinese companies’ global expansion and the country’s efforts to dominate next-generation technologies like artificial intelligence and machine learning.” This reverse brain-drain may be associated with the underlying reason for not having a single American company to compete with Huawei; thus, the Pentagon has recently reached out to two Nordic companies for help: Nokia and Ericsson.

This evidence continues to prove that it is nearly impossible to prevent China’s innovative advancements when science and technology have a natural tendency to proliferate and adapt over national borders. The recent debacle at the Trump-Kim summit illustrates that US efforts are increasingly challenged to stop the nuclear non-proliferation technology in North Korea, a hermit regime. The European allies—especially the United Kingdom and Germany—have now undermined US diplomatic efforts to ban Huawei technology while several G7 countries—including Greece and Italy—have embraced China’s Belt and Road Initiative as well as Beijing’s investment in the next-generation of 5G technology.

As far back as 1999, the now-declassified Cox Report to Congress clearly identified national security concerns over commercial and intelligence operations in the US by China. However, the Republican-proposed “Protect Our Universities Act of 2019” and recent White House policy responses have come too little, too late.

Instead of closing the Confucius Institutes, the Trump administration could proactively push China to open its educational institutions to American Centers and English Corners as part of reciprocity in “trade war” negotiations. But, Ambassador Branstad learned that Chinese authorities have denied US efforts to promote American culture in China. The Trump White House has also reduced the State Department’s funding for public diplomacy. In his Art of War, Chinese philosopher Sun Tzu advised to “keep your friends close, and your enemies closer.” As a more potent strategy, American educational institutions—an effective revolutionary force in democratization—must be promoted as a national treasure for the shared progress between the two nations.

Both Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson shared this worldview and understood that public education is the secret formula for the success of a young republic. As American visionaries and admirers of Confucius and the Chinese culture, Franklin and Jefferson believed that “natural aristocracy” by merit is better than birth right or inherited wealth. Like Confucius, Jefferson maintained that meritocracy—not “artificial aristocracy”—in education would provide the cornerstone for good governance. In his reply to John Adams, Jefferson wrote, “I agree with you that there is a natural aristocracy among men. The grounds of this are virtue and talents. . . There is also an artificial aristocracy, founded on wealth and birth, without either virtue or talents; . . . The natural aristocracy I consider as the most precious gift of nature, for the instruction, the trusts, and government of society.”

Inspired by Confucian morality, Franklin and Jefferson established the first public higher educational institutions—the University of Pennsylvania and the University of Virginia—on a merit-based system for the selection of natural aristocracy and for republican governance, which was similar to the Confucian scholar-official system in ancient China. Mencius, a Confucian disciple, said that the emperors or kings required public consent to rule: “The people are the most important element of the state, the territory comes next, and the king last.”

Over the years, however, Confucius has been used to defend totalitarian governments and to oppress people. In his acclaimed book, Confucius: The Man and the Myth, Professor Herrlee Creel of the University of Chicago proclaimed “Confucius a reformer and an individualist, as well as a democratic and revolutionary teacher.” During his time, Confucius was a “battle cry for democracy,” but in 213 BC a totalitarian regime banned his books. Still, common Chinese people admired his philosophy and tried to force Confucianism on their rulers.

To promote America’s liberal education and to correctly tell the world about the venerable democratic ideas of Confucius and his moral guidance, American people must now find different rulers, who would learn from history and appreciate the positive elements of Chinese culture. Influenced by Confucius, Jefferson—like Franklin—preferred natural aristocracy for a more functioning democracy in the United States that has combined the Eastern and Western philosophical traditions to “form a more perfect Union.” To realize democratic values and freedoms, the Confucius Institutes should be allowed to remain open in America while the United States should increase State Department funding to promote American Centers in China. This juxtaposition and blending of philosophies are enshrined in stone on the eastern pediment of the Supreme Court building, where Confucius stands with Moses and Solon, as a reminder to uphold personal and governmental morality.

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