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SHENG Hong: Distinguishing the Two Types of Liberalism
Time:2016-11-11 09:10:45   Clicks:

by SHENG Hong, Director of Unirule Institute of Economics
Translated by MA Junjie, Researcher, Unirule Institute of Economics


This is Professor SHENG Hong’s comment on the occasion of an interdisciplinary seminar on “History and Institution Innovation Theoretical Advancement” held on June 25th and June 26th, 2016.


It is a shame that we don't have more time, but I thought the three previous presentations were very enlightening. Therefore, I would like to share my understanding of the issues raised earlier.


Firstly, as for Professor REN Jiantao’s remarks, the three models he mentioned earlier, namely, the British, the French and the German model, I think this distinction was addressed by European thinkers in modern times and somehow overlooked by Chinese intellectuals, especially the British model and the French model. I mentioned yesterday that Hayek had a similar categorisation, but Chinese intellectuals tend to overlook it. Hayek distinguished the two types of liberalism, the British liberalism that is common law-based empirical liberalism, and the French liberalism that is based on human reasoning. Of course, Hayek leaned towards the British liberalism, and he lamented how its significance waned over time, and how French liberalism flourished and was cherished by intellectuals around the world thanks to the ink shed for it generously.


This distinction is very important. However, putting it in a longer time period, what Professor REN Jiantao said lacks clarity if we put it against the modern standard, which is based on the British Model. From another perspective, Britain was a rather late established state, as the centre of the European civilisation was mainly on the European continent, in Eastern Europe. At first it was in Greece, then Italy, and till a very late era, France. Therefore, the European civilisation has a longer history and development to a rather mature stage. What I have in mind regarding Europe is just a hypothesis. Europe matured too early. The European civilisation had very matured laws brought by Christians, and it also formed a very matured Roman law system based on the Greek culture. Comparatively speaking, Britain was lagging behind as its common system only matured and developed in the 13-16th century.


During the development of the common law system, Britain was constantly under huge pressure from the Roman law system. “Why do we reject the Roman law system, and why do we adopt the common law system?” Common law is a British tradition, and a rather less-developed system compared to the Roman law system and the pressing European culture, as conceived by many British. However, many other British have been stressing the advantage of the common law system with countless works, including those of the famous thinker, Sir Edward Kirk. What they believed was a purely philosophical idea: we don’t trust those expressive legal clauses and moral regulations, what we trust is our experience. This is the essence of the common law system.



On the other hand, my hypothesis states that the continental Roman law system was also developed from practices and habits, but it matured too early. We know that the Greek and Roman conventions and habits date back over 2,000 years. They were rather developed by the Roman era with all the codes and clauses. This convinced many that these codes and clauses were laws, instead of practices and habits. As a result, the French abandoned their tradition on the continent. In fact, the process for these codes to become laws was key to despotic systems. The fundamental meaning of a code is that a legislative process was taken with everyone’s consent. But in practice, this process defies common people’s traditions, their wills, and their habits. This shows how laws are beyond habits, a manifestation that the will of the state is beyond the influence of habits. When Britain was modernised, the continent was still under absolute monarchism. But in the long run, this is a pattern.


I’m familiar with Mr. ZHANG Yan’s research and I agree with him on most things. As for Professor GE’s remarks, I don’t find any circumstances in which the emperor was supreme, at least according to the Confucian cultural tradition. There are many traditions in China, some are political ones, for example, Confucianism never emphasised that the emperor should be beyond any constraint. This is constant in the works of Confucius, Mencius, Xunzi, and Dong Zhongshu. The more superior reign was the heaven, instead of emperors. This can be seen in the Analects, where Confucius mentioned the superiority of the heaven, the Dao, and the Li, instead of emperors, which constituted the Confucian tradition. Confucianism first and foremost assumes that the emperor is just a common person who errs, though he’s in an important position. What we must guarantee is that he makes as few mistakes as possible, and therefore, there’s a mechanism for special positions designated to correct the emperor’s errors. This mechanism guaranteed that the emperor was not allowed to give orders as he willed.


A harsh comparison can be made between this mechanism and an institution established by MAO Zedong. He ordered to set up a department to criticise and perpetrate others, that is the Central Propaganda Department. This department did nothing but perpetrating whoever criticised the chairman. Nothing like this has ever happened in China’s history, or in the tradition of Confucianism. Ideally, it is politically correct to criticise, and politically incorrect to suppress criticism.


Therefore, we come to the question whether China has gotten rid of Confucianism in modern times. I think the answer is affirmative. After the May Fourth Movement and the Cultural Revolution, China has turned away from the Confucian tradition. What’s left is mainly the superiority of the emperors, which is the useless residue of the Chinese culture, and the essence of Confucianism was all swept aside. That’s why we, including many intellectuals, tend to underestimate this tradition. Many Chinese intellectuals do not have the chance to read historian literature or establish a complete knowledge structure. The view we have got from the movement that criticised LIN Biao and Confucius has left us biased. That’s why I hold my views towards Professor GE’s remarks. I believe we need to explore the Confucian tradition, focus more on the essence of it, and try to preserve it.


To follow up on what Professor REN Jiantao said, what should we do then? As a late-comer, what can China do? I believe this is an issue of conceptions. When we talk about adopting the British model, we don't mean for China to become the same like Britain. What we mean is that we should treasure Hayek’s legacy, adopt the empirical liberalism and cherish our traditions, especially the good things in our traditions. As for those abstract and ambiguous parts, we should maintain cautious.


At last, I’d like to refer to Edmund Burke and remind everyone that when he wrote his critique of the French Revolution, he denied that the British were entitled to human rights, but that it was the people themselves who granted human rights, as these human rights were based and found in their traditions. It is important to preserve this valuable tradition and recognise that human rights come from traditions. He wrote that, if you think your direct ancestors did not have such a tradition, then you will find it among your previous ancestors. Thank you.


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