I've just returned from a three-week trip to Asia. Most of the trip was a cruise, aboard the Diamond Princess, involving one-day visits to a large number of ports: Tianjin, Busan, Nagasaki, Shanghai, Hong Kong, Nha Tranh, Ho Chi Minh City, Singapore, Bangkok. We added extra days in Beijing and Bangkok. Still, our shore excursions amounted to little more than brief glimpses of a city's life--sightseeing without much depth.
Superficial acquaintance, then, but still enough contact to prompt me to reflect (perhaps foolishly) on what I DID observe.
Let me begin by ruminating about Confucius, Mao, and Thomas Jefferson. It seems to me that, when they're honest with themselves, Americans are usually inclined to equate personal happiness with the possession of wealth. Oh, they know that money can't buy everything, but the general consensus is that the acquiring wealth is the best thing we can do to increase our chances of being happy and of obtaining status and esteem in our society. Clearly, we tell ourselves, that is what Jefferson meant when he claimed (following Locke) that all human beings have a right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness (a pleasant-sounding synonym for Locke's more blunt "property.")
I guess Confucius, too, believed in pursuing happiness. But he insisted that the deepest form of self-satisfaction resulted from serving an entity greater than oneself--the family, the community, the nation, the common culture (and all its traditions). Not that he (or, at least, his interpreters) believed that acquiring wealth was not a good thing: it's just that, for the Confucian, an individual's self-worth depends, not upon his personal fortune alone, but upon the fortune of the collectivities to which he belongs and contributes.
Hence, the aggressive, money-obsessed Shanghainsese might have motives and goals which are quite different from those of aggressive, money-obsessed New Yorker. The Shanghainese wants to affirm his self-worth by contributing to the well-being of a unit to which he belongs, by being "good" at providing for, advancing and perpetuating this unit. The New Yorker wants to affirm his self-worth by being "good" at providing for himself (and only secondarily for, perhaps, a spouse or a child; certainly he has virtually no interest in the community or the nation).
It's silly to assert (as Mao and the communists did/do) that the Chinese are not or should not be individualists or capitalists. They clearly ARE. But I'm convinced that their individualism is so permeated with Confucian hierarchical values that almost no Chinese "individual" ever thinks of himself and his own self-actualization as the ultimate raison d'être of human existence--the absolute Good.
On the other hand, it's quite easy for an American, be he a businessman or an artist, to believe that the fulfillment of his own deeply subjective (and self-chosen) desires is, and should be, the definition of happiness--the absolute Good.
And so, even the greedy, grasping, avaricious street merchants in Shanghai and Guangzhou tend to regard themselves as functioning "together with others" in this struggle to get rich (even if the "others' are limited to the extended family)--capitalists with at least somewhat socialistic goals. Whereas the typical American is in the game alone--and for his own sake.
It seems to me, then, that deep down in the Chinese subconscious, the emperor still demands obedience--and still commands a measure of respect, even if, on the surface, rebellion rages and protesters cynically (or self-righteously) justify their dissent by repeating the old adage, "the mountains are high and the emperor is far away." Am I wrong about this? Maybe. I'm very much an outsider.
Gosh, do you think Confucius and Mao will be taking over soon? Your opinions please: Let a Thousand Flowers Bloom.