XIV.3 When the way prevails in a system

子曰,邦有道,危言,危行。邦无道,危行,孙言。 ‘ — 论语,十四:三

The Master said, ‘When the Way prevails in the state, speak and act with perilous high-mindedness; when the Way does not prevail, act with perilous high-mindedness but speak with self-effacing diffidence.’ — Analects XIV.3 (Lau)

Confucius expresses not only a prudent guideline for ethical public service, but a principle for designing robust systems across diverse interfaces. Consider The Way prevailing in a trustable system: one you control, or one well established, open and of high quality. In these circumstances it is possible and desirable to do strict validation on subtly incorrect inputs, and to raise exceptions internally without fear of further system failure.

A bureaucracy is an information processing system of communicating agents. At the external endpoints of this system it can, through interfaces, have physical and social effects. Likewise, software is a bureaucracy of automatons. This is especially evident when the software system is decomposed into independently processing agents, as in concurrent or distributed systems. External effects depend on the system: a state may build a road, or put a man in jail; software may fly a plane, or a missile.

Such decoupled or distributed systems then have non-trivial needs for design of the communication protocol itself. This manifests, in traditional bureaucracy, as paper forms. Paper (or equivalent) is now seen as a technological pre-requisite for centralized state formation across larger geographic and demographic scales because it is an enabler for efficient central bureaucracy (eg Whitmore chapter on Dai Viet). In the time of Confucius the state ran on more unwieldy scrolls, but the problems of information flow in the state system are shared.

Facing similar problems of information design, Confucius gives similar advice to Jon Postel:

TCP implementations should follow a general principle of robustness: be conservative in what you do, be liberal in what you accept from others. RFC 761

Postel is perhaps more forgiving than Confucius, here. If a program must deal with badly formed inputs, The Way does not prevail in the system. If it tries too hard to be liberal in it’s interpretation of inputs, rather than logging an error, rejecting or ignoring the input, it is more prone to subversion. One could say the system does not act with perilous high-mindedness in maintaining its internal state.

The langsec group have a variation on the principle which bears even greater similarity: “Be definite about what you accept”. Log an error if you can, they might have added; else speak with self-effacing diffidence.

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Confucius Gordon In The Twenty First Century!

Jiang Qing (蒋庆) is a mainland Chinese scholar who proposes reviving Confucius as part of the Chinese political settlement. There is a good overview of his work from Daniel Bell in NPQ. He notes the revival of Confucius’s fortunes amongst Communist Party cadres, as well as critiques Jiang Qing makes of the current Chinese and Western systems.

Rather than subordinating Confucian values and institutions to democracy as an a priori dictum, they contain a division of labor, with democracy having priority in some areas and meritocracy in others. If it’s about land disputes in rural China, farmers should have a greater say. If it’s about pay and safety disputes, workers should have a greater say. In practice, it means more freedom of speech and association and more representation for workers and farmers in some sort of democratic house.

Jiang, who incidentally shares an English transliteration with Mao’s notorious wife 江青, and is therefore hard to Google for without using Chinese characters, has certainly been on a remarkable intellectual and biographical journey. Xujun Eberlein has provided a good biographical sketch, including his search through intellectual and spiritual traditions from Marxism, Christianity and Buddhism, and detail on his magnum opus, Political Confucianism (《政治儒学》). She also has also posted some a more detailed overview by Wang Rui-Chang and notes on philosophical attitudes to women. Bell also has a good interview with Jiang in Dissent.

I haven’t read Political Confucianism, not just out of native laziness and because I only heard about it last week, but also because it’s patchily available even in Chinese: no English language translation exists. You could call Jiang and his followers Neo-Confucians, except that term is already in use for a group of Song and Ming dynasty thinkers. It was the Neo-Confucians that laid out the obedience-centric doctrine – to government, to parents, to husband – that defined Confucianism until today. This also goes for the New Confucians, the term applied to Neo-Confucian twentieth century thinkers outside the mainland in places like Korea and Taiwan. (Such are the pitfalls of prefixed nomenclature. It has a touch of irony given Confucius declared in Analects XIII, 3 his first priority would be the rectification of names. I have visions of the great teacher giving Modernism, Post-modernism, Neo-classical economics, retro-futurism and Neo-Confucianism several weeks of detention.)

As the Wang Rui-Chang paper points out, Jiang attempts to revive an older, humanistic and individually moral strand of Confucian thought alongside the rather more pessimistic tradition of the Neo-Confucians. Arguably the realpolitik school goes back to the arch-pessimist Xun Zi 荀子, who believed people were inherently evil and needed it taught out of them.

to be fully legitimate, a political power or regime must simultaneously meet three conditions: 1), it must be at one with, or sanctioned by, the holy, transcendental Tao as expressed or implied in the Confucian Scriptures, and as interpreted by the prestigious Confucian Scholars; 2), it must not deviate from the mainstream of the national cultural heritage and break the historical continuity of the nationality; 3), it must comply with the will or endorsement of the common people.

He goes on to quote Edmund Burke; a conservative, moralist figure with a lot in common with Confucius considering they lived 1900 years apart and on opposite sides of the globe.

Skimming over Jiang’s proposal to re-establish Confucianism as a state religion, the key constitutional proposal is of a tricameral legislature, only one of which is directly elected:

The House of Profound Confucians (Tong Ru Yuan) represents the legitimacy of the sacred Way, the House of National Continuity (Guo Ti Yuan) represents the legitimacy of cultural heritage and tradition, and the House of Plebeians (Shu Min Yuan) represents the legitimacy of the common people’s will and desire.

Combining an elected house with two Houses of Lords is obviously not going to light a flame in any democrat’s heart. The obvious parallel here is with the American Tripartite Commission. The existing examples of this sort of thing – in Hong Kong and Iran – are not really encouraging. The emphasis on ethnic or cultural representation rather than geographic and democratic representation also seems both very imperial Chinese and inviting the nastiness of partisan splits on ethnic and cultural lines. Absent having seen the specific arguments Jiang has, and as fun as kicking an absent strawman while he’s down is, let’s just note my general support for the miracle of democracy for now.

What is more striking is the parallel to the golden age of the Westminster system. In 1855 the Northcote-Trevelyan report recommended adoption of a civil service entrance examination as one means of professionalising an inefficient and corrupt bureaucracy. This was inspired in turn by the long history of Chinese imperial examinations for the civil service. Combined with the great Reform bills, by the end of the 19th century the United Kingdom had a democratically elected House of Commons (庶民院) and an aristocratic House of Lords including a number of bishops (国体院). And they relied on a career civil service to advise on, draft and execute policy, which exerted its own conservative cultural influence on the government (统儒院). This constitutional settlement started to change at the end of the 1990s with changes to the Lords and the relationship between the cabinet and civil service, (and in Australia due to the breakdown of ministerial responsibility) but it had a good hundred year run and is by no means finished with. Given it has both historical precedent and cultural suitability, I can’t help but wonder why Jiang didn’t think of it. Perhaps with all that visiting of monasteries, studying of Marxist texts and surviving the Cultural Revolution, he didn’t get much time for repeats of Yes, Minister. If someone has his postal address, I’m happy to send him a copy.