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Y.K. Tong: Address to International Leadership Conference 2018

Address to International Leadership Conference 2018, Seoul, Korea, February 18-22, 2018

Good afternoon, Distinguished Guests, Ladies and Gentlemen: 

I am delighted to meet all of you here in South Korea. As you may know, Korea has long been part of the “Confucian Cultural Sphere,” along with mainland China, Hong Kong, Macau, Taiwan, Japan and Singapore. All these places have attained outstanding economic development over the past 30 years; this is a testament to the great vitality at the heart of societies rooted in Confucian values. 

The renowned American scholar of Chinese–Western comparative philosophy, Roger T. Ames, has described Confucianism as a “holistic philosophy grounded in the primacy of relationality,” which is a “challenge to foundational liberal individualism” and the definition of people as “self-interested agents.” Confucian thinking fundamentally defines a person in relation to family and society, and stresses harmony as an ideal. Thus, when conflicts arise, it is naturally inclined to win–win solutions. With the rise of China in world affairs—and China’s reawakened interest in its own philosophical roots—I predict that Confucian thinking will play an increasingly important role on the world stage.

The biggest challenges in the world today include extremism, violence and terrorism. We see disasters play out in the news every day—bloody terrorist attacks around the world and the shocking frequency of shootings in the United States. Everywhere we see a diminished moral consciousness, a lack of ethical consensus, and chaotic human behavior.

Many conflicts today are due to the depletion of natural resources, which threatens insatiable human desire. The pursuit of material interests and the competition for natural resources have resulted in tensions between people and nations. We see indifference, hatred, grabs for territory and attempts at hegemony on large and small scales.

Confucianism advocates self-control to moderate human desire, which avoids a sense of shame. It also teaches benevolence toward others, which cultivates self-respect. Let us consider how the basic principles of Confucianism can tackle the critical challenges of our time.

  1. Benevolence and Justice

Philosophies tend to simplify the motivations for human behavior. Western thought postulates self-preservation and self-interest as primary motivations for individuals, and the same motivations are attributed to nations. The Western concept of justice is related to the protection of individual rights and interests. 

Confucianism, however, advocates benevolence as the primary motivation for right conduct and also as the standard of justice. In the Doctrine of the Mean, Confucius says: "Benevolence is the characteristic element of humanity.” A true person should be benevolent, or kindhearted. This kindheartedness applies first in the family—where ideally it is learned in childhood and practiced lifelong—but it does not stop there. Confucius teaches us to put ourselves in the place of others, and to act with kindness and fair consideration for the concerns of others, in all situations.

On the social level, this means the pursuit of consensus and collective benefit. I would suggest that this approach, however imperfectly implemented, is one of the secrets to the economic success and social stability in East Asian nations today. 

On the national level, benevolence leads to peaceful coexistence between nations. It implies mutual respect and a mutual commitment to the search for a win–win solution to any conflict. It is the antithesis of tyranny or dominance over others. 

Many countries in the world are now desperately trying to develop high-tech weapons so they will have the power to subdue each other by force. Attempts to subjugate by force lead to resistance. Between nations, this leads to wars; between ethnic and religious groups, it leads to violence and terrorism. Confucianism advocates that people should be convinced, not forced. People can be convinced only by virtuous arguments and actions.

  1. Governance Based on Benevolence and Propriety

In terms of governance, a Confucian approach would be based on benevolence and propriety. Confucius said: “Benevolence means restraining one's desires and practicing consistency in word and deed.”

Confucian propriety is based on self-control; thus it cannot tolerate self-indulgent or corrupt leadership. Propriety suggests clear standards of human behavior. A benevolent ruler, or government, must therefore embody the spirit of kindness and fairness in managing all relationships, in order to ensure universal balance and harmony. The government must also promote propriety in all areas under its jurisdiction; this includes the moral education of the populace, beginning with children, to ensure a responsible citizenry; and the application of moral standards in business, economics, finance and all other areas. 

In Confucianism, the concept of propriety clearly extends to the legal system. Of course, in ancient China, the emperor was the highest authority and was not subject to the law. If the emperor were devoted to self-cultivation and self-control, he would naturally be a benevolent ruler, but that was not always the case; thus abuses of power occurred. In the modern context, imperial power may be replaced by democratically elected leaders, yet that does not invalidate the Confucian ethical standard. 

Therefore, the differences between a Confucian social and legal system and a modern Western system would be the emphasis on the moral integrity of leaders, and on collective benefit and fairness rather than on individual rights.   

  1. Harmony but not Uniformity

Harmony is a core value in Confucianism. The Analects of Confucius says that in the actual practice of propriety, flexibility is important. This is what the ancient kings did so well. Harmony mainly refers to managing the differences between people or points of view to reach a harmonious state. The Chinese concept of harmony is not uniformity; it is consensus amid differences. 

With the development of modern science, the earth is becoming smaller. People are closer together; interactions among different cultures, philosophies and religions are increasing. On one hand, this closer proximity increases the likelihood of conflict between people of different races, religions, philosophies and cultures. However, if every group applies the rule of seeking consensus while accepting differences, we can live together in harmony. 

I have dedicated my life to the promotion of Confucianism. I aim to practice the teachings of Confucius and to promote the original heart and nature of benevolence to every corner of the world. I firmly believe that the Confucian principles of benevolence, faithfulness, compassion and harmony can be fundamental to building a harmonious world.

From now, the Confucian Academy has three main missions: 

  1. With the support of the Hong Kong Government, we are now constructing the first Confucian Temple in Hong Kong. It will be about 200,000 square feet and will cost about HK$1.3 billion. I have promised to donate HK$20 million. I hope that the Hong Kong Confucian Temple will be a base for promoting Confucianism to the world, for the benefit of the whole world.
  1. In 2014 the Hong Kong Government agreed that the third Sunday of September should be celebrated as “Confucius Day,” but this has not yet been declared an official holiday. The Hong Kong Confucian Academy has applied to the government to convert the current Mid-Autumn Festival, which is a public holiday, into“Confucius Day.” These two holidays can then be celebrated together to mark the significance of the Chinese tradition.
  1. We intend to set up a World Confucian Association in order to promote Confucianism worldwide. We have also submitted an application to the Chinese Government to set up a China Confucian Association in order to welcome Confucianists in Hong Kong, Macau, Taiwan and overseas to China. We advocate the official acceptance of Confucianism, Buddhism and Taoism as the three great religions of China.

Thank you for your attention! I wish you all success in your endeavors and good health, both physically and spiritually.


To go to the International Leadership Conference Schedule 2018, click here.