Follow Martin Luther, not Confucius

See also: Revisiting Chinese History

"The greatest defect in the Chinese character is the lack of religious faith, which is the root of very many problems. If ordinary people do not have faith, the problem would not be so serious. But, when political leaders do not, the result is disastrous."

This is one of the startling conclusions of Xiao Jiansheng's analysis of Chinese history, Chinese History Revisited. For him, Protestantism has been a key reason for the success of western civilization and the establishment of constitutional and democratic government.

His argument is that Protestantism provides a moral restraint, because those who believe it fear that immoral actions will result in them going to hell. "Religious belief has acted as a third party, as rules of justice that are agreed to by everyone, and created a new civilization of equal, just and open competition. It has created a system of arbitration, to resolve disagreements between two parties who disagree.

"But Chinese do not believe in the existence of God, so his rules exercise no restraint over them. People without religion find it very hard to have any rules for their life and use any method to achieve their ends. So their promises cannot be believed.

"Before he took power, Mao Zedong promised to implement democracy and the ‘four freedoms' of Franklin Roosevelt (freedom of speech and worship and freedom from want and fear). When he took power, people hoped he would fulfill these promises and become the George Washington of China. But, after entering Zhongnanhai, he changed completely and said openly that he would be a despot," he said.

Protestantism also calls for confession of sin and repentance. "But Chinese do not have this spirit, especially those who take power. They bring great disasters onto their people and never apologize, even when they die. This is true of ordinary people too. During the Cultural Revolution, very many people committed crimes and hurt people. Now, 50 years have passed and very few have apologized to the people they hurt and injured then."

Xiao also praises Protestantism's respect for individual life. "In the eyes of God, everyone is created equal and has rights that cannot be removed. This demands respect and protection for individual life, assets and freedom. The equality of people is the most precious equality."

But the Chinese character does not have this respect, he said. "According to Confucian thinking, the ruler can divide people into gentlemen and common people and those with power and authority can strictly control those without them. Society has a strict order of classes and an enormous bureaucracy. In the name of the nation, the rulers can exploit the rights and freedom of the people and the individual sacrifices himself for the state and the collective. For this purpose, the ruler can sacrifice the lives of countless ordinary people.

"This disregard for individual rights makes it very hard for China to set up a democratic and constitutional system. It is deeply rooted and makes it very difficult for Chinese civilization to change," he said.

He also admires the idea of original sin. "The Bible says that, except for God, no man is good. "This means that, if a person is corrupt, greedy and can harm others to further his own interests, he will. If one individual has great power, he will inevitably decay and become corrupt. So there must be a check on power, which is why western countries set up different branches of the government and a legal system.

"But Chinese people long for the righteous ruler who governs the country in a moral way and brings an era of peace. This does not need a division of power nor local autonomy nor supervision by society. This is Confucian thinking, which makes people blindly follow a powerful ruler but creates no system to stop corruption. In modern Chinese history, there have been many examples of this blind faith, leading to great social catastrophes and making a change of civilization very difficult."

This is a startling analysis from a man who is not a Christian and has never lived outside China. It is one he developed on his own, poring over books piled up in his small apartment in Changsha, the capital of Hunan. While he spent the day at his newspaper writing about the rise and fall of stock prices, his mind was wandering through the Shakespearian dramas of Chinese history.

"Regrettably, the lack of religious faith among Chinese helped to lead to the cycle of violence that accompanied changes of dynasty."