Sunday, June 15, 2008

Confusion Democracy for China

by Larry Mongoss, guest blogger

Xujun’s recent article on The China Beat and the comments it engendered made me think a little bit more about the whole concept of democracy. I can’t help but admire Jiang Qing, he really is a man who believes in his cause, and his cause does seem worthy. His epic search for good governance is reminiscent of both the spiritual search that Siddhartha undertook in search of enlightenment and the adventures of Odysseus.

Of course most people who go off in search of something don’t end up being noticed, let alone becoming Buddha. Much of the trick in making an impact is finding the right stopping place. Had Jiang Qing decided he liked Christianity, or gone on to become a libertarian it is unlikely any would have heard his name again. But, as it happens, he stopped on Confucianism and that does seem to strike a chord with many in China.

While the article itself seems to be more about the man and his journey, the comments all seem focused on his landing point. Few of those who commented embrace the idea of a Confucian state, deriding it as a quaint but impractical, if not simply bad, idea. I share in that skepticism, though not the derision, but it is worth pointing out that what is proposed is quite similar to the evolution of democracy in England and so is not without precedent. Perhaps, if there hadn’t been that pesky communist revolution, Confucianism would have been a nice path to democracy for China, but the cards have changed.

What did strike me strongly in the things Jian Qing said was that popular will alone is not sufficient for good governance. To put this in a more western turn of phrase, how do we protect democracy from the voters?

While that may seem like a tongue in cheek questions, it really is worthy of pretty serious consideration. Iran, Iraq, Russia, Venezuela and Gaza all have governments that have been voted into power by what appear to be a legitimate democratic process. Yet none of those governments behave in a way that most people in the US and Western Europe would think of as democratic.

It is not simply that the people voting don’t understand what is being asked of them. The voting processes in the United States, Japan and other stable democracies are also driven by lots of irrational impulses. Good governance demands more than, and does not really depend upon, good elections. Most, in the US, would point to the constitution as the basis for both governance and law that keeps things right. By that argument, China should also be a thriving democracy. So maybe the constitution has to be strictly adhered to, so that Canada, until 1982 was not really a democracy.

To get good governance, even political stability, you need a clear set of rules that people, by and large, will adhere to. For a democracy with individual freedom, those rules are pretty complicated since they have to let people do mostly what they want but not anything they want. The wealthy democracies have all found their own mix of freedom and restraint managed by both the force of law and social custom. I guess, when you reflect on it, all of this is painfully obvious, and was well understood by people from Cromwell to Jefferson. It was also well understood by Lenin, Mao, Tito, Hussein and Amin who put emphasis on force, though certainly channeling it through social conditioning.

So what does that imply for China? I think the implication is actually that the social conditions for democracy (or perhaps something even better) need to be in place before the new system will work. Those conditions, based on Confucianism or not, need to be engendered by a government that is definitively not democratic. That may seem like an unlikely prospect, but then the current degree of economic and information freedom would have been unthinkable just two decades ago. Let’s just hope that the release of the old state apparatus is timed right – for Mikhail Gorbachev it was too soon, for Saddam Hussein much too late.


Anonymous said...

All this talk about Jiang Qing and Political Confucianism would be very interesting, if only it would address the subject of Political Confucianism more directly. What exactly is Political Confucianism? How does it work? What are its core documents - The Analects? The Four Books? How might a democracy that evolves from Political Confucianism differ from U.S., German, or Taiwanese democracy? It's all very well for us to talk about Confucian democracy, but without specifics I'm left feeling like this is just another Chinese attempt to seek equivalency with the West by locating the roots of democracy in the ancient Chinese past. Conservative and reform-minded officials did much the same thing during the nineteenth century when they located the origins of western science and technology in the Chinese classics.

Xujun Eberlein said...

Anonymous –

Good questions. A short answer to your question about the core documents of Political Confucianism is that they include the Spring and Autumn Annals by Confucius, and Gongyang Commentary compiled by Dong Zhongshu (179-104 BC). On the latter Jiang Qing has another book titled Introduciton to Gongyang Commentary.

I understand your frustration and I appreciate your interest in the subject. Unfortunately at the moment Jiang Qing's books are available in Chinese only, and translation is not something I have time to do. My posting was intended as an introduction to '抛砖引玉' or "throw out a brick in order to lure jade." If anyone is interested in translating Political Science, I can probably help to connect him/her with Jiang Qing or locate a copy of the book.

The book does include an English translation for its table of content, so I might hand-copy and post that on my blog if it helps.

Anonymous said...

I am less worried about which texts Mr Jiang chooses to idealise as the backward nature of Confucianism itself. Western people also used to have a relationship based social structure: Lord/villien, priest/layman, husband/chattel wife. It is not something I think Western folk should feel proud of, or ever want to return to.
While I have as many criticisms of the current Chinese government as the next person, I think they do deserve credit for the partial liberation of women from traditional Confucian structures. I was always struck by the difference in the status of Women in Hanoi or Seoul to those in Beijing, and I think that this is a function of Vietnam and Korea being more Confucian than China.
Has Mr Jiang written anything about the role of women?

Aaron Gardiner

Xujun Eberlein said...

Aaron –

The role of woman in Confucianism is an important issue which I haven't seen addressed by Jiang Qing. I'm as interested in his opinion as you are on this. In fact I have sent him an email to ask a similar question. Hopefully we'll get an answer.

IMO, the disdain for women is dross from the feudal time. Confucianism, like any school of thought, can continue to develop by shedding the dross and incorporating advances to keep up with the times.

I would like to add that, my intent in introducing political Confucianism is not to present it as the only solution, but rather to open up discussions on political alternatives for China. I do believe that, democracy, especially as implemented in the US, might not be the best way to go. I also believe that any political system should be rooted in a country's culture and history.