China: Democracy, or Confucianism?

by Xujun Eberlein

Last October, when the CCP held its 17th congress, CNN reported the event with the headline "China rules out copying Western democracy." My first reaction to this headline was, So what? That spontaneous reaction might have been an unconscious consequence of my reading Political Confucianism by Jiang Qing (蒋庆), a contemporary Confucian in China. In this book, Jiang Qing draws a blueprint for China's political future based on Confucianism. It is the first such conception since the 1919 May 4th movement that denounced the traditional Chinese ideology as a feudal relic and began the age-old country's modernization efforts.

It seems typical of American thinking to regard either a republic or parliamentary democracy as absolutely the only right model for all countries. For a political system to succeed, however, it needs to be rooted in the particular country's cultural history. Throughout thousands of years, China has never lacked great thinkers, political or philosophical. Which poses an interesting question: why does China need to adopt a Western model for its political system, be it Marxist communism or capitalist democracy?

But it is true that China hasn't had a great folk thinker like Confucius for quite some time. Especially in the communist regime, there has been no soil for such a thinker to grow. This frozen ground seems to have begun thawing lately. Jiang Qing's Confucian orthodox thoughts, at least, have not been subjected to suppression yet.

Among the contemporary Chinese scholars actively seeking solutions for their country's future, Jiang Qing is exceptional in that he investigated various philosophic schools and ideologies before embracing Confucianism. As a 20-year-old soldier in the 1970s, with a mere middle school education, he had taken a stab at Marx's voluminous Capital. In 1980, an undergraduate student in Southwest Politics and Law College, he was the first in the country to criticize Chinese Communist practice as having abandoned the humanitarian essence of Marx's early works. His self-assigned, hand-written thesis "Return to Marx" spread apace in many universities, and brought him years of political trouble.

In his early 30s, Jiang Qing's political predicament drove him first to existentialism and then Buddhism. After his visit to the Shaolin Temple in 1984, he shut himself up on Chongqing's Gele Mountain for four years to study Buddhist scriptures, eventually concluding that Buddhism solves the "life and death" issue on the individual level, but provides inadequate guidance for national political problems. Later he would find that, unlike Buddhism that teaches detachment from the dusty real world, Confucianism has a long tradition of involvement in political construction, and that would become the breakthrough point in Jiang Qing's theoretical exploration.

Jiang Qing had also turned to Christianity, and translated several English books into Chinese, including James Reid's Facing Life with Christ and Louis Proal's Political Crime. He was deeply moved by Jesus's spirit and attempted several times to join a Christian church in Shenzhen. However, his attempts would not come to fruition as he felt "the entire Chinese culture dragging my leg." (Miwan: "Biography of Sensei Jiang Qing," unpublished manuscript in Chinese)

After all this exploration, only Confucianism makes him feel that he is at home and embracing his destiny. This is not because Confucius, some 500 years older than Jesus, had 72 disciples while Jesus had only 12; it is simply that cultural background has an indelible impact on one's ideological choice.

In 2001, 48-year-old Jiang Qing quit his college teaching job and established a Confucian seminary in the remote mountains of Guizhou. For three seasons of the year, except winter, Jiang Qing dresses in the traditional long buttoned shirt, studies and teaches Confucianism in the mountains without electricity or a cell phone signal, and pushes a nation-wide "children reading Confucian classics" movement.

Since 1989, Jiang Qing has published several scholarly books. Political Confucianism, available in Chinese only, was published, with partial sponsorship from the Harvard-Yenching Institute, in 2004 by SDX Joint Publishing in Beijing. It has not been banned, though I couldn't find it in China's bookstores during my visit last year. (The copy I read was lent to me by a friend.) On the other hand, Jiang Qing's plan to publish a collection of recent articles and speeches on Political Confucianism was rejected this year, because the book did not pass the publishing house's "political examination."

In his books and articles on Political Confucianism, Jiang Qing calls for a restoration of Confucianism as the state ideology, as it had been in many dynasties. Further, he outlines a Confucian political structure strongly distinct from both Soviet-style communism and Western-style democracy.

Democracy is Westernized and imperfect in nature, Jiang Qing points out. If applied to China, a western style democratic system would have only one legitimacy – popular will, or civil legitimacy. Such uni-legitimacy operates on the quantity of votes, regardless of the moral implications of decisions taken. Since human desire is selfish by nature, those decisions can be self serving for a particular majority's interest. Because of this, Jiang Qing argues, civil legitimacy alone is not sufficient to build or keep a constructive social order.

The uni-legitimacy criticism makes senses to me because western countries, which have evolved the concepts of sufferance, law, tolerance and community standards over hundreds of years, have a broad base for governance. China, on the other hand, does not have this same evolution. Western democracy simply dropped onto China is likely to face pitfalls parallel to those seen in Iraq. The foundation of majority rule alone is not sufficient to provide good governance.

In contrast, the Confucian state Jiang proposes is tri-legitimate: it carries numinous, historical, and civil legitimacy simultaneously. In particular, the governmental body consists of three mutually constraining institutions that represent religion (members chosen through community recommendation and Confucian examination), cultural tradition (members based on sovereign and sage lineage and by appointment), and popular will (members elected), respectively. Jiang Qing believes that such a structure would avoid many of the mistakes that appear inevitable under a uni-legitimate system.

The above ideas can be traced back to a Confucian concept: "The sovereign rules through the heaven, the earth, and the people." The Chinese had thousands of years of tradition with these elements in their political systems, and of all the great ancient cultures, China is unique in having survived with recognizable continuity.

Jiang Qing’s idea of political Confucianism has found as many advocates as dissenters. Followers honor him as "the greatest contemporary Confucian," while dissenters accuse him of being a “benighted cultural conservative.” Jiang Qing says he accepts both titles without the modifiers.

The website of China Daily, a government-run English newspaper, published an article on January 6, 2006 titled "Confucianism will never be religion [sic]." It concludes, "Religion as a state power, as Jiang advocates, should never be allowed, not in this country."

Chen Lai, China’s top Confucianism scholar and professor of philosophy at Beijing University, welcomes the new departure in political Confucianism research conducted by Jiang Qing. In fact, he helped to have Political Confucianism published. Still, he considers the suggestion that Confucianism become the state ideology, let alone a basis for government, impractical. In my chat with Chen Lai when he visited Harvard University last spring, he shook head at the theology that does not separate state and church.

On the other hand, Daniel A. Bell, an Oxford-educated Canadian scholar and professor of philosophy at Tsinghua University in Beijing, deems that "it is not entirely fanciful to surmise that the Chinese Communist Party will be relabeled the Chinese Confucian Party in a few years time."

There is in fact a sign that China's current leaders have begun to encourage the revival of Confucianism. President Hu Jingtao has alluded to Confucius' teaching in various speeches – a gesture toward the return to traditional value that was not seen in his predecessors. This tendency was again displayed in CCP's 17th Congress.

It is a welcome change, displaying a small degree of tolerance that has been lacking. But it is a far cry from the Confucian state proposed by Jiang Qing.

Last summer in Beijing I had a conversation with Miwan, a disciple and friend of Jiang Qing's and a professor himself in a renowned Chinese university. When asked what he thought of the feasibility of Jiang Qing's ideal, Miwan said, "To a great thinker, feasibility does not have to be an immediate concern. Sensei Jiang is a great thinker." All of Jiang's disciples and followers reverently refer to him as "Jiang xiansheng" – sensei Jiang, whether in front of or behind him. This is a practice of the Confucian "respecting the teacher, valuing the tao" tradition, in sharp contrast to the behavior of today's irreverent young generation. To a Chinese history addict like me, the reappearance of this long-abandoned reverence for a teacher is heart warming.

In an email to me later, Miwan summarizes his association with Jiang Qing by using a classic phrase, "Though unreachable, my heart longs."

After Jiang Qing returned his home in Shenzhen for winter last year, I emailed him asking what he was busy on. He replied, "Reading all day long, nothing more." I asked what he thought of the potential for Confucianism to become the state ideology. "I'm not optimistic," he said, "I'm afraid it might have to wait for several decades."

Well, that is optimistic.

Xujun Eberlein is the author of Apologies Forthcoming and blogs regularly at Inside-Out China, which also contains links to her webpage.


Anonymous said...

" The good thing about Confucianism is it makes Asian people willing to suffer pain..." - Hong Kong tycoon Ronnie Chan, FinanceAsia magazine (2002)

Anonymous said...

"communist regime"
Great, and how about american republic regime?

Anonymous said...

Lame article. What exactly would Political Confucianism look like? How would it work? Would it mean reinstating the imperial examination system? The article answers none of these questions.

It seems to me that China is as preoccupied with achieving equivalency with the West as it ever has been. After 150 years, they are still trying to answer the question, "How can we be both modern and Chinese?"

Anonymous said...

Is the distinction between a confucian system that is held to be tri-legitimate and a "western" that is "uni-legitimate" valid? Taking the US system, there exists the separation of powers between the executive, legislative and judiciary. Why does this represent tri-legitimacy? The legislative is directly elected, the executive is elected through the president, who then makes a series of political appointments. Finally, the judiciary is done through appointment. How does selection mechanisms differ substantively from the proposed Confucian system, in which nothing is elaborated over those who have the power to make appointments and the criteria used in making them?

OT said...

China's leaders need to finally realise that the problem is not and never has been with the political culture of its people, but with the transition of power between leaders and the lack of institutional checks and balances and other safeguards. While Confucianism will serve to guide people's ethics, it will not solve the practical problem of transferring power and legitimacy. At worst it will only serve to mask issues of factionalism that have always plagued Chinese politics down the centuries and seems to be making a comeback within the CCP. Because of its geographical and demographical size, China needs democracy at the very least at the local level to confer not only legitimacy, but also checks and balances. As for at the national level, that is something they will have to evolve or work it out for themselves.

chinaphil said...

Hmm. Haven't read this book, so it's a bit premature to criticise. But I'd like to say this: could those who seek to criticise our "westernized" democracy actually do a little to understand it first? Jiang Qing comes up with this blinding moment of brilliance: the decisions of a democracy "can be self serving for a particular majority's interest."

No shit, Sherlock. I mean, he's right, but that's exactly why democratic countries spend so much energy tying themselves up in unbreakable legal bonds and inventing human rights. Because, duh, we know! Tyranny of the majority is a well-understood and deeply researched problem. Hence all those checks and balances in the US constitution, bicameral legislatures, rights of appeal to higher bodies. I'd hesitate to say we've solved the problem, but we've done some hardcore thinking about it.

Jiang Qing, bless 'im, apparently still feels ready to just ditch the concept though, and go for some nice quangos.

I apologise if my tone here is a little strident, but the arguments described in this review do not make me feel inclined to give Jiang or Confucianism as a whole much academic respect.

Anonymous said...

Contrary to what this author thinks, the West does not have a tradition of democracy. Except for a few experiments with it, the history of the West is pretty much the history of lords and serfs. We eventually democratized because we (meaning the serfs in coalition with merchants) got tired of being told what to do by leaders we hadn't selected. How is China any different?

Confucianism is in; Confucianism is out. No, it's back in again... Who cares?!!

Some day, whether it be later this year or later this century, Chinese serfs and merchants will finally decide they've had enough.

Mudhead said...

Based on a similar cultural/political legitimacy argument Beida Political Science scholar Pan Wei recently wrote "Toward a Consultative Rule of Law Regime in China", Journal of Contemporary China, 1 January 2003, vol. 12, no. 34, pp. 3-43(41)

Gilman Grundy said...

The first of this year's BBC Reith lectures, from ultimate sinologist wind-bag Jonathan Spence also covered the same ground.

Some generic protests - 1) American is not the same as western, why do both Chinese and US scholars continue to talk as if the world had only two countries in it? 2) Democracy is a Greek invention (in as much as anyone invented it), a country which has been part of eastern empires much longer than it has been independent - why do people talk about democracy as if it was something which belongs to the west?

Jiang Qing and Johnathan Spence both make the same mistake - by thinking of Confucianism and democracy as mutually exclusive. It is a set of rules with no real over-arching and all-encompassing structure (references to 'heaven' do not constitute a centre). Confucianism is a political system in the same way that Taoism is a religion - a Taoist can worship alongside Budhists, and a Confucianist can work inside a democracy. Confucianism and democracy can be made to be compatible.

Instead, the system he sets out is a very narrow form of theocratic democracy similar to that currently practiced in Iran - with an added 'House of Lords' on the old British model to boot. This would be a huge leap backwards for China, even compared to the current crypto-fascist 'communism' currently practiced today.

To be honest, I see the uprise in Confucianism today to be similar to the renewal of interest in the Russian Orthodox church in the Putin era - an attempt to legitimise authoritarian rule by grasping at national symbols. I doubt it will amount to much in the long term.

Jeff Wasserstrom said...

Readers who found this post interesting might like to check out the interview with the author on the Peking Duck site: http://www.pekingduck.org/2008/06/apologies-forthcoming-an-interview-with-xujun-eberlein/

J said...

If democracy is so unsuited to China, what to make of the stable, prosperous democracies in the Confucian societies of Taiwan and South Korea? Both these countries seem to have proven the author's assertion that China must use a system based on Chinese culture wrong.

Xujun said...

Thanks to all who commented. I appreciate your interest in the subject and I've also linked to one of the criticizers from my blog http://www.insideoutchina.com.

A reader comment on my blog yesterday asks what the core documents of Political Confucianism are. That is a good question, and it might help to note a short answer here as well. Jiang Qing's book cites mostly 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.

Another reader wrote me to say "I would have liked to read a lot more about Jiang Qing's ideas about Confucianism - especially related to the other philosophies and religions he had studied. There are really only three paragraphs about his ideas and, at least for me, that is not enough to learn much."

I understand the frustration; unfortunately at the moment 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.

post-science said...

Please ask Jiang Qing (蒋庆) to read post-science"
and contact me:
Thank you.
Best regards,
CY Lee

Joel said...

Thanks for posting stuff like this. Posts like this that help bridge the language and worldview distance between China and "外国" are very helpful!

Can you explain this a bit more? I don't understand the connection: "However, his attempts [to join a church in Shenzhen] would not come to fruition as he felt 'the entire Chinese culture dragging my leg.'"

bigben_usa said...

The issue should not be Confucianism vs. Democracy. Like how monarchy was the basis of ancient political system, democracy (popular legitimacy) is the basis of modern political system. I believe the Chinese government acknowledges that the Chinese political system needs reform to a more democratic government. The big issue and one debated in the academics is what type of democratic government is most appropriate for East Asian societies like China. Many in Asia have argued that the so called “liberal democracy” championed by the West is not the only form of democracy. An evolving model sometimes labeled as “social democracy” or “Confucian democracy” might be more suitable for East Asian culture. The general difference is that the individual sits at the core of “liberal democracy” while the society is the centerpiece of the so called “Confucian democracy”. Given the importance of harmony to many East Asian culture, the latter might be more suitable. Currently, Singapore is seen as the leading practitioner of the so called “Confucian democracy” while Taiwan and S. Korea have adopted the more Western style “liberal democracy”. Japan falls somewhere in between the two systems. Some have argued that Taiwan and S. Korea have become politically “chaotic” and less efficient with “liberal democracy”. While Singapore retains a strong track record of efficiency, clean governance, and accountability to go along with relatively opened civil liberty and harmony. On the other hand, some argue Singapore is too restrictive and would not work for a country as large as China. The so called “Confucian democracy” is still an evolving concept. Ultimately, the Chinese as well as East Asians have to discover a system that suits them best.