Earlier this week, the New York Times ran an op-ed piece by Jiang Qing and Daniel Bell on “A Confucian Constitution for China.” (Jiang is the founder of a Confucian academy in Guiyang, China; Bell is a Canadian political scientist who teaches at Tsinghua University in Beijing.)
Jiang and Bell take aim at what they call “[t]he view that China should become more democratic,” arguing that “democracy is flawed as an ideal” and “flawed in practice,” and that we should instead reframe the debate to consider the nondemocratic legitimacy that they claim can come from a government that grounds its legitimacy in other sources. Specifically, they argue the merits of a tricameral legislature for China. One house would be based upon “popular legitimacy” – which apparently means it would be elected, though they equivocate about whether this should actually be done by “popular vote” or whether these legislators should instead by chosen “as heads of occupational groups.”
The remaining two houses, however, would be chosen by alternative means: one of them according to success in competitive examinations “similar to the examination and recommendation systems used to select scholar-officials in the imperial past,” and the other apparently on the basis of descent from “great sages and rulers.” (Oddly, given their purported objective of updating ancient Confucian thinking to reflect “changes in historical circumstances,” Jiang and Bell do not reveal how having a distant ancestor who was a “great sage” should give someone authority to rule today. Can a system empowering such bloodline descent really be defended in the modern world as a “better alternative” than real democracy?)
Of the three houses, the one made up of competitively-selected scholars would be the most important, possessing “a final, exclusive veto” even over things supported by the other two chambers. But the key point for Jiang and Bell is that democratic political authority would be sharply constrained, with the two unelected houses able to impose their will upon the elected one. This, they think, is a more legitimate form of government than popular sovereignty, and a better form for China. Jiang and Bell urge readers to accept this quasi-Confucian political program as a “more comprehensive and culturally sensitive way of judging … political progress” than simply looking at whether or not citizens have the right to choose and change their rulers.
The scheme propounded by Jiang and Bell is thus a curious one. It is not, however, all that surprising a conclusion for them to be propounding. Some perspective in order.
To begin with, while Jiang and Bell clearly signal their distaste for democracy in their essay, readers of the New York Times may not be aware of just how strident their attack on democracy really is. (NPF readers who want to see more of their work can consult the sources I list at the end of this essay.) Writing in a forthcoming manifesto obligingly being published by Princeton University Press, for instance, Jiang has declared that democratic governance is immoral, and that giving such importance to the will of the people leads to “extreme secularization, contractualism, utilitarianism, selfishness, commercialism, capitalization, vulgarization, hedonism, mediocritization, this-worldliness, lack of ecology, lack of history, and lack of morality.” Indeed, Jiang contends that democracy presents a threat to the kind of “harmonious” global order that he envisions – and, perhaps not incidentally, that the leaders of the Communist Chinese Party-State declare themselves committed to creating. “The political problem of today’s world,” writes Jiang, “is that democracy itself presents a serious problem.”
Not to be left out, Bell himself praises “nondemocratic legitimacy” in governance, and argues that it is better to empower “morally superior decision-makers” to rule than to allow rulers to be chosen merely by elections. He is scornful of American democracy, for instance, declaring that “[t]he joke that the U.S. electoral process is ‘one dollar, one vote’ rather than ‘one person, one vote,’ may not be sufficiently cynical ….” “I’ve learned,” Bell writes, “to question that most sacred of modern Western values – rule by the people in the form of one person, one vote. I now think that other ways of choosing rulers, such as an examination system, are more likely to ensure quality rule.”
In his own writing, Bell has approvingly cited “extensive empirical research” purporting to show that voters are “often irrational” – which he explains is probably why most Chinese intellectuals are leery of “turning over the levers of the Chinese state to eight hundred million rural residents with primary-school education.” The Confucian political theory Bell supports makes clear, he says, that “common people have intellectual limitations,” and that governance is best left to the virtuous few. Indeed, according to Bell, the purpose of replacing democracy with meritocracy would be “marginalizing, at the highest levels, government officials chosen by means of the people’s vote.”
Bell has written that “[i]n the Western mind, those deprived of the opportunity to choose their political leaders are … disadvantaged.” He stresses, however, that in the Confucian mind, this is “not necessarily the case.” To the contrary, he avers, “meritocracy” is the best form of rule, and he thus advocates the domination of “decisionmaking by a wise and public-spirited elite.”
What might that actually look like? Obviously his recent New York Times piece with Jiang Qing provides a clue, but Bell has also written that “there already exists … an institution in Mainland China” that draws upon the ideal of “informed deliberation” in order to “encourage deliberation and provide political consultation on major state policies and important issues concerning national affairs.” That institution, he writes, is the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Committee (CPPCC).
This is quite an admission, for the CPPCC is the mechanism by which the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) – which indeed does regard itself as a benevolent elite uniquely capable of seeing the best interests of the Chinese people and guiding the country toward its destiny – permits a handful of miniscule, neutered, and carefully-policed “democratic” parties to exist in order to be “consulted with” by the CCP and thereby lend a patina of legitimacy to that party’s hegemony. The CCP controls whether or not these other parties can continue to exist at all, it restricts what they are permitted to say and do, and it feels itself under no obligation to do what they want in any event. Setting up a political party outside this “consultative” system, moreover, is prohibited. (In 1998, some Chinese citizens tried to organize and register a new “China Democracy Party” in Hangzhou, but the registration papers were rejected and a dozen or so of its would-be founders were sent to prison – two of them for more than ten years each, for “negating the leadership of the CCP.”) Bell’s invocation of the CPPCC as a model may provide us with some window into how the “House of the People” might work in a “Confucian” political system. “Humane authority” might be, in practice, rather less “humane” than it claims.
In any event, I view the Jiang/Bell op-ed as merely the latest installment in the emerging articulation of a Sinicized ethic of “meritoligarchy.” By “meritoligarchy,” in turn, I refer to a characteristic style of political program that arises out of the conviction by some members of a cultural and intellectual elite that they are ideally suited to rule benevolently over ignorant and uneducated masses who should not be trusted with the ability to choose and change their rulers. Modern versions of idea tend to stress education and technocratic training as the grounding for these elites’ presumed right to rule, whereas older meritoligarchic visions placed their emphasis upon culture or bloodline, but meritoligarchy is an old idea.
The Confucian tradition is steeped in meritoligarchic thinking, of course, and this paternalism survived into the 20th Century with the emphasis placed by Kuomintang (KMT, a.k.a. Nationalist) theorists upon the need for an extended “tutelary” phase of elite rule before the Chinese people would be ready for anything more like real democracy.
More broadly, however, meritoligarchy tends to pop up whenever a ruling elite faces pressure to give more political power to the masses. One can find variations on this theme, for instance, in 19th Century American and British debates over the expansion of the franchise, or in pro-slavery apologetics coming out of the 19th-Century American South, or in Rhodesian rhetoric employed after Ian Smith's “unilateral declaration of independence” in 1965. In a fascinating prequel to the Jiang/Bell proposal for a “tricameral” Chinese legislature, in fact, apartheid-era South African authorities themselves set up a tricameral parliament in 1984 in order to provide white rule with the appearance of greater legitimacy by giving “Coloured” and “Indian” citizens subservient roles in the apartheid political system while leaving black Africans to rot in their “own” separate political “homelands.” (As do Jiang and Bell with their Confucian constitutionalism, South Africa’s “separate development” racial ideologists of the apartheid era felt that their theory provided a “more comprehensive and culturally sensitive way of judging … political progress” than looking merely at conventional standards of democratic legitimacy.)
Meritoligarchic enthusiasms also sometimes pop up within developed democracies when elites who are strongly convinced of their own rectitude and the rightness of their policy prescriptions get impatient with the slow pace of democratic decision-making, or discover that voters don't share their enthusiasms. There are strains of this, for example, in the modern U.S. Progressive movement, for example, especially when it encounters things like the Tea Party. Remember columnist Thomas Friedman and union boss Andy Stern wishing for Chinese-style political autocracy because democratic politics kept the United States from adopting the policies those gentlemen favor? And let’s not forget the “keep voting until you give the right answer” approach that EU technocrats in Brussels took toward democratic ratification of what started out as a European Constitution but was rebranded as the Lisbon Treaty. (Scratch the surface of a self-righteous public policy intellectual, and you’re disturbingly likely to find someone who really wants the hoi polloi just to get the hell out of the way of The Right Policy.)
Anyway, there is little that is too surprising or new in such sentiments. In the modern Chinese context, meritoligarchy fits in well with the Party-State’s quasi-Confucian “virtuocratic” idea that only the wise and steady hand of the CCP – with its increasingly sophisticated and well-trained cadres – is capable of preventing chaos in China and overseeing and consolidating the country’s long-awaited return to first-rank global status. Just as the seminal Chinese political thinker Liang Qichao, writing a century ago, distrusted the hurly-burly of modern democracy and wrote of the virtues of a firm constitutional monarch as the form of government most suited to China’s national regeneration, so CCP elites today depict Western style democracy as being both flawed in practice in the West and as a road to chaos and debilitation for China. The answer? Of course! Permanent CCP rule.
(The CCP is interested in what it calls “democracy” only as a form of paternalistic consultation, with power-holders reaching out to consult and listen to the needs of the people in a classically Confucian way. One may ask more wisdom and benevolence of them, but one may not question the right of those power-holders to hold power. That power comes to them by right, because they deserve it and the people need them. Very unpleasant things can happen to anyone who challenges the elite’s right to keep ruling.)
The new twist on this theme in China today, which one can see in the Jiang/Bell op-ed, is an increasingly explicit invocation of Confucian theory – reflecting ideas that I think of as “neo-Kong” political philosophy (in honor both of Kongzi and American neo-conservatives) – but of course the point of that Confucian emphasis is that it doesn’t purport to be new at all. It is, rather, quite self-consciously “ancient” in its inspirations. The we’re-best-off-ruled-by-a-benevolent-elite-of-educated-worthies argument goes back very, very far indeed.
From my own conversations with Daniel Bell in Beijing, I accept that he does not intend this vision simply to be a whitewashing of Party hegemony, and that he and scholars like Jiang Qing see their approach as involving the addition of nondemocratic sources of political authority to the mix, rather than the outright rejection of democratic legitimacy. And I understand his view that, in theory, Confucian ideals of virtuocratic authority can restrain government power as much as facilitate it (e.g., by holding it up to exogenous standards of benevolence and moral rectitude).
My concern, however, is how well the neo-Kong approach meshes with the Chinese Party-State’s ongoing efforts to develop and maintain a Sinicized meritoligarchic vision as a baldly antidemocratic political theory – that is, one designed forever to preclude giving the Chinese people the ability to exercise their inherent right to choose and change their rulers. It is not hard to why CCP authorities in Beijing – who exercise a “guiding” role (and veto power) over basic lines of research pursued in Chinese universities, and who have encouraged Confucian revival studies since the late 1980s – are happy to see the Neo-Kong discourse promoted, both at home and in the West, as an alternative vision to genuinely democratic governance. Neo-Kong politics are ripe for cynical and opportunistic appropriation by the CCP, and the process is already underway.
Whatever thoughtful philosophizing and benevolent aspirations for political reform might lie behind some of the political Confucianism emerging from the Chinese academy, therefore, its effect is to strengthen Confucianism’s ancient philosophical foe of Legalism by providing CCP hegemony with a more attractive cloak and strengthening party leaders’ conviction that they have something coherent and profound to say in response to, and in rebuttal of, ongoing foreign and domestic calls for genuine democratic accountability in China.
This saddens me, as I think it should sadden anyone deeply interested in and attracted to the rich culture of China, which is today being mined for excuses to rationalize continued autocracy.
-- Christopher Ford
Note: Readers interested in learning more bout Neo-Kong political theory might wish to consult the following writings:
Daniel A. Bell, “Deliberative Democracy with Chinese Characteristics: A Comment on Baogang He’s Research,” in The Search for Deliberative Democracy in China (Ethan J. Leib & Baogang He, eds.) (New York: Palgrave MacMillan 2006), at 149.
Daniel A. Bell, China’s New Confucianism: Politics and Everyday Life in a Changing Society (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2008).
Jiang Qing, A Confucian Constitutional Order (Daniel A. Bell & Ruiping Fan, eds.) (Edmund Ryden, trans.) (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2013) [forthcoming].
Yan Xuetong, Ancient Chinese Thought, Modern Chinese Power (Daniel A. Bell & Sun Zhe eds.) (Edmund Ryden, trans.) (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2011).