China’s intellectuals and their sympathisers have begun to peddle a bold new argument. They have started to hit international forums with the claim that China’s system of governance, based as it is on pillars of Confucian wisdom, is not just superior to the liberal democratic system, it actually has more legitimacy.
In The New York Times of July 11, Jiang Qing and Daniel A Bell argue the case for a ‘Confucian Constitution’ for China. The political future of China will be better served, they say, by a long-standing Confucian tradition of ‘humane authority’ than by multiparty elections. Democracy is a flawed ideal in their view. It has only one source of legitimacy, i.e. the sovereignty of the people; political Confucianism offers much more.
Confucian tradition asserts that political power must have three sources of legitimacy: The legitimacy of heaven; the legitimacy of earth; and the legitimacy of the human. Democracy merely serves that last source through popular elections.
In modern China, write Qing and Bell, ‘humane authority’ would require a tricameral legislature: “A House of Exemplary Persons, that represents sacred legitimacy; a House of the Nation that represents historical and cultural legitimacy; and a House of the People that represents popular legitimacy.” Only the House of the People “should be elected either by popular vote or as heads of occupational groups”.
For a realistic assessment of such a proposal to make heaven, earth and people exist in Confucian harmony, we could, however, question the legitimacy of the whole idea.
Who, for instance, will have the privilege to decide the composition of the House of Exemplary Persons and the House of the Nation? Guess we can assume it will be the exclusive nine-member polit-buro that would continue to approve all such selections.
In other words, the proposed arrangement would in fact be a variation of the old Leninist concept of a Communist Party, composed of revolutionary intellectuals and their comrades, acting as the “vanguard of the proletariat” to look after the people’s interests until such time as the working class has matured to governing ability.
The vanguard, or the New Class as the late East European intellectual Milovan Djilas dubbed it, doesn’t let go the reins of power and privilege unless, of course, the entire edifice crumbles like the Soviet Union’s did. In China, party bosses with their families do very well for themselves, living in too many cases way beyond the spending capacity of ordinary citizens. The recently disgraced Bo Xilai’s family fell from power because of party intrigue but many other senior members of the party continue to live in extravagant grace thanks to heavenly authority while their children, called princelings, often live abroad in the wretched, liberal West.
To many of us, any talk of Confucian Humane Authority might sound little more than cleverly confusing mumbo-jumbo. But when thinkers from a globally powerful China start arguing for it earnestly, we ought to sit up.
Their argument is based, in my view, on three errors. One is a static picture of the current state of liberal democratic nations, particularly the state of their economies. It’s a depressing but passing picture. It does not uphold the allegation of Qing and Bell that democracy is “flawed in practice”. Sure, at a given point in time, democracy in any country can appear messy; but not if you take a longer dynamic view of the remarkable overall performance of post-World War II liberal democracies.
Second, any argument for benevolent authoritarianism assumes impartial and just benevolence at the top of the pyramid. Here’s a question: What if a comparatively benevolent Deng Xiaoping had not returned to power in the late 1970s and another paranoid megalomaniac like Mao had instead run riot once again over China?
Third, popular elections are a part of democracy, not the entire substance. Assured access to fundamental rights to life and liberty, including the right to free and fair trial and the right to dissent, for all citizens is what makes a democracy liberal.
Can a Confucian Constitution, that enables the practice of Humane Authority, guarantee such simple lower-case rights for its citizens?