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Global Viewpoint

China’s alternative to Communism and democracy

In China, Communism has lost the capacity to inspire. Enter Confucianism.

(Page 2 of 3)



But the revival of Confucianism is not just government-sponsored. The government is also reacting to developments outside its control. There has been a resurgence of interest in Confucianism among academics and in the Chinese equivalent of civil society. The renewed interest is driven partly by normative concerns. Thousands of educational experiments around the country promote the teaching of Confucian classics to young children; the assumption is that better training in the humanities improves the virtue of the learner. More controversially – because it’s still too sensitive to publicly discuss such questions in mainland China – Confucian thinkers put forward proposals for constitutional reform aiming to humanize China’s political system.

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AN UPHILL STRUGGLE

Yet, the problem is not just the Chinese government. It can be an uphill struggle to convince people in Western countries that Confucianism can offer a progressive and humane path to political reform in China. Why does the revival of Confucianism so often worry Westerners? One reason may be a form of self-love. For most of the 20th century, Chinese liberals and Marxists engaged in a totalizing critique of their own heritage and looked to the West for inspiration.

It may have been flattering for Westerners – look, they want to be just like us! – but there is less sympathy now that Chinese are taking pride in their own traditions for thinking about social and political reform. But more understanding and a bit of open-mindedness can take care of that problem.

Another reason may be that the revival of Confucianism is thought to be associated with the revival of Islamic “fundamentalism” and its anti-Western tendencies.

Perhaps the revival of closed-minded and intolerant Christian “fundamentalism” also comes to mind. But the revival of Confucianism in China is not so opposed to liberal social ways (other than extreme individualistic lifestyles, in which the good life is sought mainly outside social relationships). What it does propose is an alternative to Western political ways, and that may be the main worry. But this worry stems from an honest mistake: the assumption that less support for Western-style democracy means increased support for authoritarianism. In China, packaging the debate in terms of “democracy” versus “authoritarianism” crowds out possibilities that appeal to Confucian political reformers.

Confucian reformers generally favor more freedom of speech in China. What they question is democracy in the sense of Western-style competitive elections as the mechanism for choosing the country’s most powerful rulers. One clear problem with “one person, one vote” is that equality ends at the boundaries of the political community; those outside are neglected. The national focus of the democratically elected political leaders is assumed; they are meant to serve only the community of voters. Even democracies that work well tend to focus on the interests of citizens and neglect the interests of foreigners. But political leaders, especially leaders of big countries such as China, make decisions that affect the rest of the world (consider global warming), and so they need to consider the interests of the rest of the world.

Hence, reformist Confucians put forward political ideals that are meant to work better than Western-style democracy in terms of securing the interests of all those affected by the policies of the government, including future generations and foreigners. Their ideal is not a world where everybody is treated as an equal but one where the interests of nonvoters would be taken more seriously than in most nation-centered democracies. And the key value for realizing global political ideals is meritocracy, meaning equality of opportunity in education and government, with positions of leadership being distributed to the most virtuous and qualified members of the community. The idea is that everyone has the potential to become morally exemplary, but, in real life, the capacity to make competent and morally justifiable political judgments varies among people, and an important task of the political system is to identify those with above-average ability.

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