Democracy's Thin Roots in China

Is China ready for democracy?

If past is prologue, perhaps not. For 2,000 years, the imperial rulers recruited bureaucrats through a Confucian exam system that tested not only knowledge of state creeds, but also absolute allegiance to the emperor. Members of this "scholar gentry" who differed with the throne were subject to castration, beheading, or state-ordered suicide.

Modern leaders in other Asian countries that were influenced by China's ancient ways have argued that developing nations need authoritarian rule with handpicked bureaucrats. Social harmony through state control is more important than individual rights of Western-style democracy, they argue. Their ideas are countered by Taiwan and South Korea, which have moved toward democracy in the past decade.

"There is a genuine respect in parts of Asia for rule by an educated elite," says Daniel Bell, a philosophy professor at Hong Kong University.

Although China's Confucian legacy has survived the Communist revolution, it has not necessarily translated into wide public support for the party, says Mr. Bell. "In Tiananmen Square in 1989, students from elite universities identified themselves as the conscience of the nation and attracted followers," he says.

"To strike a middle ground between Western democracy and Asian authoritarianism, China could create a 'house of scholars' recruited through exams as part of a bicameral legislature," he adds.

Such a structure "might be more attractive to the party than a freely elected chamber of parliament," Bell says, "and it would give more legitimacy to the leadership."

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