“Democracy won’t work”

Author says China needs to be governed using Confucian principles

“Democracy won’t work”

Sage approach: controversial book proposes a system of government underpinned by the ideas of Confucius

People will sometimes go to extraordinary lengths to seek out expert opinion. For example, in the early 1920s TE Lawrence – better known as Lawrence of Arabia – was visited by an American oil baron. The visitor walked into the Englishman’s Oxford college rooms and declared: “I am here from the States, Colonel Lawrence, to ask a single question. You are the only man who will answer it honestly.” He went on to solicit Lawrence’s view on whether it was worth investing in Yemen.

The poet Robert Graves, witness to the scene, recounted in his memoir Goodbye to All That that it was a brief conversation. Lawrence opted for a one-word response (“No”) and the American immediately concluded: “That is all I wanted to know; it was worth coming for. Thank you and good day.”

On balance, it was a pretty sound piece of advice. Oil would be discovered in Yemen, but about seven decades later and in nothing like the volume unearthed in Saudia Arabia in 1938.

Then again, experts aren’t always correct in their big calls: from the forecast of Thomas Watson (an early boss of IBM) that the world would only ever need a few computers through to Bill Gates 1996 verdict on Steve Jobs that “99% of what he says and thinks is wrong”.

Chinese political philosopherJiang Qing believes that the well known political scientist Francis Fukuyama falls into this category too. Jiang says the Stanford academic’s most famous verdict – that “since the end of the Cold War, democracy has become the only possible form of government” ­­– is also inaccurate.

Jiang is taking issue with the main conclusion of Fukuyama’s book The End of History and The Last Man. “It is certain that what Fukuyama says does not apply to China,” he says.

Jiang is China’s foremost ‘political Confucianist’, an ideological group that wishes to see the country governed with principles propounded by Confucius, the sage who lived around 2,500 years ago. Jiang has also put his ideas forth in a new book, translated into English and published by Princeton University Press. It’s titled A Confucian Constitutional Order: How China’s Ancient Past can Shape its Political Future.

The book is controversial – and not only because it rejects Western democracy, which it sees as leading to selfishness, hedonism, mediocrity and a lack of morality.

Likewise the treatment of China’s ruling Communist Party is equally punchy. Not only does Jiang question the legitimacy of the current governing system, the cover art reinforces the point by replacing the portrait of Mao Zedong in Tiananmen Square with one of Confucius.

In the book’s introduction, Tsinghua University professor Daniel Bell writes: “In China’s political context, it takes a great deal of courage to put forward such ideas.”

So what would a Confucian system look like, and how would it compare to a parliamentary democracy? Jiang writes that the guiding principle of a Confucian constitution is ‘the Way of the Humane Authority’. This, he points out, is “the way ahead for China” as it “surpasses” democracy and produces “an equilibrium”. How? By uniting what Jiang says are the three forms of legitimacy: the sacred, the cultural and the will of the people.

The inclusion of the latter, says Jiang, means that the new Confucian system “does not amount to a complete rejection of democracy”. However, the democratic impulse must be balanced by the two other sources of legitimacy. Jiang believes that pure democracy panders to human desires and is inevitably short term in its outlook. At a practical level, for example, Jiang says democracy is “unable to tackle environmental problems”.

Jiang also makes clear that he isn’t calling for China to be governed as it was when Confucius lived – i.e. via monarchies. Instead he says that his ideas “call for great political creativity”. He proposes a system based on three governing bodies: the House of Ru, which represents sacred legitimacy (i.e. the heavens); the House of the People, which represents popular legitimacy; and the House of the Nation, which represents cultural legitimacy.

How to select them? Jiang writes: “The Scholars (Ru) are chosen by recommendation and nomination. The People are chosen by universal suffrage and by election from functional constituencies. The members of the Nation are selected by hereditary criteria and by assignment.”

For example, the leader of the House of Ru ( who will serve for at least 15 years) should be a great scholar proposed by his Confucian peers, who have all been through a classical examination system to prove they understand China’s classic texts. They therefore understand Confucian rites and philosophy, and will take a long term view where policy is concerned (for example, operating an economy that sustains a state of balance with the natural world).

The leader of the House of the Nation must be a direct descendant of Confucius, Jiang says (not as much of a problem as you might think, since there are two million of them, see WiC34). This leader then selects the members of the house from descendants of other great sages, as well as patriots, retired judges, diplomats and worthy people from society.

Each house has real parliamentary power and a bill must pass all three to become law – with the head of the executive and the chief justice chosen by consensus by all three houses. Jiang says the tricameral system is a recipe both for cooperation and restraint. However, it’s also evident that the Confucian House of Ru is the highest body, since Jiang gives it alone the permanent power of veto over proposed laws.

Jiang makes clear too that his system will be anything but liberal or permissive. He gives this example: “A bill, such as one permitting homosexuals to found a family, that passes the House of the People but is against the Way of Heaven will be vetoed by the House of Ru.”

Like Karl Marx, Jiang seems confident he has proposed a system “superior to democracy and theocracy” which gives “humanity a new ideal”.

Readers must judge for themselves. Jiang – who began life as a committed Marxist – discovered Confucianism in the 1980s. In 2001 he founded an academy in a remote area of Guizhou to spread his ideas. As to the practicality of his views, there are plenty of questions. An op-ed piece expressing a similar philosophy that Jiang co-wrote in the New York Times in July was met with a degree of incredulity, although it was always going to be a difficult sell.

Perhaps Jiang will do better with a Chinese audience, although WiC has a hunch that a Chinese language version of A Confucian Constitutional Order won’t be available in Beijing bookshops anytime soon.

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