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The Chinese Confucian Party?

Daniel Bell, in the Globe and Mail of 19 February 2010 wrote an interesting article about the revival of Confucianism. Only recently, the Chinese Communist Party approved a film about Confucius, starring the handsome leading man Chow Yun-Fat.

Bell’s addressing Confucian values in practice is particularly interesting. Confucian intellectuals have put forward political proposals that aim to combine “Western” ideas of democracy with “Confucian” ideas of meritocracy. Rather than subordinating Confucian values and institutions to democracy as an a priori dictum, they contain a division of labour, with democracy having priority in some areas and meritocracy in others.

Thus, farmers should have a greater say about land disputes in rural China; and workers should have a greater say about pay and safety disputes. In practice, this means more freedom of speech and association and more representation for workers and farmers in some sort of democratic house.

Government action in areas such as foreign policy and environmental protection affects the interests of non-voters, and they need some form of representation as well. Hence, Confucian thinkers put forward proposals for a meritocratic house of government, with deputies selected by such mechanisms as free and fair competitive examinations, that would have the task of representing the interests of non-voters typically neglected by democratically selected decision-makers.

The writer points out that one obvious objection to examinations is that they cannot test for the kinds of virtues that concerned Confucius – flexibility, humility, compassion and public-spiritedness – and that, ideally, would also characterize political decision-makers in the modern world. This is true but are deputies chosen by such examinations more likely to be far-sighted than those chosen by elections?

There are reasons to believe so. Drawing on extensive empirical research, Bryan Caplan’s book The Myth of the Rational Voter: Why Democracies Choose Bad Policies shows that voters are often irrational, and he suggests tests of voter competence as a remedy.

Examinations would test for basic economic policy (and knowledge of international relations), but they would also cover knowledge of the Confucian classics, testing for memorization as well as interpretation.
Jiang Qing, a leading Confucian political thinker, argues that examinations could set a framework and moral vocabulary for subsequent political actions, and successful candidates would also need to be evaluated in terms of how they perform in practice.

Bell asks if the idea is far-fetched, pointing out that it is no less so than scenarios that envision a transition to Western-style liberal democracy (because both scenarios assume a more open society). It also answers the key worry about the transition to democracy: that it translates into short-term, unduly nationalistic policy-making.

It’s also a matter of what standards we should use to evaluate China’s political progress. Politically speaking, most people in the west think that China should look more like Canada. But one day, perhaps, we will hope that Canada looks more like China!

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