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Wednesday, July 11, 2012

A Confucian Constitution For China

China-bashing never ceases.  In a recent speech, Hillary Clinton once again went on the offensive attacking their anti-democratic political system.  In an article in the NY Times http://www.nytimes.com/2012/07/11/opinion/a-confucian-constitution-in-china.html?ref=opinion entitled A Confucian Constitution For China, Jiang Qing and Daniel Bell suggest that these harsh right-wrong criticisms framing the debate in democracy vs. authoritarianism are not productive:

On Monday, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton gave a speech in Mongolia denouncing Asian governments that seek “to restrict people’s access to ideas and information, to imprison them for expressing their views, to usurp the rights of citizens to choose their leaders.” It was a swipe at China’s authoritarian political system. The view that China should become more democratic is widely held in the West. The political future of China is far likelier to be determined by the longstanding Confucian tradition of “humane authority” than by Western-style multiparty elections.

Contrary to our popular belief and to that of Winston Churchill who famously said “Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all those others that have been tried”, there are others:

In China, political Confucians defend an alternative approach: the Way of the Humane Authority. The question of political legitimacy is central to their constitutional thought. Legitimacy is not simply what people think of their rulers; it is the deciding factor in determining whether a ruler has the right to rule. And unlike Western-style democracy, there is more than one source of legitimacy.

According to the Gongyang Zhuan, a commentary on a Confucian classic, political power can be justified through three sources: the legitimacy of heaven (a sacred, transcendent sense of natural morality), the legitimacy of earth (wisdom from history and culture), and the legitimacy of the human (political obedience through popular will).

The return to a modern Confucian democracy is predicated on a number of Chinese observations:

[First], democracy is flawed as an ideal. Political legitimacy is based solely on the sovereignty of the people — more specifically, a government that grants power to democratically elected representatives. But there is no compelling reason for a government to have only one source of legitimacy. 

Democracy is not solely based on ‘the sovereignty of the people’, for under the division of political responsibility, the President can certainly act on his own, and the Supreme Court is the final arbiter and brake on both presidential and Congressional overreaching.  In terms of a ‘legitimacy of heaven’, the Declaration of Independence made it very clear that all men have rights endowed by the Creator, and the Constitution evolved as a document which, while refusing the intervention of the State in matters of religion, continued the philosophical thread of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness as endowed rights.  The Enlightenment believed in ‘a sacred, transcendent sense of natural morality’, and was human reason that would be able to decipher what those universal laws were and now to apply and respect them.  

The ‘legitimacy from earth’, wisdom from history and culture, was enshrined in the principles of the Enlightenment, and Jefferson and his colleagues hoped that the Constitution as a philosophical document (i.e. The Bill of Rights), derived from moral law and natural principles but also from the lessons of history, would provide the framework for a nation that was intelligent in its appreciation of the lessons of both culture and history.  It has not turned out that way, and the electorate, it seems, has drawn farther and farther away from an intellectual ideal.  The Senate was designed as the more rational, reasonable, and thoughtful organ of government, and thus perhaps conforms to the Confucian ideal; but that notion has long been forgotten as the Senate has become as partisan, parochial, and venal in its interests.

The ‘legitimacy of the human’, political obedience through popular will, is a close as we get to a Confucian ideal, but the concept is still very foreign.  Popular will in today’s electorate means voting narrow and selfish interests – far from the ‘pursuit of happiness’ that Jefferson included in the Constitution and meant to refer to a collective or civic happiness rather than a personal one.  Political obedience refers more to the Confucian respect for order, discipline, rule, and a public sense of community.  In other words, the people rule themselves out of respect for each other and a desire to retain the integrity of society.

Second, democracy is also flawed in practice. Political choices come down to the desires and interests of the electorate. This leads to two problems. First, the will of the majority may not be moral: it may favor racism, imperialism or fascism. Second, when there is a clash between the short-term interests of the populace and the long-term interests of mankind, as is the case with global warming, the people’s short-term interests become the political priority. As a result, democratically elected governments in America and elsewhere are finding it nearly impossible to implement policies that curb energy usage in the interests of humanity and of future generations.

The above passage highlights the most important feature of democracy and perhaps its greatest flaw – We, the People can vote immorally.  Our State Department does not know how to deal with a democratically elected Hamas, for example, a regime which has terrorist and, some think, genocidal goals (the elimination of Israel).  New Islamic regimes in the Arab Spring countries may well deprive women of their civil rights and rule autocratically based on theocratic principles.  If there were elections in Afghanistan and if the Taliban agreed to participate, there is little doubt that they would win.  How do we square free and fair elections with an anti-democratic result.  We cannot.  We have refused to recognized Hamas.

People by nature are short-term thinkers; and while there are global movements afoot today, we still think locally.  We are fine with clean air as long as it does not cost too much nor take away jobs and revenue.  Americans and Chinese are narrow, self-interested citizens to varying degrees.  Human nature doesn’t vary, and although different political systems may vary in the degree of individualism or communalism, at heart we are selfish.

In modern China, Humane Authority should be exercised by 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.

The leader of the House of Exemplary Persons should be a great scholar. Candidates for membership should be nominated by scholars and examined on their knowledge of the Confucian classics and then assessed through trial periods of progressively greater administrative responsibilities — similar to the examination and recommendation systems used to select scholar-officials in the imperial past. The leader of the House of the Nation should be a direct descendant of Confucius; other members would be selected from descendants of great sages and rulers, along with representatives of China’s major religions. Finally, members of the House of the People should be elected either by popular vote or as heads of occupational groups.

To American eyes and ears this seems archaic, remote, and totally unrealistic; and yet it provides a model for a more orderly and cohesive society.  We as a nation have travelled far from the philosophical principles enshrined in the Constitution.  A Supreme Court which ruled not only on the narrow constitutionality of freedoms – often compared to debates about the number of angels that can fit on the head of a pin – but on adherence to the moral principles of the document, does not seem like such a bad idea. 

An academic body which studied history and provided binding guidelines to political leaders on the wisdom or error of their ways also seems reasonable.  Had we had such a body, perhaps we would never have gotten into Vietnam where we so dismally misunderstood Vietnamese nationalism, hatred of China, and the force of absolute will and determination.  We certainly never would have tangled ourselves up in the complex web of ethnic and tribal divisions in Afghanistan and Iraq, for the scholars would have shown how such divisions are the rule if not inevitable.

An electoral system which provides both for real, deliberative leadership and popular representation also sounds reasonable.  As above we could do with a reconfigured Senate, one constituted to be somewhere between a Hamiltonian aristocracy, a Roman Senate, and a British House of Lords and designed to rein in the naturally parochial, venal, and self-serving interests of ‘the people’.

The authors of the article are writing seriously about Chinese political reform.  While they never expect The Way of Humane Authority to actually be implemented – China has perhaps gone too far towards Western-style capitalist anarchy – there are enough historical antecedents to make it at least plausible.  They are so sanguine about the possibilities that they suggest practical ways to make it work:

This system would have checks and balances. Each house would deliberate in its own way and not interfere in the affairs of the others. To avoid political gridlock arising from conflicts among the three houses, a bill would be required to pass at least two houses to become law. To protect the primacy of sacred legitimacy in Confucian tradition the House of Exemplary Persons would have a final, exclusive veto, but its power would be constrained by that of the other two houses: for example, if they propose a bill restricting religious freedom, the People and the Nation could oppose it, stopping it from becoming law.

In conclusion, the article is fascinating because it challenges political absolutism.  American-style democracy is no longer simply a political system, it is an article of faith, the bedrock of American exceptionalism, and a universal God-given principle which should not – cannot be challenged.  The article is also important because it suggests how an alternative political system to Western democracy might emerge if the historical, social, and cultural traditions were right.  Finally, it is relevant because our country was founded according to principles not that dissimilar from the Confucian model; and although we have strayed, it is worth looking inward to address issues of morality, civility, social cohesion, respect for knowledge and history.

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