Daniel A. Bell: China’s Confucian Alternative to Communism and Democracy





[Daniel A. Bell is professor of political philosophy at Tsinghua University in Beijing and the author of “China’s New Confucianism: Politics and Everyday Life in a Changing Society.”]

Four decades ago, it would have been suicidal to say a good word about Confucius in Beijing. Confucius was the reactionary enemy, and all Chinese were encouraged to struggle against him. Chairman Mao himself was photographed on the cover of a revolutionary newspaper that announced the desecration of Confucius’s grave in Qufu. My own university (Tsinghua University in Beijing) was a hotbed of extreme leftism.

How times have changed. Today, the Chinese Communist Party approves a film about Confucius starring the handsome leading man Chow Yun-Fat. The master is depicted as an astute military commander and teacher of humane and progressive values, with a soft spot for female beauty. What does this say about China’s political future? “Confucius” bombed at the box office, leading many to think that the revival of Confucianism will go the same way as the anti-Confucius campaigns in the Cultural Revolution.

But perhaps it’s just a bad movie. “Confucius” received the kiss of death when it went head-to-head against the blockbuster “Avatar.” A vote for “Confucius” was seen as a vote against the heroic blue creatures from outer space. In the long term, however, Confucian revivalists may be on the right side of history....


Cadres at the newly built Communist Party school in Shanghai proudly tell visitors that the main building is modeled on a Confucian scholar’s desk. Abroad, the government has been symbolically promoting Confucianism via branches of the Confucius Institute, a Chinese-language and cultural center similar to the Alliance Francaise....

What might such values mean in practice? In the past decade, 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 labor, with democracy having priority in some areas and meritocracy in others. If it’s about land disputes in rural China, farmers should have a greater say. If it’s about pay and safety disputes, workers should have a greater say. In practice, it means more freedom of speech and association and more representation for workers and farmers in some sort of democratic house....

Far fetched? It’s no less so than scenarios that envision a transition to Western-style liberal democracy (because both scenarios assume a more open society).

And it answers the key worry about the transition to democracy: that it translates into short-term, unduly nationalistic policymaking. It’s also a matter of what standards we should use to evaluate China’s political progress. Politically speaking, most people think China should look more like the West. But one day, perhaps, we will hope that the West looks more like China....




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