By JIANG QING and DANIEL A. BELL
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. But framing the debate in terms of democracy versus authoritarianism overlooks better possibilities.
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. After all, 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 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.
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).
In ancient times, Humane Authority was implemented by early Chinese monarchs. But changes in historical circumstances now necessitate changes in the form of rule. Today, the will of the people must be given an institutional form that was lacking in the past, though it should be constrained and balanced by institutional arrangements reflecting the other two forms of legitimacy.
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.
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.
Instead of judging political progress simply by asking whether China is becoming more democratic, Humane Authority provides a more comprehensive and culturally sensitive way of judging its political progress.
Jiang Qing is the founder of the Yangming Confucian Academy in Guiyang, China. He is the author, and Daniel A. Bell is an editor, of the forthcoming book “A Confucian Constitutional Order: How China’s Ancient Past Can Shape Its Political Future.”
See online: A Confucian Constitution for China