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.
That’s from an op-ed in last Wednesday’s New York Times, in which the authors essentially take a pro-authoritarian stance. In short, their argument is that they have have found a better scheme. The op-ed has prompted surprisingly few responses (see here for a Chinese philosophical perspective, see here for an excellent critical perspective, and see here for Tom Pepinsky’s take).
Rather than Western-style democracy, what the authors have in mind is
… 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.
So what the authors suggest, then, is a mixture of technocracy and monarchy, with just enough of a bone thrown in to the people so to prevent uprisings?
The remainder of the op-ed reads like an undergraduate term paper on Plato’s The Republic:
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.
But is there any guarantee that “humane authoritarianism” is less likely to lead to racism, imperialism, or fascism? Wouldn’t it be easier to just provide people with a humane education, so that the will of the majority does not lead to racism, imperialism, or fascism?
I think the heart of the authors’ argument comes from a conception of humankind that is radically different from mine — one that sees human beings as fundamentally evil (and stupid, if you consider the global warming example above).
There are certainly problems with American democracy (not least of which the role Big Money plays in it), but authoritarianism — “humane” or not — is almost surely not the solution to those problems.