Premier Wen Jiabao wrote an article that has attracted some attention:
The Communist Party cautioned China's increasingly impatient reformers and intellectuals Tuesday that political liberalization and democracy are still a long way off despite the rapid pace of economic change over the past two decades.
The warning, in an article attributed to Premier Wen Jiabao in the official People's Daily newspaper, constituted the party's first known response to a bubbling up of political debate as China prepares for an annual session of its legislature and an important Communist Party congress that is scheduled for this fall.
This is pretty standard stuff: the Party asserts that China is not ready for democracy because it is only in the "primary stage of socialism" - an ideological innovation from the 1980s - and must develop further. It is a variation on the you-must-be-rich-to-be-democratic argument. Ignore democratic India, this argument would say, or the fact that China has grown tremendously since the 1980s. Ignore any counter-evidence because, ultimately, it is simply a matter of power-holders who do not want to relinquish power.
But let me ask one of my usual questions: what would Confucius say? It is true that Confucianism was used for centuries to rationalize authoritarian power. When you read the Analects, however, as I am doing this week with my tutorial, you notice glimmers of a more democratic possibility. I am not suggesting that imperial China could have somehow been more democratic. It wasn't: end of story. Rather, I believe that Confucianism holds within it elements that can encourage democratization in the here and now. Consider the first two passages in chapter 13:
Adept Lu asked about governing, and the Master said: "Put the people first, and reward their efforts well.
When Lu asked further, he said: "Never tire."
When he was a regent for the House of Chi, Jan Yung asked about governing, and the Master said: "Depend on the lesser officials. Forgive their minor offenses and raise up worthy talents."
"How will I recognize worthy talents and raise them up?"
"If you raise up those you recognize," replied the Master, "do you think people will let your ignore those you don't recognize."
I especially like the second passage, which is more overtly political. It suggests that in the recruitment and selection of political officers, the highest authority may not recognize all of the most talented and, thus, he should listen to the people and their recommendations.
In a sense, democracy is a manner of listening to the people; it is an institutional arrangement that gives the people political voice. It has been obvious since 1949 that the over-centralization of power in the PRC system routinely ignores the voice of the people. And that is one of the primary reasons for the extensive corruption internal to Chinese politics. The Party regularly fails to "recognize worthy talents."
I would never say that democracy is perfect. We all know that it can be systemically abused. It can bring forth bad leaders. But it also provides a mechanism for getting rid of bad leaders and, thus, offers greater promise for "putting the people first." It is, then, closer to the Confucian ideal than the decrepit authoritarianism of a one-party dictatorship that demands that genuine democracy be postponed long into the future.