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« Reply to James Fallows: The Return to a Universal China | Main | Chen Guangcheng, Mozi, and Daoism »

May 16, 2012


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I would like to add something really erudite to what you have said, but I really am left with nothing to say other than that you have so thoroughly kicked his ass (by every metric) that there really is nothing more to say.

liked li's take on democracy in huffpo ... and feel there is very little difference in governments in this world. they exist to perpetuate themselves.

Except that Confucianism isn't defined by (and confined to) whatever Confucius would find agreeable, just like Christianity isn't a simple reflection of the personal views of Jesus (and we don't even really know what Confucius would and wouldn't agree with since the Analects wasn't his own writing, just like Jesus and the Bible). As with any other school of philosophy, contemporary thinkers very much have the right to develop and re-define Confucianism.

So, while you accuse Li of "believ[ing] that 'cultures' are distinct and impermeable and unchanging", you are making the same mistake with Confucianism (and ideology in general, I guess).

"I state here that I also reject claims of American exceptionalism."

That's where you're wrong. Americans are exceptional in that they're all retarded.

Exhibit A: the War on Terror
Exhibit B: Iraq
Exhibit C: George W Bush's 2004 reelection

There are more of course, but these should suffice for now.

Thanks for the comments...
I agree. I did not mean to leave the impression that "Confucianism" is simply a matter of the personal views of Confucius and has not developed and changed over the years. Clearly, it is a vast and complex universe of thought. I recognize that and have discussed that on this blog. My mistake, in this instance, was to use a simple rhetorical device - "were Confucius alive today" - to suggest that contemporary China is not really a Confucian society. While I certainly do argue that contemporary China is not a Confucian society, I understand that that involves more than the personal views of Confucius. Generally, I tend to adhere to lines of thought drawn from The Analects and Mencius when making such arguments, both of which texts involve more than the personal views of Confucius....

Read this: Towards An Ideal Form of Government ( Enjoy!

I think you are missing the point by trying to win some sort of imaginary linguistic debate with the controversial Eric Li who likes to exaggerate just to get under people's skins- for fun.

The key point is that China is not ready for democracy. Democracy in the American form is not for China in these fast changing times.
American Democracy is not working for America.
When you have ~1.45B people increasingly packed into crowded urban areas, the rules of society change.
Chinese values are truly different- look at the way we introduce ourselves. Organization, title, family name, first name.

I agree with you to a certain extent, Mr Crane, but argue that the discussion could stand to be parsed a bit more carefully:

Thanks for more comments...
I am not making that argument and have never argued that "American democracy" should be a model for China. But I do believe that political change in China is possible and could move in the general direction of democracy, though we must recognize the many forms that might take. And I hope for a more humane PRC government that does not crush people like Chen Guangcheng, Gao Zhisheng, Ni Yulan and others.
I must say that I do not believe that Samuel Huntington does a good job in explicating the notion of "culture." His conflation of many varied cultural strands into larger units of "civilization" is flawed. I blogged about it some years ago:
To which I would add that we really need to attend to various differences within Islam. It is far from a unified cultural or civilizational entity....

Thank you for your insightful critique of this patently pro-CCP argument. I still can't believe that this same basic argument was published in the NYTimes awhile back.

Furthermore let me reinforce your idea that "political change in China is possible and could move in the general direction of democracy". Stable democracies exist on every continent; their citizens worship basically every major religion; their legislatures debate daily around the world in dozens of languages. There is no reason to believe that democracy couldn't, eventually, succeed in mainland China as well--although I would never go so far as to claim that the road between here and there won't be bumpy at times.

When I first read Eric Li I was more impressed with what he didn't say than what he said. Specifically, he failed to explain his thesis: why the Communist model is better than the Western system. His criticism of Western Democracy, and particularly the American model, contained nothing intellectuals in the West have not already noted and discussed themselves. His justification for China's authoritarianism, and its better-suited qualities for the Chinese, was mostly based on vague and poorly conceived notions of uniqueness, as the author above notes.

And finally, his contention that the post-Tiananmen China we see today is far better than the disaster it would have become without the Tiananmen crackdown, is about as un-falsifiable a claim as one can make. In short, his ideas on a superior system are half-baked, and it was disappointing to realize this young man still has much sorting out to do in his own head

Thank you for the reply, Sam.

Like I said, I think his 'clash of civilisations' hypothesis is a bit overblown, and I agree broadly with your dissection of his distinction between a 'Sinic' culture and a 'Japanese' one. But I was actually referring more to his 'Culture Matters' series of essays, and only was attempting to use Huntington's line of argumentation to explain that 'culture' is not a semantically useless concept that can be explained entirely through other disciplines, such as political economy.

Indeed, even in your article on Huntington, you make references to 'institutions', by which I assume you mean the path-dependent game rules which led the Japanese to develop less-centralised military structures than China was able to. I would argue that there are a certain set of assumptions which underlie those institutions. What is the function of the Emperor in each system, for example? In China, the person of the Emperor was not sacrosanct - for an Emperor (and a dynasty) to be successful, he had to exercise personal control over military power. Li Shimin did. Zhao Kuangyin did (and immediately dismissed his generals after taking power). Zhu Yuanzhang did. Every Manchu ruler from Nurhachi to Qianlong did. In Japan, on the other hand, a religious tradition had developed whereby the person of the Emperor was sacrosanct; as a result, military resources could be divided amongst a number of powerful families without there being the fear of a coup which would end the ruling dynasty. I don't think this is something that can necessarily be explained in political-economic terms; you have to make reference to the values which underpin the 'rules of the game'.

Which is precisely why I think certain parts of Eric X Li's argument deserve a greater hearing, even if his conclusions are very obviously oriented toward currying political favour with the CCP. Our political culture in the West, as David Brooks pointed out in a very recent NYT op-ed, was crafted under very specific values which assumed original sin. The Jeffersonian-Jacksonian-Rousseauian rejection of original sin has dramatically altered, and not necessarily for the better, the operating assumptions under which our democracy operates in ways which I think could be very dangerous. The resurrection of the Leninist belief that with the appropriate application of will by a select few, we can remake the world in our image is an incredibly hubristic one, and I think Eric X Li is very right to call it to task - even if the alternative he proposes is no more appealing.

You highlighted many of the criticism I had of Eric's interview.

I have also criticized many of his views before at the hiddenharmonies site. See here:

It seems to me that much of what Eric is saying is either wrong, too general and vague to even have much substantive meaning ("Chinese model," "western model," "universal", e.g.).

However, it seems to me that he has also said somethings worth saying.

For example, he actually makes a good point that many people don't appreciate about consent and the nature of a democratic society. This is a legitimate criticism of modern western liberal democracies.

He also makes good points about the related point about responsiveness to the public's needs and demands that the Chinese government does seem to show while the US's government often dismiss public concerns.

This is likely US political and legal system have basically made corruption legal and are mainly concerned about cash from donors while the Chinese government have basically been sincere at going after corruption and are sincere about benefiting the nation.

So while I have mainly criticized Li's views before ironically on the HH blog, I will say that I'm not as black and white on Li as you appear to be and believe that he has said some things worth saying and listening to.

Terrific argument and analysis - thanks!

An interesting side-note on your brief discussion of women's' rights is that Eric X. Li is actively working within China's legal/political system to return the practice and acceptance of concubinism to China, codified by law. He's a well-respected guy, among the more technocratic/elitist set, and I half expect him to be successful in this effort.

Fantastic post. Really enjoyed your writing style and logic.

Too often, I feel people casually espouse science without incorporating the practice of science. In the case of pro-CCP types, the penchant is for concluding that the CCP way is best, and then selectively looking for and molding arguments which happen to justify their preconceived conclusions. It's backwards-science.

I think many of the criticisms of the American system of governance in practice are justified. But those justifiable criticisms don't justify the conclusion that China can't or shouldn't move towards her own system of democracy.

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