It is often suggested that the most appropriate political expression of modern Confucian thought, itself a vast and varied universe of ideas, is some sort of authoritarianism. Recently, Eric X. Li invoked Confucius when arguing that “democracy is not the answer” for China’s problems. And in describing the outlines of “a Confucian constitution for China,” Daniel Bell and Jiang Qing concoct a tricameral system that would limit democratic participation in favor of elite control. Confucius, in both cases, seems to stand against liberal democracy.
This is not a new story. Throughout the long course of Chinese history, Confucian ideas were employed in the service of autocracy. Democracy, we are regularly told, was not a part of the Confucian tradition.
But this is, ultimately, a facile claim. The past does not wholly determine the present, and contemporary political dynamics are vastly different than those of the Qing dynasty or, even, the Maoist interlude. Confucianism lives in the present but not in the philosophical or political forms that it had in the past.
At the core of Confucian thought is the concept of ren -仁- which might best be translated as “humaneness” or “benevolence”. It suggests that moral progress occurs through interaction with others; one cannot be truly good in isolation. And the best starting points for such improvement, for Confucians, are our closest loving relationships: our family and friends and acquaintances. Family, of course, takes precedence. Our ties to parents and relatives are primary Confucian duties. But morality does not stop there. By performing our family obligations, we develop a capacity for ethical action that can radiate out to society at large. Confucian paragons do right by their families and by the larger communities around them.
Historically, humaneness was used as a Confucian standard to judge authoritarian politics, because that was the kind of politics common to historical China. A king or emperor was deemed to be good if he lived up to the standards of humaneness. He had to demonstrate that he, himself, was fulfilling his family and social obligations, and he had to create economic and political conditions that would permit his subjects to carry out their family and social duties in a dignified manner. If he failed in these responsibilities, he should, as Mencius famously argued, be removed, and a better, more humane, leader installed.
There are, of course, many other important Confucian tenets, but humaneness illustrates how the Confucian present need not be the Confucian past.
Humaneness can be applicable in a modern, democratic setting. American voters very well understand the importance of “character issues” and “family values.” Many of them search for candidates who are ethically upright, believing that the personal moral behavior of leaders will inform their decision-making, and their role as exemplars will have beneficial effects on society at large. President Obama’s stable and loving marriage and family life are portrayed as signs of his leadership capacity. He even takes care of his mother in law, embodying a kind of Confucian filiality.
And the idea that leaders should create conditions that facilitate the performance of family obligations throughout society is quite consonant with contemporary American public policy debate. A defense of the Affordable Care Act could include its salutary effect of taking the economic burden off of families that face medical crises by opening access to insurance.
There is, in short, nothing inherent in Confucian values, in and of themselves, that would keep them from being relevant to modern, democratic societies. Humaneness can be employed as a standard for judging candidates and as a guideline for social policy.
Some, like Eric X. Li, will want to argue that democracy is alien to Confucianism. That is, however, like arguing that the right of gay marriage is alien to American liberalism. A decade ago that was true. But philosophies change over time as economic and political and social-cultural conditions change. Confucianism itself has changed fundamentally over the centuries, from the pre-Qin classical period, to the Han Dynasty synthesis, to Song Neo-Confucianism, to Liang Qichao’s modernizing revisions of the early twentieth century. Moreover, societies permeated with Confucian values and practices have modernized and democratized. Japan, Taiwan and South Korea are all now vibrant sites of reinvention of Confucian tradition and global modernity.
And Confucianism in China has changed as well. Historically, it was a philosophy embedded in a patriarchal society and its ideas were used in the systematic subordination of women. The twentieth century changed all that. Now, it is common place for contemporary Confucians to argue that gender equality is actually more in keeping with the spirit of humaneness than the earlier exclusionary culture. And no one, at least no one I know, is suggesting that the misogynist past is an authentic Confucianism worth keeping.
Chinese realities change the meaning and significance of Confucianism. And when political realities change, when the power holders who choose to obstruct democratization are convinced that authoritarianism is no longer tenable, than Confucianism in China will have more of a chance to find its democratic expression.