I am closely reading Doh Chull Shin's book, Confucianism and Democratization in East Asia, for a review that will emerge later this year (or early next). It's quite good: deeply researched with a complex argument. I wanted to note here, however, some conclusions from chapter 3, "Confucianism as a Hierarchical Way of Life," which may not feature centrally in the forthcoming review.
In this chapter, Shin investigates, through analysis of public opinions surveys, how strongly people in East Asia (which he divides between those countries with significant historical experience with Confucianism and those without) believe in certain principles that represent a Confucian "way of life." It is an examination of the social bases of Confucianism, as opposed to a more directly political expression of Confucian thought (which is the subject of chapter 4). Thus, we can take this as an indication of the extent to which these places might be considered Confucian societies.
It should be noted, at the outset, that the terms of this study are limited. Shin is only drawing on certain opinion surveys (World Values Survey; Asian Barometer). There are other ways to gauge the extent to which people in China and East Asia adhere to Confucian ideals. But Shin's analysis is quite valuable in offering a systematic presentation of the survey data.
The key take away is: there is more bad news here for Confucians than good.
Here are some of his conclusions:
"In Confucian Asia [China, Japan, Taiwan, South Korea, Vietnam] today, most people no longer feel strong bonds to the people they regularly interact with, including their own family." (92)
"...people in Confucian Asia remain attached, but not strongly attached to group life." (92)
"... all five countries are alike in that those who are strongly compliant with both norms [ren - humanity; li - ritual] constitute very small minorities of less than one-tenth of their populations." (94).
"When all of these findings are considered together, it is evident that the populations of Confucian Asia are far from being highly adherent to the ethical system that Confucius and his followers prescribed for the good life." (94)
"East Asia no longer forms a single cultural zone based on the Confucian culture of hierarchical collectivism." (95)
Shin does some cross-regional comparisons, with other, non-Confucian, areas of Asia as well as other parts of the world to gain greater perspective on "Confucian" East Asia. Some of his key conclusions:
"... the culture of hierarchism, which early Confucians advocated, is a great deal more popular in other non-Western cultural zones than in Confucian Asia." (97)
"Most notably, Confucian Asia as a whole is more individualistic than any of the four other non-Western cultural zones including Latin America." (104).
He shows how Japan has moved further away from the old Confucian virtues than has Vietnam, thus highlighting the combined effects of modernization and democratization on cultural values. And he foreshadows a point he picks up in chapter 4:
"Far more powerfully than education, the experience of democratic rule drives people away from the hierarchical way of life. This seems to support the claim that democratization shapes cultural orientations as much as cultural orientations affect the process of democratization." (105).
Confucianism, then, is not an insurmountable barrier to democracy. A cultural milieu, which may include vestiges of Confucian ideals, may well influence how democracy might emerge in a particular place, but it is not a bar to democratization. Indeed, once people experience life in a democratic political context they are more likely to let go of Confucian beliefs, which are sometimes presented as being more sympathetic to authoritarianism.
Keep all this in mind when authoritarian apologists try to argue that China or Vietnam are culturally unsuited for democratization....