The demand for a new political order in China

By Jonathan Power

The rubber stamp congress of China’s communist party is over. There have not been any surprises. The script was pre-written, the actors were in place and the show went on.

I suspect most Chinese don’t care a damn about the details- how the leaders are selected, how economic policy is fine tuned, the approval of the budget and so on. What the masses see is the momentum of the wave of economic progress which seems to lift most boats, albeit at the price of a widening in income distribution and the very poor being left behind. But if you are a villager do you care much if middle class town dwellers have a new car if you can buy a motorbike, a fridge, better furniture and a TV.

However, a growing middle class, many of them highly educated, do care. They don’t like being told what to do by edict. Most of them keep their public mouths shut although they open up in private. But as time passes and their numbers swell this passivity will not last. The system will be increasingly questioned. The big secret worry for the leadership must be that the communist party will just collapse one day as it did in Russia and Eastern Europe, an event which hardly any western politician, academic or journalist predicted.

And if it does is there any kind of governing system China could put in its place? Russia and its satellites had western democracy to turn to. But China is far away and it only experienced democracy for a brief time under the nationalist leader, Sun Yat-sen, following the abdication of the last emperor.

China’s intellectuals are thinking about how to fashion change. A new book, “The China Wave: Rise of a Civilizational State” by Zhang Weiwei, once the translator of the supreme leader, Deng Xiaoping, argues that the Confucian heritage will continue to shape the evolution of the country and that in many ways it offers a more efficient and legitimate form of government than the misfiring Western model of liberal capitalism. Confucianism depends on “meritocracy” and “performance legitimacy”. It sounds good but what if the leadership strays from this path? Who will decide to “kick the rascals out”- a self-selected clique as now?

Another analysis is offered by a second new book, “A Confucian Constitutional Order” by Jiang Qing, director of the Yangming Confucian Academy in Guizhou.

Once a law graduate banished to a remote rural court, Jiang, today China’s most influential thinker on Confucianism, became disillusioned with the political world. He turned to reading Buddhist religious texts. But in the end he could not agree that sunyata (emptiness) is the ultimate truth. He also studied Christianity and was drawn to it although in the end he felt Chinese culture could not embrace it. Now in his remote mountain academy he seeks inspiration from “Wangdao” the highest Confucian political ideal.

Political legitimacy is the overriding issue, he argues. Political power must have three kinds of legitimacy- that of heaven, earth and the human. The first seems to be similar to the long time Greek and Christian conviction of there being a “natural law”- an instinctive urge for morality in all societies. The legitimacy of earth comes from history and culture. The legitimacy of the human refers to the will of the people that determines whether people will or will not obey the political authorities.

The Way of the Humane Authority must be implanted by means of a tricameral legislature that corresponds to the three forms of legitimacy- a House of Ru that represents sacred legitimacy, a House of the Nation that represents cultural legitimacy and a House of the People that represents popular legitimacy. The latter will be chosen in the Western democratic way – by a national ballot.

The House of Ru is made up of scholars and intellectuals. The leader of the House of the Nation should be a direct descendent of Confucius who would select membership from the descendents of great sages of the past, descendents of past rulers, retired judges and top officials and representatives of the great religions.

Each house deliberates on its own but a law can only be passed if two of the houses agree. There will also be a symbolic monarch.

Some Chinese critics say this model is not liberal enough and don’t accept that Confucianism is a comprehensive model, although parts of it are valuable. Others emphasizes that Jiang’s model is a “realistic utopia” favouring an elitism of knowledge and ability instead of the present money and wealth. They argue that the utopia can only be realized by “reflection and effort”.

Spurred by Jiang this debate continues. It seems be on the right track. It offers a replacement ideology for when the communist one collapses. We will hear more of it.

Copyright: 2012 Jonathan Power

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