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Defenders of the 'Chinese way' are off the mark

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Whether applied domestically or internationally, this is a harmful line of thinking.

The primary political effect of these ideas is to deny the inevitable trend of democratization in recent decades – in Asia, Latin America, Europe, and Arab countries. Ironically, however, the notion of Chinese characteristics appeals to many of those whom it would deceive and ultimately disenfranchise. Internationally, it rationalizes authoritarianism under the guise of cultural sensitivity to a uniquely Chinese way. Domestically, it fulfills a desire for uniqueness and exceptionalism in order to distract citizens from the growing desire for basic political and human rights.

Let’s look at one particular political proposal by China scholars Jiang Qing and Daniel A. Bell in The New York Times in July. Critical of democracy as a solution to China’s political and social malaise, the authors instead seek a political framework based in “the longstanding Confucian tradition of ‘humane authority.’ ” 

This abstract ideal is embodied in a proposed tricameral legislature featuring: (1) a House of the Nation whose members are descendants of Confucius and other sages, (2) a House of the People whose delegates are “elected either by popular vote or as heads of occupational groups,” and (3) a House of Exemplary Persons populated by scholars of the Confucian classics, armed with final veto power on all legislation.

This elaborate framework, seemingly based in millennia of tradition, is in fact a mystifying rationalization of authoritarianism under the guise of cultural sensitivity. The writers argue that framing the debate in terms of authoritarianism vs. democracy is restrictive and does not leave room for local traditions. But they overlook the fact that far more burdensome restrictions are apparent in their counter-proposal.

The notion that China’s future must inevitably be found in its past, after all, is not particularly liberating, especially when one considers that this past represents a period prior to accountability in governance and recognition of human rights. Anyone who proposed a similar framework for the future of a western country, or even for such traditionally Confucian – but democratic – neighbors of China as South Korea, Japan, or Taiwan, would not be taken seriously.

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