To date, American university publishing houses have not published very many works by modern China mainland authors, which is especially true for ideological and theoretical works. Based on what I know, in 2006 Harvard University Press published Wang Hui’s “China’s New Order.” This year, Princeton University Press published Jiang Qing’s “A Confucian Constitutional Order,” a book that once again aroused readers’ interest in the changes in modern China’s society and politics. There’s a rather large subtitle to his book: How China’s Ancient Past Can Shape Its Political Future. From the outset, the author tells his readers that this work is a political manifesto of a systematic design for China’s future. Apart from this, the book’s cover design is quite intriguing: the whole world is familiar with Tiananmen Gate in Beijing, but on the book’s cover the picture of Chairman Mao is replaced with a portrait of Confucius. So, do the New Confucians want to replace Mao Zedong with Confucius? Is it Confucianism on the outside but Maoism on the inside? Or is Mao Confucius and Confucius Mao? If one wants to understand the New Confucianists, who at present have a great deal of momentum, then one would do well to pay attention to the thought process of Jiang Qing, a representative of New Confucianism.
Those who have a passing interest in current affairs might know that after the New Confucianism political system was launched, it most definitely attracted notable attention from society, sparking a lot of discussion. Those holding all kinds of different perspectives are easily able to express their opinions through web media in this age of the internet. A common response of the fanatics of New Confucianism to various kinds of criticism and questioning was to question how many Confucian classics the questioner had read, followed by ridiculing them for simply not understanding Confucian thought and for just regurgitating the views of others. Finally they would propose that the critics first read a few years worth of Confucian works before they make further comments. It should be said that this trick worked like a charm. Many people’s knowledge on Confucianism probably just comes from a few quotes of Confucius in secondary school textbooks, followed by the popular cartoons by Cai Zhizhong. Consequently, they were stumped by this line of questioning, and didn’t dare converse any further. After reading Mr Jiang Qing’s book, I can’t say that I wasn’t disappointed, as his theory suffers from the same problem.
The theoretical foundation to Jiang Qing’s “Way of the King” is founded on a critique of Western democracy. His greatest concern of Chinese politics is whether China will adopt a Western style democracy or if it will return to it’s own historical tradition, which is the Confucian concept of politics. However, by reading Jiang Qing’s description and summary of Western democratic systems, it’s plain to see that his understanding of them are incredibly biased and narrow-minded. Or it could be said that although he has a deep understanding of the Confucian classics like they were the back of his hand, it’s very clear that he hasn’t studied Western history and society very deeply. Since he has no feel for it, his critique lacks the strong support of concrete evidence. It is essentially based on an imaginary discourse, and so appears very pale and weak.
Jiang Qing believes that the major flaw in Western democracy is that it excessively attaches importance to the people’s desires. It’s legitimacy is based entirely on the people’s approval of it. This leads to the secularisation of government and it’s policies, a lack of foresight, a desire for quick success, and lacks a long term historical perspective and moral foundation. He considers that, “Most people’s desires are not always moral. They might be racist, imperialist or fascist. Hitler was democratically elected.” “When the people’s short term interests and mankind’s long term interests collide, just like when global warming was hitting the headlines, their short term interests become a political priority. Thus it follows that democracy is merely the ‘politics of desire’ in a secular modern day world.” Jiang Qing believes that the principal of separating power in the West is merely restricted to the will of secularism. From a political viewpoint, this is neither necessary nor efficient.
His biggest criticism of Western-style democracy is that it lacks morality. In his view, Western democratic systems merely attend to mainstream thinking, and do not consider the “quality of the thinking”. Thereby he speculates that as soon as mainstream public opinion becomes immoral, the election process will rationally and lawfully result in fascism, imperialism, hegemony etc. In a nutshell, in Jiang Qing’s eyes, the masses absolutely cannot be trusted as they merely seek immediate tangible benefits. Therefore taking the will of the people as the sole basis of a legitimate Western democratic system, it is bound to have secular interests and desires as it’s basis. Coming at it from a Confucianary perspective, it is inevitably imperfect and unsustainable. However, it is precisely in his criticism of Western style democracies lacking virtue that Jiang Qing reveals his lack of understanding towards the history of Western politics.
One of the things that Jiang Qing doesn’t get is that, firstly, Western democracies are precisely founded on the basis of morality and ethics. In other words, without an ethical system of discourse, there would be no modern Western style political systems that promote democracy. Democratic systems are not merely just about elections. They embody the inter-relations between people, of which morality and ethics are behind. Certainly, the people’s desires have a secular side, but also a moral one. Just as Jiang Qing criticised, America didn’t ratify the Kyoto Protocol. However, at the same time it’s environmental protection efforts and fulfilments can’t be ignored. Some people on the one hand refer to the United States as imperialist warmongers, but on the other the number of international refugees it has took under its wing has already reached several million, thus exceeding that of other counties. Additionally, the majority of these people have ultimately decided to stay in America. Secondly, in the critical spirit of democratic societies, everything has a voice. Therefore a lack of foresight and a preoccupation with immediate benefits never materialises as he imagines. Thirdly, looking at the history of societies in Western democracies, the overall improvements made in the last several hundred years such as in the abolition of slavery, equality of the sexes, racial equality, civil rights and social welfare systems simply cannot be denied. In a nutshell, Jiang Qing’s erroneous judgement lies in the fact that from the outset he didn’t have a broad hypothesis. He then comprehensively negated “the people” and fabricated an illusory theory of a “sacred king” to compose a political framework with an elite system. His extremely specific understanding of Western democracy causes his theory to be riddled with errors.
The second half of this book features discussions between Jiang Qing and several famous scholars. Each has their own chapter in which they talk in detail about their understanding of New Confucianism. The final interviewee is Professor Wang Shaoguang of Chinese University of Hong Kong. He is famous due to his similar stance of strongly opposing Western democracies. It’s clear that the reason Jiang Qing invited Professor Wang Shaoguang to participate in the discussion held at City University of Hong Kong and include his feedback in the book was so that he could, through Professor Wang Shaoguang’s long-term criticism of Western democratic systems, support his view that said systems are in themselves problematic and not suitable for Chinese society. It can also be said that although Professor Wang Shaoguang expresses some left-wing views on class struggles which were in stark contrast to Jiang Qing’s ideas of a Confucian constitutional government, they are practically the same in their opposition to China following Western style democratisation.
However, if one delves a little deeper, it can be seen that Professor Wang Shaoguang’s critique of Western democracy is equally far-fetched, can not withstand careful scrutiny. The main difference between Wang Shaoguang and Jiang Qing is that the latter believes that Chinese politics is faced with a serious legitimacy crisis, whereas the former believes that the Chinese political model has no such problem and is in fact wholeheartedly endorsed by the people. So how did Wang Shaoguang expound on this point of legitimacy? First, he quotes research done by “Western scholars”, which comprises of empirical surveys and interviews about the legality of political models, with figures to prove that the Chinese people have a very high level of support for the existing model. Of course, he also acknowledged that these highly subjective surveys and interviews would inevitably lead to controversy. U.S. researchers had previously interviewed people in Beijing, and concluded that Chinese people yearn for democracy. Professor Wang, however, believes that this questionnaire had design flaws. The final question changed the tone, with the interviewees having to put various things from eating to democracy in order of importance. This resulted in them time and time again putting eating at the top of the list, resulting in Professor Wang concluding that Chinese people have no interest in democracy.
Professor Wang continued by quoting the research of Western scholar who contrasted different nationalities, using figures to prove that the Chinese people’s level of support for government is much higher than that of the populations of democratic countries. There’s a very clear problem with this: populations of different countries will probably have a completely different political experience and philosophy. To what level can such a contrast be relevant? For example, in America the political logic is that the citizens pay tax to support the government, who then have the bounden duty to provide service to the citizens. Therefore, the majority of taxpayers adopt a critical attitude towards their government. However, in China the political logic is completely different. The government supports the citizens, who are required to be deeply grateful to the government. Most importantly, in its several thousand years of history, China has never experienced an American style change in political power. To this day, the essential point of its politics is still to “conquer and rule”. It can be imagined that such a political philosophy influences people such that they don’t know that there are other feasible political models. For example, Professor Yu Jianrong once noticed there was a resident who often strongly criticized the government in his district. However, he was surprised to see that this resident donned a red armband as he worked with the stability maintenance crew during the Beijing Olympics. The resident explained that criticism is just that and nothing more. Order still must be maintained, otherwise it’s the common people who will suffer in times of trouble.
Wang Shaoguang then called into question Jiang Qing’s opinion of Western democracies being based on the will of the people, by his consideration that the democracies presented in the West are phony. His evidence for this was that of the 435 members in the American House of Representatives, 123 are millionaires. In the Senate, at least 50 of its 100 members are millionaires, with many being billionaires. By this he concluded that the rich hold a disproportionate share of the prominent positions in American politics. He believes that therefore American politics is money politics. The more wealth one possesses, the more weight one has in participating and so the more influence one has on it. Representatives are all just spokespersons for the wealth and authority that backs them. It’s with this that Wang Shaoguang’s over-simplified thinking on the class struggle within American politics becomes quite clear. In fact, American politics is far from being as simple as this. Let’s take a look at a few simple examples. Ethnic Chinese in America are recognised as a relatively rich demographic, yet their participation in politics there is indeed low, with their impact on it being even less. Also, a few years ago America’s Supreme Court permitted companies, non-profit organisations and trade unions the right to directly express their opinions just like ordinary citizens can during election campaigns, without being subject to capital controls. This decision had a large impact, with many believing that it was the end of American democracy, and that money politics would spread like wildfire. However, after several years of observation, the political landscape of American society has in fact not undergone a qualitative change. Two years ago, three wealthy women in California tried to get elected for official positions. They spent over 100 million dollars but ended up empty handed, and even became the laughing stock of the media. The recent attempt for a reform in immigration provides an even better example. Numerous CEOs and tycoons united to lobby the House of Representatives for an immigration reform. However, the Republicans of the House turned a deaf ear and refused to take any action. So far, Wang Shaoguang’s discussion of American politics is not representative of it.
Another person featured in the book worth taking note of is Canadian philosophy professor Daniel A. Bell of Tsinghua University, who was responsible for the preface. Over the past few years, Professor Bell has made his name as both a domestic and international scholar by his great effort to “defend China’s political model” and find a form of politics that lies between democracy and dictatorship, namely the “Way of the King” of Confucianism. With regards to China’s New Confucianist’s theory of a constitutional government, there’s no doubt that Bell’s alliance as an outsider is irreplaceable. Bell can take advantage of his position as a Western scholar to criticize Western democracies, sufficiently making up for Jiang Qing’s and other Confucian scholars’ lack of Western experience and knowledge.
After reading Bell’s introduction to this book, as well as a few of his articles on democracy and a Confucian constitutional government, we don’t see any strong evidence for a New Confucian form of government being superior to Western democracies. However, his remarks remind Chinese readers to seriously consider a problem that probably very few have thought about, which is how much do Westerners such as John Naisbitt, author of “China’s Megatrends”, Ezra Feivel Vogel, author of “Deng Xiaoping and the Transformation of China”, and himself, proponent of a New Confucian constitutional government being superior to Western democracy, really understand of their own own country and its political system? More specifically, when they are praising China’s current state and certain historical figures, what frame of reference are they employing exactly? This is a question that must be asked.
It’s very clear from Daniel A. Bell’s reverence of Chinese-esque “sage politics” that he really doesn’t understand China. He is full of praise for the CCP’s “Organisation Department”, which operates by selecting the best talent for the job. He considers that its methods are fair and effective as they employ a strict form of assessment to select the best talent to occupy high positions of leadership. However, on the other hand, he has to admit that corruption within the power elite is rampant, and seriously affects the image and legitimacy of the regime. What’s strange is that he has never put together the rampant corruption and the system of the “Organisation Department” that he is full of praise for and pondered over them. A simple example is that since the 18th Communist Party of China’s National Congress, more than ten officials at the provincial level or higher have been sacked. I wonder whether Bell has thought about how much the system of the “Organisation Department” that he reveres deeply is responsible for such a serious level of corruption. It could be said that every word of Daniel A. Bell’s and Eric X. Li’s article that was written for the “New York Times” embodies Bell’s ignorance towards Chinese politics and society.
Analysing this article one can clearly see that Bell even lacks a basic understanding of the Western society that he grew up in. In his critique of Western democracy, he simplifies it to a facade of an electoral vote, which itself is probably subject to malpractice, thus disrupting the whole democratic system. He believes that Western democracy is just an illusion, that democracy in America is basically a one-dollar-per-vote system. Furthermore, that voters are only concerned about their own immediate benefits, never considering others or long-term benefits, and often make irrational decisions. However, anyone who has any familiarity with American history and society will know that these attacks on democracy have no weight. It’s true that money and capital are a strong force, however from the early “Progressivism” to the later “Civil Rights Movement” of American history, from Theodore Roosevelt to Lyndon Johnson, changes in American society have shown that the power of democracy is not just limited to the ballot, but permeates through every aspect of life. Bell, who has been completely educated in the West, should know about these points in history.
In summary, Jiang Qing’s critique of Western democracy carries no weight. One of the reasons for this is that his understanding of Western history and culture is insufficient. He tries to completely negate the role “the people” have had on the course of political history, and then introduce an illusory so-called “sacred king” and a “heavenly law”. He endorses a has-been hierarchy, and tries to aid today’s seriously anaemic Chinese political model by digging up a theory from ancient mythologies. However, in this day and age in which information is widely available and in which populations are evermore knowledgeable, this can only be ridiculed. Of course, this is just part of the problem. Jiang Qing’s critique of Western democracy radiates what is is at the core of New Confucianism: whatever is opposed caters to one’s own hopes and expectations. It is no exaggeration to say that “A Confucian Constitutional Order” is the best portrait of New Confucianism.