Avatar vs. Confucius and China's Alternative to Liberal Democracy

04/29/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

It is definitely a fun blogging sport to point out that Chinese moviegoers prefer Avatar to the state-sponsored biopic of "Confucius," implying that China's growing middle class, and especially its youth, prefer Western culture if only the Communist Party would just get out of the way. Aside from the fact that even "Gone With the Wind" or "Citizen Kane" or "To Kill a Mockingbird" would appear plodding when pitted against "Avatar's" special effects, this is a pretty thin reading of what's going on in China today, no less where China is likely to head tomorrow.

Before we dismiss the deep civilizational influence of ancient Confucian ways in the name of
popular China's embrace of the mysterious blue creatures from original nature generated in Hollywood, we might listen to a more considered voice.

Daniel A. Bell is professor of political philosophy at Tsinghua University in Beijing and the author of "China's New Confucianism: Politics and Everyday Life in a Changing Society." He is one of the few Western scholars to step outside the usual perspective that China's path to modernity must mimic our own or fail.

Here are his thoughts on Confucius, Avatar, what might come in China after Communist rule and how, indeed, Confucian ideas of decisive, meritocratic government might one day find resonance in the troubled West.

BEIJING -- Four decades ago, it would have been suicidal to say a good word about Confucius in Beijing. Confucius was the reactionary enemy, and all Chinese were encouraged to struggle against him. Chairman Mao himself was photographed on the cover of a revolutionary newspaper that announced the desecration of Confucius's grave in Qufu. My own university was a hotbed of extreme leftism.

How times have changed. Today, the Chinese Communist Party approves a film about Confucius starring the handsome leading man Chow Yun-Fat. The master is depicted as an astute military commander and teacher of humane and progressive values, with a soft spot for female beauty. What does this say about China's political future? "Confucius" bombed at the box office, leading many to think that the revival of Confucianism will go the same way as the anti-Confucius campaigns in the Cultural Revolution.

But perhaps it's just a bad movie. "Confucius" received the kiss of death when it went head-to-head against the blockbuster "Avatar." A vote for "Confucius" was seen as a vote against the heroic blue creatures from outer space. In the long term, however, Confucian revivalists may be on the right side of history.

In the Cultural Revolution, "Confucius" was often just a label used to attack political enemies. Today, Confucianism serves a more legitimate political function; it can help to provide a new moral foundation for political rule in China. Communism has lost the capacity to inspire the Chinese, and there is growing recognition that its replacement needs to be grounded at least partly in China's own traditions. As the dominant political tradition in China, Confucianism is the obvious alternative.

The party has yet to re-label itself the Chinese Confucian Party, but it has moved closer to an official embrace of Confucianism. The 2008 Olympics highlighted Confucian themes, quoting "The Analects" of Confucius at the opening ceremonies, and playing down any references to China's experiment with communism. Cadres at the newly built Communist Party school in Shanghai proudly tell visitors that the main building is modeled on a Confucian scholar's desk. Abroad, the government has been symbolically promoting Confucianism via branches of the Confucius Institute, a Chinese-language and cultural center similar to the Alliance Francaise.

Of course, there is resistance as well. Elderly cadres, still influenced by Maoist antipathy to tradition, condemn efforts to promote ideologies outside a rigid Marxist framework. But the younger cadres in their 40s and 50s tend to support such efforts, and time is on their side. It's easy to forget that the 76-million-strong Chinese Communist Party is a large and diverse organization. The party itself is becoming more meritocratic -- it now encourages high-performing students to join -- and the increased emphasis on educated cadres is likely to generate more sympathy for Confucian values.

But the revival of Confucianism is not just government-sponsored. On the contrary, the government is also reacting to developments outside its control. There has been a resurgence of interest in Confucianism among academics and in the Chinese equivalent of civil society. The renewed interest is driven partly by normative concerns. Thousands of educational experiments around the country promote the teaching of Confucian classics to young children; the assumption is that better training in the humanities improves the virtue of the learner. More controversially -- because it's still too sensitive to publicly discuss such questions in mainland China -- Confucian thinkers put forward proposals for constitutional reform aiming to humanize China's political system.

AN UPHILL STRUGGLE
Yet, the problem is not just the Chinese government. It can be an uphill struggle to convince people in Western countries that Confucianism can offer a progressive and humane path to political reform in China. Why does the revival of Confucianism so often worry Westerners? One reason may be a form of self-love. For most of the 20th century, Chinese liberals and Marxists engaged in a totalizing critique of their own heritage and looked to the West for inspiration. It may have been flattering for Westerners -- look, they want to be just like us! -- but there is less sympathy now that Chinese are taking pride in their own traditions for thinking about social and political reform. But more understanding and a bit of open-mindedness can take care of that problem.

Another reason may be that the revival of Confucianism is thought to be associated with the revival of Islamic "fundamentalism" and its anti-Western tendencies. Perhaps the revival of closed-minded and intolerant Christian "fundamentalism" also comes to mind. But the revival of Confucianism in China is not so opposed to liberal social ways (other than extreme individualistic lifestyles, in which the good life is sought mainly outside social relationships). What it does propose is an alternative to Western political ways, and that may be the main worry. But this worry stems from an honest mistake: the assumption that less support for Western-style democracy means increased support for authoritarianism. In China, packaging the debate in terms of "democracy" versus "authoritarianism" crowds out possibilities that appeal to Confucian political reformers.

Confucian reformers generally favor more freedom of speech in China. What they question is democracy in the sense of Western-style competitive elections as the mechanism for choosing the country's most powerful rulers. One clear problem with "one person, one vote" is that equality ends at the boundaries of the political community; those outside are neglected. The national focus of the democratically elected political leaders is assumed; they are meant to serve only the community of voters. Even democracies that work well tend to focus on the interests of citizens and neglect the interests of foreigners. But political leaders, especially leaders of big countries such as China, make decisions that affect the rest of the world (consider global warming), and so they need to consider the interests of the rest of the world.

Hence, reformist Confucians put forward political ideals that are meant to work better than Western-style democracy in terms of securing the interests of all those affected by the policies of the government, including future generations and foreigners. Their ideal is not a world where everybody is treated as an equal but one where the interests of non-voters would be taken more seriously than in most nation-centered democracies. And the key value for realizing global political ideals is meritocracy, meaning equality of opportunity in education and government, with positions of leadership being distributed to the most virtuous and qualified members of the community. The idea is that everyone has the potential to become morally exemplary, but, in real life, the capacity to make competent and morally justifiable political judgments varies among people, and an important task of the political system is to identify those with above-average ability.

CONFUCIAN VALUES IN PRACTICE
What might such values mean in practice? In the past decade, Confucian intellectuals have put forward political proposals that aim to combine "Western" ideas of democracy with "Confucian" ideas of meritocracy. Rather than subordinating Confucian values and institutions to democracy as an a priori dictum, they contain a division of labor, with democracy having priority in some areas and meritocracy in others. If it's about land disputes in rural China, farmers should have a greater say. If it's about pay and safety disputes, workers should have a greater say. In practice, it means more freedom of speech and association and more representation for workers and farmers in some sort of democratic house.

But what about matters such as foreign policy and environmental protection? What the government does in such areas affects the interests of non-voters, and they need some form of representation as well. Hence, Confucian thinkers put forward proposals for a meritocratic house of government, with deputies selected by such mechanisms as free and fair competitive examinations, that would have the task of representing the interests of non-voters typically neglected by democratically selected decision-makers.

One obvious objection to examinations is that they cannot test for the kinds of virtues that concerned Confucius -- flexibility, humility, compassion and public-spiritedness -- and that, ideally, would also characterize political decision-makers in the modern world. It's true that examinations won't test perfectly for those virtues, but the question is whether deputies chosen by such examinations are more likely to be far-sighted than those chosen by elections.

There are reasons to believe so. Drawing on extensive empirical research, Bryan Caplan's book "The Myth of the Rational Voter: Why Democracies Choose Bad Policies" shows that voters are often irrational, and he suggests tests of voter competence as a remedy. So examinations would test for basic economic policy (and knowledge of international relations), but they would also cover knowledge of the Confucian classics, testing for memorization as well as interpretation. The leading Confucian political thinker, Jiang Qing, argues that examinations could set a framework and moral vocabulary for subsequent political actions, and successful candidates would also need to be evaluated in terms of how they perform in practice.

Farfetched? It's no less so than scenarios that envision a transition to Western-style liberal democracy (because both scenarios assume a more open society). And it answers the key worry about the transition to democracy: that it translates into short-term, unduly nationalistic policymaking. It's also a matter of what standards we should use to evaluate China's political progress. Politically speaking, most people think China should look more like the West. But one day, perhaps, we will hope that the West looks more like China.

(c) 2010 GLOBAL VIEWPOINT NETWORK/TRIBUNE MEDIA SERVICES