China, Democracy and Us

Has democracy become our unquestioning religion in the U.S? Are we so convinced that it is the best form of government possible that we don't think critically or carefully about this conviction itself? This would be ironic, given that democracy specifies our right to engage in free discourse about its value. But while democracy permits critical thought about its benefits and disadvantages, from the outside certain countries apparently see us as kneeling at the feet of a clay idol, unable or unwilling to see the cracks looming overhead.

Over the decades, several voices in China have argued that we are so blinded by our reverence for this form of government that we are unable to understand it is a historical choice. So, for example, in an op-ed piece published in the New York Times last year, one Chinese businessman offered a representative view: "The modern West sees democracy and human rights as the pinnacle of human development. It is a belief premised on an absolute faith."

Democracy as a practice is one thing; democracy as an absolute faith takes what is contingent on history and culture, and claims it is obvious and natural. We are, on the Chinese view, as blindsided by our belief that democracy is the best form of government for all as the first practitioners of democracy, the ancient Athenians, who likewise believed that they stood as a political, cultural, and ethical model to the rest of Greece. But Athenian democracy collapsed only a generation later.

The Chinese, of course, are not the first to criticize democracy as a form of government. There was a strong-antidemocratic element to western political theory until the 1700s, and Hamilton, Adams, and Madison were all deeply suspicious of direct democracy; hence their concern with setting up safeguards such as indirect representation. Even many ancient Greeks saw their own direct democracy as flawed by the power of factions and the inability of the people to vote against their immediate personal interests.

The gulf between the Chinese view and the American view is not just a matter of modern political ideology. It has deep historical and cultural roots. Western democracy's ancient origins go back to a culture that believed in one man, one vote -- ancient Athens. That culture produced Plato and Aristotle, who argued that the best thing about adult human beings was that they had the potential to be fully rational (unlike animals and children). Because reason tamped down emotions and incorrect beliefs, it led to the right political decisions. It is thanks to our ability to reason, as Aristotle said, that "man is a political animal": how else would we make the correct decisions, or decide who is unfit to participate? The thinkers of the European enlightenment endorsed this view that guidance comes from reason, not from tradition or revelation, and that it lay at the basis of the good society.

In China, by contrast, the very word for citizen (guomin) only gained currency late in the 19th century, and the idea of individual rationality as backing it up is quite foreign. Just as European culture has embedded democracy, citizenship, and rational thought in what it means to be human, so too the Chinese have their own ways of thinking and being that seem natural to them and make sense in their political context -- in fact, seem just as morally good to them as western-style democracy does to us.

Much of this can be traced back to the 7th century B.C. philosopher Confucius, whose values still underlie what is "natural" for the Chinese. Among these values, we find: Believing that the good of the individual is secondary to the good of the collective; ranking reasoning after traditional and time-tested ethical values; holding that family love (not rational thought) is the basis for social organization. The notion of equality does not fit within this view, because within the family natural hierarchies exist that will be replicated in the good society at large. As Confucius wrote in Analects 1.2: "A man who possesses filial piety and brotherly love is unlikely to transgress against his superiors, and to incline to start a rebellion."

On this view, a morally good political system cannot be derived from instrumental reasoning (e.g., "humans formed societies because this maximized the good to every person"); nor from religious faith (e.g., "love your neighbor as yourself"). It can only be derived from understanding the collective (or national) good as a priority, and working backwards from that point.

Imagine growing up in a culture like China's and believing that duty and the collective good are the bedrock of your society, even at the cost of the individual. This greater good would be achieved by de-emphasizing, not stressing, individual rights. Imagine how odd it would be to hear the United States claim that only democracy is a morally justified form of government. Such a leap of the imagination might be necessary for us to understand the Chinese perspective on our form of government.