- Jìubāng xīnmìng: Gǔjīn zhōngxī cānzhào xià de gǔddiǎn Rújiā zhèngzhì zhéxué 旧邦新命:古今中西参照下的古典儒家政治哲学
Bai Tongdong’s Jìubāng xīnmìng 旧邦新命 (A new mission for an old state) is a collection of Bai’s essays on contemporary and classical Chinese political thought, covering such topics as democracy, human rights, government by non-action, relations between the public and private spheres, and the obligations of virtuous individuals in less-than-ideal political circumstances. Bai’s book is unapologetically comparativist in both methodology and content: he regularly avails himself of the language and analytical tools of current Western philosophy, and he takes the classical Chinese political philosophers as a framework within which to approach issues in modern life. On matters of Confucianism and liberal democracy, he sees much of his project as being in the spirit of Rawlsian political liberalism, which seeks to identify a set of core political commitments (e.g., to human rights and democratic government) that can be endorsed by an array of religious or philosophical “comprehensive doctrines.” But contrary to some of Bai’s earlier work, the essays in this book contend that Rawls’ core political commitments need revision, and that classical Chinese philosophy (especially classical Confucianism) is well positioned to improve upon them (pp. 14 –15, 38– 40).
This book offers a series of novel and perceptive arguments on issues in Chinese political thought. Bai is a careful and versatile scholar, at home both in contemporary political philosophy and in philosophical exegesis. While each essay revisits widely discussed issues, readers will have little trouble appreciating the creativity of Bai’s particular take on them. I cannot do justice to the insightfulness of every chapter, so I will confine my review to two tasks: a brief summary of the chapters themselves, and some closer analysis of Bai’s views on the compatibility of Confucianism with democracy and human rights — topics that occupy him for almost half the book.
Bai’s first chapter outlines and defends his comparativist methodology, key features of which I have described above. The next three chapters focus on issues at the intersection of Confucian political thought and democratic liberalism, spelling out a “thin” version of liberal democracy that both democratic liberals and Confucians can accept. In chapter 2, Bai builds on the later Rawls to show how a suitably narrow list of core principles can be reconciled even with the elements of “moral conservativism” (道德保守) in Confucianism, provided that it is imbued with a healthy sense of self-effacing skepticism (pp. 31–32). Chapter 3 defends a version of limited democracy inspired by Daniel Bell, characterized by a bicameral legislature of democratically elected representatives and unelected scholar-officials (pp. 60 – 61).1 Bai justifies this structure by appealing to Mengzi’s (and to a lesser extent Kongzi’s) proposal that the people have a significant advisory role in government, provided that (a) they meet [End Page 573] a minimum threshold in education and moral development, (b) their authority is confined to matters that they are qualified to judge, and (c) their decision is subject to further review by a separate political authority (pp. 44 – 48). In chapter 4, Bai adjudicates a dispute between Joseph Chan and me on the compatibility of Confucianism with modern rights thought, arguing (pace me) that there are indeed ways in which Confucianism can ground liberal rights but (pace Chan) that the rights are considerably more contingent and circumscribed than their equivalents in liberal democracies. For instance, Bai thinks Confucianism might only endorse a widespread right to criticize the government when exigent circumstances such as government incompetence make it necessary (pp. 84 –85).
Let me highlight a couple of points about this important suite of essays on Confucianism and liberal democracy. First, in these chapters...