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  • Democracy, Liberty (the Right), and the Good:Seeking a Proper Relationship for a Moral China
  • Yong Huang (bio)


Jiwei Ci's Moral China in the Age of Reform is a landmark in our attempt to understand, diagnose, and provide solutions to the moral crisis in post-Mao China. It is difficult not to be deeply impressed by the perceptive observations, provocative claims, and sophisticated arguments Ci presents in this book. In my brief comment, I shall think with Ci on the relationship between the democratic and liberal components of a liberal democratic society on the one hand and that between the right (liberty) and the good on the other.

The Priority of Liberty over Democracy

Ci makes the claim that in the very idea of liberal democracy the liberal component has priority over the democratic component. What he means by this is that "members of a modern society … pursue their most important activities and constitute their most important identities in the domain of private life and that their participation in public life has only a secondary importance, most of which, moreover, is only or largely instrumental to what goes on in private life" (Ci 2014, p. 171).

In discussing the relationship between the liberal and the democratic, it is advisable to make a distinction between the personal and political levels. On the personal level, it may be true that liberty can or should take precedence over democracy. However, on the political level, it is not so clear that liberty can or should always take precedence. Suppose that some members of a society, after a busy day doing their job or pursuing their individual interests (which, let's agree for now, are only of secondary importance), are now sitting together to deliberate on the constitution of their society: should their society first be made liberal or democratic or should it be made more liberal than democratic or more democratic than liberal—supposing that they cannot make it both fully liberal and fully democratic?

Theoretically, if we agree that individuals can or should care more about pursuing their private interests than participating in public life, they would choose a society that is liberal rather than democratic or a society that is more liberal than democratic rather than the other way round. We may imagine them saying, "I really don't care what type of political system our society will take, democratic or otherwise. As long as I have the freedom to pursue my private life, even a dictatorship is [End Page 590] fine with me!" Practically, however, it is not true that dictatorship can be a good instrument, if at all, to ensure that people will have liberty, and, as Ci also claims, democracy is so far the best political system to ensure that people can enjoy liberty. Indeed, in a proto-democratic society, it is most likely that people can only have proto-liberty, and if people want to have a more full-fledged liberty, they need to make their society a more full-fledged democracy. But if so, democracy should have priority over liberty: without democracy, there will be no liberty, and without a society becoming more democratic, it cannot become more liberal.

Moreover, the liberal can take priority over the democratic on the personal level only if the democratic takes priority over the liberal on the political level. In other words, only if a society is already a full-fledged democracy can its members direct their primary attention to their private pursuits. This seems to be something that Ci also agrees on when he makes the otherwise difficult, if not paradoxical, claim that "democracy helps safeguard the very precedence of freedom over democracy" (p. 173). If only democracy can safeguard the very precedence of freedom over democracy, there should be a precedence of democracy over freedom. But if so, we are really saying that only the precedence of democracy over freedom can safeguard the precedence of freedom over democracy. This can make sense only if the two appearances of "democracy" don't mean the same thing. The first "democracy" should be on the political level, referring to a political institution that is democratic, while the second "democracy" is...


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pp. 590-597
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