- Toward Confucian-Inspired Democratic Meritocracy:A Response to Yong Huang, Chenyang Li, and Binfan Wang
Let me first express my gratitude for the three detailed and informative critiques of my book The China Model. These critiques are themselves models of Confucian civility, even as they express sharp areas of disagreement. There does seem to be agreement that the ideal of a Confucian-inspired democratic [End Page 585] meritocracy is a worthwhile political project, particularly in the Chinese political context, but Huang, Li, and Wang question my book's arguments in defense of this ideal. There are three kinds of critiques: (1) the need to take Confucianism more seriously, (2) the need to take democracy more seriously, and (3) the need to take political meritocracy more seriously. Let me try to respond to each critique in turn.
On the Need to Take Confucianism More Seriously
Yong Huang provides an insightful discussion of the relation between abilities and virtues and shows that virtues matter more than abilities for political rulers. Once a ruler is virtuous, then it is more a matter of implementing right policies, and even the ruler with limited intellectual abilities can rely on talented advisors for that purpose. I agree. But the ruler must influence the people: "the most important function of a government, a function that Bell basically neglects in his discussion, is moral education of the people." And the most important way to educate the people is through the ruler's moral example: "by governing by virtues Confucius means that political leaders must be moral exemplars." I agree that the ruler's moral example matters greatly in Confucian-influenced societies. Whether in China or in South Korea, there are high moral expectations of the ruler, and what may count as a private matter in a Western country—say, a ruler who is exposed by a Bill Clinton–like sexual scandal—may be sufficient to undermine that ruler's legitimacy, if not the legitimacy of the whole political system.
Still, Huang overplays the role of moral example in modern Confucianinfluenced societies. In relatively small, intimate societies characteristic of Confucius' day, the political community was viewed almost as an extension of the family, and many members of the community were personally acquainted with their rulers, so what the ruler did and said had more direct impact compared to what rulers do and say in modern societies composed largely of strangers. And Confucius himself noted that the obligation to secure the conditions for a people's basic means of subsistence has priority over moral education:
Ranyou drove the Master's carriage on a trip to Wei. The Master said: "What a huge population!" Ranyou said: "When the people are so numerous, what more can be done for them?" The Master said, "Make them prosperous." Ranyou asked, "When the people are prosperous, what more can be done for them?" The Master replied, "Educate them."(Analects 13.9)1
Arguably, such principles help to explain why China's rulers focused on economic development in the first few decades of the period of economic reform. Economic development was viewed as necessary for poverty reduction, and political corruption was tolerated so long as it greased, or did not inhibit, the wheels of economic growth. But once the government [End Page 586] secured the basic means of subsistence for the large majority, the focus shifted to the moral education of the people, including the need for rulers to set a better, "cleaner" model for the people. And unlike traditional societies, moral education of the people involves not just setting a good example by political superiors and family members, but also reform of the publicly funded educational system so that it helps to instill social responsibility at a young age.
In short, context matters. Moral education of the people by means of the ruler's personal example may be particularly important in a small, face-to-face community that has already secured the basic means of subsistence for its people. And while there may be high moral expectations of the ruler in Confucian-influenced East Asian societies, economic growth will still matter more than the ruler's moral example at lower stages...