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  • Against Political Equality: The Confucian Case by Tongdong Bai
  • Zhuoyao Li (bio)
Against Political Equality: The Confucian Case. By Tongdong Bai. New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 2020. Pp. xxv + 316. Hardcover $39.95, ISBN 978-0-69-119599-5.

The rise of populism and the decline of western liberal democracies in the recent decade have pushed many contemporary Confucian political theorists to re-examine the relationship between Confucianism and liberal democracy. On the one hand, whether or not Confucianism and liberal democracy are strictly compatible with each other is no longer important to many. Instead, it is theoretically more interesting and practically more urgent to try and explore the best of both worlds. On the other hand, if the relationship can be understood in such a way as to pivot the question from what liberal democracy can do for Confucianism to what Confucianism can do for liberal democracy, then it seems that political Confucianism will finally break free from its East Asian setting and offer universalizable guidance to all under Heaven. Tongdong Bai’s Against Political Equality: The Confucian Case aims to do both by proposing a Confucian hybrid regime that overcomes the theoretical divide between Confucianism and liberal democracy and that at the same time transcends the cultural divide between the east and the west.

According to Bai, his model of Confucian hybrid regime has three key features. First and foremost, the rule of law and human rights are endorsed and firmly established. Second, the government is considered responsible for the material and moral well-being of the people. Third, in addition to the institution of one person one vote, the hybrid regime introduces and strengthens the role of the competent and morally superior people, or the “meritocrats” (pp. 68-70). The second feature is justified by drawing perfectionist support from teachings of both Confucius and Mencius, and the third feature is justified primarily through outlining the drawbacks of democratic ideals and institutions. The idea of a Confucian hybrid regime is not new. As a matter of fact, both Daniel Bell and Jiang Qing have proposed their respective models that share the latter two features and similar justifications.1 What makes Bai’s model stand out is its affinity to liberal values exhibited by the first feature. Unlike comprehensive Confucian perfectionists, Bai does not wish to reject liberal democracy in toto. Instead, his Confucian hybrid regime is supposed to better revise liberal democracy for East Asian societies and beyond. As Bai puts it in the book, the [End Page 1] overall strategy is “to revise the democratic part of liberal democracy with Confucianism-inspired ideas and institutions, while defending the compatibility between Confucianism and the liberal part of liberal democracy, especially the rule of law and rights” (p. 257). Once again, this two-part strategy is not exactly new. The first part of the strategy should be quite familiar to anyone who has followed recent Confucian criticisms against democracy, while the second part has been adopted by Confucian theorists who are sympathetic to liberal values.2 What strikes me the most, however, is how Bai carries out the second part of the strategy. In the opening chapter, Bai goes through the intricacies and nuances of Confucianism in order to address the contemporary relevance of Confucianism and narrow his focus to classical Confucianism, particularly the works of Confucius and Mencius. Somewhat controversial is his suggestion that the Zhou-Qin transition can be understood as an early modernization comparable to the transition from the Middle Ages to western modernity. The primary reason for this comparison is that similar to the transition to modernity in the west, the Zhou-Qin transition effectively led to the collapse of nobility-based feudalism that used to serve as the bond that held previous political entities together, supplied the source of legitimacy for the political order, and served as the mechanism for dealing with entity-entity relations (p. 23). What emerged from the transition was a uniquely modern phenomenon: meaningful pluralism that could weaken the bond between people in a large society, threaten the political legitimacy of the ruling entity, and overwhelm the relationship between states. Classical Confucianism, in Bai’s view, tries to...


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