- Confucian Sentimental Representation: A New Approach to Confucian Democracy by Kyung Rok Kwon
Two facts have driven much of the recent theorizing about Confucian democracy. First, even in robust democracies like South Korea and Taiwan, East Asian citizens hold distinctive views about the relation between leaders and led. Two-thirds of South Korean respondents and a third of those from Taiwan agreed with the statement "If we have political leaders who are morally upright, we can let them decide everything." Second, it is uncontroversial to say that traditional Confucianism advocated for rule by the virtuous. Most observers believe these two facts are linked but disagree about their normative upshot. Some regret the lingering authoritarianism polluting East Asian democracies, while others—primarily based in less democratic [End Page 146] countries—call for an embrace of "meritocracy" instead of democracy. A third group, to which Kwon Kyung Rok and I both belong, believe that properly understood "rule by virtue" can be better realized in a democracy. This means that modern Confucians should be democrats, and it suggests a distinctive way of conceptualizing democracy that both may be more apt for East Asia and may even offer lessons applicable worldwide. For Kwon, the key to all this is rethinking how we understand political representation.
Kwon argues that we should look to representation rather than directly at democracy because representation is both central to modern conceptions of democracy and yet makes a more constructive dialogue partner for Confucian virtue-based politics. Democracy, says Kwon, is at its core concerned with the equal distribution of political power, whereas representation concerns "a special relationship and psychology" between the representer and the represented that he understands in terms of "authorization," the making of "sound judgments," and "accountability." Chapters 1 and 2 of the book explore the primarily "rationalist" notion of representation found in the Western tradition and the more "sentimentalist" version of representation that can be constructed out of Confucian virtue politics. The latter chapter is the creative core of the book. Kwon argues that for one to count as a representative in a modern Confucian context, one needs to make sound judgments of the true interests of society and share emotions with the people—in the process of transforming them into more morally cultivated people. This sense of "representing" the people builds on what it is to be a virtuous exemplar. Along the way Kwon makes a detailed case that direct caring rather than empathy is core to the idea of humaneness (or benevolence; ren) that is so central to Confucianism; this is a good example of how he engages with interpretive literature to clarify aspects of his picture.
The final two chapters engage with alternative accounts of modern Confucian political theory. Chapter 3 provides a negative defense of democratic sentimental representation by demonstrating that various "meritocratic" alternative arguments fail. One of the key points here is that Daniel Bell and Tongdong Bai are overly concerned with the instrumental value of a ruler's competence, missing the intrinsic value of a ruler's virtue and its contribution to the ethically good life of the community; as a result, their views fail to be distinctively Confucian. Chapter 4 takes Sungmoon Kim's influential idea of "public reason Confucianism" as its point of departure. Kwon is quite sympathetic to Kim's framework and defends Kim against certain misunderstandings, but perceptively argues that there is a gap in Kim's account between citizens, understood primarily in affective terms, and the state, which in Kim's account is exemplified by the high court and is understood primarily in rationalist terms. What is missing is the bridging role of leaders. Kwon writes that mediating between formal and informal decision-making processes, leaders should "make ordinary citizens feel respected and make them focus on public issues in appropriate ways." He believes that a caring and competent [End Page 147] leader can "broaden the horizon of mutual understanding by exhorting [citizens] to think of all as belonging to an extended family." In short...