Over at A Ku Indeed people have been discussing Bell’s East and West, which is an attempt to create a dialogue between Western and Eastern concepts of rights. I have not been that impressed with the book, but Chris had an interesting post on Bell’s final suggestion, that the way to democracy in China is to protect the nation from the dangers of giving the vote to the uneducated masses by creating a “House of Scholars” to balance the passions of the masses. I found this idea unsatisfying at first glance, but I have been struggling with why.
The chapter itself has all of Bell’s faults. It is set up as a dialogue between a Chinese scholar and Demo, an American who does not know much about anything. For instance Demo is supposed to be debating Chinese philosophy, but he has never heard of Legalism and thinks that traditionally Confucians have been defenders of autocracy. As a result the whole thing is sort of like watching Nate Silver talk baseball with somebody who thinks the pitcher’s job is to score lots of touchdowns.
Still, I found the idea of a “House of Scholars” interesting, in that the question of how to move towards democracy in a China that is not yet ready for it is one that Chinese thinkers have talked about a lot in the last 100 years, and I have never seen a suggestions like this, and I think it is instructive to consider why.
To take just three, Kang Youwei, Liang Qichao and Sun Yat-sen were all concerned with with the manifest unreadiness of the Chinese people for democracy. Kang and Sun in particular recommended some form of political tutelage, Kang in the form of a constitutional monarchy, Sun in the form of a party dictatorship that would gradually make the transition to democracy. Sun at least was willing to posit a traditionally inspired branch of government, the Control Yuan, which exists today on Taiwan. Why then did nobody suggest anything like a “House of Scholars”? I can think of lots of practical objections, as does Bell, but I think a deeper objection is that the whole idea is profoundly un-traditional.
Bell’s House of Scholars is based on the idea that ordinary Chinese will make a bad job of democracy, and thus they will need something to restrain their ignorance and passions. As everyone in China respects the educated, they can take on this job. It is not surprising that as and American Bell thinks the best way to fix a problem is fiddling with the Constitution. The idea behind the House of Scholars sounds a lot like the original concept behind the U.S. Senate. The difference however, is that the Senate in the end came from the same place, the people, but their passions were to be dissipated by slowing things down a bit and running them through the state legislatures. So the people were assumed to be capable of self-government , they just needed time to think about it.
Bell’s proposal, however assumes that most people will never be ready for self-government (I get the impression he thinks this about all people, not just Chinese) and will therefore have to be managed, one assumes in perpetuity, by a superior group. This may sound “Confucian” but Kang Youwei, at least, would not have seen it that way. Like Sun he was in favor of a period of tutelage, where the superior could educate the inferior and make them better. He does not seem to have thought that the inferior were incapable of improvement, which is not surprising, nor that this improvement was beyond the power of the elite (since if they cannot provide ethical instruction you could hardly call them a Confucian elite.)
The House of Scholars also smells a little of checks and balances. Bell does not recommend getting rid of popular elections, you need them to provide legitimacy. So you have to balance the passions of the people with the cool reason of the elite. This fits it very well with American ideas of the national order as a balancing of various different interests, but it does not fit as well with the Chinese conception of a unitary nation. Nathan talks about this in Chinese Democracy. Western rights talk sees rights as claims against the state, whereas a lot of Chinese thinkers want to create unity between the needs of the state and those of the individual.
What is a nation? It consists of the people (min). What is national politics? It is simply the people’s self-government. What is love of country? It is the people loving themselves. Therefore, when the rights of the people arise, national rights are established. When people’s rights or powers (quan) vanish, national rights or powers vanish. 1
the rights of the portions add up to the rights of the whole. The accumulation of private rights-consciousness of individuals makes the rights-consciousness of the nation…People who can put up with eunuchs and petty officials extorting their small change will also put up with foreign countries slicing off a province. ….The door through which extortionate government enters [that is, popular acquiescence] is the door through which foreign invaders enter. 2
Obviously the development of ideas of rights and national power is complicated in the West, but right from the beginning Chinese thinkers seem to be more in favor of unity of individual and national interests, which they tend to see as unproblematic, than Western thinkers. So the idea of using a House of Scholars to ground Chinese Democracy in Chinese tradition seems to be running counter to a lot of Chinese tradition, since by creating it you divide Chinese society into two groups and assume that a productive tension will come from their continued conflict. That might actually work, but its not very traditional.