Making China democratic

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.

Liang Qichao

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.

  1. Yang Xiao “Liang Qichao’s Political and Social Philosophy” p.23 from Cheng and Bunnin eds. Contemporary Chinese Philosophy Blackwell, 2002 

  2. Andrew Nathan Chinese Democracy California, 1985 p.56 


  1. i would caution against using the philosophies of a few late-Qing and early-Republican era scholars and politicos as the sole basis for a claim that no tradition in Chinese thought favoring government by scholarly bodies.

    idiosyncratic beliefs aside, the three men you’ve cited forged their philosophies in the crucible of a crumbling China and were thus understandably inclined toward ideas that promoted Chinese unity over division, and the [illusion and false of promise of] strength that comes action as opposed to deliberation and reflection.

    it’s easy to understand thus why no one among them proposed the existence of a ruling body of scholars.

    it may also be that, because of the times in which they lived, the notion of a “scholar” was more partisan a concept than it is today. with fewer scholars per capita than there are in the present, and with those that existed choosing sides and digging-in, as it were, either for or against the declining Qing, the partisan nature of such a body would undermine its own legitimacy.

  2. Yes, and the other question is: is Daniel Bell, in fact, even an American? I ask since like with your bear paws post you are basing a good part of your argument on reasons that turn out to be questionable. Getting your facts right is always a nice place to start otherwise nothing ever makes sense in the end (which is not to say that there are no problems in Bell but rather to make the point that the facts are alays nice). Bell does not base his arguments in the US tradition– he is coming from a different place.

  3. Alan,

    On the issue of Bell’s nationality — he’s certainly Canadian, but to mediate a bit here, isn’t it the case that the philosopher in the last chapter comes up with the idea for the House of Scholars while munching down on some KFC? Talk about being influenced by Americanism! No doubt the idea came as a result of a bit too much chicken grease. 🙂

    I’m a little confused about your own confusion, however. Why is the House of Scholars idea so surprising in terms of tradition? I mean, to my ear, this idea sounds decidedly Confucian (Confucius himself, sure, but also the later Confucians as well). I’m not suggesting that Confucianism is the sole sort of tradition here, but it’s a pretty substantial part. So why can’t he appeal to this philosophical tradition as a way of “grafting” his idea about the present onto the past?

  4. Chris,

    That’s just the point. It’s not traditional. Lots of Chinese thinkers have tried to figure out how China might make the transition to democracy. I mentioned only three, but I can’t think of any of them who proposed anything like a House of Scholars or would have liked it. All of them favored some form of tutelage. As I suggested this is because Bell’s proposal suggests that the mass of Chinese people are beyond improvement (quite un-Confucian) and that the goal of a social order should be to work around irreducible social conflicts, as here between the desire for popular sovereignty and expert guidance. All of the Chinese thinkers I talked about, and all the others that come to mind, favored a unitary state and people. Certainly any pre 1880’s Confucian (like Confucius) would have found the idea an anathema as it introduces conflict into the center of the state, whereas the good state should transcend conflict. You do get the feudalism/federalism people that Duara talks about in Rescuing History from The Nation, but I can’t seem them going for this either.
    Plus, although Bell does not talk about how people would be selected for this house of scholars, I’m guessing he would favor an exam system, which again is “traditional” but overlooks how deeply problematic the exams were for traditional Chinese thinkers. He just does not go very deep into what Chinese tradition is.

    Have you looked at Gloria Davies’ Worrying About China: The Language of Chinese Critical Inquiry? It’s not quite parallel to Bell, but I’m finding it a lot more interesting.

  5. Alan,

    A quick point on Confucius, and I’ll be back later to think a bit more about some of the other things you said.

    I think the point that the masses are not improvable can be taken in two ways. In the first sense, one would argue that it doesn’t matter what you do, “min” (masses) are simply beyond help. Such a point would clearly be un-Confucian — in light of passages like Analects 17.2, which claims that men are “similar by nature, but diverge as a matter of practice”. Clearly on Confucian grounds any particular member of the masses is capable of being educated (hence the Confucian move from “ren” meaning noble social class to “ren” as a sign of moral merit regardless of social class).

    I could be wrong here, but I did not take Bell’s point about political stratification to rest on a rooted social (or developmental) metaphysics where the min are locked into a certain level of thinking. Instead, I took him to mean that although any member of the masses is capable of improvement, there will always be, at any point in time, a class of “masses” which has not _been_ improved. Given China’s past and present, this seems somewhat realistic — the country is overwhelmingly composed of farmers for whom formal education would be, to some extent, unrealistic (not developmentally impossible).

    I took the House of Scholars to simply be a reflection of that “on the ground” empirical reality, this coupled with the Confucian recognition that leadership should work in such a way that the vanguard (educated) elite are in charge, not the uneducated. I take it that Bell is grafting onto _this_ tradition, but he is trying to also match this desire to a very modern “on the ground” reality — that political legitimacy in the modern world is not likely going to be bestowed (by the Chinese people) if the masses have no right to vote. Hence the need for the “lower house” elected by the people (I forget the name he gives it) and the House of Scholars (to reflect the more traditionally rooted, even if in ancient sources, predisposition towards thinking that power should be distributed in terms of merit).

    More later on the rest.

  6. Well, Alan, try and tell that to the Canadians, then. It was like your last post on bear claws, which a 5 minute google search showed to be a completely inaccurate representation of Bell, if you want to engage the ideas (not the person/ or likes and dislikes) you have gotta start with some basic facts and then if you come up with an argument, I think you need to follow through (like cucumber sandwiches for one thing!! You dropped that one like a hotcake). Which is all to say, Bell’s being Canadian makes a difference.

    Chris, I read the house of scholars in the same way.

  7. Chris,

    Your impression was about the same as mine, but I became increasingly unsatisfied with it. Yes, Confucius may have thought that individuals might be able to rise out of the min, but the min (as a group) would always be with us. How to reconcile that with western concepts of nationalism and democracy, however? Will there always be a class (90 percent of the population? 40 percent?) who are not full citizens? I was struck by the lack of anything like the “House of Scholars” in the Chinese thinkers who have talked about democracy. That’s why I think Kang, in particular went for tutelage, the idea that everyone (or almost everyone) can be brought to the level of the modern, democratic Junzi, and if they are not there yet bringing them there is the first duty of the state. If you bring together traditional Confucian ideas of governance and democracy the backward state of the min has to be temporary (for Kang at least), thus tutelage rather than Bell’s permanent arrangement I suppose you could imagine a Confucian (or more likely a Legalist) who would share Bell’s pessimism, but none of the actual Confucians (Kang and Liang) or Confucian influenced (Sun) people who actually addressed this did anything of the sort. If Bell wants to base his argument on tradition I think he has to pay some attention to the past.


    As I said, I can’t see how Bell being a Canadian makes any difference here. Would you care to explain? Also, did you ever get a hold of Bell’s other book and see if the reviewer’s characterization was accurate? What I could see on Google books was pretty limited.

  8. Candians have a different political system so it stands to reason that the emphasis on a “senate” and even your point about the constitution just doesn’t follow in the same way if he had in fact been American– being Canadian a stress on social welfare and a greater acceptance of governmental control in certain areas too might be something that would be an issue (Indeed I think it is). Along these lines, however, it was you who stated “it doesn’t matter whether he is Canadian or American” so in fact, it is my opinion that it might be up to you (not me!) to explain (As again, I am just asking that you base your conclusions on facts that you actually check out so as not to waste time).

    Regarding the other issue, I thought the slowboat’s googlebook reference would have been enough. But I spoke to Bell and he said it was absolutely a false representation of what he was saying (in fact as Chris suggested at that time an interpreattion like you were suggesting– based on the review– just didn’t really make logical sense).

    And, as long as I am here, I have a feeling that you are missing another big point regarding your problem of min 民. This is not a class. It is meritocracy. It is not like historical Japan nor like historical Europe– but rather these “scholars” ARE part of the min. They rise to the top in a meritocracy so they are in fact NOT a class. Kind of like becoming a movie star. Are movie stars not part of the population in America? yes, of course they are… they are not a separate class nor are they born into their positions… this is a big point I think but does in fact Bell suggest that they will be a CLASS?? That would not make too much sense, would it?

    Respectfully, Peony

  9. Peony,

    Well, I guess I just don’t see why it matters that Bell is Canadian and perhaps we should just leave it at that. And I still think that tutelage looks more like a “traditional” connection to democracy than the House of Scholars, but I would guess we are not going to agree their either.

  10. I’ve only read what Bell has written for newspapers online, but one article mentions Jiang Qing (蒋庆) and his book Political Confucianism. There is another article about Jiang Qing at The China Beat. I wouldn’t be surprised if Bell’s idea of a House of Scholars was from Jiang. Does any one know more?

  11. Shao Ping,

    It sounds like that it what he is working off of, although I also have not seen a copy of Jiang Qing’s book. One thing that struck me though is that Jiang seems to be self-taught, which is fine of course and may in fact be quite liberating. He seems to have gone back to the classics and re-created tradition without the baggage of 2000 years of debate on these topics that thinkers like Kang and Liang were saddled with. More, maybe, later.

  12. Alan,

    I’m not sure I agree that the tension is significant enough to have a political impact here. I don’t disagree that junzi should rule in such a way that everyone beneath can best actualize their own potential, or in a way that they too might become exemplary persons. However I think the idea here is that anyone — any particular member of the people — could in fact become a member of the House of Scholars. So the government would be organized in such a way that this sort of developmental route is always available to anyone.

    In addition, it seems to be to be a _very_ Confucian point to suggest that a fully democracy would wipe out the possibility _of_ facilitating the development of the people in virtue of the fact that it equalizes the views of all. Without an institutionalized structure that highlights the importance of meritocracy, we might well get a “leveling” effect typically heard in my own students — you know, the whole “but who is to say?” stuff. In such a schema, there is no reason to become more educated or even more knowledgeable — if anything, you might simply stress rhetorical capacity in order to persuade more people of your own opinion (and thus swing “the majority”). This hardly seems compatible with the Confucian tradition. In this sense, Bell’s dual structure maintains the best of both worlds — the modern notion of political legitimacy being attached to voting, and the ancient cultural meritocratic structure that is deeply embedded in Confucian thinking (and logic).

    Also, a side point here — it may well be the case that later thinkers who appropriated the Confucian tradition did not think in Bell’s terms (I don’t know the history here, so I’ll accept your description). But there’s a difference, I think, between historical practice and tradition in the sense that I am thinking of it (and I suspect that Bell is). Surely they dovetail, but they are not coextensive or identical. It could well be that the later historical figures wrongly appropriated Confucianism, and even sought to put into practice institutions that were not actually consistent with the cultural tradition of meritocracy.


    Your point about min is interesting. I have long been vexed by the “ren/min” connection and/or differentiation. I think you are right in what you are saying in part, but I suspect that there’s more to it here — at least some tension in the use of “min” that does suggest a type of “class”. I need to think it over some and organize my points. At some point I’ll talk about it over at my place.

  13. Chris, right you are. As long as you mean a class which one is not born into. So, in that sense movie stars are indeed a class. A class of the super-rich. But how are they not part of the population (just like any other class). Yes, let’s talk about it at your place…. just tell me when 🙂
    More there…and till then, don’t eat too many cucumber sandwiches!

  14. I think your “checks and balances” argument is more salient than the cultural one. One can look at the Republic of the Philippines and its copycat American constitutional model to ask if the model works anywhere outside of the US.

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