The Confucian State: An Ideal Type of Governance for China?

The West gets China wrong: because it does not understand the nature of the Confucian state. The Chinese draw heavily on these traditional Asian norms. Beijing could complete its historic transformation by breaking completely with Marxism and acknowledge the Confucian state as its ideal type.

by Yao Yang

Konfuzius China Yao Yang
Adobe Stock / Eyetronic

As the coronavirus has developed into a worldwide pandemic, China’s political system has become a hot topic in major Western newspapers and social medias. The Chinese government’s initial slow moves to recognize the virus in Wuhan has been taken as evidence for an authoritarian regime’s inclination to cover up bad news, and its strict quarantine measures afterwards as proof of the cruelty of such a regime. As a resident in Beijing, I myself have first-hand experience of those harsh quarantine measures. However, in this article I will not talk about their pros and cons. They can only be fully judged after the pandemic is over.

Instead, I will step back and offer an interpretation of China’s political system. Specifically, I will compare it with the Confucian state, the ideal type of governance built on Confucian teachings that are, despite their differences with liberal ideas, consistent with China’s long traditions as well as the psychological inclination of ordinary Chinese. I believe that this comparison will help the West make a better judgement about China’s political system and, taking a bolder step, I hope this comparison will enable the West to better understand the strengths and weaknesses of liberal democracy.

The Confucian world

Democracies practiced around the world are all built on an ideal type of governance, namely liberal democracy, that can be traced back to the contractual theories of Thomas Hobbes and John Locke. Hobbes started with the natural state in which every man is endowed with a set of natural rights among which defending himself is the most unalienable. But every man is also inclined to possess more, so the natural state becomes a world of man against man. To obtain peace, people enter into a social contract to surrender part of their natural rights to an omnipotent government: the Leviathan. Locke revised Hobbes’ natural state by imposing natural laws on each person. The laws allow individuals to possess property, but also puts limits on its boundaries: individuals do not possess more than what their livelihood requires. The only inconvenience in the natural state is that individuals are not assured that other people will obey the natural laws. As a result, they form a society to become citizens and jointly agree to set up a government under their control. Autocracy tolerated by Hobbes is ruled out because it is worse than the anarchy in the natural state. To Locke, thinking about such a government is more like willing to be eaten by a lion rather than to be disturbed by goats. In summary, liberal democracy is a humanely constructed social contract that involves self-interested individuals.

The Confucian state has a different starting point. For Confucius (551–479 BCE), men are born with different natures. Some are smart and some are dumb. The smartest and the dumbest people cannot be changed, but those in between can be changed by learning and practicing. In the end, society comprises gentlemen (junzi) and little men (xiaoren). Gentlemen care about things beyond their own welfare, and little men care only about themselves. Rephrased in today’s words, what Confucius believed is that human nature is a complex combination of attributes ranging from self-interests to noble causes. This belief is consistent with the scientific observations of homo sapiens’ two close cousins, chimpanzees and bonobos, as related in the vivid stories told by Frans de Waal in his renowned book Chimpanzee Politics. It is also consistent with what we observe in our daily life. For Confucius, human nature is a summary of observations and, as a result, it is complex. For Hobbes and Locke, human nature is a construct and is only defined by individual rationality. What are the implications of this difference? Indeed, they are large.

Confucian state vs. liberal democracy

First of all, liberal democracy believes that every man is created equal, but the Confucian state does not. The Confucian denial must sound alarming to many people. But “men are created equal” is a normative assessment, not a positive description of reality. The Confucian denial only acknowledges the reality. However, this does not mean that a Confucian necessarily denies the pursuit for equality. In fact, many modern Confucians vehemently defend equality and personal freedom. For this, Confucianism is a kind of positive realism ⁠— acknowledging that the world is imperfect, but vowing to make it better.

Second, society should be organized by a hierarchy that requires commensurate qualifications. This is not an idea uniquely held by Confucians. The United States’s founding fathers had similar thoughts. In his famous Federalist Papers, Alexander Hamilton asserted bluntly that the presidency is not meant for a person without imminent quality, and the American constitution assigned the right to vote for the president to the electoral college that was supposedly to be filled by elites recommended by local communities. The contemporary Confucian philosopher Daniel Bell distinguishes between good hierarchies and bad hierarchies. Bad hierarchies, such as the caste system, cement social divides and are oppressive; good hierarchies allow for upward mobility and encourage people to improve themselves. While acknowledging that people are born differently, Confucians encourage people to better themselves by self-restraint and self-learning. In fact, because of the national exam system (keju) historical China was one of the ancient societies with the highest degrees of upward mobility.

Third, qualifications instead of political platforms or policy agendas are the criteria to select leaders. For the Confucian, the ultimate pursuit of a leader is to achieve virtuous rule, or ren. This is not dependent on his accountability to the people, as liberal democracy would require. It rather depends on his own quality as a virtuous ruler.

On the virtuous ruler

How to become a virtuous ruler? It is through learning. Since Emperor Hanwu (156–87 BCE, the seventh emperor of Han dynasty) adopted Confucianism as the ideology of the state, every Chinese emperor spent his lifetime learning Confucianism. A Confucian teacher was assigned to him when he was young, and he had to regularly sit in classes (jingyan) instructed by Confucian scholars after he took the realm. The requirement was not limited to the emperor; officials in his government also needed to perfect themselves by learning Confucianism. Keju was designed to discover talents among young people. Before Ming dynasty (1368–1644), the prime minister was the head of the government. In the words of a Confucian scholar in the Song dynasty, the prime minister should be judged by how well he was able to keep peace in the country, and the emperor should be judged by how well he learned from jingyan.

In summary, in the Confucian world merits are the foundation for everything. Chinese people have long realized that they have to rely on themselves, not the government to better their personal life. That is why Jack Ma and Pony Ma, the two richest men today in China, are heroes for young Chinese. Chinese are not as collective as the Chinese or foreigners have long believed. They tend to leave the public sphere to the authorities and obey them. This makes the Chinese look like more collective than Western peoples. In return, the authorities are required to take a proactive role in the public sphere to better the collective welfare. Responsibility, not accountability, is the driving force behind Chinese authorities.

The selection of political staff

In the Confucian world, the state is run by officials selected on the basis of virtue and ability. Who, then, is qualified to select those officials? In a democracy, this is done by popular vote. The underlying assumption is that the right collective wisdom can be achieved by aggregating citizens’ votes. Hamilton rejected this assumption on the basis that voters can be easily swayed by opportunistic politicians. The Confucian rejects this assumption on a similar basis: people have different levels of achievement on their road to become a virtuous person, and some are more capable than others in making the right judgement. Therefore, the task of selecting officials should be assigned to people who possess high levels of virtue and ability themselves. In old China, high-ranking officials and ultimately the emperor himself took on the task. In today’s China, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) executes the task. That is, the Confucian state requires a central authority to assume the position to select government officials.

This centralized system of selection has pros and cons. Its most significant advantage is to insulate officials from popular demands that in many cases could be short-sighted. In a large country like China, it also gives the center a powerful tool to control local officials. From the time when Emperor Qin Shihuang (259–210 BCE) first unified China, the central government has had to give local officials a considerable degree of autonomy. To prevent officials from building their own political bases, the center reallocated them to a different locality every several years. This practice has been preserved until today. By holding their “hats” in hand, the center can effectively control local officials. But the concentration of power also implies a disadvantage. The system can easily become rigid with every official waiting for an order from above. In addition, the road to the top is so long that after many rounds of selection the officials still there at the end look much the same. Although it improves the quality of officials by providing them training on their road to the top, the system may miss talents outside of the system who are good at solving certain problems that the country faces.

The most serious challenge faced by the Confucian state is the lack of accountability of the central authority. Accountability is a built-in component of liberal democracy. Can accountability be developed from the theory of the Confucian state? I think there are two arguments for a positive answer. First, the ultimate goal of the Confucian state is to realize ren, or virtuous rule. Thus, the ruler (central authority) should be willing to give final judgement of his policies to the people because he believes that what he is doing is good for the people. Second, the ruler cannot eliminate people’s suspicion only by verbal promises. By sharing power with the people, the ruler and the people obtain mutual assurance: the people make sure that the ruler wants to conduct virtuous rule, and the ruler assumes that the people will not overthrow him. Therefore, the Confucian state, in its modern form, should assign sovereignty to the people.

Performance of China’s current political system

China’s economic success since 1978 has been made possible by the CCP’s turn back to the Chinese tradition in which the Confucian state is center stage. In pure economic terms, China’s success can be explained by its adoption of neoclassical economic teachings: high savings, capital accumulation, and human capital development. For an economist studying political economy, however, the more fascinating question is why the Chinese government and the CCP has been able to adopt those teachings.

It is worth remembering that before 1978 the CCP was preoccupied by class struggle, a recipe recommended by Karl Marx as a necessary step toward building a classless society. The CCP was created in 1921 as a result of the spread of Marxism in China. Throughout its history until 1978, the party took a stand against the Chinese tradition that the party believed was reactionary and backward. In 1978, Deng Xiaoping stopped class struggle and, by his instinct as a pragmatic Chinese person, reoriented the party back to Chinese tradition. The party underwent “sinification” under his leadership.

Two changes were the most significant

One was replacing Marxist dogmas with the Chinese philosophy of pragmatism. China does not have home-grown religions. Secular life has long been the focus of Chinese civilization. Joy, love, anguish, suffering, and so on, all of man’s experiences in his present life, were the constant subjects of poems, verses, and folk songs. Chinese people thus have become down-to-the-earth pragmatic. In its present-day version, Chinese pragmatism has two distinctive features. One is that there is no permanent truth, and every claim to truth has to be tested by practice. Without this idea, it is unimaginable that the CCP could have undertaken all of the reforms that went against orthodox Marxist practices, mostly created and advocated by the Soviets. The other feature is that the legitimacy of the means can be reasonably justified by the desirability of the result. In Deng’s words: “It does not matter whether a cat is white or black; it is a good cat as long as it catches mice.” For Deng, the “mice” were China’s great rejuvenation, and the “cat” was whatever means that could help realize that goal. For example, because the market can allocate resources more efficiently than planning, China should adopt it despite the fact that it was invented by capitalism.

The other change was to re-introduce political meritocracy into the party. Deng set up the retirement rule and cleared the path for young people to move up in the party hierarchy. In the early 1980s, he proposed four criteria for promotion in the party. Leaders had to be revolutionary, young, knowledgeable, and professional. One of the greatest promotions at the time was the promotion of Zhao Ziyang to the post of premier. Zhao was only the party secretary of Sichuan province before the promotion. He was appointed as premier only because he took the lead in rural reform. This tradition of merit-based promotion was carried out by the central leaders after Deng. In the 1990s and aughts, economic performance was a significant criterion for promotion.

On the theoretical front, though, changes have been slower. The party leaders in the 1980s and 1990s increasingly realized that Marxism alone could not fully describe what the party had done, particularly the reforms carried out that contradicted dogmatic Marxist practices, such as economic planning and public ownership. But on paper, Marxism had to be the orthodox ideology because that defined the party’s ideological legitimacy. What the leadership did was to put a new jacket on Marxism that defined the party as an “all people’s party”. Now, the party represents not only the working class, but also other spectrums of people in China. By doing so, the party has become a disinterested central authority that does not defend the interests of individual social groups. This has allowed the party to avoid the state capture that has plagued the politics of many developing countries, and the Chinese economy is able to grow without suffering much from the group-based misallocation of resources. This is the essence of the political economy behind China’s economic success.

Why the international discourse on China is too simplistic

The prevailing discourse in the international public sphere depicts China’s political-economic system as one of political and economic exclusion and tight state control of everything. Indeed, it is now a standard practice to regard China’s system as diametrically opposite to the Western system of free market and democratic government. However, this is an overly simplified and misleading characterization of the Chinese system.

First of all, the CCP is not a closed political entity. It is open to all individuals who believe in and are able to contribute to China’s great rejuvenation. Joining the party implies discipline, but this cost allows the party to screen out opportunists. The party plays the role of the central authority in the Confucian state, such as selecting officials for the country. Officials at all levels are engaged in a tournament for promotion. Although personal connections play a role, empirical studies have shown that merits are the key determinant for promotion. The impression that China’s political system is closed has largely been a result of seeing China through the lens of competitive democracy — there is no other party competing with the CCP, so the system is closed. The CCP is not a Western-style political party; it is the central authority in the Confucian state.

Second, on the economic front, the Chinese economy is not dominated by the state sector. Inside China, the contribution of the private sector is conveniently summarized by “56789”: the private sector contributes 50 percent of tax revenue, 60 percent of national GDP, 70 percent of innovations, 80 percent of employment, and more than 90 percent of the number of companies. The key to China’s economic success is not state capitalism, but rather the expansion of the private sector. State capitalism itself is a myth. While the government does influence the market, it is far-fetched to conclude that the government controls everything in the Chinese economy. Serious scholars have to be aware that calling China’s economic model state capitalism may well be a strategy to discredit China’s economic achievement.

Third, on the social front the party’s control is also exaggerated. To be sure, there is censorship in the country, but the regime is definitely far from George Orwell’s depiction of dictatorship in his dystopic novel 1984. Take the social credit system as an example. Most Western commentators see it as a piece of evidence for China’s digital despotism. This view misses the reality that cheating is a serious threat to decent business and daily life in China, a country that is undergoing a fast transition from a traditional society of acquaintances to a modern society of strangers. The social credit system aims at punishing cheating and rewarding honesty. It does create inconvenience for honest people, but it is perhaps a necessary cost for China’s fast transition to a rule-based modern society.

The quarantine measures China has taken to combat the coronavirus have also been taken by Western commentators and social medias as evidence for China’s despotism. In fact, some even argued not to introduce quarantine measures in their own countries exactly because they wanted to avoid following China’s despotic approach. But this argument misses the fact that other countries and regions in East Asia also introduced either tight quarantine measures or digital tracking to curb infections. East Asia could do this not because it shares China’s political system but rather because the countries and regions there share the same collective culture.

Introducing checks and balances into China’s political system

To be sure, China’s political system is not perfect, even when it is compared to the Confucian state. But this should not be surprising; after all, not every democracy practiced on Earth lives up to the standards set by its ideal type: liberal democracy. Every political system is on its way to perfection.

The fundamental gap between China’s political system and the Confucian state is the lack of accountability of the central authority. However, to fill the gap electoral competition is probably not the right recommendation. Instead, it should introduce checks and balances into the system. The essence of constitutional rule is the division of power, and the checks and balances that develop from it. But this should not be a unique feature of liberal democracy; any rational polity should have a division of power because otherwise it is impossible to carry out rational rule in a modern society in which complexity is its signature feature. It is unfortunate that checks and balances, a governing technique in their own right, have become so ideologically loaded in both the West and the East that rational discussion about them has been made impossible without first invoking judgement about the political system.

Is it possible to introduce checks and balances in China when the CCP is the only political power in the society? In this regard, the oath of the emperors in the Northern Song Dynasty (960–1127) provides an enlightening example. The first emperor of the dynasty erected a secret stone tablet inscribed with an oath that demanded that future emperors not kill an official or people who criticized them. Every new emperor had to read the oath in secrecy. None of emperors in the dynasty violated the oath. Self-restraint could lead to a sustained pact between two parties with asymmetric power. Behind the pact was a common belief in the Confucian doctrines. The CCP aims at China’s great rejuvenation, a cause shared by the Chinese people. Therefore, the two arguments for assigning sovereignty to the people in the Confucian state also apply to China’s current political system.

The CCP should finish its sinification

There are various reasons why checks and balances are not fully implemented in China. However, the most significant reason is the lack of consensus about the Confucian state as an ideal type of governance for the country. The party is not ready to fulfill its course of sinification and the public is dominated by the narrative of democracy. As a result, Chinese politics is filled with a tension of double anxieties: the public, particularly intellectuals, are anxiously hoping for China to transition to democracy, and because of that the party becomes anxious about its power. Censorship largely derives from the second anxiety.

The CCP should take the lead to break this spell of anxiety. Finishing sinification is the only way out. Marxism does not explain what the party has done right since 1978; neither does it make peace with the worldview of Chinese people. Acknowledging the Confucian state as its ideal type, China’s political system lays a solid philosophical foundation that is congruent with the psychological inclination of ordinary Chinese. In addition, it will help the CCP when it deals with the West. Liberalism implies precious human values, but not without drawbacks, particularly in the areas related to individualism and abstract equality that serve as the hotbed for populistic politics. Confucianism offers a remedy exactly in those areas. In addition, the idea of zhong-yong — meaning peaceful coexistence in the political arena — allows Confucianism to accept many liberal values. It also allows China to argue for political diversity in the world.

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