Traditionally, Confucianism taught that harmony in society required the maintenance of the “five relationships,” and that realizing the moral nature of mankind, following the Dao, meant acting well in the roles dictated by those relationships: between friend and friend, elder brother and younger brother, husband and wife, parent and child, ruler and ruled. Bell and Wang’s book provides an updated version of the five relations, showing how modern hierarchies can be justified through a generous interpretation of Confucian morality. They defend just hierarchies among intimates and members of a household, among citizens, among states, among animal species, and between human beings and machines. They engage critically with those in the West who use egalitarian premises to advocate the abolition of traditional households and to defend large-scale electoral democracy, global governance, equal rights for animals and children, and political systems that allow large private corporations to control powerful technologies. A China reformed along Confucian lines, a China that rejected its totalitarian/Legalist past, a China led by humane, well-educated, and public-spirited individuals with unencumbered power, would be able to reject all these Western pathologies.
Among conservatives in the West the most controversial part of this program is likely to be the proposal for a “vertical political hierarchy,” first advocated in Bell’s well-known 2015 book The China Model.12 The proposal resolves the traditional tension or opposition between meritocracy and democracy by establishing democratic institutions only at the local, municipal level. At higher levels of government—provincial and national—rule is meritocratic. Entry to and political rank within the meritocratic hierarchy should be determined by performance on civil service examinations and a proven track record of effective and compassionate government in the interests of the whole community.
The sticky issue here for political Confucians has always been legitimacy. Bell and Wang argue that one-man, one-vote democratic elections, taken in the West to be the gold standard of legitimacy, are an inadequate basis for legitimacy in the case of a large, powerful state rooted in an ancient civilization. Even with universal suffrage, democratic voters do not, for instance, represent well the interests of past and future generations—for example, when the current electorate destroys the cultural heritage left to us by our ancestors or saddles future generations with unpayable debts. Democratic electors, focused on their own present interests, also have difficulty recognizing the moral claims of resident aliens and foreign peoples who may be affected by the decisions of their states. Not all democratic political values can apply to large states run meritocratically. Transparency, for example. Bell and Wang argue that secrecy in certain functions of government—particularly the selection of officials—is legitimate. A number of Confucian political theorists have recently argued that an autocratic command structure in a state—a decision-making process that ultimately rests on the will of a single person—is always in practice restrained by informal “constitutional” limits on a ruler’s power, and rightly so. The Confucian tradition of imperial China is rich in debates about precisely this issue. Bell and Wang argue that practices can be adopted, or in some cases already exist, that limit the corrupt exercise of arbitrary power. A “first among equals” ethic of power at the highest levels, a system of recommendation that holds the patron responsible for the failures of his clients, the practice of regular consultation with the people via local democratic assemblies, and, above all, widespread education in Confucian values such as compassionate care for the people—all these means, taken together, can make an autocratic state humane and attract the love and loyalty of its citizens.
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