As the US continues to face daunting setbacks in its quest to ‘export’ democracy to the Middle East, it may want to take another look at its model. In his book “Beyond Liberal Democracy: Political Thinking for an East Asian Context” veteran sociologist Daniel A. Bell had challenged this “one size fits all” approach to normative governance. He used the example of China to show, as summarised by the philosopher Charles Taylor “how profound differences of culture and value will give a different shape to the core institutions of modernity in different civilizations”. There is a lesson for us in Guyana, in this approach.
“Few, if any, Western liberal democratic theorists…have sought to learn from the traditions and experiences of East Asian societies,” Bell wrote. Their theories are presented as universally valid, and defenders of ‘Asian values’ are viewed as archaic or politically dangerous.
“There are morally legitimate alternatives to Western-style liberal democracy in the East Asian region,” the writer explains.
“If human rights, democracy and capitalism are to take root and produce beneficial outcomes in East Asia, they must be adjusted to contemporary East Asian political and economic realities and to the values of non-liberal East Asian political traditions such as Confucianism and Legalism.
Local knowledge is therefore essential for realistic and morally informed contributions to debates on political reform in the region, as well as for mutual learning and enrichment of political theories.”
In this way it is important to take note how Confucianism “facilitates and helps to maintain certain characteristic features of East Asian capitalism”, moderating capitalist individualism through social communitarian conscience and the paternalistic role of the State, a little like in continental Europe, it contributed towards making the Christian religion.
The key point, Bell noted, is that, if you want to hold a dialogue with (and understand) the Chinese ruling class, you need to put yourself in their minds, and know how they think. Even if they are (post) communist – as several in the newly elected core are – very often they reason based on their own Confucian culture, which for example considers a war to be fair only if the people of the oppressed nation are forced to live in poverty. It is material poverty, not the “lack of freedom or democracy”, which justifies a war.
And in this way the different concept of human rights in China and in the West is resolved in a difference of priority: for the Chinese (and Asians) getting out of poverty is worth more than granting “freedom”, and in this way the lack of social freedom in China is less serious, for a Chinese person, than social inequality in the United States. The perspective of Asian Values is not always understandable or appreciated by a Westerner. The lack of interest of human rights is explained by the priority that is given to material well being, and the negation of the right to citizenship for “migrant workers” can seem cynical. It is precisely on this last point, in Bell’s view, where Asian visions clash with liberal-democratic ones; with the latter which pays more attention to the formal level and the former which denies rights but concedes longer permissions and better opportunities for immigrants.
Bell reminded us how the concept of Western civilization is founded on the active concept of the Greeks, while the Confucian one is decisively more familistic and referred the political decisions to the “best”, to an elite. It is on these bases where Bell’s proposal is founded, making the first step towards the democratization of China: “a bicameral legislature with a democratically elected lower house and an upper house composed of representatives selected on the basis of competitive examinations”, typical of the strict Confucian meritocratic system, because “whatever form of democracy takes root in East Asian societies will have ‘elitist’ characteristics”.
After all, Bell asks, how can the populist West give lessons on democracy to countries like China, in which the Confucian tradition has been teaching the cult of meritocracy for thousands of years?