Confucian reformers generally favour more freedom of speech in China. What they question is democracy in the sense of Western-style competitive elections as the mechanism for choosing the country's most powerful rulers. One clear problem with "one person, one vote" is that equality ends at the boundaries of the political community; those outside are neglected. The national focus of the democratically elected political leaders is assumed; they are meant to serve only the community of voters. Even democracies that work well tend to focus on the interests of citizens and neglect the interests of foreigners. But political leaders, especially leaders of big countries such as China, make decisions that affect the rest of the world (consider global warming), and so they need to consider the interests of the rest of the world.
Hence, reformist Confucians put forward political ideals that are meant to work better than Western-style democracy in terms of securing the interests of all those affected by the policies of the government, including future generations and foreigners. Their ideal is not a world where everybody is treated as an equal but one where the interests of non-voters would be taken more seriously than in most nation-centred democracies. And the key value for realizing global political ideals is meritocracy, meaning equality of opportunity in education and government, with positions of leadership being distributed to the most virtuous and qualified members of the community. The idea is that everyone has the potential to become morally exemplary, but, in real life, the capacity to make competent and morally justifiable political judgments varies among people, and an important task of the political system is to identify those with above-average ability.
CONFUCIAN VALUES IN PRACTICE
What might such values mean in practice? In the past decade, Confucian intellectuals have put forward political proposals that aim to combine "Western" ideas of democracy with "Confucian" ideas of meritocracy. Rather than subordinating Confucian values and institutions to democracy as an a priori dictum, they contain a division of labour, with democracy having priority in some areas and meritocracy in others. If it's about land disputes in rural China, farmers should have a greater say. If it's about pay and safety disputes, workers should have a greater say. In practice, it means more freedom of speech and association and more representation for workers and farmers in some sort of democratic house.
But what about matters such as foreign policy and environmental protection? What the government does in such areas affects the interests of non-voters, and they need some form of representation as well. Hence, Confucian thinkers put forward proposals for a meritocratic house of government, with deputies selected by such mechanisms as free and fair competitive examinations, that would have the task of representing the interests of non-voters typically neglected by democratically selected decision-makers.
One obvious objection to examinations is that they cannot test for the kinds of virtues that concerned Confucius - flexibility, humility, compassion and public-spiritedness - and that, ideally, would also characterize political decision-makers in the modern world. It's true that examinations won't test perfectly for those virtues, but the question is whether deputies chosen by such examinations are more likely to be far-sighted than those chosen by elections.
There are reasons to believe so. Drawing on extensive empirical research, Bryan Caplan's book The Myth of the Rational Voter: Why Democracies Choose Bad Policies shows that voters are often irrational, and he suggests tests of voter competence as a remedy. So examinations would test for basic economic policy (and knowledge of international relations), but they would also cover knowledge of the Confucian classics, testing for memorization as well as interpretation. The leading Confucian political thinker, Jiang Qing, argues that examinations could set a framework and moral vocabulary for subsequent political actions, and successful candidates would also need to be evaluated in terms of how they perform in practice.
Far-fetched? It's no less so than scenarios that envision a transition to Western-style liberal democracy (because both scenarios assume a more open society). And it answers the key worry about the transition to democracy: that it translates into short-term, unduly nationalistic policy-making. It's also a matter of what standards we should use to evaluate China's political progress. Politically speaking, most people think China should look more like Canada. But one day, perhaps, we will hope that Canada looks more like China.
Daniel A. Bell is professor of political philosophy at Tsinghua University in Beijing and the author of China's New Confucianism: Politics and Everyday Life in a Changing Society.