​​​​​​​Tongdong Bai, "Confucianism to Save the World"


‘For the Record’ is a new section on our website where our Fellows-in-Residence have a chance to present some research ideas informally, reflect on their experience at the Center, or report on Center events.

This month’s post is from Tongdong Bai, a professor of philosophy at Fudan University in China. He is a leading scholar on the intersection of eastern and western philosophical traditions and a Berggruen Fellow-in-Residence at the Center this year. His most recent book in English is China: The Political Philosophy of the Middle Kingdom.

In this post, Tongdong challenges you to consider how a Confucian approach to politics might offer a viable alternative to liberal democracy.

Confucianism to Save the World
Tongdong Bai

Liberal democracy and a liberal international order have been widely believed to be “the end of history,” the goal each country should strive for, since the collapse of the Soviet Union. Newly democratized countries, however, are often plagued with ethnic violence, and developed liberal democracies also fail to deal with a host of challenges, such as the recent financial crisis, the inequality gap, and the rise of populism from both the left and the right. Historically, the Western model of nation-state is a root cause of two world wars and many other conflicts. The cosmopolitan attempt to transcend nation-states is also increasingly questioned, especially in light of recent troubles of maintaining the EU, and of dealing with the refugee crisis. 

It is perhaps the time, then, to reject the myth that history has already “ended” and to explore new political models with an open mind. I believe Confucianism may offer an alternative here. Early Confucians faced a world in which small, close-knit feudal communities collapsed and large, populous, well-connected societies of strangers and de-facto sovereign states emerged in a newly “globalized world”. This transition may be a forerunner of the European transition to modernity, and even of the globalization in our times. Common to all these transitions is the need to answer three key political issues: fostering bonds among strangers in a large state, the principles of international relations among sovereign states, and the structure of government.

On the issue of forming social bonds, Mencius, a prominent Confucian thinker, argues that all human beings have the sentiment of compassion, a sense of care toward strangers. But he also understands that this sentiment, though universal, is very fragile. In order for the sentiment of compassion to hold strangers together, it needs to be cultivated. Family is the first and most important institution in which cultivation of compassion can take place, and that is why familial care is so important to Confucians. By learning to care about one’s family members, one learns the existence and significance of others. But Confucianism is not the philosophy of the Godfather (“never go against the family”), as Confucianism requires that we expand the circle of care outward until it embraces everyone in the world. Even at this stage of universal care, however, Confucians think that one still should care more about the people closer to oneself. Patriotism is thus justified, but one should not protect his or her state’s interests at all cost. States that take care of their people and also show concern for the people of other states should form an alliance, and together play the role of world police charged with protecting our very humanity. If the people of another state suffer from a bad regime, the alliance of humane states would have an obligation to help them, with any means necessary, including military interventions. For Confucians, humaneness—not human rights—overrides sovereignty, and the sovereignty of a state should only be respected if it treats its people humanely. In the case of the refugee crisis, the Confucians wouldn’t support open borders, because a state has duties to its own people first. But they would also insist that, after taking care of its own people, a state has a duty to accommodate as many refugees as possible. That is the Confucian hierarchical model of world order: it is built on universal but unequal care in an attempt to strike a balance between the cosmopolitan and statist models.

Domestically, Confucians believe that the ultimate legitimacy to the sovereign rests on service to the people and that the sovereign should be held accountable accordingly. But they believe that although people are the best judge of whether they are satisfied with the service offered by the state, they are not morally and intellectually competent to make policy decisions. In other words, the Confucian ideal regime is for the people, but not by the people. Thus, Confucians could endorse a hybrid regime that combines democratic elements (through which people’s will is expressed) with meritocratic elements (through which morally and intellectually competent political decisions are made). For example, Confucians might support a bicameral legislature with a democratically elected lower house and a meritocratically selected upper house. The Confucian hybrid regime, then, offers a golden mean and a promising alternative to liberal democracy as a political regime.  

See also: Tongdong Bai