Chinese Civilization and Democracy

Here is my abridged translation of the essay:-

"I’ve recently participated in a discussion forum on the philosophical theme of 'Lives and the Universe', which was attended by [well-known scholars and heads of research institutes and other prominent organizations].

But two viewpoints that emerged from this discussion forum appear worrying, and since they are becoming stereotype, I feel that I am obliged to refute them as follows.

Firstly, one cannot negate the validity of universal values just because of the outbreak of the financial tsunami. One of the forum participants thinks that the wisdom embedded in Chinese civilization studies is far superior to that in the West – problems that we can easily solve have proven to be a bungle for Westerners, which says that their universal values like democracy and human rights are not at all suited to China.

I do not deny that China’s five thousand years’ of civilization have lots of positive subtleties. But this is by no means to say that China’s level of wisdom is higher than that in the West. In China’s five-thousand-year history, as a result of political systems exercising stringent control over society, that the nation has been strangling society to death is an undisputed fact. A stagnant and stiff-dead society has been a dead-weight on the nation because the social structure has been impeding political advancement. Under these circumstances where the nation and society are locked in a 'mutually stifling position', the Chinese society has been eternally fixated in an agricultural stage of civilization – there is only an accumulation in quantity, but no breakthrough in quality. This situation in turn has caused people to be insipid and conservative, with no desire to improve themselves, and saddled with close-mindedness. That is why when we look at our history, whenever there was an uprising, it was mostly led by some Legalists (法家); the Confucians were always on the side of the anti-reformists. With such a historic education, those who believe in Confucianism are preponderantly government officials, who would automatically oppose any kind of reform. This is the reason why all reform attempts and all the reformists in the various dynasties were destined for tragic ends.

We can see from the two thousand years of imperialist rule, that the rulers lacked the ability to self-correct and self-adjust. Social conflicts were always allowed to accumulate and ferment to the irreparable stage when one spark would ignite a widespread revolutionary fire, utterly destroying all productive capacities and completely breaking up the old political and social structures, only to establish the same old all over again. The vicious circle of ‘new dynasty – corruption – reaction – revolution’ gives alternation to social order and social disruption of a magnitude that is frightening.

If we Chinese want to free ourselves from the destiny of revolution, we must admit the fact that democracy is one of the most effective medicines to rectify the mutually stifling position that the nation and society are in. Only when the rulers respect the people’s rights and well-being and when the judiciary can exercise its power independently can the Chinese society truly enjoy harmony. Perhaps the democratic system is not the best system, but we must borrow its concepts to solve the problem of our nation-society deadlock. To dogmatically reject such a system without having first thoroughly analysed and studied it will definitely not bring any benefit to China. It may even bring disaster.

Secondly, in trying to establish the premise that studies of Chinese civilization can be a remedy for the world’s many problems, one should not elevate those studies to an infinitely high pedestal while at the same time deprecating the universal values. Some forum participants think that democracy in the United States and Europe is a product of compromise and sharing of the spoils of colonialism and slavery, and thus it is a universal value of the West and not a universal value of the Orient.

My answer to that is as follows. First, universal values are a deeply rooted rational consciousness, and they are not to be identified with either the East or the West – these concepts should be acceptable to any country or any individual. Second, although the West does have a history of colonialism and slavery, such crimes should not be superimposed on the universal values. Universal values are the outcome of a long human history of gradual evolution and struggles – they are the crystallized wisdom of mankind and should not be invalidated.

What would happen if one turns one’s back on the universal values? Looking back at the despotic structures of our past dynasties, we can see they were either overturned by the peasants who got their land plundered by the powerful, or conquered by strong neighboring tribes. A society’s development ultimately determines the development of a nation. A nation that tries to control everything in a society may be able to evade the political threat of social reform, but it will ultimately collapse under the insolvable contradictions of the rigid social structure."