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Against Political Equality:
The Confucian Case

by tongdong bai
princeton, 344 pages, $39.95

Just Hierarchy:
Why Social Hierarchies Matter in China and the Rest of the World

by daniel a. bell and wang pei
princeton, 288 pages, $29.95

After being denounced during the Cultural Revolution (1966–76) as inconsistent with Marxist ideals, Confucianism has made an astonishing return to official favor in China. In 2010, I participated in the first Nishan Forum, which marked a dramatic and orchestrated confirmation that Confucian ideals, or a version of them, would once again be a central feature of Chinese national identity. Marxism “with Chinese characteristics” suddenly seemed to be eclipsed by a Confucian fervor.

Encouraged by China’s triumphant successes in the global market, many believed that a Confucian revival would promote greater openness to Western ethical and political ideals. When I was asked, quite unexpectedly, to give the opening plenary address to the World Conference on Sinology in Beijing in November, 2012, I took the invitation to be a sign of my Chinese colleagues’ desire to discover a consonance between East and West, for the Confucian inheritance has much in common with the classical and Christian traditions. Take the example of political economy and extreme income disparity, an issue that is pressing in both China and the United States. Plato, in his Republic, famously argued that the health of the state depended on a productive and vigorous middle class. A chief duty of “the guardians” is to ensure as much as possible that labor receives just reward, and that extremes of wealth and poverty do not undermine the stability of the state. This is a non-utopian view, which does not seek perfect equality, but instead seeks to moderate dangerous extremes. The Confucian tradition is based on a similar realism. “The head of a State or Family,” Confucius is recorded as saying, “is not concerned lest his people should be poor, but only lest what they have should be ill apportioned.”

A similar shared emphasis is observable between the Confucian classics and Scripture. Many counsels of the ancient Chinese sages find their counterparts in the moral philosophy of the biblical sages and poets. The biblical authors present a case for just compensation and care for the poor in terms of divine command, whereas Confucian texts stress a pragmatic concern for political stability. But the thrust is the same.

It is harder to discuss such commonalities in China today. In just a few years, Confucianism has acquired a new face, with two sides. Moderates such as Chen Ming and the distinguished Tu Weiming regard the tradition as potentially providing a kind of civil religion for China, a source of moral authority and perhaps political legitimacy for rulers who accept its general regula and moral precepts. This view is largely consistent with classical Confucianism.

More radical is the proposal of ­Jiang Qing. He and his followers wish to see a Confucian state religion institutionalized as an alternative to Western liberal democratic ­ideals, to which they are hostile. Jiang’s cultural nationalism imagines public rules and rituals. For instance, participants in the Nishan Forum were given “Neo-Confucian” vestments to wear in the general ceremonies and at academic sessions. Drawing on part of the 1982 Constitution, ­Jiang’s Neo-­Confucianism emphasizes Chinese ethnicity, language, culture, and history. As Lei Sun, professor of Confucian philosophy at Tongji University, puts it, “Political legitimacy in China has shifted from a basis in revolution to a basis in Chinese history and culture.” This in itself might seem a welcome development. But for some Neo-­Confucians, it is not ­nearly enough.

Princeton University Press has recently shown an interest in these matters, publishing a number of books by Neo-Confucian scholars. Perspective on the philosophical direction of the New Confucianism is provided by Tongdong Bai in Against Political Equality: The Confucian Case. Bai is a moral philosopher who spent some years teaching for NYU. In a carefully argued and well-­documented philosophical essay, he agrees with the Neo-Confucians that since not all people have a capacity for political judgment, only those who possess “social virtue” should be permitted to govern. He goes on to suggest that the complexities of contemporary technology make such discrimination all the more imperative. Because of the dangers posed by new technology in the wrong hands, only the “morally fit” should govern. Although some forms of equality might be warranted in society, political equality is not; indeed, as evidenced by the chaos in Western democracies, it can prove disastrous. Bai’s book raises, but does not satisfactorily answer, the obvious question: “Who decides who is morally fit, and on what basis?”

Daniel A. Bell, a Canadian expatriate who has become something of an academic rock star in China, is a Neo-Confucian and author of many Princeton books. Bell has no qualms about answering the question above. In Just Hierarchy: Why Social Hierarchies Matter in China and the Rest of the World, he and his coauthor Wang Pei denigrate egalitarianism, even of the sort Marx imagined for his work-free utopia: “From a Confucian perspective Marxist tradition places excessive reliance on the value of free choice.” Bell and Wang’s final section treats the dangers of artificial intelligence—and soon, Artificial Super Intelligence. The authors’ bogeyman is Google, whose terror lies in its potential proprietary acquisition of ASI. They propose a radical either/or choice, which they say must be resolved in favor of their version of Neo-Confucian principles. Will we become the slaves of machines, ask Bell and Wang, or will we master them? Who has the power to overmaster Google? Evidently, not the United States government. They cite Vladimir Putin: AI is “the future, not only for Russia, but for all humankind. . . . Whoever becomes the leader in this sphere will become the ruler of the world.” By their account, the race to doomsday is between Google and China, and China will win. We should welcome the Chinese victory, for “the CCP will also ensure . . . that no one private company has more power than the government.” In the authors’ Neo-Confucian vision, the Chinese Communist Party “will need to regulate AI research not just in China, but in the rest of the world as well.” In short, those “most fit to govern” will be those with the most power—in this case, communists.

This is not the Confucianism that the hosts of Confucian Institutes in the West thought they were welcoming. Indeed, given recent threats uttered by Zhao ­Lijian, spokesman for China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, to “severely punish” critics of the party anywhere in the world—and the announcement by Chen Yixin, close associate of Xi Jinping, that any deviation from the party line will be punished—coupled with warnings from Xi himself that “Stalinist purges” targeting those who are “soft” or “weak” in enforcing CCP discipline are a necessary component of effective Marxism—it is increasingly difficult to believe that the old Confucian virtues ever were the actual purpose of the New Confucianism. The recent arrest and firing of Xu Zhangrun, the eminent Confucian philosopher at Tsinghua University, for daring to point out the discrepancy, simply confirms the reality.

David Lyle Jeffrey is Emeritus Distinguished Professor of Literature and Humanities at Baylor University, Distinguished Senior Fellow of the Baylor Institute of Studies in Religion, and Guest Professor at Peking University.

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