Confucianism offers own paths to democracy rooted in East Asian culture

Source:Global Times Published: 2014-3-27 19:58:01

Sungmoon Kim, Confucian Democracy in East Asia: Theory and Practice, Cambridge University Press, March 2014

When democracy is widely accepted as the universal value in political regimes, critical voices about its varieties never cease to be raised in different countries.

Debate is especially intense in East Asia, where the cultures and histories share few commonalities with the West, even though Japan and South Korea are widely accepted as legitimately democratic states.

Understanding the plasticity of democracy seems like a more important issue than the debate about which mode of democracy is best. Sungmoon Kim, associate professor of political theory at City University of Hong Kong, explores Confucian democracy, which he sees as a more "Asian-based" model in his new book Confucian democracy in East Asia: Theory and Practice.

The book raises a question common in all studies of East Asian democracy: Can modern democracy be functional in these societies? Some question whether countries with a history of centuries of autocracy may have trouble in finding a symbiotic relationship with democracy.

Democracy was no less foreign a concept to Europe for most of history, but Kim attempts to single out particular aspects of Asian political concepts, looking particularly at Confucianism.

By analyzing the basic values of Confucianism, which originated from China but affects most East Asian countries, Kim rejects claims of incompatibility and questions the assumed Asian orientation toward thick communitarianism, which ignores individual liberty and calls for social monism, and public meritocracy, which advocates elitism and neglects popular accountability.

This book, as the author indicates, helps "construct a mode of public reason (and reasoning) that is morally palatable to East Asians who are still saturated in Confucian customs by re-appropriating Confucian familialism, and using this perspective to theorize on Confucian democratic welfarism and political meritocracy."

It defends the idea that a Confucian civil democracy, though not rooted in Western culture and tradition, can also provide universal freedom, well-protected citizenship and democratic governance.

Kim bases his careful analysis on a wealth of scholastic arguments about classical Confucianism. He also draws upon political theories and conducts a detailed case study on South Korea, a country both steeped in long-standing Confucian tradition and practicing modern democracy.

Through deep and subtle examination, the book makes a case that Western concepts of liberal democracy may have difficulty in East Asian culture since Confucianism and liberal individualism-predicated democracy are contested concepts.

But it doesn't mean democracy cannot be achieved in East Asian countries within different frameworks. To some extent, Kim's work has provided an admirable vision to inspire political theorists with more angles to explore democracy.

It is a must-read for anyone who is interested in the future possibilities of democracy and the development of Confucianism in political studies.

It could also remind many political theorists as well as Western governments not to make biased judgments on democratic issues, since the ways to democracy are not limited within Western concepts.

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