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Worldview Watch

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 previous issue                                               issue #45  posted 7 /29 / 2015                                           archive of all  issues

 Confucius, Singapore, China, and Political Meritocracy 

in the news: Singapore, that small rather authoritarian Asian city state whose transformation into a place where people live with the world's highest average per capita income has been astounding, will celebrate 50 years of independence on August 9th. Surprisingly, related commentary in western media has focused attention on Singapore's much bigger authoritarian neighbor—China—and the relative merits / failings of each side in the authoritarianism vs. democracy debate as to the best form of government. Earlier this year, Princeton University Press published Tsinghua University (Beijing) scholar Daniel A. Bell's latest book: The China Model--Political Meritocracy and the Limits of Democracy. (click for review by Bloomberg columnist Clive Crook). 

That was followed by The Economist offering an opinion piece (accompanying a lengthy special section on this country in its July 18th edition) : "Asian Values: Happy 50th Birthday Singapore " and a report (in the July 25th print edition): "Politics: Confucius says, Xi does."  Interest in the latter was undoubtedly spurred by the question "Was Confucius a Communist?"—which appeared on the magazine's cover. While not answering this question, the article helps one imagine a future China in which, not only does its educational system (like Singapore's) embrace Confucianism, but where the government is built on this philosophy much more than Marxist doctrine.   

commentary and analysis (by Stephen P. Cook, project Worldview, Much has happened since I wrote (in February 2010) "Democracy vs. Authoritarianism" that I shall draw on in what follows. 

Most notably, first, I visited a Confucian Temple in Beijing in December 2012 (see "Project Worldview in Beijing") and used the occasion to renew my study of Confucianism. Second, months later (in June 2013) I wrote about "Authoritarianism vs. Democracy in Turkey"—a discussion in which religious worldview themes played an important role. (see note 1) below)  Third, in 2014, as part of The Worldview Theme Song Book, I penned lyrics to a song for "Authoritarianism"  (worldview theme #20B) called "Respect Our Authority, Our Party the CPC"—to be sung to the tune of "Big Brother" by David Bowie. The upbeat chorus of the song surprised me—particularly the line "On the right track we'll fix what's wrong." Of course that doesn't mean I'm ready to turn my back on efforts to strengthen democracy by improving education! (see "Education for Democracy" worldview theme #31). And finally, Confucianism—once attacked by Chinese Communist party (the CPC) founder Mao Tse-tung  as an enemy of progress—is increasingly tolerated by that party . 

In light of all of this, recent news, and new additions to the project Worldview website, it seems appropriate to update my (what was Worldwatch Watch issue #4) "Democracy vs. Authoritarianism" comments.  There I identified several worldview themes embraced by democracies—including Economic Individualism (theme #19A).  In contrast to those in democratic societies —especially libertarians (see theme #50A)—who emphasize individual freedom, Confucianism emphasizes the social role an individual needs to play—and in maintaining the right relationships—and values social harmony. In a "thinking" "feeling" "joining" "doing" (TFJD) context, it seems primarily concerned with "joining."  Of the related  project Worldview "Basic Choices," it prefers "hierarchical rigidity" to "egalitarian progressivism," and "collectivism" over "individualism." In making these basic choices, Confucianists would find themselves in agreement with the conservative status quo minded communist party rulers of China, and very much at odds with Jeffersonian populist democrats. 

In worldview theme terms, the anti-thesis of Populism (theme #21A) is Elitism (theme #20A).  In his book, Bell argues that a government run by a well qualified elite—a political meritocracy—is far superior to one run by the "one person, one vote" way of choosing government leaders.  At issue in the words of reviewer Crook, is "which would you expect to work better— rigorous selection on merit, or ballots cast by voters who don't know what they're doing?"  Certainly Chinese economic success and the continuing political gridlock in America (see Worldview Watch issue #6) bolster Bell's case. But it seems to me that Bell misses the critical importance of feedback provided by people as they vote. As Crook puts it, "Bell's argument sits most comfortably with the idea that good government is about designing and carrying out the objectively correct policy. According to this view, there's no great need to put choices to the people." Seems that people's votes can be important in helping government leaders find policies that work...

...But what if, as cynics (worldview theme #36A) would say is true in America, those votes are heavily based on "information" that voters get from media corrupted by the viewpoints of those special interests able to pay for it?   Ideally individuals in societies with a Confucianist educational system, that inculcates the idea that choices that benefit society as a whole and promote order / social harmony are the right ones, would be better able to resist such a corrupting influence—were they allowed to vote. And ideally the managers in charge of a political meritocracy—whether authoritarian or democratic—would be those "superior individuals" Confucianism strives to produce who especially value something like the Ethical Orientation (worldview theme #42).  Without such people in charge, political meritocracies seem more prone to corruption than democracies.  And perhaps, as Crook notes, to complacency—especially if feedback from dissatisfied individuals (as voters, demonstrators, bloggers, or whatever) is ignored.    

Of course, as they search for the best government or fine tune the one they have, people obviously don't need to confine themselves to black & white choices but ideally can select the best elements or policies from various systems and hopefully arrive at something that works for them. Given the rapid pace of technology-driven change, particularly important to societies is the ability to be flexible and change government policies and structure as circumstances change.  


1) Religious worldview themes that lead to neither authoritarian political meritocracy nor democracy but rather Religious Fundamentalism (theme #9A) based theocracy are not considered in what I've written above. Neither are autocratic authoritarian governments based on rule by a warlord or dictator backed by armed thugs. If the trend in Asia is toward Confucianist based authoritarian political meritocracy, this is certainly less worrying to western democracy government leaders than the seeming trend in the Middle East—where the promise of the democratic spring of 2011 (see Worldview Watch issue #16) has been replaced by the nightmare and terror of  the Islamic State (ISIS).   

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