Panelists address effects of Confucianism

by Kevin Logan | 5/6/94 5:00am

Four panelists yesterday attempted to promote historical perspective and current events in China, according to Martin Sherwin, the Director of the John Sloan Dickey Center for International Understanding sponsoring the conference.

As part of a three-day conference examining "The Future of Democracy in China," the panel discussion was titled "China's Legacies: Confucianism, Imperialism, and Maoism."

Sherwin served as moderator for the discussion and the panelists included Pamela Crossley, Asian studies program chair; Robert Hendricks, religion department chair; William Rowe, a history professor at Johns Hopkins University; and Madeleine Zelin, a history professor at Columbia University.

The panelists discussed a variety of factors that may account for the failure of democratic institutions to emerge in China even though many other East Asian countries are democratizing.

Zelin attacked a popular conception that China has a tradition of autocratic rule, which hinders the development of democracy. She gave as an example, elected bodies of merchants and gentry that governed many large cities in China following the collapse of dynastic rule.

Rowe said public opinion has always played an important role in Chinese politics.

Hendricks re-examined the notion that Confucianism, China's dominant religion, has been a great obstacle to the development of democratic institutions. Hendricks cited the work of H. G. Creel, which suggests that Confucian thought may have contributed to the development of modern Western democracy through its influence on European philosophers of the 17th and 18th centuries.

Many of Confucius's ideas seem compatible with democracy, such as his opposition to officials being born into their positions, Hendricks said.

Hendricks said he believes "li," the Confucian value that calls for a gentleman to act in a traditional constrained week, tends to make the Chinese more aware of social differences and thus obstructs democracy.

Zelin was concerned that few schools of democratic thought in China today seem to focus on the acceptance of majority rule, even if the majority implements misguided policies.

Rowe spoke of the prevalent view in China that the common people cannot govern themselves effectively and Crossley noted the lack of "communities of interest" to push for democracy.

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