The Wilson Quarterly

How is it that surveys consistently find that the majority of the Chinese population strongly supports both democracy and the country’s authoritarian regime? There’s a simple explanation, according to Tianjian Shi and Jie Lu, political scientists at Duke University and American University, respectively. In China, “democracy” is understood quite differently than in America and other liberal democracies. Confucian ideas help create a “unique” blend of principles that accommodates the rule of the Chinese Communist Party.

Asked as part of the Asia Barometer Survey (ABS) to judge “how suitable you think democracy is for your country,” Chinese respondents gave an average score of 8.5 on a one-to-10 scale; only residents of Thailand gave democracy a higher rating. When asked to characterize how democratic their government was, respondents in China—the sole authoritarian regime in the survey—gave a score of 7.2. Only citizens of Thailand and Taiwan gave their governments higher marks.

Then the authors examined Chinese responses to the ABS question, “What does democracy mean to you?” More than 40 percent of those surveyed indicated that they had “no idea what democracy means.” Obviously, that alone could explain some of the contradictions in Chinese views. A smaller group—25 percent—gave answers that track Western understandings of democracy, invoking elections, checks and balances, or the separation of powers.

But a not insubstantial segment, just under 20 percent, described democracy in terms flavored by the Confucian doctrine of minben, whose central tenet is expressed in the maxim “Minwei bangben,” meaning “The people alone are the basis of the state.” The Confucian philosopher Mencius (372–289 BC) put it this way: “Most important are the people; next come the land and grain; and last the princes.” But the implication is not that the people rule, only that their welfare is central. At its heart, minben is a paternalistic ideal: A government is legitimized by the effects of its policies on the people, not the process by which it came to power. More than two millennia after his death, Confucius still shapes Chinese political life.

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The Source: "The Shadow of Confucianism" by Tianjian Shi and Jie Lu, in Journal of Democracy, October 2010. 

Photo courtesy of Flickr/Steve Webel

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