As East Asian countries democratize, the relationship between Confucianism and the state assumes increasing significance. Will the Confucianism that materializes from this political transition be one that legitimates authoritarian state actions, as has often been the case historically with Confucianism, or will a new kind of Confucianism surface that challenges tyranny?
Our recent book Confucianism, Democratization, and Human Rights in Taiwan concludes that Confucianism played a minimal role in the democratization process of Taiwan. The political elites we interviewed for the book largely concluded that Confucian values were either irrelevant or even adverse to efforts to promote democracy. However, that is only part of the story. Their negative view of Confucianism is largely colored by their political experiences. The Kuomintang (KMT), who took control of the island after their defeat by Mao Zedong in the Chinese Civil War, manipulated the Confucian tradition to legitimate their authoritarian practices. In such a context, one could be forgiven for turning away from the Confucian tradition and instead justifying one’s pro-democratic efforts by focusing on “western” values like human rights and the rule of law.
Nevertheless, we find significant evidence that as Taiwan has democratized, the Confucian tradition is being reimagined or reinterpreted in such a way that it retains its core values while simultaneously embracing liberal-democratic norms. This is true at both the elite and mass levels. Younger political activists whose views are not scarred by a political manipulation of the Confucian tradition by the state are making powerful arguments that Confucian values like ren (benevolent empathy), filial piety, and even social harmony are consistent with liberal ideas. It is not so much that these thinkers are rejecting traditional norms as that they are revising them in light of evolving circumstances. Our book’s analysis of mass-level attitudes provides additional evidence for this claim. In authoritarian countries, namely Singapore and the People’s Republic of China, indicators of support for Confucianism were associated with less enthusiasm for democracy. However, that relationship disappeared in the democratic states of South Korea and Taiwan.
In many ways, the story of Confucianism is analogous to that of the Roman Catholic Church. Each tradition has tried to weave a delicate path of remaining true to its central principles while simultaneously adapting itself over time to new social and political developments. For example, there was a time when the Roman Catholic Church resisted political liberalism, religious freedom, political democracy, and religious pluralism on the ground that those values were inconsistent with Church teachings. However, the Vatican has come to embrace those ideas in powerful ways and now appreciates their compatibility with Catholic norms. Similarly, for much of its history, political authorities have used Confucianism to support non-democratic regimes. However, Confucianism is a rich tradition that can be faithfully interpreted in a more pro-democratic direction. This is what we see happening in Taiwan.
Taiwan’s transition has vitally important consequences for other countries in the region for several reasons. The Taiwanese experience can serve as a model for understanding the Confucian tradition in a different way. Taiwan also provides ammunition to resist arguments that Confucianism only, or inevitably, leads to political authoritarianism. Much of the literature on democratization in Asia offers a false choice between those societies abandoning their commitment to Confucian values in order to embrace western democratic ones or maintaining their fidelity to Confucianism at the expense of liberal democracy. Taiwan is evidence that such a view of Confucianism’s political implications is misguided. Thus, Taiwan can be a harbinger of things to come for other countries in the region that have yet to fully democratize and it can serve as a check against efforts by Asian political leaders to assert that Confucian values are so distinct from “western” democratic ones that their nation must embrace the former at the expense of the latter.