Democracy Without Dignity: A Confucian Critique of President Trump

Dr. James Miller
 Director, School of Religion

img_0122This post originally appeared on the Spirituality, Nature and Culture Laboratory blog.

The events of the past week have marked the point of absolute contrast between the world’s two most important countries and their leaders. In China, President Xi Jinping has consolidated his power throughout the 19th Congress of the Communist Party of China (CPC), beginning with the bravura performance of a three and a half hour opening speech, during which he touched not a drop of water. By the end of the congress, he was confirmed in his position for another five years, his supporters were elected to key government positions, and his thinking established as part of the CPC’s ruling doctrine for decades to come. 

On the other side of the Pacific, witness the continuing omnishambles of the Trump administration, which seemingly stumbles from scandal to scandal, one tweet at a time. Trump’s standing surely reached a nadir this week with Senator Flake’s excoriating indictment of the president’s character. “Reckless, outrageous and undignified behavior,” he declaimed, “has become excused and countenanced as telling it like it is when it is actually just reckless, outrageous and undignified.”

The contrast between the two countries could not be clearer: China enjoys dignity without democracy; the United States has democracy without dignity.

But this apparent contrast masks many areas in which the political machinery of Beijing and Washington enjoys many similarities. Both systems rely on a network of relationships and the trading of favours among the political class to get things done. The Chinese term guanxi, which denotes the culture of relationships and favours that is central to the Confucian ethos, is no less applicable in the corridors of power in Washington than in the government compound of Zhongnanhai in Beijing.

Secondly, factions in both systems resort to politically-charged investigations into corruption and lawbreaking for political gain. President Xi consolidated power through a ruthless anti-corruption drive aimed at the highest levels of government, as well as the petty officials whose venality threatened to undermine the CPC’s popular legitimacy. At the same time, the use of special prosecutors and FBI investigations is no less a hallmark of contemporary US politics. Both can have a chilling effect on the machinery of government, where government officials fear the slightest misstep could result in investigation, summons, or even jail time.

Thirdly, both systems work hard to control media narratives through techniques of propaganda, ranging from the active suppression of sensitive issues in China, to the wholesale denigration of mainstream media in America. Both administrations worry about the spread of “fake news,” or narratives that challenge the ruling orthodoxy, and both are equally adept in their employment of social media for political gain.

At many levels, the day-to-day business of Chinese and US politics is a lot more similar than one might think, given the radical difference in the two political philosophies. But there is one thread that runs through the Confucian approach to ethical government, which emphasizes a key difference between Trump and Xi: the virtue of self-control, precisely and carefully displayed by President Xi during his marathon speech at the start of CPC congress.

In Analects 16.7 Confucius says,

“The gentleman has three things to be cautious about: In his youth, when his blood and energy are not yet settled, he must be cautious about sex. In his middle years, when his blood and energy are just strong, he must be cautious about fighting. In his old age, when his blood and energy are already weak, he must be cautious about greed.”

Trump seems to embody all three types of recklessness identified by Confucius. His behaviour towards women has been roundly condemned; his warmongering words regarding North Korea provoked fear and consternation across the world; he unashamedly made his lust for wealth and power into the basis of his media personality.

Why do these moral failings matter? Because democracy needs dignity if it is not to descend into disorder. This does not mean that our leaders have to abide by some impossible standard of personal moral purity; after all, they are only human. But it does mean that in a republican system, without the benefit of monarchs to take on the symbolism of the state, it is incumbent upon the president to act presidentially.

President Trump understands one aspect of this. When people disrespect the flag or fail to stand for the national anthem, he takes it personally. But Confucius long ago understood that the authority vested in symbols of power, such as the flag, has to be properly earned. President Trump has so far failed to demonstrate that he has the dignity and the self-restraint to command the worthiness of the flag, and the sacrifices of soldiers in its name.

Dignity without democracy runs the risk of being a clanging gong that signifies nothing. But democracy without dignity is an equally dangerous formula that threatens to undermine the very legitimacy of democracy as a political system.


Sense and Sensitivity

Dr. James Miller
Professor of Chinese Religions, School of Religion
Director of Cultural Studies
Queen’s University


Teaching and researching religion in China has been one of the enduring passions of my academic career. Contrary to what you might expect, there’s a wealth of research and teaching about religion that takes place in China. China is one of the most ethnically diverse countries in the world, with 54 official minority nationalities, each with their own culture and tradition. China is also one of the most religiously diverse countries, and officially recognizes five faiths, Protestantism, Catholicism, Islam, Buddhism and Daoism. Only one of these, Daoism, originated in China, so China’s religious landscape is a fascinating and diverse patchwork of cross-cultural influences from all over the world.

Since 1979 the Chinese constitution has guaranteed freedom of belief. Given the previous crackdowns on religion, this has meant that there has been an enormous boom in religious activities, with temples, churches and mosques being newly constructed or restored all over the country in the past thirty years. But China’s ruling communist party remains officially atheist, and this revival of religion has inevitably been a cause for concern, in part because of China’s long history of struggle between surging sectarian movements and the state.

Last year I was involved in a project funded by Canada’s Department of Foreign Affairs, which examined the lives and livelihood of Muslim communities in Shanghai. Our international research team carried out this research with a Chinese partner organization, and although we managed to oversee several research projects, the process was fraught with difficulty because Islam was deemed a “sensitive” topic. Nevertheless along the way we sponsored a one-day workshop at Fudan University in Shanghai, that featured research on Islam in China that was being conducted by minority students there. The Canadian consul in Shanghai stopped by and I think we achieved a frank exchange of views about the hot-button issues of minorities, racism, and indigenous peoples in both Canada and China.

Although religion is a sensitive issue in China, it’s probably fair to say that it’s a sensitive issue everywhere in the world.

js60653723New Zealander Phil Blackwood spent 13 months in prison in Myanmar for posting this image on Facebook to promote a drinks special in the bar he managed. His crime was offending Buddhism.

A few weeks ago Dutch citizen Klaas Haijtema was arrested on a similar charge for pulling the plug from a loudspeaker relaying a Buddhist sermon that he claims was preventing him from taking a nap in his hotel.

Whether you’re selling beers in Buddhist Myanmar, researching religion in Shanghai, or studying world religions and native traditions in postcolonial Canada, it’s likely that you’re going to run into some kind of sensitive issue. Learning how to negotiate these issues requires scholarship and learning on the one hand, but also tact and diplomacy on the other. It’s a matter of sense, and sensitivity. Balancing the two can sometimes be difficult, especially when the a scholarly perspective conflicts with that of a religious community. But learning this balancing act is one of main benefits of religious studies.