Whither Confucian Democracy Studies

Published date01 April 2021
Date01 April 2021
Subject MatterReview Essay
/tmp/tmp-18iqBuxqGrvNci/input 966252PTXXXX10.1177/0090591720966252Political TheoryReview Essay
Review Essay
Political Theory
2021, Vol. 49(2) 339 –347
Whither Confucian
© The Author(s) 2020
Article reuse guidelines:
Democracy Studies
Democracy After Virtue: Toward Pragmatic Confucian Democracy, by Sungmoon
Kim. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018. 272 pp.
Confucianism’s Prospects: A Reassessment, by Shaun O’Dwyer. New York: SUNY
Press, 2019. 288 pp.
Reviewed by: Baogang He, School of Humanities and Social Sciences, Deakin
University, Burwood, Victoria, Australia
DOI: 10.1177/0090591720966252
All major civilizations have confronted the challenge of democracy. To a
certain extent, the connection between democracy and the main religious tra-
ditions is testament to this. The connection is on some kind of party platform
like “Christian democratic party” in Germany, or “Buddhist liberal democ-
racy party” in Cambodia, or numerous “Islamic” political parties in South
Asia and Middle East. It is also manifested on a grander scale in the case with
so-called “Christian,” “Islamic,” and “Buddhist” democracies. The very
placing of these adjectives before the noun of democracy is greatly disputed.
Confucianism is no exception to this. In the last two decades the term
“Confucian democracy” has proliferated throughout East Asia with many
books and hundreds of articles examining the multifaceted relationship
between democracy and Confucianism.1 Like Christian, Islamic, and
Buddhist democracy, the idea of a Confucian democracy is contested and
subject to different definitions and interpretations.
Early studies of Confucian democracy tended to examine the question of
whether Confucianism conflicts or is compatible with democracy,2 while
more recent work on Confucian democracy has investigated how and why
Confucianism and democracy ought to and can be combined. Joseph Chan’s
Confucian Perfectionism, for example, mixes Confucianism with liberal
democratic institutions that are justified by the Confucian conception of
good rather than the liberal conception of the right.3 By contrast, Daniel
Bell’s The China Model engages with the grand task of reconciling democ-
racy and meritocracy and proposes a Confucian model of democratic meri-
tocracy. In his model, Bell combines Confucian elitist meritocracy with

Political Theory 49(2)
democratic institutions; emphasizes the importance of skilful, competent,
and virtuous leaders; and provides deepening reasons for “just hierarchy.”4
These different versions of Confucian democracy are ambitious attempts to
forge a way for Confucianism to meet the democracy challenge; neverthe-
less, they are to be realized in real life.
The two books under review make a further contribution to Confucian
democracy studies in vastly different ways. Sungmoon Kim’s objective is to
build a solid intellectual foundation for Confucian democracy, while Shaun
O’Dwyer offers an empirical critique of the idea of Confucian democracy
itself. Despite their significant differences in that Kim promotes Confucian
democracy, while O’Dwyer rejects it, there are some common grounds and
issues. Both stress the importance of citizens and civil society, promote the
globalization of Confucianism, and indicate the new research topic of a
hybrid model of Confucian democracy. However, both are limited in merely
engaging the English literature, precisely the narrow “Anglo-American aca-
demia” writings; lacking an institutional analysis of Confucian democracy;
and overlooking local actors, issues, and connections. Comparing their work,
I suggest a problem-driven approach, or an empirical-based institutional
approach, to a set of new practical challenges and issues so as to advance
Confucian democracy studies.
Advancement and Contribution
Sungmoon Kim’s Democracy after Virtue addresses the “shaky ground”
upon which the works of Joseph Chan and Daniel Bell stand (49). Kim aims
to build a stronger moral and intellectual foundation and develop a normative
theory of Confucian democracy. Kim also hopes to democratize Confucian
doctrine by asking East Asians citizens (not just scholars) to rethink their
Confucian heritage from a democratic perspective (79). Of course, the real-
ization of this vision is a formidable task, but it is nonetheless an important,
real-world issue.
The book takes on the ambitious task of reconstructing pragmatic
Confucian democracy, which integrates three components—political par-
ticipation, the value of democracy, and procedure and substance (chapters
1, 2, and 3). Kim criticizes Confucian theorists of meritocracy for under-
standing democracy simply in terms of elections while failing to pay atten-
tion to democratic political participation. He also criticizes Confucian
perfectionists for “leaving important political decisions to few political
elites” (35). He understands political participation to be a core value of
democracy and...

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