Is Democracy the Same Ideal in Western and Eastern History?

By Ying Shi, staff editor Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has said the U.S. is intent on strengthening American leadership in Asia and the Pacific and called for greater cooperation with China on regional challenges. Clinton outlined a plan of “forward-deployed” diplomacy throughout Asia, involving work on economic issues, bolstering regional security and promoting democracy.

While countries across the globe aspire to democracy, this ideal takes on different meanings in different cultures. The term democracy first appeared in ancient Greece. Aristotle thought that democracy was distinguished by liberty and equality. Liberty was achieved after a series of economic reforms, after which the citizens got leisure time that could be used for political discussion and office holding. In terms of equality, the political reforms introduced wealth as a criterion for selecting office holders. People were no longer classified on birth, but on wealth.

The ideas of diversity, equality of political opportunity, and freedom for individuals seemed attractive, but Plato thought that democracy could also lead to political instability and moral corruptions, including the tyranny of the majority.Perhaps Plato was influenced by witnessing his teacher and mentor, Socrates being sentenced to death for his speech and actions that were against the will of the majority and the city.

Ancient China has a different story in the pursuit of a perfect institution (read: democracy). In Confucianism, the best way to govern the country is meritocracy. Confucius believed that the state should be governed by “Jun”, the representative of God, and the elite class with the highest intelligence and virtue. The selection of officers in ancient China was not based on background or wealth; officers were selected from exams which were designed to test their political capability and morality. Confucius also promoted education which especially focused on the training of virtue, arts, crafts, and knowledge.

In another popular school of ancient Chinese philosophy, Taoism, freedom was highly emphasized, even in politics. The Taoism school thought that the less interference from the state, the better. Lao-tzu believed that society and nature were functioning under “Tao”- the law of nature, rather than the law of mankind.

If the U.S. is seeking to promote democracy in China, a mutual understanding of the historical roots of democracy is necessary in resolving the problems of today.

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