Searching for the Foundations of Chinese Rule of Law

Me, and the crushing weight of several millennia of Chinese Tradition

Hello again, my name is Angelo Ngai and through a very generous opportunity made possible by the Humanities Center I have spent the summer beginning research on my future thesis. In a nutshell, my project is an attempt to understand the potential for the emergence of “rule of law” in China. That is, the capacity for Chinese values to legitimate and support a “rule-based” political order instead of one defined by arbitrary power and particularistic loyalty. The project is very sociological, my focus over the summer has primarily been characterizing a theory of “Chinese values” stemming from Confucianism, and understanding the fundamental differences between this set of values and Western ones. The point of this is to eventually be able to identify, politically, what has potential to work in China and what doesn’t.

Speaking candidly, this can be incredibly frustrating. Trying to conceptualize a never-before-seen political order that is capable of fulfulling the functions of liberal democracy, but looks nothing at all like it, can be compared to a massive jig-saw puzzle. There are hundreds upon hundreds of viable pieces, the problem is that you don’t know which ones can be used as pieces for your puzzle, or for that matter what your final assembly is even supposed to look like.  In all honestly though, this is precisely why I find this work so fascinating. To me, an interesting challenge isn’t solving a very complex problem whose logic and structure you already understand, its solving a simple problem so unusual that outlining what needs to be solved is a task of itself. I also believe that the rewards of solving the latter type are much greater, even though the process is admittedly more painful.

The fruit of my research this summer is less than I wanted, but more than I could have hoped for. I believe I now have a clear, theoretically-cogent way of characterizing Chinese values and their orientation to authority that highlights crucial differences with the West. The next step for my thesis now is to theorize what kind of rule-based political order is compatible with this “foundation” of values, and the means by which it may be implemented.

I am indebted to the Humanities Center for providing me with this amazing opportunity. It would not have been possible without their support.

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