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Humane Authority in China and the Three Houses Proposal

July 11, 2012

An interesting proposal comes from Jiang Qing and Daniel Bell on how to implement the concept of Humane Authority in China in a way that would shift the country towards democracy. This would include a tricameral legislature made up of “a House of Exemplary Persons that represents sacred legitimacy; a House of the Nation that represents historical and cultural legitimacy; and a House of the People that represents popular legitimacy.”

The leader of the House of Exemplary Persons should be a great scholar. Candidates for membership should be nominated by scholars and examined on their knowledge of the Confucian classics and then assessed through trial periods of progressively greater administrative responsibilities — similar to the examination and recommendation systems used to select scholar-officials in the imperial past. The leader of the House of the Nation should be a direct descendant of Confucius; other members would be selected from descendants of great sages and rulers, along with representatives of China’s major religions. Finally, members of the House of the People should be elected either by popular vote or as heads of occupational groups.

This system would have checks and balances. Each house would deliberate in its own way and not interfere in the affairs of the others. To avoid political gridlock arising from conflicts among the three houses, a bill would be required to pass at least two houses to become law. To protect the primacy of sacred legitimacy in Confucian tradition the House of Exemplary Persons would have a final, exclusive veto, but its power would be constrained by that of the other two houses: for example, if they propose a bill restricting religious freedom, the People and the Nation could oppose it, stopping it from becoming law.

A few thoughts:

1) For those who are thinking that this is not democratic enough, just bear in mind that the UK House of Lords and the Canadian Senate serve not dissimilar functions to the House of Exemplary Persons, and royal families (like the British monarchy) essentially serve the House of the Nation role. The real question will be over how these power dynamics actually play out between these institutions and whether power will shift more towards the people, as the system evolves over time.

2) A suggested amendment: Give the veto to the House of the People rather than House of Exemplary Persons.

3) A tricameral system sounds like a recipe for political gridlock. With all due respect to the historical legacy of the three houses, the conceptualization of the House of the Nation seems like a step backwards rather than forwards. Why not cut out the House of the Nation altogether?

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