China’s leaders will not be able to continue indefinitely to meet the nation’s deeply rooted desire for datong with empty rhetoric. Yet the persistence of Grand Harmony as an ideal also suggests that China’s evolution in the direction of Western-style liberal democratic capitalism is not very likely. “Despite all the references to ziyou (freedom) in the many constitutions of the successive regimes of 20th-century China,” notes historian Philip Huang, “ziyou has never quite been able to shake its associated negative connotations of selfishness, with obvious consequences for Chinese conceptions of ‘democracy.’”
For a glimpse of how China may evolve, many scholars look to Asia’s other Confucian societies, such as Taiwan and South Korea. The continuing strength of the datong mentality in those countries can be seen in the relatively narrow gap between rich and poor—narrower than in many Western countries—that is maintained as a matter of government policy. Yet this emphasis on the collective good often goes hand in hand with some variety of authoritarian rule. While Taiwan and South Korea took several decades before they embarked on the path to democratization, China may take longer, given its official communist ideology and the size and diversity of the country. For better or worse, the datong tradition will remain a powerful influence for a long time to come as China struggles toward modernity.
more from the Wilson Quarterly here.