Research Handbook on Transparency
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Research Handbook on Transparency

Edited by Padideh Ala’i and Robert G. Vaughn

In the last two decades transparency has become a ubiquitous and stubbornly ambiguous term. Typically understood to promote rule of law, democratic participation, anti-corruption initiatives, human rights, and economic efficiency, transparency can also legitimate bureaucratic power, advance undemocratic forms of governance, and aid in global centralization of power. This path-breaking volume, comprising original contributions on a range of countries and environments, exposes the many faces of transparency by allowing readers to see the uncertainties, inconsistencies and surprises contained within the current conceptions and applications of the term.
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Chapter 5: Opposing legal transparency in dynastic China: the persuasive logic of Confucianist views on legal opaqueness

John W. Head


Maybe the Confucianists had it right in arguing against legal transparency. This is the proposition that I wish to explore in my contribution to this book on the “many faces of transparency.” The book itself, I believe, will add a useful perspective to the modern discourse regarding transparency in governance, and on how such transparency can be achieved. It seems to me that the overall discourse might benefit from an examination of why there is such enthusiasm in the world, at least in the Western world, for transparency in law and government. Perhaps by studying a radically different perspective – that is, an ideology calling for legal opaqueness instead of legal transparency – we can identify some underlying values that we wish to serve in designing forms of governance. In order to explore these issues, I shall offer a brief synopsis of the overall historical and ideological setting from which the Confucianist views on law emerged. This synopsis will touch on the foundations of Confucianism, the foundations of Legalism, and the great clash between those ideologies, culminating in the Qin-Han period around the third and second centuries BCE. It was at that point that a remarkable compromise occurred between Confucianism and Legalism – what I refer to as an “alloy” that was stronger than either of its (seemingly incompatible) component ideologies.

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