Syncretic Party of China. Xi Jinping’s Political Philosophy

24.11.2018 | By Martyna Świątczak–Borowy

Xi Jinping, the leader of the Chinese Communist Party, said that ‘socialism with Chinese characteristics originated from the outstanding Chinese culture with a history of civilisation of 5,000 years’. This culture tends to be associated with Confucianism in the public debate. However, this case seems more complicated than that. Firstly, there is no single Confucianism. Secondly, Xi Jinping’s political thought is inspired by the Confucian traditions in the same way as by Legalism, a philosophy which is said to have led to a unification of all of China by Emperor of Qin Shi Huang. According to the Legalist tradition, abiding strictly by the rules takes precedence over moral principles.

Walking down the streets of Beijing, Chengdu or Harbin, passing by district capitals or even while visiting the countryside, the same 24 Chinese characters can be seen everywhere. They are splashed on walls or hanging in the shopping malls and underground stations. These 24 characters comprise a set of 12 core socialist values: prosperity (fùqiáng), democracy (mínzhǔ), civility (wénmíng), harmony (héxié), freedom (zìyóu), equality (píngděng), justice (gōngzhèng), rule of law (fǎzhì), patriotism (àiguó), dedication (jìngyè), integrity (chéngxìn) and friendliness (yǒushàn). The first four values are ‘national values’, another four are ‘social values’, and the last ones are ‘individual values’. They feature in numerous contests for students, Internet publicity and guidelines for party officers.

Simultaneously with the efforts made to foster and promote the ‘socialist values’, attractive as they sound, for many past years we could have also observed a campaign promoting traditional Chinese values which are deeply anchored in the Chinese history.

President Xi Jinping has repeatedly highlighted the need for building and bolstering the ‘splendid traditional Chinese culture’ (Zhōnghuá yōuxiù chuántǒng wénhuà). Additionally, he advocated that ‘socialism with Chinese characteristics originated from the outstanding Chinese culture with a history of civilisation of 5,000 years’. Judging from Xi Jinping’s speech delivered in commemoration of the 2,565th anniversary of Confucius’ birth, Confucianism in its broader sense occupies a special place in the Chinese traditions. The media reports on the creation of Confucius schools where students dressed in traditional clothes recite the Three Characters Classics. Many Confucian works are published and translated on a large scale. Rituals honouring Confucius are held in temples, and plenty of Chinese authorities attend them. Even a book entitled Xi Jinping. How to Read Confucius and Other Chinese Classical Thinkers has been recently published.

The Chinese Confucian Party?

Are we witnessing a phenomenon of the Confucian tradition merging with the State? Or perhaps the Chinese Communist Party will change its name to the Chinese Confucian Party? This idea was put forward by Daniel A. Bell, professor of philosophy at Tsinghua University in Beijing and author of a widely discussed work: The China Model: Political Meritocracy and the Limits of Democracy. Bryan W. Van Norden, professor of philosophy at Yale-NUS College in Singapore supports this thesis partly in his recent book Taking Back Philosophy: A Multicultural Manifesto. He points out that even the way that Mr Xi embraces Confucianism may be seen as opportunism, is not yet substantially different from the way how American politicians draw their authority from the Bible.

In the article which appeared in The Straits Times (Singapore) on November 15, 2017, Van Norden outlined four principles of Xi Jinping’s governance which have indeed the Confucian roots: (1) anti-corruption drive stemming from the conviction that government officials should provide exemplary moral leadership; (2) his opposition to ‘Western values’, and especially to Western liberal democracy; a belief that a ruler should govern for the well-being of the common people. Nevertheless, it’s not the role of the people to be decision-makers; (3) promoting the ‘Chinese dream’, and in particular endeavoring to build ‘moderately prosperous society’ (xiǎokāngshèhuì) in the spirit of the Confucian concern for fulfilling essential human needs, which is one of key dimensions of power and an ultimate test for the government’s effectiveness; (4) both economy and personal pursuit to wealth must be subordinated to the public good and moral values.

There is no single Confucianism

The fundamental question is: which Confucianism do we have in mind exactly? Is it the Confucian thought of Mencius (372-289 B.C.) who claimed that the human nature is good and everyone intrinsically possesses the feeling of commiseration, the feeling of courtesy, the feeling of shame and the feeling of right and wrong? These four beginnings (sìduān), when properly cultivated, in a proper environment, will develop into the four cardinal virtues of human nature: rén (humanity, ideal society), lǐ (ritual practices, appropriate social behaviour), yì (righteousness) and zhì (wisdom). Confucianism laid out by Xunzi (approx. 310-235 B.C.) proclaims that the nature of man is evil and indulging in this feeling will cause violence. Human goodness is entirely artificial, only acquired by training and in the process of moulding, similarly to the wood that needs an extended treatment before you can form a wheel. According to the syncretic Confucianism of Dong Zhongshu (approx. 179-104 B.C.), ‘the ruler decides matters of life or death of the people.

Along with Heaven, the ruler has the authority to change and transform’. Or, perhaps it is Confucianism that is said to be a source of the success of four Asian tigers’ economies (South Korea, Taiwan, Singapore and Hong Kong). Or, on the contrary, we have to do with Confucianism which Chinese intellectuals related with the May 4th Movement accuse of economic failures and the ‘century of humiliation’ (since the mid-19th century to the defeat of the First Opium War)? Finally, and perhaps most importantly, we are dealing with Confucianism that manifests nonconformist pre-imperial China (up to 221 B.C.) – this school of thought was not afraid of admonishing the ruler when necessary. It also preached that killing a bad ruler who is neglecting his duties (in other words, the one who doesn’t meet the definition of a ruler) will not be seen as a regicide, but the killing of an ordinary man. Maybe it’s Confucianism understood as the ideology of power, which sanctions and strengthens its authoritarianism and totality?

Classical sources of Xi Jinping’s thoughts

Both the collection Xi Jinping. How to Read Confucius and Other Chinese Classical Thinkers and the work written by Mr Xi, widely promoted on the global scale, The Governance of China, demonstrate Mr Xi’s reverence to quote classical Chinese scholars. The range of references is impressive.

From great Confucian philosophers like Mencius or Xunzi to classical Taoist works such as Laozi or Zhuangzi to historical writings, strategic documents, poetry and literature. In his speech Young people should practice the core socialist values on May 4, 2014, Mr Xi invoked a poem by Mao Zedong, advice of a famous politician of the Three Kingdoms period (220-280), Zhuge Liang, given to his son, but also multiple other references to a prominent modern writer, Lu Xun (1881-1936). Nearly half of his quotes come from the Confucian classics. They focus mostly on the role of moral values in public life and lay down specific guidelines on forging virtues such as ‘a nobleman supports the ones in need’, ‘take care of one another and help each other’, ‘the morality is the cornerstone of a nobleman’.

However, can we say that these explicit references embedded in Mr Xi’s comments truly justify his policies? Before he replaced Hu Jintao in 2012, the sitting President of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) had been considered as a man who spent his whole career making an impression of not threating anyone. He continued to pursue the projects of his predecessors at subsequent positions. In one of his rare interviews, Mr Xi described his procedures as ‘lighting a small fire to warm up the water, keep the fire burning and now and again pour some more cold water in, so that the kettle did not boil over’. According to Francois Jullien, French sinologist and philosopher, indirectness is a key feature of the Chinese culture. Defining senses doesn’t come directly. We are rather exploring them subtly and indirectly. That is why invocations of the ancient thinkers are equally important as other Mr Xi’s statements where citations are left out.

Among the classics quoted by Mr Xi, there are very few references to Legalism, even though this school of thought is said to have led to a unification of all China by the First Emperor (Qin Shi Huang, 259-210 B.C.). Although he created an empire that lasted for thousands of years, the Qin dynasty, which drew on the Legalist traditions and opposed to Confucianism, turned out unstable and fell right after the Emperor died. The succeeding Han dynasty, the name of which the Chinese use to refer to themselves, was restoring Confucianism step by step until Emperor Wu’s reign (157-87 B.C.). Consequently, the Confucian classics became the basis for civil service examinations, and Confucianism itself started climbing to the state orthodoxy. Ironically enough, Emperor Wu owed the effectiveness, stability and success of his reign both to the teachings of Legalism and to his advisors who were Legalists. By no means, Wu didn’t reject the legacy of the First Emperor. He enhanced it and made it stronger. He gave Confucian characteristics to the Legalist realpolitik.

Law or moral philosophy?

So what are the primary characteristics of Legalism? As the name suggests, instead of following Confucian moral values, it is crucial to apply defined laws. The purpose is to exclude chaos and fragility. If the ruler draws on his charisma, the people will always have higher or smaller expectations toward him, whatever their situation is – they will want either more benefits and understanding or less punishment. Any derogation from the obligations and responsibilities imposed by the law should be penalised. A story of marquis Zhao reflects well this approach. The marquis punished a courtier for not wrapping a coat around him although it was within the scope of his responsibilities. He also punished another courtier who wanted to take care of the Emperor in his sleep and put a coat on his shoulders. In this case, the courtier exceeded his role.

Han Fei Zi is the most prominent representative of Legalism (approx. 280-233 B.C.). Stuttering prevented this brilliant aristocrat from public speaking. However, he developed excellent writing skills which allowed him to populate his ideas in a clear and precise way. In addition to pursuing the Legalist views of his predecessors, he took inspiration from Confucianism of Xunzi and Taoism. According to Han Fei Zi, Confucianism and emphasis on moral values are not necessarily wrong; however, they apply to a somewhat restricted group of people. Most people, including the ruler, will never become sages. That is why political leadership should be maintained by a system of two effective techniques: punishments and rewards, whereas the penalty should be more frequent than rewards. As the laws (fǎ) introduce objective order for the ordinary people, similarly shù (administrative and management techniques) allow him to control ministers and state officers. These governing methods require from a ruler to hide his preferences to keep his ministers unaware of how they can use him for their purposes. Another method is a fair system of rewards and punishment, and most of all, preventing all men under the ruler from forming fractions, because ‘the only reason why ministers do not kill a ruler is that their cliques are not strong enough’. A ruler has to choose measures which are the most adequate at a given moment. Surely, previous sage-kings, widely praised by Confucian scholars, applied procedures suitable for their times. However, their time is long gone; therefore their methods are also out of date. Sticking with them would bring the same results as sending emails via a carrier pigeon.

Legalist content, Confucian wrapping

If we take a closer look at Xi Jinping’s style of governance and his amendments, we will discover some Legalist features. Before Mr Xi took power in China, he had not revealed his desires or wishes, following the teachings of Han Fei Zi. He was ‘empty and motionless, waiting until matters get resolved’. The fight against corruption might be compliant with the Confucian moral values, but it’s also an effective tool to control public officials and not to let them become more powerful. Ending term limits on the China’s presidency, or taking ownership of leading small groups (lǐngdǎo xiǎozǔ) – coordinating bodies which address important policy areas, or the creation of the new Central National Security Commission (which is given a broad power in the internal and external affairs): they all solidify Mr Xi’s firm grip on power. They grant him a free will taking decision-making centres out of it. He managed to limit the powers of party barons and ripped the existing fractions apart thanks to the anti-corruption campaign over the last couple of years. Xi Jinping is a ruler who doesn’t follow the established standards. He governs based on his assessment of challenges that China is facing at a given moment of the history. He moves adopted strategies upside down. Should he need to erase great predecessors from the nation’s memory to achieve his goals, he will do so without doubt, pity or remorse.

Moreover, the opportunity of double identification of Xi Jinping’s governance – merging Legalist characteristics with Confucian rhetoric as a justification – replicates the successful strategy of Emperor Wu.

One of the longest ruling emperors in the history of China (his reign lasted 54 years) who carried out a territorial and diplomatic expansion. He established Confucianism as a binding state doctrine for the next 2,000 years. At the same time, he lost reason at the end of his rule and abused his power to punish people. He accused his men at court for witchcraft and set up specials imperial prisons where he put thousands of people.

Translation from Polish: Małgorzata Warchoł


This publication has been cofinanced by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Poland within “Cooperation in Public Diplomacy 2018” programme.
This publication reflects the views of the author and not the official stance of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Poland.