Xi Jinping: Philosopher King7 min read

The classical philosophy that Xi Jinping ignores – by Sam Crane

In his first five-year term as General Secretary of the Chinese Communist Party and President of the People’s Republic of China, Xi Jinping regularly cited
classical Chinese philosophy in order to bolster his image as a man of learning and virtue. In May 2014, he implied his own rectitude by invoking Confucius in Analects 15.1 at a meeting of young people: “The noble man considers righteousness essential.” Although we’ve been hearing more Marxism in connection to Xi’s name of late, there is good reason to believe he will continue to reach for a neo-traditionalist brand of political legitimation over the next five years.

But his apparent erudition is selective. In the collection of his favorite quotations, Xi Jinping: How to Read Confucius and other Chinese Classical Thinkers (yes, that’s real), he cites Mencius – the next greatest ancient Confucian writer after Confucius himself – but overlooks this passage:

The people are the most important element in a nation; the spirits of the land and grain are the next; the sovereign is the least.

It’s understandable why Xi does not want to call attention to these lines. That first phrase might be agreeable, and seemingly consistent with the Maoist dictum “Serve the People,” which does indeed resonate with Mencius. The last clause, however, could give the General Secretary pause: “the sovereign is the least.” It’s an adage that has unnerved other Chinese autocrats. The Hongwu Emperor, founder of the Ming Dynasty in 1368, went so far as to have the line – along with some 84 other politically challenging statements – excised from the imperially authorized version of the eponymous Mencius text.

“In truth, Xi is less a meditative Confucian-Daoist and more a power-mongering Legalist”

It might seem strange that Mencius would encourage the devaluation of political rulers. A key principle of the Confucian tradition is, after all, the necessity of exemplary leadership. The virtuous superior, Confucius tells us in Analects 2.1, is like a “north polar star” and everyone else are the stars that “turn towards it.” To have order in the political universe, it is essential to have a humane mentor modelling proper behavior for all. From that, Confucians believe, follows social harmony and political stability.

But the exemplary Confucian leader should not be idolized. Political and personal challenges require a constant and conscientious humility. Mencius in particular is concerned with how authoritarian supremacy corrupts, focusing a ruler’s attention on preserving power for power’s sake. A cult of personality is unseemly and dangerous in Confucian philosophy. When a country’s media are consumed with encomiums to a single leader, the infallible “core” – the Party’s enshrined formulation to describe Xi Jinping – the polity runs the risk of forgetting that “the sovereign is the least.”

Rather than hyper-centralized power that intimidates dissenting opinion, Confucius himself stresses the need for sufficient political openness to keep critical information flowing. When asked, in Analects 13.15, if there were one precept that might ruin a country, he points out that it could be disastrous if no one dare defy the ruler because a truly virtuous government rests on honest critique. Xi also does not discuss this passage in his book.

Quoting from the Daoist classic, the Daodejing, Xi again avoids politically inconvenient lines. Take these from passage 66:

Oceans and rivers become emperors of the hundred valleys
because they stay so perfectly below them.
This alone makes them emperors of the hundred valleys.
So, wanting to rule over the people
a sage speaks from below them,
and wanting to lead the people
he follows along behind them

This is a classical statement of “leading from behind,” the idea that executive power should not impose from above an ideological, comprehensive plan, but rather should allow social forces to enact their preferences and shape the process of community development from the bottom up.  It’s a far cry from Leninist democratic centralism, but that thoroughly Western concept has far more purchase on Xi’s thought than indigenous Chinese Daoist thought.

Perhaps we should not expect Xi to embrace Daoism, in all of its ambiguous, and sometimes seemingly contradictory, complexity. The authors of the Daodejing and Zhuangzi were not trying to design a modern state, and a manager of a vast territorial bureaucracy needs a more pragmatic political philosophy. Yet Xi eschews a distinctively Chinese understanding of government, rooted in both Confucianism and Daoism, that advocates a less extensive and intrusive style of politics than the Communist Party can countenance.

Consider these lines from Analects 2.3:

If the people are led by laws, and uniformity sought to be given them by
punishments, they will try to avoid the punishment, but have no sense of shame.

And compare them to this excerpt from passage 57 of the Daodejing:

The more prohibitions rule all beneath heaven
The deeper poverty grows among the people
The more shrewd leaders there are
The faster dark confusion fills the nation.

Both express skepticism about an overreliance on law, administration and regulation as means of government. While each ultimately emphasizes its own preferred source of social order (inconspicuous exemplary leadership for Confucians; naturalistic freedom for Daoists), they are both very distinct from the type of restrictive and repressive “rule by law” now hardening under Xi’s leadership.

There is, of course, another strand of classical Chinese philosophy that is quite consistent with Xi’s authoritarian power consolidation: the Legalist tradition. Emphasizing a brutal political realism that values the preservation of a ruler’s power above all else, Legalism reached its bloodiest expression during the reign of the first Qin emperor, whose regime infamously burned Confucian books and killed Confucian scholars. (That cruelty was, by Chinese historical standards, short-lived: the dynasty was overthrown by popular rebellion after only fifteen years, from 221BCE to 206BCE.)

Although he might want to avoid too close a comparison with the vicious first Qin emperor, who oversaw the deaths of multitudes to unite China’s warring kingdoms into a single polity, Xi also selectively quotes from Legalists. However, this line from prominent Legalist writer Han Feizi does not appear in Xi’s book: “The reason you cannot rely upon the wisdom of the people is that they have the minds of little children.

More significant than Xi’s dodging of Legalism’s loathsomeness is his public posturing as a gentleman-scholar in the traditional Confucian-esque mode, which might further hint at a certain Daoist wisdom and gentility. In another collection of his sayings, Xi Jinping: Wit and Vision, Xi rather incongruously mentions an enigmatic line from the Daodejing, which is usually interpreted as a warning against overly intrusive forms of government: “Governing a great state is like cooking a small fish.” Yet the ubiquitous surveillance, control and repression of the current regime leaves virtually no political small fry untouched.

There is a significant intersection of Confucianism and Daoism, centering on an understanding of government that presumes a much greater degree of social and political freedom than is currently possible in the People’s Republic of China. If Xi really lived up to the sources he so fondly quotes – and even more so the lines he studiously omits – there might be a greater chance for a genuine, modern realization of the full human potential of classical Chinese thought.

In truth, Xi is less a meditative Confucian-Daoist and more a power-mongering Legalist. Proper mourning and burial rites are essential human obligations for Confucians, and the state should not interfere in a family’s bereavement. Xi’s Party, however, hounded and harassed Liu Xia, wife of the deceased human rights advocate Liu Xiaobo, as she attempted a respectful funeral for her beloved husband. Such violation of fundamental Confucian norms demonstrates Xi’s affinity for Han Feizi’s way of thinking: “The enlightened ruler is never overliberal in his rewards, never overlenient in his punishment.” ∎

The image for this post was created using this free-use portrait of the Kangxi emperor.