Why Xi Jinping’s China is Legalist, Not Confucian6 min read

The philosophical basis of China’s “New Era” – Sam Crane


Jiang Shigong, a law professor at Peking University, thinks Xi Jinping is the epitome of the new Confucian-Marxist leader. In a recent article – an explication of Xi’s speech at the 19th Party Congress last October – Jiang takes the edge off of Xi’s Leninism by making numerous passing references to a variety of classical Chinese philosophical concepts, including “the unity of heaven and man” (天人合一); “Learning of the Heart” (心学); and “when the Way prevails, the world is shared by all” (大道之行, 天下为公), among others.

However, just like Xi, Jiang largely ignores the Legalist tradition of Chinese thought, which arguably has much greater relevance to the current emphasis on Party building and political centralization in the People’s Republic of China. To paraphrase an old Maoist slogan, Jiang is waving the Confucian flag to defeat the Confucian flag. In so doing, he is creating ideological space for an unspoken Legalist assertion of autocratic power.

The crux of that power is Xi Jinping himself, as supreme leader of a highly centralized, strictly disciplined, bureaucratic Party apparatus. Jiang goes so far as to argue that Xi’s authority is based not simply in the Weberian categories of legal-rational and traditional authority but also in a kind of “charismatic power.” Xi, by this account, is the center of China both administratively and spiritually, at the helm of a monocratic power structure that will carry out his interpretation of law and policy.

In the so-called Xi Jinping era, the Communist Party has been given a much greater role. Gone is the Deng Xiaoping-inspired notion of “separating the Party and Government.” The key task now is all-encompassing Party leadership, which Jiang dutifully promotes, quoting from Xi’s speech at the 19th Party Congress: “The Party leads everything: Party, government, army, people, and scholars … The Party is the most exalted force of political leadership.”

“Xi is the center of China both administratively and spiritually, at the helm of a monocratic power structure”

Such concentration of power is not inherent in Confucian thought. Confucius himself, while assuming exemplary kingly rule, imagines a politics that allows sufficient social freedom for individuals and ministers to exercise a kind of moral autonomy when deciding upon the right thing to do. Mencius is famous for assertively speaking truth to power.

Classical Chinese Legalists, however, have little patience for obstreperous moralists and ministers. Rather, they focus on the necessity of concentrating power in the hands of the ruler.  Shang Yang (c.390–338 BCE), the infamous and brutal Legalist Qin statesman, tells us: “When the sage rules the state, he is able to consolidate force and to spend force … Hence, he who rules the state well consolidates force to attain a rich country and strong army.” (Yuri Pines, trans., pp. 173-174)

“Consolidating force” is a good description of what is happening in the Xi Jinping era, with political power centralized in the Party and its leader. Shang Yang’s ultimate goal of a “rich country and strong army” is even alluded to in the first of the twelve “socialist core values” that guide ideological control in China today: “wealth and power” (富强). Shang Yang goes on to elaborate how the ruler must rely upon strict penal law to instill social and political order, which in turn bolsters the ruler’s power:

Yet to benefit the people of All-under-Heaven, nothing is better than orderly rule, and in orderly rule nothing is more secure than establishing the ruler. The Way of establishing the ruler is nowhere broader than in relying on laws; in the task of relying on laws, nothing is more urgent than eradicating depravity; the root of eradicating depravity is nowhere deeper than in making punishments stern. (Pines, trans., p. 171)

“Depravity,” for Shang Yang, is rooted in the pursuit of self-interest. People want wealth and status, and will avoid sacrifice for the public good in favor of personal benefits. The purpose of law is to threaten severe punishments so as to align self-interest with the state’s primary objective of maintaining the ruler’s highly centralized power.

It is in this spirit that Jiang Shigong praises Xi Jinping for “governing the Party with sternness and fully suppressing corruption” – saving the Party and the state from certain demise after years of decadence. Recently purged high-level officials such as Bo Xilai, Zhou Yongkang and Sun Zhengcai are powerful examples for any Party cadres thinking of undermining the “Way of establishing the ruler.”

“The threat of disorder and collapse was used by Legalist theoreticians of the Warring States period to justify harsh autocratic rule”

Political unity, and a concomitant rejection of pluralism, is not simply a matter of corruption. Any sort of political organizing that might challenge the authority of the nation’s supreme leader, whether at the elite level or in society at large, must be crushed. This is a central precept of Han Feizi, the most prominent theorist of Legalism just prior to the Qin Dynasty. Han is famous for his deep distrust of ministers, whose political positions make them a significant potential threat to unseat the ruler: “The only reason the ministers do not assassinate their sovereign is that their parties and cliques are not strong enough.”

Although he does not cite Han Feizi, Jiang Shigong alludes to the Legalist fear of factions when he criticizes “the politics of convenience:”

Principles of profit and exchange will penetrate the inner realms of the Party, and various forces will ‘stalk’ government officials and form interest groups to seek political power. They will even attempt to seize the highest power of the Party and state and change the nature of the Party. China will face the danger of repeating the collapse of the former Soviet Union.

The threat of disorder and collapse were precisely the rationales used by Legalist theoreticians and administrators of the Warring States period to justify harsh autocratic rule.

This, however, is not the tradition that Jiang Shigong explicitly invokes in his encomium to Xi.  Rather like Emperor Wu of the Han Dynasty, he reaches for Confucianism to serve as a pleasant façade to cover the unkinder reality of Legalist authoritarianism, advocating for “integration of the rule of law and the rule of virtue.”

Yet eager New Confucians, hopeful for a conversion of state ideology away from Marxism-Leninism, must take note of the clear limit Jiang sets against the “Confucianization of the Party”, describing it as “the dregs of feudal restorationist thought.” Jiang is not a Confucian. Xi Jinping is not a Confucian. They are, at base, Marxist-Leninists, working hard to strengthen a highly centralized authoritarian state under the leadership of an unassailable single leader.

In that project they are enacting, in a modern context, not Confucianism nor any other humane Chinese philosophy, but the Legalist vision of Shang Yang and Han Feizi. ∎


Header: Statue of Shang Yang, a Legalist statesman (Wikimedia Commons)