Why Xi Jinping’s China is Legalist, Not Confucian

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.


Liberal Confucianism

Yan Xuetong’s qualified acknowledgement of liberalism – Sam Crane

For many years the Chinese Communist Party has identified “Western values,” including various manifestations of liberalism, as a threat to political and social stability in the People’s Republic.  From the 1983 movement to “eradicate spiritual pollution,” through repeated jeremiads against “bourgeois liberalization” and “peaceful evolution,” to more recent efforts to promote “socialist core values,” Party leaders have consistently attacked liberalism as a “hostile foreign force.” All the while, they attempt to appropriate and redefine certain liberal values – freedom, democracy – to support the illiberal authoritarianism that sustains their power.

It was somewhat surprising, then, to read Tsinghua University Professor Yan Xuetong’s recent article: ‘Chinese Values v. Liberalism: What Ideology Will Shape the International Normative Order?’ The “v.” in the title suggested a reiteration – perhaps a more sophisticated one, given Yan’s academic pedigree – of the usual anti-liberal diatribe. But instead of uncompromising condemnation or distorted appropriation, Yan recognizes the power of liberalism at the level of international relations, and advances tentative ideas for a reasonable accommodation between traditional Chinese values and liberal ideals.


Xi Jinping: Philosopher King

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.