Something new is happening in China and Western media are trying to figure out what.
Two years ago Xi Jinping took over the Chinese government. Now we are beginning to see that his rule will be what one writer called “transformative.”
The Economist explained:
Mr Xi has quickly become, to all appearances, the most powerful leader since Deng Xiaoping. The communiqué reinforced this perception. Its reference to a “series of important speeches by Xi Jinping” elevated his utterances to the canon of officially accepted works. His predecessors Hu Jintao and Jiang Zemin have been so honoured, but Mr Xi is the first leader to be named personally in this kind of invocation since Deng Xiaoping. It is a reminder that the rules China is playing by, in law and in other areas, belong not just to the party but also to Mr Xi.
And Elizabeth Economy wrote in Foreign Affairs:
Chinese President Xi Jinping has articulated a simple but powerful vision: the rejuvenation of the Chinese nation. It is a patriotic call to arms, drawing inspiration from the glories of China’s imperial past and the ideals of its socialist present to promote political unity at home and influence abroad. After just two years in office, Xi has advanced himself as a transformative leader, adopting an agenda that proposes to reform, if not revolutionize, political and economic relations not only within China but also with the rest of the world.
Xi has … rejected the communist tradition of collective leadership, instead establishing himself as the paramount leader within a tightly centralized political system. At home, his proposed economic reforms will bolster the role of the market but nonetheless allow the state to retain significant control. Abroad, Xi has sought to elevate China by expanding trade and investment, creating new international institutions, and strengthening the military. His vision contains an implicit fear: that an open door to Western political and economic ideas will undermine the power of the Chinese state.
Will it work? Economy, and many others are skeptical:
If successful, Xi’s reforms could yield a corruption-free, politically cohesive, and economically powerful one-party state with global reach: a Singapore on steroids. But there is no guarantee that the reforms will be as transformative as Xi hopes. His policies have created deep pockets of domestic discontent and provoked an international backlash. To silence dissent, Xi has launched a political crackdown, alienating many of the talented and resourceful Chinese citizens his reforms are intended to encourage. His tentative economic steps have raised questions about the country’s prospects for continued growth. And his winner-take-all mentality has undermined his efforts to become a global leader.
On the other hand, The Economist argued yesterday that if Xi’s China introduces the rule of law, it will represent great progress:
DRAFTERS of Communist Party documents in China are masters of linguistic sleights; Deng Xiaoping invented the term “socialist market economy” to satisfy hardline ideologues while he steered the country towards capitalism. Now the party is trumpeting a new slogan: “Socialist rule of law with Chinese characteristics”. At an annual plenum that ended on October 23rd, the Central Committee promised that it would be implemented by 2020 (see article) and would lead to “extensive and profound” changes. If they are anything like as significant as those that Deng’s catchphrase heralded, then this is a welcome development.
While skepticism is surely warranted, Western observers have been counting China out, over and over again for a quarter century. Somehow, it has managed to thrive… economically, at least.
Adding to our understanding of the citation, Time Magazine offers an intriguing look at the cultural transformation that Xi has been trying to effect. He is trying to return China to Confucianism. Kudos to Michael Schuman for his excellent report on this vitally important point.
Schuman sets the scene:
For the first 30 years of communist rule in China, the party of Mao Zedong had tried to uproot Confucian influence from society, seeing the enduring legacy of Confucius as an impediment to socialism and modernization. During the tumultuous Cultural Revolution, launched by Mao in the mid-1960s, Red Guards rampaged through Qufu, smashing relics and defacing the old Confucian temple. In communist propaganda, Confucius was vilified as a feudal leftover responsible for the oppression of the common man.
Apparently, Confucianism is congenial to capitalism. After all, the sage granted people the ability to use discretion while making decisions, even when following imperial edicts. Clearly, this is a window of freedom. It reminds one of the British Common Law.
The enemy of Confucianism was Chinese legalism, which insisted that all rules be followed to the letter, no matter what.
Confucius did not promote the unbridled freedom or free-for-all that some Westerners crave, but he wanted people to exercise freedom virtuously. You cannot run a free market without participants who play by the rules, are good to their word and respect others.
Some believe that greed motivates homo economicus. Confucius believed that, given the right incentive and the right example, people would incline toward benevolence.
Xi has left little doubt about the source of his inspiration:
Though Xi has also invoked other figures from Chinese history — from philosophers of competing schools to more modern personalities like Mao Zedong — the President seems to take special interest in Confucianism. “Do not impose on others what you yourself do not desire,” he said in a September speech, quoting one of Confucius’s most-famous sayings. Earlier in the year, he extolled the wonders of benevolent rule in an address to party cadres with another, well-known passage from the Analects, the most authoritative text on Confucius’s teachings: “The rule of virtue can be compared to the polestar which commands the homage of the multitude of stars without leaving its place.” Last year, Xi, like so many Emperors of old, visited Qufu, Confucius’ hometown. During his tour, he pledged to read Confucian texts and praised the continuing value of Chinese traditional culture.
Note well that the first principle quoted: “Do not impose on others what you do not desire” is the Confucian version of our rule: Do unto others what you would have others do unto you.
In Confucian thinking, people are naturally inclined to conduct their lives virtuously if their leaders are more virtuous, thus, more benevolent. It is preferable, in a Confucian system, that leaders induce virtue by their own conduct and do not try to impose it with a tidal wave of bureaucratic regulation.
One might understand this by drawing a distinction between a politician who does what he considers best for the people and a politician who does what is best to preserve his own political power.
A society that is ruled by corrupt officials who are interest in their own and not the social good cannot function virtuously. Thus, Xi’s important anti-corruption campaign.
Clearly, this entails risk. It requires a gentleman-leader, a man who is in charge. It rejects rule by committee and rule by bureaucrats.
It requires leadership by example, but it recognizes that a powerful human leader might be tempted to use his office for his own benefit or to impose his ideas by fiat. In other words, rule by a Confucian sage is not the same as rule by a Platonic philosopher king or a class of guardians.
In Schuman’s words:
Xi also apparently believes that Confucius can bolster his own standing in the country. Confucius’ ideal government was topped by a “sage-king” — a person who was so learned, benevolent and upright that his virtuous rule would bring peace and order to society and uplift the Chinese masses both spiritually and materially. Confucius made little progress in achieving this vision during his own lifetime. But Xi seems to be resurrecting the idea. Since becoming President, he has been whittling away at the government by committee that had prevailed for two decades, in the process centralizing more power in his hands than any communist leader since Mao. By combining one-man rule with the morality of Chinese antiquity, he appears to be painting himself up as some newfangled communist/Confucian sage-king — an all-commanding figure who will usher in a new epoch of prestige and prosperity.
Schuman questions whether Xi will fulfill the terms of Confucian thought:
Kings were not supposed to be autocrats in his teachings. Ministers and other officials were bound by duty to protest policies they considered misguided to keep the Emperor on the proper path. Government was not to tread heavily into the lives of ordinary people. Kings may have had ultimate authority, but not unlimited power. Xi, however, doesn’t appear interested in easing the repressive machinery of the state, nor accepting any challenges to or limitations on his authority.
As always, the results are in doubt. But China has made a habit of defying skeptics, so, we shall keep an open mind.