Article courtesy of the NYTimes.com
HONG KONG — When China’s leader, Xi Jinping, recently warned officials to ward off the temptations of corruption and Western ideas of democracy, he cited Han Fei, a Chinese nobleman renowned for his stark advocacy of autocratic rule more than 2,200 years ago.
“When those who uphold the law are strong, the state is strong,” Mr. Xi said, quoting advice that Han Fei offered monarchs attempting to tame disorder. “When they are weak, the state is weak.”
Seeking to decipher Mr. Xi, who rarely gives interviews or off-the-cuff comments, China watchers have focused on whether he has the traits of a new Mao, the ruthless revolutionary, or a new Deng Xiaoping, the economic reformer. But an overlooked key to his boldly authoritarian agenda can be found in his many admiring references to Chinese sages and statesmen from millenniums past.
Mr. Xi declared his reverence for the past last month at a forum marking 2,564 years since Confucius’ birth. Ancient tradition “can offer beneficial insights for governance and wise rule,” Mr. Xi said in the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, where leaders hold congresses and legislative sessions,according to Xinhua, the official news agency.
“This is about finding some kind of traditionalist basis of legitimacy for the regime,” said Sam Crane, a professor at Williams College in Massachusetts who studies ancient Chinese thought and its contemporary uses. “It says, ‘We don’t need Western models.’ Ultimately, it is all filtered through the exigencies of maintaining party power.”
Since Mr. Xi became China’s Communist Party leader nearly two years ago, he has pursued unyielding policies against dissidents, ethnic minority unrest, corrupt officials and foreign rivals in territorial disputes. The party has also rejected demands for democratic elections for Hong Kong’s leader, and condemned two weeks of pro-democracy street protests in the city as lawless defiance inspired by foreign enemies of China.
At the same time, Mr. Xi has vowed to overhaul the economy, promote social equality, and build a fairer, cleaner legal system, which will be the main topic at a meeting of the party’s Central Committee this month.
China’s modern leaders have often sought to justify their policies by bowing to their Communist forebears, and so has Mr. Xi. But he has reached much farther back than his predecessors into a rich trove of ancient statecraft for vindication and guidance. He portrays his policies as rooted in homegrown order and virtues that, by his estimate, go back 5,000 years.
In his campaign to discipline wayward and corrupt officials, Mr. Xi has invoked Mencius and other ancient thinkers, alongside Mao. Most often, he has embraced Confucius, the sage born around 551 B.C. who advocated a paternalistic hierarchy, to argue that the party should command obedience because it represents “core values” reaching back thousands of years.
“He who rules by virtue is like the North Star,” he said at a meeting of officials last year, quoting Confucius. “It maintains its place, and the multitude of stars pay homage.”
Mr. Xi has also shown his familiarity with “Legalist” thinkers who more than 23 centuries ago argued that people should submit to clean, uncompromising order maintained by a strong ruler, much as Mr. Xi appears to see himself. He has quoted Han Fei, the most famous Legalist, whose hardheaded advice from the Warring States era made Machiavelli seem fainthearted. And at least twice as national leader, Mr. Xi has admiringly cited Shang Yang, a Legalist statesman whose harsh policies transformed the weak Qin kingdom into a feared empire.
Their influence on Mr. Xi is likely to become clearer when a meeting of party leaders starting in just over a week endorses his proposals for “rule of law.” Quite unlike the Western liberal version, Mr. Xi’s “rule of law” looks more like the “rule by law” advocated by the Legalists, said Orville Schell, director of the Center on U.S.-China Relations at Asia Society in New York.
Mr. Xi wants party power to be applied more equitably and cleanly, but he does not want law to circumscribe that power, said Mr. Schell. This has created an “enormous amount of misinterpretation in the West that thinks ‘rule of law’ is rule of law in a very Western Enlightenment sense of the term,” he said.
Mr. Xi’s reverence for Confucius is a far cry from Mao, who attacked Confucian traditions as feudal dregs, to be erased by revolutionary fervor. By reviving tradition, Mr. Xi is riding China’s nostalgic zeitgeist. Its people have increasingly turned to pre-Communist values while they navigate giddying, contentious changes driven by expanding commerce and inequality.
More children undergo Confucian-inspired coming-of-age rites, wearing re-creations of ancient scholars’ gowns. Some universities have turned graduation ceremonies into rituals inspired by tradition. Devotees join in elaborate ceremonies to honor Confucius.
With Mr. Xi, 61, likely to be China’s top leader for a decade, officials have been emulating him, and propaganda outlets have exhorted people to imitate his reverence for the ancient past. In May, the overseas edition of the state-run newspaper People’s Daily published a selection of 76 of Mr. Xi’s quotes from Chinese ancients, most often Confucius and Mencius, but also relatively obscure works that suggest a deeper knowledge of the classics.
“When Xi is putting on a political performance, he uses Marxist-Leninist rhetoric and even Mao’s words,” said Kang Xiaoguang, a professor of public administration at Renmin University in Beijing. “But in his bones, what really influences him is not those things but intellectual resources from the traditional classics.”
“As China grows stronger, this force for restoring tradition will also grow stronger,” said Yan Xuetong, director of the Institute of International Studies at Tsinghua University in Beijing and author of “Ancient Chinese Thought, Modern Chinese Power.”
“Where can China’s leaders find their ideas?” he said. “They can’t possibly find them nowadays from Western liberal thought, and so the only source they can look to is ancient Chinese political thinking.”
Where Mr. Xi absorbed his enthusiasm for the classics is not so clear. He entered adulthood during the Cultural Revolution, when ancient tradition was under assault. But Mr. Xi has said he always liked to read, including Chinese classics, even as a teenager sent to labor in the countryside. Professor Yan of Tsinghua, who also came of age in the Cultural Revolution, said Mao’s campaigns against Confucius helped introduce those very ideas to the young.
Visiting a university in Beijing last month, Mr. Xi said he lamented proposals that could reduce mandatory study of Chinese classical literature in school. He said, “The classics should be set in students’ minds so they become the genes of Chinese national culture.”