Xi Jinping is China’s Communist Party leader, president and military chief. Is he becoming its sage king, too?
In an address on Monday at the Politburo’s 18th collective study session on governance, Mr. Xi showed the world a man loyal to the party, but also to ancient cultural traditions, who seemed to want China’s future to be a blend of these two apparently disparate factors.
And he appeared to be appealing to the vision of the traditional sage king, the wise and firm ruler who governs with the aid of astute ministers, something far removed from the ideas of modern democratic governance that are informing the demonstrations on the streets of Hong Kong today and that inspire China’s own political activists, many of whom have been jailed since Mr. Xi rose to power nearly two years ago.
In terms of “Zhongnanhai-ology,” the art of analyzing Chinese politics through the words and deeds of the country’s leaders who live in the Zhongnanhai compound next to the Forbidden City in Beijing, Mr. Xi’s remarks, appearing Tuesday on the front page of People’s Daily, the party’s mouthpiece, were significant in content and timing. They were published just six days before the opening of the Fourth Plenum of the party’s 18th Central Committee, which is set to focus on the rule of law in China. It was the fourth time he has spoken on the subject this year, according to People’s Daily.
The address also went far in explaining how Mr. Xi, a son of the revolutionary leader Xi Zhongxun, understands Chinese exceptionalism, or the belief in a nation’s specialness. American exceptionalism is rooted in a democratic revolutionary spirit. Chinese exceptionalism, said Mr. Xi, merges the legacy of the 1949 Communist revolution, which abjured tradition, and elements of that deep tradition.
“Several thousand years ago, the Chinese nation trod a path that was different from other nations’ culture and development,” People’s Daily quoted Mr. Xi as saying. “It is not a coincidence that we started up ‘socialism with Chinese characteristics.’ It was decided by our country’s historical inheritance and cultural traditions.”
“History is created by the people and so is civilization,” he said. “We should be more respectful and mindful of 5,000 years of continuous Chinese culture.”
In governance, he said, Chinese people should draw deeply from the past, taking what they find valuable and leaving what they don’t, “keeping fully in mind the experiences, lessons and warnings of history.”
Whereas Mao conducted campaigns against Chinese history by opposing Confucian thought, Mr. Xi has exalted it. But not just Confucius. The philosophers Mengzi and Xunzi, the Han dynasty political philosopher Dong Zhongshu, and the Tang dynasty historian Wu Jing all figured heavily in his remarks. Previously, Mr. Xi has drawn on the teachings of Han Fei, the Legalist philosopher who advocated rule with an iron fist. He intimated that drawing on the past was a form of self-confidence and not doing so a form of low self-esteem.
“We in the Communist Party are firm Marxists and our party’s guiding thought is Marxism-Leninism, Mao Zedong Thought and Socialism with Chinese Characteristics,” Mr. Xi said. “At the same time, we are not historical nihilists and are not cultural nihilists. We cannot be ignorant of the history of our own country, and we cannot belittle ourselves.”
Mr. Xi offered some examples from classical texts to make clear his own priorities:
“The people are the basis of a country” (民惟邦本), he said, quoting Confucius’ “Shang Shu,” or “Book of Documents” (also known as the “Book of History”).
“Politics is about gaining the people’s support” (政得其民), he said, a quote from the philosopher Mengzi.
“Combine ‘li’ ” — rituals that express ethics — “and the law in order to rule” (礼法合治), he said. More Confucius, but also shades of Xunzi, a later Confucian philosopher.
“Virtues are central, punishment supplements them” (德主刑辅), he said, a quote from Dong Zhongshu, the Han dynasty political philosopher whom Mr. Xi often cites.
“To govern one must attract talented people who can serve” (为政之要莫先于得人), he said, quoting the Tang dynasty historian Wu Jing from the “Zhenguan Zhengyao” (贞观政要), or “Essentials of Governance in the Zhenguan Reign.” This tract, written in the years 708-10, extolled Taizong, the second Tang emperor, as a powerful and decisive ruler who governed with the aid of talented ministers.
To Kang Xiaoguang, a professor of public administration at Renmin University in Beijing, Mr. Xi’s emphasis on Chinese classical thought makes sense within contemporary politics. After decades during which the government has pushed mostly economic growth, Mr. Kang discerns an interest in fundamental cultural change. He says this represents a new strand in Chinese political thinking he has called the “Great Realignment” theory (大转轨).
In an article published this year on a website affiliated with his university, Mr. Kang contrasted the new thinking that draws on the ancient to other strands of contemporary political thought, such as classical Marxism, progressive liberalism and neo-authoritarianism.
“As Chinese people have more engagement with the outside world, they have a deeper need for self-affirmation,” Mr. Kang said in a recent interview. The party “also needs to lean in this direction,” he said. “I think there’s a long-term trend of the ruling party ultimately shifting toward Confucianism.”
The trend is being debated by contributors to cpcnews.cn, a website belonging to people.cn, part of People’s Daily.
“There is a sense of urgency today in making traditional Chinese culture something that foresighted members of society have a responsibility to transmit and promote, to build national faith,” wrote one commentator last month.
The party is able to transmit both Marxism and traditional culture, Yan Xiaofeng, a professor at the National Defense University, said in the same article.
“We acknowledge that Confucian culture has limits and some outdated concepts,” Mr. Yan said. “We need to keep the good things and discard the bad ones.”
Mr. Xi’s remarks on merging the Communist revolutionary tradition with ancient culture were the result of a sense that “even the theory of the elementary stage of socialism with Chinese characteristics lacks some basis things, and so needs interaction with traditional culture,” Ye Zicheng, a political science professor at Peking University, said in a recent interview.
The desire to “recover new things from Chinese history and culture so that it has greater cohesive force and greater influence on the minds of Chinese people” is Mr. Xi’s “biggest difference in terms of governance,” Mr. Ye said.