The political philosophy of the Chinese Leader
The current leader of the People’s Republic of China, who has served in various offices in this role since 2012 and was the Vice President of China from 2008, turns out not just to be an astute and compelling statesman but also a scholar and intellectual. He has written a two-volume magnum opus in which he sets out his views, over many hundreds of pages, about how to govern a country as complex as China; the West’s historical mistakes interfering with China; and the moral and cultural degradation of Western politics, economy and society. This is not some long-winded diatribe in the nature of Karl Marx; nor is it a series of obscure epithets in the nature of Chairman Mao. Instead it is a detailed and analytical piece of political science.
We may not agree with much of what he is saying; but it is extraordinary that a serving leader of the world’s post populous country has found time to write such a detailed work and it serves as a crucial insight both into modern China and, most importantly, the intellectual perspective of a man, like him or not, is undoubtedly one of the world’s most powerful people. It is also a remarkable endeavour from a man of the age of 70, although the People’s Republic of China is quite a healthy nation given its size and middle-income GDP per capita of some US$12,500 per annum, with a mean mortality age of 78.
The topics Mr Xi covers are many and varied. He is concerned to place modern China within the context of her history as a socialist nation ruled by a single party, the Communist Party, without popular elections (or even pretences of them). Hence he devotes substantial effort to explaining how it can be that within a socialist system which in principle is subject to centralised command economy control, private ownership of the means of production, distribution and exchange can nevertheless be part of a socialist harmony, and how Chinese productivity can be driven by market competition. He explains that in the earlier period of modern China, under Chairman Mao and his immediate predecessors, the country was in a period of existential crisis and under-development. Hence a command economy approach was necessary. However as the country’s economy has become increasingly sophisticated, centralised planning by a single political party ceases to be realistic and instead businesses must develop in private ownership because managing a centrally planned economy becomes impossible.
Nevertheless Mr Xi emphasises that in order to maintain China as a single state in political and economic harmony, there must be a common culture and unity. This is one of the reasons why a plurality of political parties cannot be permitted; neither can elections, as this would sew division between the various parts of Chinese society and it might pit different social classes or ethnic groups each against the other. China has a history over many centuries, indeed, millennia, or state-building into a single state and then implosion into warring units, and Mr Xi appears well aware of this history in his emphasis upon maintaining pan-Chinese unity. This goal justifies the predominance of the Communist Party in a hierarchical structure.
Mr Xi also has a recurrent emphasis upon a concept of public duty, which is known to motivate him personally; and the prevention of corruption. Membership of the Communist Party, as the route to official positions, is a privilege accorded to elite students from a young age and in return they are expected to embrace the values of public service. Xi demonstrates a thinly veiled contempt for those afforded the advantages of Communist Party membership as the natural ruling party of China, and he expects them to embrace the greater good rather than to pursue their own selfish career and financial interests. In this sense modern China is an explicit oligarchy (ignore the Russian misappropriation of the term) - rule by the few - who in exchange for the advantages of membership in the ruling class are expected to adopt an entirely different social ethic. Corruption in public office is a historical Chinese disease that Mr Xi is determined to eliminate.
Xi has plenty to say about foreign policy as well. He discusses the Belt and Road Initiative, the principal Chinese exercise of soft power across the globe, in which China invests in infrastructure projects, principally but not exclusively in the Developing World, in exchange for long-term interests in the countries’ natural resources and profit sharing in their industries. So far the Belt and Road Initiative has achieved only limited success in generating active returns for China; but this is not necessarily the point. Xi sees the Belt and Road Initiative as a way of China living in peace and harmony with her neighbours and with the international community more generally. China is not historically a nation that has sought war with other parts of the world, even as she seeks to assert her dominance in the South China Sea. Her foreign policy has traditionally been insular, seeking to avoid foreign entanglements; the latest stage of assertive Chinese foreign policy is very much the exception from the historical Chinese point of view, but Xi seeks to present a positive spin, viewing contemporary Chinese foreign policy as a tool in using generosity to achieve international harmony.
At the same time, he lambasts the West for what he perceives to be a form of aggressive hypocrisy, asserting the existence of universal values relating to democracy and the rule of law, and then enforcing them down the barrel of a gun in an endless array of imperialist wars in which the West attempts to extend these cultural values across the Globe upon nations that do not cherish them and that have very different histories. He argues that the West has been the source of much more global violence and warfare than has China, because its foreign policy has more frequently had recourse to force of arms rather than strategic investment.
Xi discusses relations with powerful regional blocs, and he has in mind specifically Russia, Europe and the United States. He sees each of these relationships as presenting different problems and challenges for China, and each to be addressed differently. The relationship with the United States is principally one of trade, although her military might renders her a relevant actor in East Asia. The relationship with Europe is principally one of culture, while Russia is a natural resources producer. He adopts a bluntly rational and non-idealistic approach to foreign policy relations with each of these blocs, almost dividing the world into spheres of influence that each international bloc, China included, individually dominates. George Orwell might have been bemused. China has recently been criticised in western circles for his tacit support for Russia in her invasion of Ukraine; China has refused to condemn Russia and has not imposed sanctions. It is difficult to find in Xi’s writing any particular taste for Russia or for its troublesome leader, Vladimir Putin. However his view appears to be that relations between Russia and Ukraine are not within China’s proper sphere of influence. Whatever we may think of this somewhat crass point of view, it illustrates Xi’s hard-headed realism in his approach to international relations.
Xi struggles in his extensive discussions of the values of innovation and incentivisation as applicable to Chinese society. He is painfully aware that China has a reputation for copying things rather than breeding new inventions, and he considers why this may be; why Chinese society does not promote new ideas, and how to change this in order to secure an ever greater share of the global knowledge economy. He concludes that Chinese people need incentives to be more creative to stand out from their peers. This seems flatly inconsistent with some precepts of Chinese society, which places emphasis upon the value of the established hierarchy and encourages individuals not to stand out from the crowd with distinctive ideas. Xi seems to know that this needs to change if China is to thrive as a centre for ideas in the global economy.
For this reason he spends considerable time focusing upon a distinctively Chinese direction for academic ideas, in particular in the social sciences. He has invested substantially in a slew of new elite universities across China, and he has attracted foreign academics to these establishments with handsome salaries. He wants Chinese academic thinking to stand on its own legs, and to represent a distinctive strain of thought apart from the ideas and trends dominating the traditional European and American universities. However he is not entirely clear as to what this distinctively Chinese academic environment really involves, or how it ought to be different. Rather he simply posits the idea that it ought to be possible to have a distinctive Chinese set of academic ideas based upon Chinese culture, rather than just borrowing academic ideas and trends from the West.
Finally, Xi offers a number of reflections upon socialism, the (western) ideological notion that motivated China’s communist revolution in the 1940’s. Xi has tacitly abandoned socialism as a concept of state ownership and control of industrial and other assets, a model he sees as insufficient to manage the vast economic resources of a huge country such as modern China. Instead he finds recourse in socialism as a principle of integrity: one that manifestly motivates him in the way he governs (he is rigid and strict with his top officials, and unforgiving of their errors or misdeeds) and that he expects to pervade throughout the ruling classes in China. Socialism is a sort of blueprint for the ethical standards he expects of Chinese Communist Party officials as they take modern China forward in the twenty-first century. Socialism, for Xi, is entirely consistent with private ownership, competition and free markets. The concept is rather transformed into an expression of Chinese values in how to conduct the stewardship of this large, complex state that is both profoundly traditional and deeply contemporary at the same time.
Whatever one thinks of President Xi’s international and domestic policies, we learn from this collection of his writings that he is a reflective man, determined to rationalise his rule of China and the distinctive direction he has given to the country’s modern foreign policy. He is a man determined to create not just a historical but also an intellectual legacy. Whether he is successful, only time will tell.