President Xi Jinping is trying to imbue Confucian virtues alongside the legalist measures to the rule of law, thus making governance acceptable to the people.
With the adoption of “Xi Jinping’s Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era” by the 19th Party Congress of the Communist Party of China in 2017, China officially entered a new phase. Adhering to the notion of Chinese thought of continuity, President Xi Jinping sees the development of socialism as a continuous phenomenon that has been advanced by all his predecessors irrespective of differences in guiding principles, thinking and policies during phases of revolution, socialist construction, reforms etc. In the first stage of the “New Era” between 2020 and 2035, Xi envisages to basically realise socialist modernisation; and in the second, from 2035 to 2050, develop China into a great modern socialist country.
What will be the philosophical foundations of Xi Jinping’s “New Era”? Many scholars inside and outside China have been debating this question. Neo leftists like Wang Shaoguang, professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong have endorsed the idea of a party-state, where the state is responsive to the needs of the people; neo Confucians like Chen Ming of Capital Normal University bring in Confucian morality and even Confucianism as a religion to the party-state; neo liberals like Xu Jilin, professor of history at East China Normal University are propounding new Chinese universalism with Confucian civility at its core; Jiang Shigong, professor of Law at Peking University puts socialism with Chinese characteristics as a political theory, which borrows heavily from the core values of Chinese civilisation as the pillar of the philosophical foundations of the “New Era”. A foreign scholar such as Sam Crane of contemporary Chinese politics and ancient Chinese philosophy at Williams College, US in a recent article argued that the philosophical foundations of Xi Jinping’s “New Era” would be legalist, rather than Confucian, albeit he agrees that Xi has borrowed anecdotes from the Confucian classics, but selectively.
President Xi sees the development of socialism as a continuous phenomenon. He has been advocating the building of communities of shared future in the region and beyond in terms of connectivity, economics and security.
Professor Crane’s main argument is that Xi is at the centre of China, both administratively and spiritually, at the helm of a monocratic power structure. He argues that such concentration of power is not inherent in Confucian thought, rather the political thinking of legalists like Shang Yang and Hanfezi who laid emphasis on the law to safeguard the decrees of the sovereign, employment of tactics to weed out treacherous and promote able people in bureaucracy, and the absolute power of the monarch. I believe it is not so simple to define the philosophical foundations of China in the “New Era”, for these are intertwined with the historical journey of China and the path, thought and system it has chosen during different phases of history. In the “New Era” too, Xi Jinping has categorically emphasised that the path will be economic development (read “wealth and power”) guided by the theory developed by the first generation of Chinese leadership, and guaranteed by such a political and economic system that is rule based. It is the thought, and the system, that has generated much heat inside and outside China.
As regards the thought, Xi Jinping has emphasised on communist principles, which is understandable in a party-state configuration; to this end, he has always reminded the party and the people not to forget the “original intentions” or the basis on which the party was founded. This is also employed to avert an ideological contest between the reformers and the radicals. The celebration of the 200th birth anniversary of Karl Marx in early May this year can also be seen in this context, albeit China has long abandoned the Marxist theory of “class struggle” and “proletarian revolution”. Moreover, since the Sinification of socialism or communist ideology has been the goal of the Chinese leadership, it has tried to infuse the core values of Chinese civilisation in it for its legitimacy, by turning it into an acceptable spiritual belief not only inside China but globally too. It is for this reason that while cultivating socialist core values (prosperity, democracy, civility, harmony, freedom, equality, justice, rule of law, patriotism, dedication, integrity and friendliness) Xi Jinping seeks shelter in traditional Chinese philosophical foundations that emphasise continuity, dynamism, relativity, relationships and the totality.
In this context, Chen Lai, the writer of the Core Values of Chinese Civilisation, which has been translated into Hindi from Chinese by me and one of my students recently, sums up the Chinese philosophical foundation as: morality is more important than law, the community more important than the individual, the spiritual more important than the material, responsibility more important than rights, the well-being of the people more important than democracy, order more important than freedom, this life more important than the afterlife, harmony more valuable than conflict, civilisation more valuable than impoverishment, and family more valuable than social class. These are not only based on Confucian humaneness, but also on legalist, Taoist, and Buddhist values. No wonder Xi Jinping has placed the “people at the core” and has been advocating the building of communities of shared future in the region and beyond in terms of connectivity, economics and security.
As regards the system or the nature of the structure of state, China toyed with the idea of blurring the boundaries of the party and government during the Mao era, and then introduced division between the party and government during the reform era under Deng Xiaoping. In the new era, Xi Jinping is trying to modernise state governance, by the party taking absolute control. Here again, though the party asserts leadership role over everything in China including the army, government and people, which gives Xi Jinping a free hand to consolidate his power synonymous to the legalist approach of governance, however, by reforming the state apparatus and setting up institutions like National Supervisory Commission to rein in corrupt practices in governance, Xi Jinping is trying to imbue Confucian virtues alongside the legalist measures to the rule of law, thus making the governance acceptable to people. This is an extremely difficult task; it remains to be seen if the Chinese people will accept Xi as a “sage king”, having the morality and righteousness to govern. If yes, the path, thought and the system in the “New Era” will succeed and so will the Chinese dream of national rejuvenation.