Encouraged by the Chinese Communist Party and deployed both to discredit Western ideals of democratic pluralism and to rationalize continued one-party rule in China, this quasi-Confucian flowering began relatively early in Deng Xiaoping’s tenure. At some point in the mid-1980s, it seems to have been decided to explore quasi-Confucian theories as a possible alternative legitimacy discourse for the Party-State that did not depend upon Marxist-Leninist theory at a time when rapid marketization was making that orthodoxy sound increasingly incoherent. This re-Sinicization of political discourse evolved into a priority project for the CCP propaganda apparatus, which saw such narratives as useful tools with which to counter sympathies for Western-style political reform that might imperil Party control.
This effort to re-Sinicize the Party-State’s legitimacy discourse through the invocation of quasi-Confucian concepts picked up steam in the 1990s, when the CCP felt it all the more important to repair its tattered legitimacy narrative in the wake of the massacre on Tiananmen Square. A political theory steeped in “Chineseness” was especially attractive because it fit well with the Party’s increasing cultivation of nationalism during the 1990s as a way to entice ordinary Chinese to rally around the CCP’s banner.
This was not a casual dalliance, but instead a concerted CCP campaign to encourage quasi-Confucian scholarship along lines congenial to Party-State authority. The Party did not merelyallow this, but in fact actively promoted the study of Confucianism through the selective use of Chinese traditional thought, with the result that new quasi-Confucian political memes were fully incorporated into official discourse.
Today, the development of the new quasi-Confucian political discourse of a technocratically-guided but civilizationally-grounded national unity and strength receives support and encouragement from the very highest levels of the Party-State. The regime and its propaganda apparatus have increasingly been using Confucian key words or notions, and stressing themes of “Chineseness” in political and international relations theory by picking up on elements that began to emerge after Confucius studies received the Party-State’s ideological imprimatur and encouragement in the mid-1980s.
Against "spiritual pollution" from the West
In response to its internal challenges of legitimacy, one might say – including its persisting fear of ideational subversion from the “spiritual pollution” of political ideals associated with the West – the Chinese Party-State has increasingly “Orientalized” itself and its political discourse. This auto-Orientalization has, in turn, given rise to a curious cadre of Confucio-authoritarian cheerleaders, for as it has progressed, a group of academics and public intellectuals has emerged in China to advance this discourse still further – and to make more explicit and self-aware the quasi-Confucian themes already prominent in the CCP’s modern legitimacy narrative.
I label these thinkers “Neo-Kongs,” and indeed the convergence of their theorizing with the Party-State’s self-justifications is worth emphasizing, especially to the degree that, in its modern form, Neo-Kong thinking has an explicitly antidemocratic ethos.
Neo-Kong thinking draws upon the hallowed vocabulary of Confucian antecedents, but it does so in a very modern, ideological, and explicitly “political” fashion. It is not a system of ethical conduct in which right action will simply draw adherence through its obvious and intrinsic appeal. Instead, it is a discourse fashioned to justify and promote a particular political dispensation – and to serve as a propaganda tool with which to fight competing concepts of political authority – in a modern ideational battlespace at home and abroad. It is little surprise, therefore, to find Neo-Kongs spending much less time articulating what right conduct should actually entail in the modern context than they spend contending that alternativeconceptions of political authority are unworkable or inappropriate, or pointing to specific political forms – usually equating to or deriving from current or aspirational CCP practice – that it is suggested satisfy Confucian requirements.
Most obviously, the Neo-Kongs have embarked upon a veritable crusade against Western political pluralism and rights-based democratic politics. Both in the politically-managed information space of the contemporary Party-State and in Beijing’s propaganda outreach to the non-Chinese world, of course, antidemocratic narratives are not a “bug” but a feature. Professor Callahan is quite correct that the Party’s modern discourse of political “harmony” is clear about one thing above all : it fundamentally opposes Western political liberalism.
For the Neo-Kongs, Western pluralist democracy is unsuitable for modern political life. As they see it, democratic elections tend to produce instability, and are unable to provide “effective decision-making” in the face of complex challenges, in part because voters allegedly prize short-term interests at the expense of broader concerns and in part because it breeds fractiousness and disorder – that is, disharmony.
Rather than trusting the unreliable method of elections, Neo-Kongs such as Tsinghua professor Daniel Bell – who as a Canadian employed on a PRC academic faculty seems to avoid problems with censorship by the expedient of writing things that the Party-State likes to hear – prefer “other ways of choosing rulers,” specifically some kind of “examination system” through which rulers select their successors on the basis of purported “merit.” Neo-Kongs applaud the “nondemocratic legitimacy” that comes when “morally superior decision-makers” – chosen by “[m]eritocratic examinations open to all” but emphatically not chosen by the people for whom they will make decisions – are able to take public policy benevolently in hand.
Democracy, it is declared, “lacks morality” because it is really just “a matter of head counting,” “there is no regard for morality” in it, and nothing therefore prevents democratic politics from following “[a]n immoral will of the people.” Consequently, democratic forms of organization are not just an undesirable form of government but in fact a threat to harmonious order in the world that should, implicitly, be extirpated. As one author puts it, “[t]he political problem of today’s world is that democracy itself presents a serious problem.”
But it isn’t just about trashing the kind of democratic norms that would subject the CCP to public accountability and potential replacement. The Neo-Kongs’ focus upon “meritocratic” legitimacy is also a vital element the politicization of Confucianism that has been encouraged by the Party-State. It is vital because it is so congruent with the CCP’s own self-justificatory legitimacy narrative about how Party cadres – selected for their talent, trained in technocratic, managerial, and leadership skills, and promoted on the basis of their abilities – are uniquely suited to lead China forward into a bright future, and indeed are the country’s only bulwark against chaos, national “humiliation,” disunity, and societal collapse. Such “meritocratic” themes are increasingly a part of Chinese propaganda, including to foreign audiences.
Neo-Kong thinking also has an international aspect, which has become much more pronounced as China’s power has grown and as Chinese have perceived relative U.S. power to decline. This aspect has perhaps been most flamboyantly expressed by the Tsinghua professor Yan Xuetong, but aspects of it have repeatedly appeared in the CCP regime’s official discourse. Yan feels that the ideal form of power is “humane authority” – which is his idiosyncratic English rendering of a classical term which he presumably prefers to the more traditional translation of the “Kingly Way” or the way of the “Sage King” because “humane authority” sounds less like China would actually be ruling anyone else. The state with “human authority,” Yan feels, will inevitably come to dominate the system, and it is what he hopesChina will be able to acquire on the world stage. China’s virtuous strength is expected to make it “the world’s leading power … a dominant power in a hierarchical world.”
At the pinnacle of the system of hierarchy, the power that is the locus of “humane authority” – that is, China – would naturally have pride of place at the center of world order, but with this authority would also come great responsibility, both for treating lesser powers benevolently and for maintaining the harmony of that order and helping ensure that it functions in the best interests of all its components.
Much as Hu Jintao’s “harmonious society” clearly entailed maintaining harmony through the suppression of unharmonious political thought and expression, Yan seems to envision the leading state having a role in harmonizing the world-system. It is, for instance, within the prerogative of the sagely ruler to “unify and correct” others, and Yan pointedly notes that classical Chinese thought in no way precludes the use of violence to discipline those who refuse to follow the dictates of morality. Violent force – and indeed, even “annexation” – may be used where its employment is “morally correct.”
Perhaps not for nothing, therefore, do Chinese strategic writers sometimes cite the 15th-Century voyages of Zheng He as a model for what China would do with global power-projection. Though depicted as a visionary trader and diplomat seeking a sort of peaceful globalization – perhaps, one might guess, a “new type of great power relationship” between the Ming Dynasty and other realms – the famous eunuch admiral did not shy from doing things like invading Sri Lanka to suppress a disfavored local ruler and intervening on behalf of pro-Chinese forces in a Sumatran civil war. Harmony, it would appear, sometimes has to beenforced, and Neo-Kong in no way eschews coercion. (Confucius himself, after all, spoke about the value of punitive military expeditions occasionally being sent forth by the virtuous ruler, and – as Professor Perdue made clear in his own presentation – the notion that historical Chinese practice eschewed what we today would call imperialism and colonialism is simply a modern delusion.)
Thus does Neo-Kong thinking aspire not just to justify autocratic paternalism in China, but in fact to offer its version of the monist, hierarchic, and self-consciously virtuocratic Confucian model of authority as a template for the entire international system. Nor is this some “fringe” view, obviously permitted to exist by Party-State censors, but of no particular import. On the contrary, it has powerful patrons.
President Hu Jintao’s “harmonious world” theory, for instance – which some Chinese strategic writers have actually encouraged us to understand as an extension of the PRC’s own domestic mode of monist political organization – has been explained as being just “a new facet of the ancient Chinese dream of ‘great harmony in the world’” which Professor Callahan’s paper discusses. Similarly, President Xi Jinping’s formulation of the “Chinese Dream” has been explained as reflecting “[t]he logic of ‘civilizational transformation’” whereby “world dreams” are realized through “Chinese dreams” as the PRC produces “systems and spiritual public goods that originate in China but belong to the world.” Neo-Kong theories infused with motifs of ideological competition and Confucian assumptions of monist hierarchy are, in short, repeatedly invoked to explain PRC approaches to – and ambitions in – international relations.
Even if much of this emerging PRC discourse really amounts to little more than a disingenuous rhetorical cloak with which the CCP elite hopes to conceal the nakedness of its power – and make its regional and global self-assertion seem more politically palatable abroad – understanding these themes still offers important lessons. This emerging narrative clearly suggests that the Chinese Party-State aspires to a sort of ideological warfare, competing to control what it perceives as an ideational battlespace existing not just at home but also abroad.
This is an aspect of Beijing’s engagement with the world that we have not seen for a long time. As Marxism and Maoism have given way to markets and Mercedes – and the “party of revolution” has developed into a mere “party in power” – it has sometimes been said that China has been “de-ideologized.” When it comes to the CCP regime’s official discourse, however, the most interesting trend today may not be “de-ideologization” but in fact the emergence and increasingly self-assertive promulgation of an ideological program of action self-consciously girding itself for battle against a Western democratic pluralism that it regards as its mortal enemy. This emerging discourse is far from full-grown, and it remains to be seen just what its role will be. I would suggest, however, that the Sino-American relationship is being re-ideologized in ways that may prove quite problematic in the years to come.