To what sources of thought does Xi Jinping, the new master of China, drink from? To Marxism-Leninism, of course, reviewed and corrected by Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping, who introduced the logic of the market with big ladles into the official communist ideology. However, as can be seen in The Spirit of Chinathe last Item References devoted to the Middle Kingdom, its authoritarian practice of power and its disdain for the rights of the individual do not come from Marx or Engels, but rather from Shang Yang or Han Feizi, thinkers who, between the IVe and the IIIe century before our era, defended the unqualified submission of the individual to the law, hence the name of “legists” which was given to them.
But Xi Jinping also likes Confucian thinkers and their concern for order, which justifies putting power back in the hands of a single person. And it is still among the Ancients that its supporters go to seek the values which, in their view, justify the role that China must play at the international level. Thus, since the 1990s, numerous works have extolled the merits of a world of harmony in conformity with the tianxia, an antique value reactivated for the occasion. For these thinkers, the tianxia (a concept that can be translated as “under Heaven”) designates a system used in antiquity to ensure a harmonious world order where all powers would be on an equal footing and ” without enemies”.
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A doubly millennial thought
Reactivated today, it would justify the advent of a world ruled by China according to its own values, namely “socialism with Chinese characteristics” as defined by Xi Jinping and explained to us in The Spirit of China sinologist Nathan Sperber. This Chinese-style “socialism” must counter American neoliberalism and Soviet communism. Because only China would be able to develop a world of “harmony” and prosperity shared worldwide. “If we want a real and lasting unity to be established at the political and cultural level, this unity can only be based on the Confucian ground of the doctrine of tianxia, through the political implementation of the “Royal Road” (wang dao) and the realization of the Empire-world project”, provided in March 2013 an article in the People’s Daily.
Thus Xi Jinping is the heir to a doubly millenary thought, a tradition that, for nearly a century, the empire of the Qing fallen, the Chinese intellectuals nevertheless wanted to eradicate. Guarantors and symbols of ancient institutions and mentalities, were Confucianism and its scholars not held responsible for China’s backwardness? “Down with Confucius”, such was the watchword of the rebels of May 4, 1919, many of whom had benefited from Western-style training, in China or abroad. They had learned English, German, French, mathematics, natural sciences, so much knowledge that was neglected by traditional education based primarily on the study of the Classics. And they read Rousseau, Kant, Nietzsche, Marx, authors whose work was so many cannon shots launched against the Confucian fortress.
The Grand Helmsman’s pragmatism
This movement of May 4, 1919, which carries the anti-Confucian fight, presents itself as a real cultural revolution. In a republican China since 1912, we promote the vulgar language, we revolutionize the law. The new legal system establishes the equality of individuals regardless of their sex or ethnicity. We fight against arranged marriages and defend the freedom of young people. Superstitions are denounced and fought.
Ideas abound, but already the young republic, led by the very nationalist Kuomintang, is in chaos. In 1949, the Communists took power and Mao Zedong announced the creation of the People’s Republic of China. The Grand Helmsman rejects Confucianism and, in the name of materialist dialectics, plays on pragmatism and the spirit of contradiction. This earned the country major political and economic blows: the Great Leap Forward, from 1958 to 1960, which ended in famine and more than 4 million deaths; the Cultural Revolution, from 1966 to 1974, which will cause the destruction of a good part of the cultural heritage of the country and hit millions of victims.
Mao Zedong wanted to invent Chinese-style communism. When he died, Deng Xiaoping preferred to apply Chinese-style capitalism. In fifty years, it has gone from the stage of an underdeveloped country to that of the first world power (or almost). Yesterday despised, today it is courted and feared: how far will it go, it which is already buying up European ports or millions of African hectares in the name of the “new silk roads”?
More precisely, how far do those who hold power want to go in this authoritarian, even totalitarian society? Surveillance cameras everywhere in the streets; filing of citizens, obliged to account for the slightest contravention; relegation to work camps or even execution of thousands of Uighurs, guilty of wanting to maintain their identity; confinement of entire cities in the name of the fight against the Covid… When Westerners criticize them in the name of freedom and human rights, its leaders but also many of its intellectuals send them back to their own turpitude.
By what right would those who oppressed them yesterday still want to impose their supposedly universal values on them? Isn’t China today the country best equipped to become the pivot of a new world order? Didn’t she inherit her values from a thousand-year-old culture, entirely oriented towards harmony and peace? Fantasy and reinvention of history? Certainly. But no matter: for its leaders, the concepts which in the past founded the unity and stability of the empire must allow China today to build its future: thanks to Marx, but also thanks to Confucius, Mencius (or Mengzi), Laozi, Han Feizi, it must once again become the Middle Kingdom, finally become the pivot of a new world order. Then, Xi Jinping will finally have regained the Mandate of Heaven. Eternal return.