Shaojin Chai draws our attention to a recent and intriguing essay by Mark Lilla in The New Republic, entitled “Reading Strauss in Beijing: China’s Strange Taste in Western Philosophers.” Shaojin expresses some skepticism about a connection between the interest in Schmidt and “China’s imperialistic ambition or statist future”; but I found this bit of Lilla’s piece to ring true:
…Like Schmitt, [Chinese conservatives] can’t make up their minds whether liberal ideas are hopelessly naïve and don’t make sense of the world we live in, or whether they are changing the world in ways that are detrimental to society and international order. These students are particularly interested in Schmitt’s prescient postwar writings about how globalization would intensify rather than diminish international conflict (this was in 1950) and how terrorism would spread as an effective response to globalization (this was in 1963). Schmitt’s conclusion—that, given the naturally adversarial nature of politics, we would all be better off with a system of geographical spheres of influence dominated by a few great powers—sits particularly well with many of the young Chinese I met….
One part of Lilla’s essay that puzzled me was his endorsing the perceived relevance in China of Strauss’s distinction between “philosophers” and “practical men” (or “gentlemen”):
…for the young Chinese I met, the distinction between sages and statesmen and the idea of an elite class educated to serve the public good make perfect sense because they are already rooted in the Chinese political tradition. What makes Strauss additionally appealing to them, apart from the grand tapestry of Western political theory he lays before them, is that he makes this ideal philosophically respectable without reference to Confucius or religion or Chinese history. He provides a bridge between their ancient tradition and our own. No one I met talked about a post-Communist China, for obvious reasons. But students did speak openly about the need for a new gentry class to direct China’s affairs, to strengthen the state by making it wiser and more just. None of them seemed particularly eager to join the Party, which they said co-opted even the most independent thinkers. For the moment, they seem content to study ancient languages, get their Ph.D.s, and take teaching jobs where they evidently hope to produce philosophers and gentlemen….
I was puzzled because of the neisheng-waiwang ideal, according to which one sought both inner cultivation and outer, political influence; the acme of this is of course the sage-king. Chinese “sages” are not aloof seekers after truth. At the same time, the “elite class educated to serve the common good” does, of course, resonate, and I suppose one might charitably suggest that Lilla is drawing on the distinction between political leaders (zhengtong) and the moral leaders (daotong and, more recently, xuetong) who guide them?