Van Norden on the Confucian Roots of Xi Jinping’s Thought

A couple weeks ago, Bryan Van Norden published “The Confucian roots of Xi Jinping’s policies” in The Straits Times (Singapore); a Chinese translation was also subsequently published. The essay begins:

Commentators have been quick to observe that the recent Chinese Communist Party Congress guaranteed President Xi Jinping’s firm grip on power for years to come. However, few have noted the Confucian roots of Mr Xi’s world view.

Mr Xi himself has been very candid about his admiration for traditional Chinese thought and his view that Chinese socialism is consistent with it. As I point out in my recent book, Taking Back Philosophy: A Multicultural Manifesto, Mr Xi’s appropriations of traditional Chinese thought are sometimes opportunistic. But the same can be said of the way many US politicians appeal to the Bible. In addition, there are at least four points on which Mr Xi is genuinely Confucian in spirit.

13 replies on “Van Norden on the Confucian Roots of Xi Jinping’s Thought”

  1. I do not know if the president has taken steps to move his own family away from their accumulation of vast wealth. I haven’t been paying close attention.

    But I disagree with the essay on the following points.

    • I think a crackdown on corruption is not an instance of rule by virtue rather than penalty.

    • I think not engaging in corruption (the criminal abuse of one’s power to steal vast amounts of money, land, etc., including from the weak and poor, by processes that undermine the basic integrity of those under one’s influence) does not constitute virtue or even a virtue.

    • I think being against corruption is no more “genuinely Confucian in spirit” than is the view that 2+2=4, or the vision of a moderately prosperous society with a strong middle class.

    • I do not think that “the United States take[s] it for granted that direct democracy is the best form of government.” Our intellectuals do not assume this and our institutions do not exemplify it. As for more moderate democracy, and civil liberties, when I was a college teacher in many parts of the US, some years ago, I found that the majority of my students had lost sight of those values. I think Trump is a symptom.

    • Civilization is organized society’s institutionalized respect for the vulnerable, and its least unstable form is liberal representative democracy. (That is not to say that there are not more stable forms of government.) Granted, institutions that are (here and there) excessively democratic make us vulnerable to demagogues and thus to tyrants and plutocrats, but what significant Western political philosopher has disagreed with that?

    • I think the danger today is unprincipled plutocracy rather than the (pro-regulation) ideas of Adam Smith; the danger to civilization today is departure from the basic ideas of the rule of law and the regulations that can preserve it.

    On that last point I’m very pessimistic.

  2. I have just received (and started reading) the copy I ordered of Bryan’s Taking Back Philosophy: A Multicultural Manifesto. It is worth noting here that the picture he offers in that book of Xi Jinping’s relation to Confucianism is dramatically different from the picture in the article linked above. In the Strait’s Times article, Bryan says simply that: “As I point out in my recent book, Taking Back Philosophy: A Multicultural Manifesto, Mr Xi’s appropriations of traditional Chinese thought are sometimes opportunistic. But the same can be said of the way many US politicians appeal to the Bible.” Contrast that with the following:

    “I would classify Xi’s appropriations of Confucianism into four groups: genuine, vacuous, confused, and nationalistic. … [After then giving examples of the first three types] … In my opinion, what is most significant about Xi’s appropriation of Confucianism is his use of it to inspire racial identity and nationalism. … [Then an excerpt from a Xi speech giving examples of this approach] … In this respect, Xi’s support of the Chinese classics is as insincere as the invocation of the Bible by US politicians who would bar refugees … or cut funding to the needy …, or as violence done in the name of the Qur’an….” (Taking Back Philosophy: A Multicultural Manifesto (Columbia University Press, 2017), pp. 94-96).

    Quite a difference!

  3. I am not sure what misunderstandings you have in mind, Kai. I think the article takes a different line from the passage Steve quotes.

    The article opens by speaking of “the Confucian roots of Xi’s world view,” suggesting that Confucianism is a (or the) basic source of the way Xi sees the world.

    The book passage speaks of Xi’s “appropriations” of Chinese thought, a term that suggests use rather than reverence. (But so does the article, when it is referring to the book.)

    Interestingly, the book passage seems to take for granted that insofar as Xi is using classics to support very bad things (here nationalism and racial identity), we may conclude that such use is “insincere.” I’m not sure that follows.

    Indeed I think it is not uncommon for people to admire traditional Chinese thought mainly on grounds of nationalism and something like tribal identity, with little awareness of the alternatives.

    The article says near the beginning that Xi “has been very candid about his admiration for traditional Chinese thought and his view that Chinese socialism is consistent with it.” I find it striking that the idea that Xi’s Confucianism is (in significant part) sincere is presented disarmingly as a concession by Xi, rather than as the article’s highly controversial thesis in his defense.

    Also it seems to me offhand that “traditional Chinese thought” or even Confucianism is a large and inconsistent grab-bag, such that the claim that some large and controversial thing like Chinese socialism is “consistent with it” cannot easily be a (1) serious position that one comes to by considering the issues. It could be (2) an opinion that one arrives at from nationalism, without insincerity exactly; or it could be (3) a tool that one adopts without concern for whether it is true or false or nontrivial. The book passage seems to reject option (2) for Xi.

    The four key points of the Confucian roots of Xi’s world view, according to the article, are that one should be:

    1. Against the (other) governors’ being rapacious enemies of the people.
    2. Against liberal democracy.
    3. For prosperity and against decadence.
    4. Not celebratory of the pursuit of profit.

    Of these, I think 1 and 3 are trivial rather than genuinely supportive of the article’s thesis. 4 is at least sometimes rejected in political rhetoric, east and west, but prominent in philosophical traditions everywhere. The distinction between 3 and 4 is subtle.

    2, as described in the article, is on its face a tribally based opposition to a number of things that are pretty plainly necessary conditions of sustained civilization in large societies. One could make obvious and cogent arguments against 2 from core Confucian ideas that are also core Western ideas (e.g. the golden rule, the duty to respect, the value of moderate prosperity, and the importance of bulwarks against government rapacity). But one could miss that if one has been sheltered from Western thought.

    The Mengzesque assumption that the support of the bad must be insincere might remind us of the Mengzesque idea that in addressing the king one should find a way to put a good light on his motives so as to encourage him to focus on good motives. Conceivably the article intends something like the latter, if not as addressing Xi then as addressing others.

    I think it makes more sense to see the article simply as a sincere and hyperbolic effort to get a West-sympathizing general audience to see the important truths that (a) Beijing’s appeal to classics is not complete hogwash, and (b) the West, and the US in particular, is rapidly increasingly a glass house, a black pot. Maybe that’s how you’re reading it, Kai?

    Still I am troubled by what seems to me the article’s opposition to core values and its misreading of American opinion.

  4. For pieces in the Straits Times, the main relevant rhetorical context may be the situation in Singapore, a place where the ill effects of dictatorship can be ameliorated by the small size of the community and its access to free discussion elsewhere, insofar as there is access.

    Singapore is one of the places whose “authoritarianism” has been contrasted favorably with “totalitarianism.” I recall Charlie Rose’s adulatory interviews with Lee Kwan Yew. And I recall organizing an Amnesty International protest at a Harvard commencement almost 40 years ago about a political prisoner in Singapore, Derek Bok’s agreement to write a letter to Lee in support of us, and the “don’t worry about it” content of the letter itself. Hmph.

  5. Many thanks, Bill, for your comprehensive analysis. I have learned a lot from it. I guess, I have a general problem with the word “Confucian” applied to contemporary political realities. The current international situation is very volatile, and it may be that, 10 years down the road, the picture will be very different (the confidence crisis of Western democracy may just be temporary; it probably, and hopefully, is…). Reading Van Norden’s piece one comes away with the impression that (1) the author identifies Xi Jinxing’s policies with Confucian values; and (2) that “the victory of Confucian societies” (last line) will be a good thing. As the excerpt from his recent book demonstrates, the author in fact reads Xi Jinping in a much more complex way. And indeed, as you write, “unprincipled plutocracy” is the real danger today; by focusing on cultural differences (Confucianism versus the Bible) we risk overlooking major economic and political developments that will shape the course of the 21st century.

  6. Thanks Kai! I very much agree.

    Unless it’s a disagreement to say it seems to me the leading developments that will shape the century are technological. I used to think the most worrisome trend was damage to nature. Sure the threat to nature seems graver daily–in Thursday’s paper I read that all the world’s snakes are in danger. But what worries me more now is the technology of human interaction and information. I worry that it’s dulling our sympathies and moral sensibilities, heightening our shallow addictions, and allowing big money to buy the tools to outwit and overpower us all–in service of shallow addictions and I don’t know what. The whole thing just looks to accelerate, and I don’t see how it can turn around except by collapse.

    It’s late at night over here.

  7. Recently I came across a very good book on this very problem (i.e. how “Confucian” is Xi), providing a much more contextual, indepth analysis:
    彭濤,儒化的共產黨?當代中國儒家復興之政治命運。台北:開學文化,2016. (written by a Chinese intellectual, yet published in Taiwan, as so many other books written by critical Chinese intellectuals). A must read.

  8. According to one important claim in Peng Tao’s book, the Confucian discourse popular in certain areas of contemporary Chinese society still operates in the framework of Marxism-Leninism. So Confucian scholars/activists are allowed to say all kinds of things unless they dare to challenge this basic framework: then they will necessarily run into trouble. In other words, Confucian discourse is just some sort of “legitimating facade” for domination. To put it very roughly: contemporary China still continues the old Confucian-legalist mindset of Imperial China (with Marxism-Leninism having become an integral part of Legalist political culture).

    • (I wonder if he’s saying Marxism-Leninism is more than just a legitimating facade, such that its scholars/activists can say all kinds of things unless they challenge the basic domination?)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.