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Chinese political theory and the West

Published onJan 31, 2022
Chinese political theory and the West

I. Premise

My aim is to provide an overview of some elements of contemporary Chinese political philosophy as seen by a Western political theorist. It seems appropriate to insist on two important assumptions implicit in this reading, assumptions that are as pivotal as they are controversial:


  1. In my presentation, I have adopted a standard but (in my view) necessary prejudice that consists in making the choice to consider the mainstream Western theoretical-political model as default. In other words, I begin from that model and the Chinese comparatively. Therefore, the following treatment of contemporary Chinese political philosophy is not simply a pure narration (albeit present) of some philosophical-political theses currently discussed in China. On the contrary, it gives attention to the general — historical, political, and religious — context of this great nation. The methodological difference should appear obvious. If we were to think about, for example, Habermas’ ideas, I would not feel a similar need of considering the historical conditions of Germany.


  2. All of this — it is worth mentioning — cannot ignore a more general consideration of metaphysical and epistemological nature. According to this, the sheer way of perceiving the categories of political thought is different in China than how we perceive them in the West. Beyond what define as cultural structural differences (as for example described by Francois Julien), it is also clear that there are big issues with translation when trying to understand Chinese political thought. First, the language itself used in the texts differs greatly from the classical Greek and Latin no less than from the Western languages ​​most used today in the West, from German to English. The logographic character of Chinese writing, on top of which there are the various complexities with syntax and the differences in writing styles, makes the translation of theories, emotions, and contexts rather complicated. As a result, when reading these texts many Chinese phrases and concepts appear to us vague. Moreover, there is also the impossibility to conceptualise the general sense of the Chinese theoretical-political discourse in terms more familiar to us in the West, such as rights, justice, liberty, autonomy, person.


On these premises, my presentation looks upon the relation between the vision of liberal-democratic political culture — prevalent in the West — and contemporary Chinese thought. Following the thoughts of Jiwei Ci (1994), in section II it is argued that continuity across different Chinese regimes is based on a mixture of nihilism and utopianism. The fourth section instead presents political Confucianism and the possibility of reconciling it with the Western tradition, in the wake of a book by Joseph Chan. Section 3 reflects on the continuity-discontinuity relation between Western and Chinese political philosophies. The final section V presents some universal characteristics of Chinese thought.


II. Between Nihilism and Utopia

One might think that the rift between Mao's Communist China and today's capitalist China is irreparable. However, this is not necessarily the case.

Jiwei Ci, in his illuminating book Dialectic of the Chinese Revolution, begins with a brief description of the history of Chinese communism up to the crisis of 1989 which culminated in the massacre of Tiananmen Square, and then emphasizes its cultural structure in the background; (the same author returned after twenty years to the same themes in Moral China in the Age of Reform). This background cultural structure is based - if we believe his analysis - on the relationship at a completely abstract level between (excessive) utopianism and (radical) nihilism. Nihilism, so understood, is a form of life and a psychology of existence that comes as a consequence of the history of Chinese communism. This nihilism then becomes — from a social psychology perspective — hedonism after the 1979 reform. Therefore, the two apparently opposite moments in the path of the Chinese revolution — the Maoist one from 1949 onwards and the almost capitalist one from 1979 onwards — would be united from the red thread that at a deep level joins utopianism and hedonism, where utopianism would be a sublimated form of hedonism. Now, at first sight this relationship is obscure, given that utopianism seems to be linked to a form of asceticism, unlike hedonism. However, the point is that — according to Jiwei Ci — Chinese utopianism has basically cultivated a form of nihilism which ends up merging into hedonism.

Mao Zedong’s utopianism undoubtedly had the ability to restore meaning and significance to the lives of millions of poor Chinese people with no future. The new hope in life — which was born with Marx's Communism of Western import and was linked to the personality of a charismatic leader like Mao — was based on the project of a better future, distant in time. A utopian future, precisely, in the name of which enormous and previously unthinkable sacrifices could be sustained. If before 1949 a black sun prevented plans for the future, after Mao the expectation of an improvement in living conditions became the essential condition for enduring the stress of a regime based on sacrifice. All this formed the basis for a different conception of time, in which utopianism and materialism were united in a risky project since its failure could lead to despair. This is where nihilism was born, destined to become — in the years of Deng Xiaoping's Reform — hedonism and consumerism. In essence, to achieve the end of ancient resignation and the birth of Maoist hope a high price had necessarily to be paid in terms of changing the traditional mentality. As always, the downside of such an illusion was the danger of disappointment waiting around the corner. The disappointment in question in turn broke the link between future and meaning, opening the way to the aforementioned nihilism. And just like the communist mobilization after 1949 had affected an entire people, so too the loss of meaning and hope — in other words, nihilism — involved millions of people across China. Nihilism thus became a widespread condition of consciousness in which the relationship between action and meaning was shattered. It should also be noted that nihilism thus understood does not correspond to a philosophical doctrine or a political theory but rather to a widespread climate of skepticism and cynicism shared by many and for different reasons.

A transition — particularly evident in the last period preceding Deng Xiaoping’s Reform — occurs very gradually first from utopianism to nihilism and then from nihilism to capitalist neoliberalism. The latter lends itself well to serving as the political ideology of nihilism, transferring hope from the utopian future to a more explicitly materialistic present made up of consumption and economic self-realization. But it is also obvious that this transition cannot be very easy. The post-Mao protest, Tiananmen, 1989 and the democratic movement would be explained on this basis as the reaction of disillusioned utopians who either struggled or did not want to enter the hedonistic realm. The government that represses the democratic movement in question shares, however, this nihilism and hedonism, so much so that the suppression of that movement is followed by a period in which the glories of consumption and wealth are celebrated. The resulting trade-off is clear: what the government was unable to give on the political level it gave on the level of acquisitive well-being.

This cultural and political movement, all in all understandable, however, leaves behind a clear moral crisis, a sort of vacuum of ideals. After all, ultimately a moral crisis in a country is nothing more than a collective crisis of moral subjectivity, a crisis made up of individuals who find it difficult to identify with public and shareable ideals. It may be reasonable to agree with Jiwei Ci that nihilism is the fruit of post-Maoist delusion and celebrates its glories with nascent capitalism, but it is nevertheless unthinkable — we suggest — that nihilism itself can serve as a basic moral and political ideology for a great and expanding country, a country that presents itself on the world stage as a global leader. However, it is fair to think that, having abandoned hope in the Marxist utopian dream nurtured from 1949 onwards, the Chinese people turned to other ideals to replace moral and political nihilism. It is natural then that among these ideals the liberal-democratic ones have had a robust and immediate appeal, especially those based on a project of achieving some form of social justice – pretty much those we attribute to Rawls and Habermas. After all, from 1949 onwards the Chinese — as indeed many of us — had lived under the impression that the whole world lived within a binary ethical-political-economic system: either democratic capitalism or centralistic (authoritarian) communism. So, from 1989 onwards, the decline of the second immediately made us imagine that there was no other option available other than that of democratic capitalism. This was, in other words, the emergence of the idea of ​​a supposed "end of history" that would have resulted in a capitalist and liberal-democratic woirld empire - of US imprint.

We know that this has not been the case in recent Chinese history. There are many reasons for this: the West in recent years has been in crisis while China has grown, the Chinese Communist Party still enjoys robust popular legitimacy, and so on. But perhaps the main reason for this is both more basic and simpler: the liberal-democratic and capitalist model was not "Chinese", and even though China could accept capitalism economically and financially it had enormous difficulty in doing so in the perspective of public ethics and in the light of the collective imagination. Essentially, the capitalist and liberal-democratic model of the West did not allow sufficient capacity for identification by every grounded Chinese person.

More generally, the imitation of the West is considered by the Chinese to be practically important (perhaps following Japan), but culturally and morally irrelevant, a means but not an end, for reasons of national pride and of the general Chinese mindset. However, if on the one hand it would be natural to imagine the impossibility of adopting Western forms of production without at least partly adopting the background culture, on the other hand there is also the central relationship in the Chinese cultural tradition between ti (more or less: essence) and yong (roughly: function). This very ancient distinction concerns first of all metaphysics and can (perhaps) be made to correspond to ours between "appearance" and "reality", but it essentially concerns the dialectical rlationship between a usual practice and the profound meaning that can be attributed to it. From this point of view, classical Western liberties are fully accepted in fact, as the basis of an independent and productive life practice, but at the same time they are not accepted as a value. And therefore, any plausible identification between the self and the social world cannot work against a background centred on Western liberties while at the same time it is obvious that these liberties favour and are consistent with capitalist and consumerist lifestyles widespread in Reform-time China.

Also according to Jiwei Ci, there would be a further and fundamental reason behind all this, which is that the agency capacity of the average Chinese person is severely limited by a principle of authority. The identification, which is the basis of every significant ethical foundation in China, could only take place through the mediation of a credible and local authority. The case of Mao is emblematic: despite its economic and political content being unsuccessful, the Chinese imagination found itself in it and the identification with the party held true (except for the last period). Now, in recent years, sublimated nihilism, which became consumerist materialism after the reform of Deng Xiaoping, seems to have achieved remarkable practical results but cannot create a valid moral identification on this basis alone.


III. Seen from the Western theoretical-political perspective

So far, we have insisted on some peculiarities in the Chinese mentality (the socio-cultural software) that make it unlikely, if not impossible, to reproduce in China a Western model of political culture based on liberal democracy (the institutional hardware). Before getting into the substance of the tradition of Chinese political culture, by and large inspired by Confucianism, it is useful to stop and reflect on what is the central theoretical-political nucleus of the contemporary Western philosophical-political tradition and on why this is hardly reproducible in China. According to our general approach, the Western liberal-democratic model is in turn based on the distinction between the good and the right and on the primacy of the right over the good (this is greatly evident in Rawls).

What does the model in question primarily imply? Essentially, that there is a fundamental separation in political liberalism between the institutional structure and comprehensive ethical-political views. In this perspective, the basic institutional structure is considered independent of people’s morality and of deep ideologies. Precisely this independence makes possible the "matter of pluralism" that characterizes liberal democracies, i.e. the non-conflictual coexistence of different ways widespread in society of understanding life. As the Rawlsian doctrine of the overlapping consensus shows, such an independent and shared institutional umbrella then makes it possible to accept a primacy of politics and law, a primacy that everyone makes his own even if starting from different ethical and religious positions. Such a thesis, which many of us deem "natural", presents at least two types of problem. Both these types of problem depend in some way on having too often neglected the historical origins of the liberal political model, in some way "eternalizing" it and not bearing in mind that it is the result of a specific process of modernization, the Western one, not necessarily repeatable in historical conditions other than those in which it took place. The first type of problem concerns the very possibility of separating the just from the good in this neutral way, keeping ethics and politics clearly distinct. The second concerns more directly the interest in adopting it for those coming from another cultural tradition. We will discuss the second problem here, while we leave the first one, which has a more typically general philosophical hue, to the final Section.

The second type of problem concerns the opportunity for another political culture, in this case the Chinese one, to make its own the liberal-democratic political culture which comes from a different history. There are two possible options on the matter, one in favour of incompatibility and the other for compatibility. We will try here to balance the two theses. The thesis of the incompatibility between Chinese tradition and liberal-democratic political culture has many arguments in favour of it. There are terminological arguments, for example that there is no Chinese word that is equivalent to our "justice", since the closest word yi corresponds more to an individual's ability to behave rightly rather than to a definition of the concept of justice. Then there is the classic argument that Chinese ethics is an "ethics of virtue and roles", based on the cultivation of the self, which is ill-suited to an ethics of "rights" such as that which underlies theories of justice. Or it can be said that Western political culture is fundamentally individualistic, while China's would be more holistic and communal. The thesis of compatibility instead has in its favour —beyond the universalistic ones based on liberty, neutrality and fairness already mentioned — other arguments ranging from the defence of pluralism to public guarantees for civil and political liberties, from affinity with capitalism to the defence of human rights.

So far, we have evoked the epistemological as well as ethical difference between the two world views, the Chinese and the Western one. In his analysis of these two different types of discourse (Chinese and Western), Thomas Metzger insists on this point. The Chinese would be both epistemologically more inclined to believe in the possibility of objective knowledge and ethically more optimistic about the possibility of a widespread convergence on the most important values ​​of morality and politics. Westerners instead would be generally more inclined to scepticism on both these fronts. While being aware of running into excessive generalization, it could also be argued that this specific difference generates the possibility of greater continuity between the good and the right on the Chinese side. To this ethical-political optimism would then correspond the primacy of the Confucian tradition’s education. In this general view, after all, pluralism would exist pretty much due to the complexities of historical reality, for which each of us lives in the shadow of a specific context. But it would not have citizenship by right, so to speak, as there would be universal and in a certain sense immutable ethical-political truth. The convergence of everyone on these truths would then be possible through the Confucian educational system inspired by the classics of the tradition.

A possible balance between compatibility and incompatibility, again between China and the West, can be sought on the level of social and moral psychology. This plan, from a philosophical-political perspective, focuses first of all on the formation of a "sense of justice", to use Rawls's famous expression. As we have seen, Jiwei Ci argues that the Chinese sense of justice strongly depends on agency (and this in turn on identification with leadership and respect for authority), and that this derivation would constitute a difference that is not easily overcome with the Western liberal-democratic tradition based on autonomy. On the contrary, Rawls's sense of justice would be based on individual compliance with a just system of institutions, in other words it would be the result of pure institutional loyalty. This would not be reflected in the Chinese mentality. It is our impression that both interpretations are questionable. The first — that which concerns Chinese moral and social psychology — is too absolutist. For a sense of justice to be created and grown it needs to be reflected in reasonably just institutions, and it cannot settle for exclusively appealing to the model of authority (identification with the figure of Mao of the Cultural Revolution can be an example of identification widespread but not legally acceptable). The second interpretation, that of Rawls, does not sufficiently take into account Rawlsian textual evidence — starting with the pages on Kohlberg of A Theory of Justice to go to his early writings on religion, passing through the revision of the thesis on the congruence between the dimensions of the good and the right — as well as recent and important readings of Rawls (Cohen - Nagel 2014; Weithman 2012). Both the textual evidence and the readings mentioned seem to make the formative process of the sense of justice more complex than is usually believed. This process cannot ignore a further reflection on the good and the right, the relationship between religion and politics, between public and private and so on, when trying to make — as we will see in the conclusions of this paper — the incompatibility between political liberalism and Chinese tradition less defensible.

It is therefore difficult to lean "absolutely" towards compatibility or incompatibility between Western and Chinese political cultures. However, our thesis emphasises a general theoretical need, which relates to the nature of the Chinese agency but on closer inspection can also benefit theories of justice, as well as emphasises some specific characteristics that relate to the Chinese model more directly. The general need - to which we will return in the concluding paragraph of the paper - is to give more space to the vision of the good in the context of a theory of justice. The specific characteristics are about the classic form of ti and yong, the nature of agency, and Chinese exceptionalism. All this implies that in order to transform successful practices into values ​​that allow a lasting and meaningful identification between the individual and the political world there needs to be an ethical directory deriving from the Chinese tradition. Something like this can be found in recent political readings of Confucianism. Among these, we will ignore those radical readings that conflict with the model of the theory of justice we have adopted, to favour an interpretation of Confucianism that is more consistent with this.


IV. Political Confucianism

Joseph Chan is a Chinese professor who teaches in Hong Kong and is very familiar with Western political philosophy The subtitle of Chan's book Confucian Perfectionism is A Political Philosophy for Modern Times, and indeed the author's purpose is precisely to present an original normative political theory coherent with the Western tradition that at the same time derives from the ancient and illustrious tradition that is the Confucian one. For this theory to be agreeable it needs to be – again according to its author — compatible with the key ideas of Western political thought from modernity onwards, such as freedom, legitimate authority, democracy, and human rights. Chan is quick to recognise two preliminary obstacles that such a purpose is destined to encounter: the fact that the Confucian tradition is very ancient and (perhaps) not suitable to act as a guiding doctrine for a world in continuous and tumultuous change; and the fact that from the beginning of the ´70s onwards Western political philosophy has had a significant development. The best way to overcome these obstacles, in the eyes of Chan, is on the one hand to recover parts of the Western tradition that are often neglected and on the other hand to present a new version of Confucianism. In this way, Chan presents a kind of liberal alternative to Jiang Qing's institutional Confucianism.

These two objectives taken together shape the theory of 'Confucian perfectionism'. In fact, perfectionism is a forgotten stream within the Western philosophical-political tradition from modernity onwards, despite it having played a significant role in ancient Western political thought since Aristotle. And undoubtedly in Confucianism one can find a kind of virtue ethics reasonably like that of Aristotle to which the ritualism typical of the Chinese tradition (a role ethics) is merged. In ethics, perfectionism makes values ​​and virtues depend on a conception of the good life and of human nature. In politics, perfectionism means pursuing a vision in which the primary purpose of major institutions is to help people achieve decent living standards through public education, law, welfare, and (of course) rituals. If it is true that Confucianism has always moved within a perfectionist horizon of this type, it is also true that Chan's attempt to present its ethical and political doctrine in detail and in the light of a contemporary perspective makes it more compatible with our time. Among other things, even if in a different meaning from ours (which is strictly philosophical-political), there is no doubt that the "perfectibility of man" is one of the cornerstones of Confucian thought.

At the heart of Confucian ethical-political perfectionism there is certainly an ideal of social "harmony". This ideal in turn presupposes that the government is in the hands of competent and just people, that the rites perform a function of social and political mediation, and that leading by example plays a decisive role in public construction. For Westerners, the darkest point in the context of such a presentation of public virtues is probably the considerable importance of rites in Confucianism. The Chinese word usually used for rite is li, a concept very often used in classical texts, and which seems to have equal value to that of virtue for which ren is usually used. The rite as li refers to the rituals used in family, religious, and legal ceremonies and more generally in the public sphere. It is usual in Confucianism to believe that the rites in question play an important role not only from the point of view of etiquette but from the more general point of view of the pursuit of the good life. In other words, individual behaviours and social roles are made to correspond with the fundamental ethical-political principles of the doctrine, thus contributing to social harmony.

In the book, Professor Chan insists on the difference between ideal theory and non-ideal theory (to use Rawls’s language), dedicating ample space among other things to the distinction between "Small Tranquillity" and "Grand Union", where the latter represents the normative ideal and the former not only the second best but also an intermediate step in order to successively reach the harmonious normative ideal. We talked just above about the importance of rites in Confucianism, and it must be said further that - given the practically insurmountable difficulty in reaching the level of the Grand Union - the rites also perform a function of support and connection, helping to solve the problems that arise in the process. Being trustworthy and respectful can derive from ritual observance, and that is why rites are an integral part of that path that then leads to Confucian ethical-political perfectionism.

An evident problem of perfectionism understood in this way is precisely what according to the Confucian mentality is its point, namely the strong continuity between ethics and politics. Precisely this strong continuity represents a risk in the sense that it can jeopardize liberal democratic citizenship and the values ​​of pluralism on which it is based. The foundation of liberal-democratic institutions is usually based on the approach based on rights, typical of theories of justice, on the primacy of the right over the good. The perfectionist approach, conversely, is based on the primacy of virtue and therefore of the good. This - as we have noted when discussing Jiwei Ci's approach - can be useful in the Chinese perspective in which example, ritual, and an agency grounded on identification with authority are greatly important. But this undoubtedly creates a problem if we were to link - as is usual, at least in the Western scene - the foundations of liberal democracy with a certain neutrality of the institutions. Chan's thesis is that Confucian perfectionism "includes", so to speak, a liberal-democratic institutional set-up, and it is a thesis that, even if we were sympathetic towards it, is nonetheless extremely complex to articulate.

For Chan, this thesis would be based on the concept of service, whereby - from a Confucian perfectionist point of view - the meaning of democracy is not that the people are sovereign but only that the institutions must be at the service of the people. This means that the purpose of the institutions is to help create good living conditions for the people, as after all political perfectionism also claims. Consequently, political authority and the right to govern are not justified by a popular mandate but rather by a heavenly mandate. This last statement shows how original Chan-like Confucian perfectionism is, in the sense of different from the Western mainstream, while at the same time it demonstrates how difficult it is for us to fully accept it and how abstract it is compared to the actual life of politics (democracy is not simply an ethical theory applied to the political domain). Let’s look at the difference between Confucian perfectionism and the Lockean tradition and in general with the standard Western view on the foundations of democracy: for Locke (and for the Western tradition in general) political authority thrives on a delegation of a fundamental right which in the end is of the people and in the name of which it must act. Under the Confucian vision of perfectionism, there are no fundamental rights of individuals, and the power of political authority is not a delegated power (like in the main/in practice Western model, in which the agent is the politician delegated by the people) but it rather resembles that of a public official in the exercise of his functions, a public official whose power is justified by his being in the service of the people.

This basic difference makes it very difficult to adhere to Confucian political perfectionism from a theoretical perspective that - like ours - starts from a Western default model of the kind developed by Rawls and Habermas. The Confucian theoretical-political model thus conceived has communitarian and holistic prerogatives that indeed do not go well with the virtues and the practice of democracy. The issue of pluralism of views of the good life and the corresponding need for ethical neutrality from the point of view of institutions make Confucian perfectionism just one of the many options. And if someone had an idea of ​​the good life different from that typical of Confucianism, they would have every right to doubt a justification of the political authority that ultimately refers to it. It must also be said straight away that the same objection can be raised in the opposite direction: it cannot be taken for granted that those who feel inspired by Confucian perfectionism can put their trust in liberal-democracy or in human rights (whose western and liberal origin is often criticized in the name of Confucianism). In a manner consistent with my idea of ​​pluralistic integration - the problem from our point of view is not Confucianism, an essential element in the ethical-political culture at the background in the Chinese universe, but perfectionism. Our inclination is essentially in favour of a sort of Confucian-inspired liberal democracy.


V. Chinese thought and its universal influence

A reflection on Chinese political philosophy cannot be an exercise for its own sake, given the enormous importance of the country in the history and the political and economic balances of the contemporary world, and in the light of social-economic success of the Chinese model. However, we have insisted on the need on the Western side to take seriously - and not in an "orientalist" way - what comes from non-Western political culture. If for the Western Max Weber freedom, rationality, and efficiency could be the same thing, and have in common the result of a Single Modernization, we now know this is no longer the case. There are different modernizations and some cultural aspects that accompany them can be of universal insight. Above all, they can serve as a learning tool to that very Western world which has been experiencing an unprecedented economic, political, social, and moral crisis. But which of these cultural aspects - to be considered with particular attention - do we have in mind when we reflect on the global influence of contemporary Chinese political thought? I underline here two, which seem to be of objective importance. These are the need to correct classical liberal-democratic models in the light of major problems of a cosmopolitan nature and the relationship between knowledge and spirituality - which to some extent corresponds to that between good and just, which we discussed earlier – within the foundations of liberal democracy.


Sebastiano Maffettone is Professor of Political Philosophy and Dean of the Faculty of Political Science Luiss Guido Carli University.

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