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Xi's China and Han Fei: a lesson in authority

Xi Jinping's statecraft is influenced above all by an ancient, though lesser known, Chinese proponent of austere power-politics. 

Kerry Brown
18 December 2015

The Communist Party of China has always had an ambiguous relationship with what might be best labeled classical Chinese thinking and philosophy. Mao Zedong, the founding father of the People’s Republic, read far more Confucius, Mencius or Laozi than he did of Marx. It is questionable if he ever made it through The Communist Manifesto. His main theoretical writings on contradictions were as much haunted by the shadow of Daoism from two and a half millennia before in the "warring states" era as they were by Hegel and his dialectical materialism.

Despite this, under Mao virulent campaigns were targeted at what was called, in the cultural revolution from 1966, the "four olds", which included old thinking. Confucius was one of the most celebrated victims, but pretty much anything  from the dark feudal past of China was consigned to the intellectual and cultural dustbin.

In recent years, Confucius has made a spectacular comeback. But so too has almost the whole range of classical Chinese thinking. In The Governance of China - the book containing Xi Jinping's collected speeches and statements, published in 2014 - Song, Han, and Ming dynasty artistic and cultural figures far outnumber citations of Marx, Engels or Lenin. Under the CPC's chief ideologue, Liu Yunshan, "traditional, splendid Chinese history and culture" is represented as a huge asset. It also, remarkably, takes its place now as one of the sources of legitimacy the party in the 21st century appeals to. "We are the guardians of this mighty heritage", they seem to be saying, "oppose us, and you oppose this."

Confucius might, for China’s communists, occupy centre-stage in this rehabilitation of the thinkers of the past. But it is the words of another figure in particular that have eerie resonance for the games of power in Beijing today, albeit these words were produced in the 3rd century BCE. Little is known about Han Fei, but the titles of some of the works attributed to him give an insight into the nature of his political thinking. The Eight Villainies, The Ten Faults, Precautions Within the Palace and The Difficulties of Persuasion are suggestive enough, but for piquancy even they are outdone by The Five Vermin, his masterpiece on threats and how to deal with them.

The art of ruling

The west has Machiavelli, but even the great European realist would be hard pressed to produce ideas as starkly focused on the need to preserve imperial power and deal with enemies as Han Fei. Father of the school of legalists, Han Fei promoted a concept of pure law which, at least in his language, sounded almost modern. By the system of laws, "and the inescapable punishments that back it up, all life within the nation was to be ordered, so that nothing can be left to chance, private judgment, or the appeal of privilege." As for the ruler sitting at the centre of this, they must show no weakness or partiality, but exists in isolation providing "the rules and yardsticks, so that all things know their place." 

Such rulers must be the enemies of waste, because states are won by thrift but lost by extravagance (something that underlines the whole recent struggle against corruption under Xi Jinping, and the sense that venal officials present an existential threat to the party and state). Their most faithful servants are those that never threaten their ruler by displaying their bold, novel ideas, but pursue the more subtle strategy of trying to plant ideas in the leader’s mind which they never take credit for but which they can then faithfully implement. For the art of persuasion in this system, the difficult thing is "to know the mind of the person one is trying to persuade and to be able to fit one’s words to it." Xi, with his evident preference for choosing low-key bureaucrats as his most trusted allies rather than larger political names in the party system (such as government ministers or top provincial leaders), seems to fall into this pattern.

Strong laws, hatred of waste, and support for self-effacing bureaucrats promote one prime object for Han Fei: strengthening and preservation of the authority of the ruler. For a ruler, concealment takes prime place in his worldview. "Undertakings succeed through secrecy but fall through being found out." Trust is a folly: "He who trusts others will be controlled by others." 

However, the most chilling statements in all of Han Fei’s works concern the source of greatest threat. There are many enemies, but "calamity will come to you from those you love." The conclusion is simple: a good ruler loves no one, gets close to no one, belongs to no one. But such a ruler will have the most precious of all assets, and whole reason for pursuing this strategy: authority, for "the people will bow naturally to authority, but few of them can be moved by righteousness." Authority is not the best bet, but the only bet for sound governance.

The catch

Confucius, Mencius, Lao Zi and Sun Zi (of The Art of War) are the best known of Chinese ancient thinkers. But Han Fei deserves a wider audience. The primacy of fear, force and control to serve authority are things that linger deep in the Chinese political consciousness to this day, and have their most lucid and vivid articulation in his works. The government onslaught on even the mildest expressions of dissent and rights activism in the last two years in China has puzzled many outsiders. Why does the party promote defending rule of law, and building a modern state under Xi Jinping, and yet continue to harass, imprison and abuse people like Pu Zhiqiang, the lawyer currently being tried in Beijing? Looking at the thinking of Han Fei gives at least some clues. In the end, it is about authority, and the need to preserve this. Authority is its own justification. It needs no excuses or explanations. 

There is, however, a huge catch for any Chinese who would seriously contemplate taking Han Fei’s words as the basis for modern state behaviour. The entity that he had most influence over was the Qin, which, despite its immense achievements in unifying China, collapsed under the megalomania of the founding emperor after only two decades in existence - and that emperor was a faithful follower of Han’s legalist school.

Xi Jinping might have done more than glance at the suggestions about the exercise of power and realpolitik given in Han Fei’s writings, and heed the advice about being constantly wary and on guard. But if he wants to fulfill the evidently huge ambitions he has set himself for his stewardship of his country, use of a softer, less austere thinking might be in order. At the moment, for all the talk of Confucius, Mencius and the others, it is Han Fei who seems to be winning the day.

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