Perspectives on Xi Jinping Thought (II): Schmitt Fever?

As was mentioned in the previous post, I wanted to take a look at what Xi Jinping Thought means for thinking about national security in China. Of particular interest to me here is to find out more about the influences and rationales behind Xi Jinping’s decisions.

In this context, I was tempted by the 2019 events in Hong Kong to write a piece on Thomas Hobbes, the Leviathan, and how Hobbes is treated by Chinese authors. A portrait of Han Feizi, also mentioned in the previous post, would be interesting, too. Instead, I recently stumbled upon this piece in The Atlantic. Granted, the title is a bit too clickbait-ish, but it kindled my interest in how (and how not) Carl Schmitt might have had a lasting impact on the development of Xi Jinping Thought, given that he is known as ‘Hobbes of the 20th century’ (Mitchell 183).

“Holistic approach to national security”

Where point 10 of Xi Jinping’s 2017 “Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era” speech’s 14 points vaguely outlines the strengthening of national security (‘习近平:决胜全面建成小康社会 夺取新时代中国特色社会主义伟大胜利——在中国共产党第十九次全国代表大会上的报告-新华网’), this 2020 Xinhua report has Xi elaborate further on his plans. One could read his remarks as instructions to Chinese officials to view current affairs from a strict national security angle and to increasingly securitise everything. The aim is to

[S]trengthening security in all respects and ensuring both traditional and non-traditional security; (Xi Focus: Xi Stresses Building Holistic National Security Architecture – Xinhua | English.News.Cn)

while at the same time

Balancing both development and security, while placing equal emphasis on development and security (ibid.).

To call for a “balance” to be struck between development and security made me recall Barry Buzan reminding his readers in Security: A New Framework for Analysis of how in the Soviet Union both obvious and less obvious items, ranging from nuclear weapons to fashion and music, became securitised (Buzan et al. 208). I am certain that Xi is aware of the Soviet experience, but it remains to be seen how stable this balance will be.

What stands out here to me in particular is

Giving top priority to political security, safeguarding the security of state power and the political system (ibid.).

Why do Carl Schmitt and Xi Jinping Thought go together?

There are several prominent legal scholars in China, some of whom directly advise government policy, that are described as “statists” and who show a general appreciation of Carl Schmitt’s ideas (Buckley). In fact, at least since Liu Xiaofeng’s translations of several of Schmitt’s works in the 1990’s and 2000’s, there has been talk of “Schmitt fever” in Chinese academic circles (Che).

Carl Schmitt was perhaps a child of one’s times (perhaps a prisoner of his time) in the sense that, similar to Hobbes, he witnessed intense political crises/instability – in Schmitt’s case the 1920’s Weimar Republic. Schmitt likewise drew very Hobbesian conclusions from this experience, some of which are important to mention (and I am trying to summarise them here in my own words):

  • Politics is essentially a struggle between different interest groups, all of whom identify each other through a crude friend-enemy distinction. Schmitt did not mean to legitimise violence as part of these friend-enemy relationships, but he saw the classification of who is friend and who is enemy as part and parcel of politics, with conflict and war always a possibility. Discounting even Hobbes’s view of a citizenry that can organise itself freely under the protective umbrella of the state, Schmitt suggested that should the state give too much leeway to individualism (with party politics being the primary target of Schmitt’s scorn), it will risk its own undoing and chaos;
  • The state with its executive powers is the only serious institution that can guarantee order and as a true “sovereign” can make decisions that may even contravene the existing constitutional order. Ideally, the “total state” has the capacity to cultivate “friendship” and, to a certain degree, homogeneity in society as needed to defuse internal conflicts and avoid civil war. Nevertheless, Schmitt still saw it necessary for markets to operate unhindered and was skeptical of totalitarian intervention in all fields of life;
  • Liberalism (in the sense that people can organise themselves independently while protecting individual rights and freedoms) and the rule of law are no viable substitutes for state power – in moments when facing existential threats, perhaps for which no law was foreseen (the “state of exception”), only the top leadership of the state has the means to intervene for the security of all.

Schmitt, as is well known from the historical record, went on to defend National Socialist policies, including the elimination of people deemed a danger to the new order. Despite the fact that he had his own falling out with the Nazi regime and was eventually denounced and marginalised, his image remains that of an arch-critic and icon of anti-liberalism.

You can find an interesting online presentation by Prof. Ryan M. Mitchell below for more details on Schmitt’s teachings – Mitchell also briefly touches upon German (and Japanese) influence on modern China’s legal system:

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To avoid misunderstandings and as is mentioned in the above video, the number of Chinese academic papers on Carl Schmitt (as per CNKI), although increasing, can not match the numbers for less controversial (legal) philosophers like Hans Kelsen or John Rawls. Moreover, it should be noted that ever since Chinese intellectuals had come to be exposed to Schmitt’s writings it did not take long for the first critics to appear. While more fascist-leaning publications like The Future and Vigilance contained praise for Schmitt (Mitchell 206, 209), Chow Ching-Wen for example cautioned against Schmitt’s more pessimistic, conflict-centric viewpoints in Modern Critique (ibid. 212). Due to his notoriety for having been entangled in National Socialist politics, early CCP-affiliated publications in fact considered Schmitt taboo (ibid. 219).

The term “Schmitt fever” should therefore be taken with a grain of salt and should not lead one to assume that Schmitt has been nor is currently dominating legal-philosophical discussions in China. It is however remarkable that, a few decades after World War 2, Schmitt, who happened to have written on Mao Zedong in Theory of the Partisan in the meantime, would quite successfully reappear in Mainland China’s and Taiwan’s academic circles.

This renewed appreciation can not be understood without considering the still ongoing, fierce dispute between what have been coined the Liberal and the New Left camp that was triggered by post-Maoist developments in China, specifically the 1989 Tiananmen crackdown and Deng Xiaoping’s liberalisation policies that followed his 1992 Southern Tour (Kroll 107). Arguing against the Liberals, academics like Xiao Gongqin and Liu Xiaofeng stressed that Chinese society was not sufficiently developed economically and that concepts such as constitutional democracy could not simply be transplanted from the West. To develop the economy under the tutelage of a strong state was to take precedence (Mitchell 226-227, 234).

Of particular noteworthiness in the present context is the role of Wang Huning who, being a member of the Politburo Standing Committee and labelled “China’s Kissinger” (Phillips and Haas), is regarded as a key architect of Xi Jinping Thought. He is the most high-ranking “statist” intellectual associated with what is known as China’s “neo-authoritarianism”. In the spirit of balancing development with security, as pronounced by Xi, neo-authoritarianism seeks to embrace the liberalisation of markets and granting of limited personal freedoms for the sake of economic development. At the same time, it makes clear, in very Schmittian ways, that the Party will continue to monitor and restrict all political discourse that it considers a threat to its declared development path. It was this gradual transition to post-Marxist authoritarianism, as Mitchell argues, that set the stage for the Schmitt revival in China (Mitchell 230).

Although not explicitly declaring himself a follower of Schmitt, Wang’s publishing record is testimony to a significant overlap with Schmittian thought insofar as he considers liberal values as being imposed on non-Western states in order to weaken them (ibid. 225). His 1991 book America against America, which can be read as a sharp repudiation of US-style partisan infighting, saw an eerie upsurge of interest coinciding with the recent storming of the US Capitol (‘A $2,500 Book on U.S. Decline Is Suddenly a Must-Read in China’).

Mitchell finishes his comprehensive study on Schmitt’s reception in China since 1929 with the verdict that, although being firmly established in Chinese intellectual discourse, it is unclear how Schmitt’s work can contribute anything radically new to contemporary Chinese politics (Mitchell 263). The sinologist Prof. Sebastian Veg, as quoted in Inside the Mind of Xi Jinping by François Bougon, perceives the new statism as a backlash against those on the liberal side who have been arguing for the extrication of Party and ideology from the state. To the contrary, the Party, guided by Xi Jinping Thought and scholarly Schmittian impulses, is the new and old great disciplining force (Bougon 69).

In conclusion, this brief exploration of Schmitt in China demands a follow-up post on how this all relates to the situation in Hong Kong, in similar fashion to this article by Veg. However, I think it will be interesting, especially for international readers, to shift the focus a bit to what Xi Jinping Thought has to say about global security and foreign relations. Carl Schmitt had a perhaps less known impact on those fields as well and people outside of China may ultimately be more affected by Xi Jinping Thought’s ramifications for International Relations rather than the fate of liberalism/constitutionalism within China.

 

Image: Verlag von Duncker und Humblot, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons


Sources:

‘A $2,500 Book on U.S. Decline Is Suddenly a Must-Read in China’. Bloomberg.Com, 13 Jan. 2021. www.bloomberg.com, https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2021-01-13/a-2-500-book-on-u-s-decline-is-suddenly-a-must-read-in-china.

 

Bougon, François. Inside the Mind of Xi Jinping. Oxford University Press, 2018.

 

Buckley, Chris. ‘“Clean Up This Mess”: The Chinese Thinkers Behind Xi’s Hard Line’. The New York Times, 2 Aug. 2020. NYTimes.com, https://www.nytimes.com/2020/08/02/world/asia/china-hong-kong-national-security-law.html.

 

Buzan, Barry, et al. Security: A New Framework for Analysis. Lynne Rienner Publishers, 1998.

 

Che, Chang. ‘The Nazi Inspiring China’s Communists’. The Atlantic, 1 Dec. 2020, https://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2020/12/nazi-china-communists-carl-schmitt/617237/.

 

Kroll, Charlotte. ‘Reading the Temperature Curve: Simophone Schmitt-Fever in Context and Perspective’. Carl Schmitt and Leo Strauss in the Chinese-Speaking World: Reorienting the Political, edited by Kai Marchal and Carl K. Y. Shaw, Lexington Books, 2017, pp. 103–120.

 

Marchal, Kai, and Carl K. Y. Shaw. Carl Schmitt and Leo Strauss in the Chinese-Speaking World: Reorienting the Political. Lexington Books, 2017.

 

Mitchell, Ryan. Chinese Receptions of Carl Schmitt Since 1929. SSRN Scholarly Paper, ID 3400946, Social Science Research Network, 12 June 2020. papers.ssrn.com, https://papers.ssrn.com/abstract=3400946.

 

Phillips, Tom, and Benjamin Haas. ‘The Omnipotent Seven: Meet the Men Who Make up China’s New Politburo’. The Guardian, 25 Oct. 2017, http://www.theguardian.com/world/2017/oct/25/the-seven-men-who-make-up-chinas-new-politburo-xi-jinping.

 

Xi Focus: Xi Stresses Building Holistic National Security Architecture – Xinhua | English.News.Cn. http://www.xinhuanet.com/english/2020-12/12/c_139584669.htm. Accessed 28 Jan. 2021.

 

‘习近平:决胜全面建成小康社会 夺取新时代中国特色社会主义伟大胜利——在中国共产党第十九次全国代表大会上的报告-新华网’. Xinhuanet.Com, http://www.xinhuanet.com//politics/19cpcnc/2017-10/27/c_1121867529.htm. Accessed 28 Jan. 2021.

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