Teaching Comparative Government and Politics

Friday, October 17, 2014

When rule of law isn't rule of law

When people from different political cultures use the same words, they don't always mean the same thing. (One of the many ambiguities of comparative politics.)

Leader Taps Into Chinese Classics in Seeking to Cement Power
When China’s leader, Xi Jinping, recently warned officials to ward off the temptations of corruption and Western ideas of democracy, he cited Han Fei, a Chinese nobleman renowned for his stark advocacy of autocratic rule more than 2,200 years ago.

Han Fei
“When those who uphold the law are strong, the state is strong,” Mr. Xi said, quoting advice that Han Fei offered monarchs attempting to tame disorder. “When they are weak, the state is weak.”

Seeking to decipher Mr. Xi… China watchers have focused on… his many admiring references to Chinese sages and statesmen from millenniums past…

“This is about finding some kind of traditionalist basis of legitimacy for the regime,” said Sam Crane, a professor at Williams College in Massachusetts who studies ancient Chinese thought and its contemporary uses. “It says, ‘We don’t need Western models.’ Ultimately, it is all filtered through the exigencies of maintaining party power.”…

China’s modern leaders have often sought to justify their policies by bowing to their Communist forebears, and so has Mr. Xi. But he has reached much farther back than his predecessors into a rich trove of ancient statecraft for vindication and guidance…

“He who rules by virtue is like the North Star,” he said at a meeting of officials last year, quoting Confucius. “It maintains its place, and the multitude of stars pay homage.”…

Mr. Xi has also shown his familiarity with “Legalist” thinkers who more than 23 centuries ago argued that people should submit to clean, uncompromising order maintained by a strong ruler, much as Mr. Xi appears to see himself. He has quoted Han Fei, the most famous Legalist, whose hardheaded advice from the Warring States era made Machiavelli seem fainthearted…

Their [the Legalists] influence on Mr. Xi is likely to become clearer when a meeting of party leaders starting in just over a week endorses his proposals for “rule of law.” Quite unlike the Western liberal version, Mr. Xi’s “rule of law” looks more like the “rule by law” advocated by the Legalists…

Mr. Xi wants party power to be applied more equitably and cleanly, but he does not want law to circumscribe that power… This has created an “enormous amount of misinterpretation in the West that thinks ‘rule of law’ is rule of law in a very Western Enlightenment sense of the term,” [said Orville Schell, director of the Center on U.S.-China Relations at Asia Society in New York]…

“When Xi is putting on a political performance, he uses Marxist-Leninist rhetoric and even Mao’s words,” said Kang Xiaoguang, a professor of public administration at Renmin University in Beijing. “But in his bones, what really influences him is not those things but intellectual resources from the traditional classics.”

This restoration of tradition has been encouraged by the party, eager to inoculate citizens against Western liberal ideas, which are deemed a decadent recipe for chaos…

“As China grows stronger, this force for restoring tradition will also grow stronger,” said Yan Xuetong, director of the Institute of International Studies at Tsinghua University in Beijing and author of Ancient Chinese Thought, Modern Chinese Power.

“Where can China’s leaders find their ideas?” he said. “They can’t possibly find them nowadays from Western liberal thought, and so the only source they can look to is ancient Chinese political thinking.”…

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