Jiang Shigong’s empire strikes back

There is an influential school of thought in Beijing which believes that the world would be way better off if it was run from Beijing rather than Washington. In a recent essay, Professor Jiang Shigong(强世功)outlines a new theory of empire – and though he’s not explicit about his claim, he clearly believes that America’s global leadership is doomed, and that China should work hard to replace it.

You hear a lot of pablum about the so-called Thucydides Trap these days, the idea that a superpower like America will do everything to suppress the innocent rise of a friendly competitor like China. Essays like this suggest that Jiang and the other New Statists are explicitly plotting to undermine and replace America. It is hard to prove but my guess is that this kind of thinking is endemic, today more than before, within the Party leadership.

This is another of those posts where I translate an interesting and, I think, important article in Chinese, and wrap up the translation with my own thoughts. This one is interesting as it explicitly considers “Empire”. Bear with me.

Lefty-types just love calling the current world order the ‘American empire’. All those overseas military bases, the paramount US dollar, American law which stretches around the globe, the IMF and World Bank, oh and Shake Shack’s burger-hegemony. It might look as though everyone benefits from the open global trading system Washington sponsors, the security benefits American troops provide, and all that melted cheese on crinkled, delicious fries, and has much democratic say in how they organize their own societies. But don’t be fooled; it’s all just a sneakier contemporary version of the Roman, Spanish, and British empires. Like all good Marxian theories, any freedom you may feel is just an illusion; you are really suppressed. Think “What have the Romans ever done for us…?”

Now, there is much to criticize about the frequent wars America chooses to fight – Iraq was an unmitigated disaster and possibly, eventually, even worse for the United States than Iraq/Syria. And that is saying something. American foreign policy is often arrogant, irresponsible and horrific. But it seems to me that it’s a step too far to call this “empire”; there’s too much autonomy ‘at the edge’, and the system, absent the wars, benefits the majority. Left-wing historians like Eric Hobsbawn and Noam Chomsky, for all their brilliance, just couldn’t break out of the paradigm set up by the man-known-as-Lenin in Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism, that the logic of capitalism is to establish an empire and extract resources from it.

Peking University Law School’s Jiang Shigong (Wiki here) is an influential scholar. He wrote a paean to Xi Jinping a while back which had some worrying similarities with German National Socialism (here). Now, he has a new take on Empire. He rather likes the concept; but he’d just prefer it to be run from Beijing.

Jiang is part of what I’ll call the New Statist school; they also get labelled neo-authoritarians. Wang Huning, the ideological Svengali on the Political Bureau Standing Committee, is probably the most influential of this loose school. Most importantly, these guys approve of the idea of a very strong state; they are not liberals, either politically or economically. There’s an easy contrast to be made with Francis Fukuyama. Fukuyama famously argued that human history had reached an equilibrium where liberal democracy and market economics fulfilled the fundamental human needs of choice and recognition. In contrast, New Statists traditionally argue that the state should be the primary force in organizing society; they have little time for individual rights.

New Statists do not get excited about liberal economics either. I am reading Jude Blanchette’s excellent new book on China’s New Red Guards - my review in-coming. Blanchette tells the story of the unreconstructed Marxist critics associated with the Utopia community in Beijing, who think the Party sold its socialist soul, especially under that capitalist-roader Jiang Zemin. The New Statists share some of new-Maoists’ disdain for liberal economics, but the New Statists are only bothered by China’s crony capitalism up to the point where it weakens the state. They have zero time for a return to actual Marxism; what interests them is maximizing national power. (To be fair, many of the “new-Maoists” are in this same camp.)

Now, the interesting thing with this piece (published in Beijing Cultural Review in April 2019, and available on Aisixiang here) is that Jiang advances New Statist theory by tackling what he calls “super-sized political entities” (超大型政治实体). I.e. Empires. His basic shtick is to argue, like a classic lefty historian, that the world has always had empires. But instead of criticizing that and calling for everyone to be free, he does his New Statist thing, and argues that it would be better if the World Empire was run from Beijing.

He identifies ‘excess freedom’ in politics, economics and culture as the key problems for today’s (western-led) World Empire. It’s thus doomed. He then makes a cursory claim that Confucian philosophy has imbued recent Chinese dynasties with ‘universalism’, i.e. that they are capable of absorbing different cultures/peoples. A cursory look at Xinjiang and Hong Kong today suggests this claim is ever-so-slightly problematic.

Did you read the People’s Daily oped on ‘China and the World amidst Big Change’ (大变局中的中国与世界’, 25 September 2019 here)? H/t Sinocism. It presents a quieter version - the current official version - of this same story. In short; China is a huge force for stability in the world today, it supports all the current institutions, and it’s been this way since the 1955 Bandung Conference (all wrong, of course: check out my review of Julia Lovell here on how Mao supported revolution all over the developing world). But humanity’s at a crossroads and now is the time to build “Humanity’s Community of Common Destiny” (人类命运共同体), a co-operating world, with ‘win-win as the precondition, a new international relations concept which will replace the “backward” western model’. (I love how the oped first claims China is just doing nothing but supporting the current international order, and then, Bam!, it’s actually wanting to completely revise it.) Lots of countries are apparently looking East for their development model, and then we end with the call that China will more proactively offer “Chinese wisdom and Chinese plans” (中国智慧和中国方案)to help build that community.

So in short, we face a challenge: they want to globalize New Statism, a.k.a. New Authoritarianism.

Oh, that reminds me; there’s an excellent recent piece by T.H. Jiang and Shaun O’Dwyer that discusses how Confucianism was weaponized in support of nationalism in Japan in the 1930-40s here. There was the same civilizing mission, the same call for order and deference to the Emperor and military elite. They do a fabulous job of mapping out some of the Chinese scholars who are currently trying to unite Confucian doctrine and CCP rule.

The other point I’ll make before we jump in to the piece is about this so-called “Thucydides Trap”; the idea that a superpower jealously guards its power and proactively destroys any up-and-coming competitors. This is nonsense of the first order; not only does it misrepresent the relationship between Athens and Sparta, but it is hard to find a single decent example of this dynamic in the last couple of hundred years, especially at important turning points. The British government leaned over backwards to accommodate an aggressive and expansionist Nazi Germany in the 1930s. But you hear this self-serving idea a lot in Beijing now; Huang Qifan, the ex-mayor of Chongqing who lucked out and avoided hanging out with his ex-boss Bo Xilai at Qincheng prison, gave a speech recently which got some play. That’s his entire explanation for why the US launched the trade war. (For Graham Allison, the promotor of the Thucydides Trap idea, it’s a sad intellectual collapse. His first book was the brilliant The Essence of a Decision, which he wrote under the tutelage of Yoda (a.k.a. Andrew Marshall, who I wrote about here), who I’m pretty sure would have been appalled by his former student becoming a useful CCP idiot in his dotage). Anyhow, it does not take long in Jiang Shigong’s world to realize that the New Statists do not have any such illusions; they are consciously thinking about replacing the US and planning how to reorder the global system under their tutelage.

So here’s the piece. I’ve translated the opening and the ending, which capture all the main ideas, and then summarized the less-interesting middle bit. Jiang’s prose is a little academic, and imprecise; it requires some filling in between the lines. That is partly because “Let’s replace the American Empire with a Chinese one which looks like this” might attract some unnecessary attention. And the usual caveat that neither translation nor political theory is my day job.

The Internal Logic of Super-sized Political Entities: The Order of “Empire” and the World (超大型政治实体的内在逻辑: “帝国”与世界秩序)


“Empire” has had a huge influence on the history of humanity. Some past research on “empire” focused on the battle for hegemony; some of it commemorated the glories of the past; some of it even reconsidered autocracy and colonialism. From the 20th century on, following the governance problems generated by globalization and the emergency of the “nation-state” (minzu-guojia) all over the world, in US-European studies “Empire Studies” (diguo yanjiu) has emerged, which has a different style from the traditional approach of “empire” and “imperialism” studies. Instead, it tries to take the core of discussion away from the nation state to new super-sized political entities (XXX), and on that basis tries to establish cross-regional, varied modes of governance, and the new international order, as the new basis of debate.

In this article the author follows this research direction, but emphasizes the need to surpass the limits of contemporary European perspectives on sovereignty, and to consider future possibilities development of super-sized political entities. The author raises the point that China already has an ancient civilizational state, and now must modernize that within the framework of the modern nation state. But the traditional concepts of “empire” and “nation-state” are insufficient to contain the complexity of the Chinese state, and may even hide our deep understanding of humanity’s political diversity, as well as our imaginative capacity for humanity’s historical development. Thus, our theory urgently needs to start both from Chinese history and the contemporary situation, and to develop a substantial perspective on Empire studies, and thus to set the direction of China’s own development.

Introduction Political thought faces a problem - the chasm between the mainstream theory of the sovereign state and the “practice” of empire politics. This chasm between theory and practice means we need to urgently reconsider the concept of “nation-state” and use the concept of “empire” to reorder human history and practical political life. In contrast to traditional understandings of the concept of “empire”, this article defines “empire” as describing a social-scientific concept, used to describe a commonly-existing, super-sized political entity, containing a complex, heterogeneous and stable order, a political philosophy and force which seeks universalism (pubian zhuyi), and which also ceaselessly pushes that universalism into a broader space.

in this way, “empire” is humanity’s solution to universalism, a historical technique to foster diversity, and it pushes forward humanity’s evolutionary development. The power which establishes empires, as well as competition between empires, pushes forward humanity’s transition from scattered community-based civilizations to today’s global civilization.

Human history is a story of empires battling for hegemony, and it is a history of imperial evolution. Today, human history is in at an important crossroads in the development and evolution for the “Empire of the World” (shijie diguo). If we start with the correct perspective on empire, and understand the different ways in which empires have evolved in history, then we can surpass the concept of the sovereign nation-state, and understand the role of China in the evolution of world empires, and set a clear direction for China’s own future.

[OK, this is me again. In the middle of the piece, Jiang makes a number of points which I’ll just bullet-point out]:

[OK, now back to Jiang’s conclusion:]

From the 20th century onwards, world empire has been humanity’s fate. Whether it was the movement towards “Eternal Peace” or the hope for communism, or whether it’s [today’s] criticism and concern over technology, economics, and political hegemony, we can’t escape the reality of World Empire. If we say that the emergence of World Empire is through the competition of regional civilizational empires, then today’s Version 1.0 of World Empire is the Western Christian civilization model. It has no way to solve three problems: the daily deepening of inequality and free market economics’ other problems; the failure of countries because of too much political freedom, political collapse and other governance issues; and [third] the degradation and ‘nothingness’ of cultural freedom. Facing these problems, even the US has withdrawn strategically from the world, which means that World Empire Version 1.0 is facing a huge crisis, internal protests, opposition and internal revolution, which is is causing the collapse of the system.

The evolution of World Empire has completely altered the separation between the political right and left wings. You can see this in the electoral competition in the US and Europe. The right wing, which traditionally supported free markets has moved towards populism, and the left wing has changed into the defender of globalization’s vested interests. This kind of deranged ideology reflects the crisis of World Empire today, and there is no solution for the three problems it faces. You can see that today we are facing the failure of World Empire Version 1.0 – we’re tending towards its collapse – though we’ve not yet got to the chaos, shock and huge change involved in the creation of Version 2.0.

We must know that a change in empire is a long historical process. In the several thousand years of human history, we’ve only gone through three transformations in World Empire, and each time that was accompanied by huge conflict and chaos. But we also cannot deny that this historical period of transition to a second version of World Empire presents an opportunity for all civilizations. The civilization that can solve the problems of World Empire Version 1.0 will be able to design a plan for World Empire Version 2.0. China, as a power which cannot just think about itself, must consider its future with this background; its important task is not only to revive its traditional civilization, but also to patiently absorb all the skills and accomplishments of other human civilizations, especially those generated by Western Civilization. Only on that foundation can we consider how to go about the dual advancement of promoting the reconstruction of Chinese Civilization as well as the reconstruction of the world order.

The end. Here’s the link to the full piece on Aisixiang again.