Jiang Shigong and the dangers of National Socialism

Professor Jiang Shigong’s (强世功) “Philosophy and History: Interpreting the Xi Jinping Era through Xi’s Report” is a terrifically-interesting, era-defining essay (the excellent translation by David Ownby and Timothy Cheek is here.). In it, Jiang argues that’s China’s Communist Party leadership has got its political mojo back with what he calls Chinese socialism, but which is probably more accurately termed Han-infused nationalism. Under this banner, General Secretary Xi is the man to unify everything under heaven and to lead the awesome revival of the Chinese nation.

No one should resent the rise of a nation that works so hard and has made so many significant contributions to the world. The CCP government has achieved remarkable things in the last forty years (after wreaking much destruction in the thirty years previous). As he lays it out, Jiang’s ideology is entirely peaceful and ambitious to make the world a better place. But looking under the hood, I smell the faintest whiff of danger. Quite how dangerous it is, I guess we’ll find out in our lifetimes.

Since the 1980s, the Communist Party’s biggest thinkers have had to figure out a story to meld the evolution of a state/capitalist economy, a wealthy elite group, an emerging urban middle class and still-struggling rural folk with an officially Socialist ruling party. Since part of that Party’s legitimacy comes from its revolutionary history, one cannot just rename the party (or remove the key founder’s embalmed body from the capital’s spiritual centre). The old trick, which worked well-enough for some thirty years, was to mumble under one’s breath about the ‘primary stage of socialism’. This had, at least, some basis in the old man’s Das Kapital - the phrase signified the period of necessary economic construction Marx foresaw before real socialism could be built. Liu Shaoqi argued for a mixed economy in the 1950s, deploying that same praxis, until Mao Zedong decreed China was ripe for the nationalisation of everything right now. Since the phrase was revived in the 1980s, no one ever explained when that primary stage would end, or asked what would happen after, but the fiction did its job.

Such weak ideological gruel is happily jettisoned by Professor Jiang. He has his eyes on doing something much bigger and daring; re-defining the Party’s socialism as Han nationalism. It is a pretty spectacular move, especially as its done when he thinks no one is looking.

In contrast to Marx, Xi Jingping-era socialism binds together the masses with weighty Chinese history (rather than class), and inspires the people with great Han culture (Marx screams from his grave “Culture is the veil of ignorance spread over the people”). All this can be done because a historic figure, a visionary and powerful supreme leader (领袖), has arrived. Marx, of course, had little time for Big Men; history was all about social forces for him.

Jiang pays lip service to Marxism as a flag for the troops to wave. He demands that Marxism be revived as the party’s ‘theoretical magic weapon’. Khrushchev’s mistake was to betray Stalin and to lose ‘political confidence’ in Marxism, he writes. But his agenda is really not about reviving Marxism, but draining the concept of all its original content and pouring in essential Chinese-ness and Xi. Once that operation is complete, the ‘Marxist’ flag should be flown high.

“China’s lived experience will define what, in the final analysis, socialism is”, Jiang avers. Socialism is nothing more than “an open concept awaiting exploration and definition.” All the original meaning socialism is erased, leaving an empty slate.

This ‘modernised’ ‘Marxism’ flies in direct opposition to Western civilisation, of course. Jiang argues that western philosophy is all about subject/object, logical argument, mastering nature, and, of course, wars and oppression. As such, Western minds just cannot comprehend Chinese thinking, with its lack of opposites and clear rights and wrongs, its comprehensive assessment of situations. Chinese culture is marked by a principled avoidance of conflict, emphasizing discussion and collaboration, Jiang states. This, of course, requires one to read imperial history with all its wars quite generously. But you get the point.

Jiang has little time for ‘western’ democratic institutions, either; they ‘corrupt human nature’. Elections just produce glorified lobbyists, not real leaders of people. Now, there is some truth to this critique - recent events in Europe and the US have laid bare democracy’s vulnerabilities. But Jiang’s argument is stronger. He is saying China has something better. He argues that before Xi, ‘we fetishised legal dogma’ and were obsessed about the importance of building the ‘rule of law’. This was wrong, Jiang argues - we need a great man to lead us.

Jiang wants to emphasize both the continuity of Xi’s rule - he stands in line with Mao and Deng - and that his rule is path-breaking too. Mao revolutionised China’s politics, establishing CCP rule; Deng revolutionised the economy. Xi’s mission is to revolutionise the country’s place in the world, and the pride that Han Chinese feel.

And here we come to that whiff of danger. For most Han Chinese, these are good days in which to live. While there are many problems, hundreds of millions of people are living freer, more comfortable lives than it would have been possible to even hope thirty years ago. Many feel proud of China’s achievements. Chinese friends living in Silicon Valley tell me happily that feel they are taken more seriously these days because of the success of China.

The big issue though is that ideologies based in race do have a habit of turning nasty, especially at times of stress. “Western values”, if this phrase has any use at all, have the advantage of being values that anyone can sign up to. Believe broadly in the importance of individual liberty and limited government? Well, you can sign up to western values - and then argue voraciously about exactly what they mean in practice. These values, at their best, are the platform on which different, less universal values can compete in debate and, crudely, at elections. In contrast, Jiang’s not just talking about values - he’s describing the rise of the Chinese race. And by very definition, that’s exclusionary. And has the advantage that you can make up values as you go along.

Taken to an extreme, such ideologies can be incredibly dangerous. This danger, I fear, is something that Professor Jiang does not consider enough in his essay. I’d be fascinated to hear more from him on the guardrails he suggests be put up to protect his vision from such dangers. Let’s assume nothing goes badly wrong under Party Secretary Xi - but he’ll one day leave office. and one day there will inevitably be an economic recession. Succession and dealing with a lot of angry people will put a lot of stress on Han nationalism as the state’s guiding philosophy.

The most extreme form of nationalism that we have to reference is the National Socialism that destroyed Germany and half the world a century ago. To understand that pathology, look no further than Johann’s Chapoutot’s remarkable The Law of Blood (Harvard University, 2018). Chapoutot appears to have read everything ever written by German lawyers, academics, poets, historians, and religious experts in the 1930-40s - plus the endlessly-demented writings of Hitler, Himmler and his other thugs. Researching all that every day can really mess you up, so Chapoutot has done honorable service to come out of the library sane and a great book. He lays out how these ordinary folk thought about the world, their role in it, and how they legitimised their innumerable barbarous acts.

At the core of National Socialism was an obsession with the revival of a great race. There was an origin myth; nordic tribes had grown up strong and pure in the forests and the dark northern European winters.

Second, there was an enemies list comprising of things which had supposedly weakened and polluted German-ness: Jews (and Christianity), Richelieu and the French, Versailles, the legal system, and anyone occupying the lebensraum to the East. All these enemies had weakened, stolen from, enslaved, or infected the German race.

Third, Reich policy all came down to rebuilding and re-purifying that race. There was a demographic urgency to this mission. The First World War was not just a shameful defeat for Hitler, but it took away swathes of German men, casting the race into existential danger. So Hitler wanted German babies, and lots of them. Male homosexuality was punished severely (while lesbianism was kind of OK for the Nazis). Abortion was banned; the regime brought up unwanted babies in state institutions. Chapoutet relates that SS officers were fined if they did not deliver four babies each. Resources could not be wasted on those who could not contribute, so the handicapped and mentally-ill were killed or sterilized. All these German families needed to be fed, so Poland and Russia would have to provide the arable lands and an enslaved farming population. Jews, the antithesis of Germanness, were marked out for extermination.

To ensure their rule, the Nazis pushed an ‘anti-Western’ legal agenda too. The law was too inflexible, they said, too rooted in foreign concepts, too protective of the weak. Nazi legal scholars called for ‘good sense’ to prevail, not arcane legal detail, and for judges to be loyal to the party. Internal security forces like the SS were given absolute powers, of which preventative detention was the least of it.

Above all this was the Fuhrer, the man who could save the nation. He could not be questioned.

So to sum up, Nationalism Socialism had an origin myth which bound together a race, it had an enemies list (since nothing so binds us dumb humans together than fighting another group we imagine are not like us), it broke institutions in order to allow the untrammeled exercise of power, and it elevated a Great Man who inspired by promising to fix everything.

Weak forms of nationalism are at work in many countries today. Trump - not a huge reader, to say the least, had Mein Kampf on his nightstand as a younger cad - certainly has a gut instinct for this kind of politics.

I am sure many people will find even the suggestion of the mere possibility of these parallels offensive. There are important differences. But Prof. Jiang would, I guess, be appalled by even the thought of the comparison between the Chinese national socialism he outlines and the 1930s-Germany version. Some might be tempted to demonise even this attempt at comparison as “Anti-China”.

For the vast majority of people today in the People’s Republic, all this ideological stuff is entirely removed from daily experience. Only a certain, older type actually watches the 8pm CCTV news. Only some 400,000 people apparently watch the recent TV shows in which contestants compete to answer questions about Xi Jinping Thought - against the tens of millions who’ll watch Chinese rap competitions (You’re the man, Aire!). The Party gets on with its dull stuff, and I get on with my life, that’s it. How many people actually read Jiang’s essay, or do anything else but shut their brains down in all the Party’s study sessions?

And for those who actually think about this stuff, there is an honest case to be made that strong rule is the necessary answer to the rot of governance that came before Xi, and that far worse would occur if the country were to collapse. For many, a beneficent dictator is the best of a set of worse options.

So let me try to be clean crystal clear. Casting an eye across official CCP propaganda, there is nowhere near the anger that drove the Nazi agenda. The CCP clearly see ‘western’ enemies out there, but with nothing like the hatred that settled on the Jews. There is no demographic emergency; no one is talking about the Han race being in mortal danger (though the future demographic trend is clearly negative). Germans were bludgeoned with years of economic crisis in the 1920-30s in order for them to rally behind such poisoned politics. For most in China today, life is OK, next year will probably be OK too; the politics are benign. A lot can be said over dinner. Wechat discussions can be pretty liberal, and when you step out of line your posting usually just gets deleted; no one is kicking down your door.

So nothing to worry about then? I worry not, for two reasons. First, the logic of the system is that more of this ideological control is coming down the pipe into daily lives. CCP conservatism looks increasingly uncomfortable with the liberal drift of Chinese society, and is angling to reverse the tide. Already, its clear that the Party is a lot more serious about its right to lead and manage everyday life. Party leadership committees have spread through the corporate space, and are exerting more influence. Churches have been knocked down - and religious groups have to fly the Party/State flag. There’s something brewing in the entertainment industry; Fan Bingbing was the chicken to scare the monkeys. The detention of millions of PRC citizens in Xinjiang marks an important shift - it suggests that any threat will be met with an overwhelming, paranoid, response.

Second, such seeds are sown in good times, and germinate in the bad times. You saw this in the US - during the boom years, the Republican party poisoned the political well with all their hate-talk about the liberal elite, their black-dog-whistling attacks on Obama, their nourishing of whacko conspiracy theories, the Koch-funded Tea Party, angry about everything except fiscal policy. The GOP leadership thought they could control the useful crazies. But when the economic crisis came for the US, the people were sufficiently primed and the crazies took over the Party - and a lot of office space in the West Wing. So, I worry about a future in which China does experience an economic crisis, and the optimism which marks most folk’s view of the future today, turns to anger. And the benign vision that Jiang posits here darkens. There is a story waiting to be triggered about how its all the West’s fault.

Maybe I worry too much.