“The Trend Cannot Be Stopped”

Chinese philosopher and Geneva Professor Lanxin Xiang believes China’s political elites should look to Switzerland’s example of direct democracy. He denounces Montesquieu, the mastermind of the separation of powers, as his “chief intellectual enemy.” Xiang, who was born in Nanjing, the historic capital of the Ming Dynasty, dreams of a brave new republic in the Middle Kingdom.

He is "a well-connected Chinese scientist who lives and teaches in Europe," the Economist recently wrote of the Geneva-based scholar of Chinese politics and history. Above all, however, Professor Lanxin Xiang is a boldly original thinker who offers surprising and fresh insights into the Asian behemoth, land of his birth.

Xiang is neither an apologist for the Chinese dictatorship nor a bitter critic. The proud Chinese patriot unsparingly exposes the corruption fostered by China’s one-party rule and condemns Communist Party leaders who extoll Confucian ethics while stuffing their wallets with state money. The 63-year-old celebrated political scientist and philosopher says of his work, "My primary motivation for writing is to try to understand modern China and myself."

Historically, China did not have a crusading zeal. Former US secretary of state and eminent expert on China, Henry Kissinger, said: “The Promised Land is China — and the Chinese are already there.” But now we see the Chinese spreading across the planet, buying properties, exploiting resources. What is China’s grand geopolitical plan? Does it want to rule the world?

I really don't think so. The reason is very simple. The Chinese develop a global reach mainly through a new project called, “The Belt and the Road Initiative.” This is something closely related to economic and development issues. I have not seen a military side of it. You quote Henry Kissinger. I have worked with Henry Kissinger before and totally agree with him on this. That is to say, China never had a history of colonialism. In other words, global reach without colonialism cannot be a military adventure. Europeans, on the other hand, their global reach is historically based on the idea of conquest of another land and their direct rule of the land. I really do not see the Chinese having that ambition. I don’t think the Chinese even qualify to be a colonial power, because historically they do not have such experience at all.

In your recent book, “The Quest for Legitimacy in Chinese Politics, A New Interpretation,” you compare Beijing’s political scene to the last days of the Russian tsars “with charlatans and sycophants running amuck.” Can you give an example of the ambience of the Chinese ruling class?

The leadership in the last a few years seems to be more inclined to hear good news, to hear praise. There is certainly a concentration of power; there is certainly some personal cult activities as compared with ten years ago. Personally, I don't think it's a good trend. When the leadership encourages this kind of praise, inevitably people would not tell you the truth or the bad news. The Romanovs were doomed, in a great part, by people like Rasputin. This is my personal view. I wish this trend can be reversed.

The Chinese leadership is implementing widespread censorship across the country. What has been a domestic issue has now, with the spread of the corona virus, caused widespread global worry. People wonder: Are we getting candid information from the Chinese government about both the infection rate and fatality rate they have already seen among the Chinese population? Can we trust the Chinese government’s information?

Yes, I was in China just a few weeks ago. My sense is this: I think the leadership this time, compared with the Sars, is better prepared. They are surprisingly more frank than before. The reasons are, first, this time the virus is much more severe. The speed of the spreading is much faster. Secondly, the original source where it came from is still not entirely clear. This explains the initial delayed actions from the leadership. Once they realized the speed of spreading, their mobilization was quick. The information, in my judgment, is quite transparent — surprisingly transparent, in my view, this time.

What do you think is at stake for the Chinese leadership with this current crisis?

It's a crisis like every Black Swan crisis. [The black swan theory is a metaphor that describes an event that comes as a surprise, has a major effect, and is often inappropriately rationalized after the fact with the benefit of hindsight. The term is based on an ancient saying that presumed black swans did not exist — a saying that became reinterpreted to teach a different lesson after black swans were discovered in the wild.] It will do two things. One, it exposes some part of the weakness of the system. Then, of course, it will have enormous economic cost, human cost and so on. It will put pressure on the leadership. My view is that leadership has responded, more or less, quickly. I do not see a huge problem for the prestige or for the question of legitimacy of the Communist Party. Again, it depends on how long this thing will last. Let's say it will last another six months, I see a bigger problem.

President Xi is seemingly destined for an infinite term, like an emperor. But you point out his rule is not guaranteed forever. You say that Western critics have, so far, failed to grasp how Chinese leaders must earn their right to rule. The leadership still has to achieve success though deeds and accomplishments. If it fails and behaves tyrannical, it risks to be overthrown. Has Xi, so far, performed well as a leader?

In Chinese political tradition, no matter who is in power — if domestic or foreign rulers, let's say the Manchus or the Mongols — there is one rule: They all have to follow a particular political logic which is established by Confucius. That is to say, ruling legitimacy is a question of morality. The legitimacy of a ruler is considered to derive from a “Mandate of Heaven.” This unique Chinese vision of legitimacy is, at the outset, a dynamic that is “deeds-based,” i.e. a performance rather than “procedure-based” division of power argument. The “Mandate of Heaven” is an ancient Chinese belief that tiān (heaven, though not Christian heaven or God) grants the emperor the right to rule based on their moral quality and ability to govern well and fairly. If he does not fulfill his moral obligations as emperor, the “Mandate” then transfers to the one who does. This is where I think it's very different from the Western modern concept of political legitimacy after the Enlightenment. That's why Westerners don't understand it.

In your system, you believe in the division of power. In other words, it's the mechanical arrangement of the distribution of power. Once this system is established, you automatically establish legitimacy because every few years you have elections. That's not the case in China. The Chinese do not have the nationwide election. But the fact that they don't have it even now does not mean whoever is in power can do anything he wants. That would be morally suicidal. The Chinese regime changes in history have always been cyclical. The peasant rebellions overthrew emperors and then established a new empire. This has been like this in China for several thousand years. I don't think the Communists can escape that fate, and they can’t afford to misbehave.

You praise the Jesuit missionaries who travelled to China in the 16th and 17th centuries, learning Chinese and studying Confucian classics, reporting to Rome that China was a brilliant civilization. But the hawks in Rome would not listen. Why did this brief period of rapprochement fail, and what are the biggest misconceptions of Westerners looking at China today?

The Jesuits’ failure was because of internal religious and political, national conflicts within Europe. Even within the Catholic church, there were other denominations that decided that the Jesuits had too much power. It was an internecine war that accidentally cut off the opportunity for rapprochement between Chinese and Western culture.

That failure has very little to do with Chinese reality, itself. It was an internal war of the West. Now, today, the failure of accommodation is because Western thinkers or Western politicians are too much in the thinking mode of the lumière. I always blame Montesquieu. Montesquieu is my chief intellectual enemy, by the way.

Please explain.

Well, if you read Montesquieu, especially his ‘De l’esprit des loi,’ seriously, you see how many times he mentions China. No, he'd never been to China. He knew nothing about China. But he kept on attacking China. Why? He's on the side of anti-Jesuits. That's the political bias. Secondly, he had to establish his theory that power can be mechanically divided into three sections. That was his main contribution.

When you look across the ocean, the Chinese system has no division of power. The Jesuits thought it was even better than the European system because they believed that the moral foundation of Feudalist Europe, at their time, was all but collapsed. Hence, civil wars and ideological conflicts were incessant. China, in fact, became an inverse mirror for them to contrast the failures of the European state system. So, Montesquieu had to justify his own theory by destroying the Chinese, or you can say the Confucius, model of governing.

He raised so many questions about China that basically he is a cultural slanderer, in my view. He is also a founding member of the racialist thinking (i.e. ranking of the races) during the Enlightenment. He has no knowledge foundation on China. Montesquieu is such an important intellectual person. The American Constitution, essentially, is based on Montesquieu. It's not surprising for me at all that if you still look at China with a lumière thinking, intellectual absolutism, China is, of course, the evil empire.

Nowadays, there is a modern hawk. US President Trump curses China. He says the Chinese took advantage of America. But at the same time, he does not blame them. He says it was due to “America’s own stupidity” that China took advantage. He calls President Xi Jinping an “incredible guy.” What do you make of Trump’s perception?

It's very simple. He doesn't read books. He has no interest in ideology.

But he understands the American people and their views very well.

Yes. Remember, he is not interested in theory, in ideology. He is thinking in business terms. He's not entirely wrong to say the United States in the past were too nice, not just with China, but with Europeans as well, or South Korea and Japan. “We have to put our interest first.” That's the economic approach of Donald Trump. I think it's understandable for a leader who has no interest in ideology at all that he talks that way. Then he calls Xi Jinping an “incredible guy.” Well, remember he comes from a background of making deals which are usually done in a very shady context.

Real estate deals.

Well, a particular kind of real estate business. It's a mafia style language popular in Queens where he grew up that he likes to use.

Trump’s approach is a mix of tough actions and sometimes soft language. Do you think that works in the dealing with China?

Yes, so far. I think China prefers dealing with him than dealing with people like Mike Pompeo, or Nancy Pelosi, or Mike Pence.

Why is that?

Well, if you listen to how these people talk, they use not only ideological, but evangelical language criticizing China — southern evangelical language, in particular. I am very familiar with that language because I lived in the deep south for six years in South Carolina where I started my teaching career at Clemson University. They basically think China is the evil empire. If I were Xi Jinping, I'd rather deal with Trump than deal with them. Personally, I like Bloomberg. He's not crazy and extremist.

If you were American, would you say Trump's strategy towards China is successful?

I would say for the moment, yes. Long term, no.

Why not?

Well, because of tariffs. Remember, his whole principle of dealing with China is trade restriction. Tariffs are the instruments, right? I'm an historian. I have found no historic evidence that tariffs work in the long term, short term maybe. The Smoot-Hawley Act of 1930 is an example. They will end up undermining each other's national interest, including the United States economy. I don't see that the tariff war is going to work.

While Chinese rulers are Communists by name, they are very good in accumulating personal wealth. You note the “moral decay of the ruling elite whose appetite for wealth accumulation knows no bounds and legal limits.” How can such a ruling elite prevail and guarantee a blooming economy?

[chuckles] Well, this is something rather unique. Remember, the Chinese system started to reform in the 1980s. Before, we were a typical Stalinist system, both in terms of politics and economics. Within four decades, Chinese leaders made a transit from a Stalinist system to a market-oriented economic dynamo. That takes a lot of effort, including the efforts of satisfying the elite’s interests. The elite also need incentive to push for reform including, of course, the ability to accumulate some benefits for their own family. The only problem is the elites have gone too far.

Xi Jinping, when he came to power, his number one priority was the so-called anti-corruption campaign. Thousands, if not tens of thousands, of government officials and military generals are in jail today because the corruption became so widespread that it began to undermine the legitimacy of China’s Communist Party. Xi Jinping, no matter how you criticize his anti-corruption campaign, at least has decided to go after corruption. Leaders before him did not have such courage.

Sometimes Xi is compared to Mao. Do you think this is accurate?

It would be a great exaggeration to compare him to Mao. Not just his experience is very limited, but also his vision. Mao, no matter how you assess his life, always had a long term vision for China. Sometimes he might have been wrong, but he had a vision, and he was able to push for his vision, including the last battle he did, the Cultural Revolution. I don't think Mr. Xi can be compared to Mao.

Do you see a long term vision for the Communist Party? Protests in Hong Kong have culminated in an impressive victory of the democracy movement. This was a humiliation for the rulers in Beijing. The Chinese one-party state (that was important from Bolsheviks), is it doomed?

I really do not see this party as being a traditionally Communist party anymore.

But China is a one-party system, like the Soviet Union was. As we all know, it eventually collapsed.

It would be wrong to compare China with the former Soviet Union. The Soviet Union collapsed for a variety of reasons. Key for their collapse was that they doomed their own economy. The Soviet Union failed to stimulate economic growth. Whoever is in power in China, an emperor or some group, as long as they can deliver, I don’t see the chance of a collapse of the system.

Western political scientists have long believed constitutional democracy is the only stable form of government. You challenge the conventional Western view that China faces the alternatives of integrating with the West, trying to destroy it, or succumbing to domestic violence and chaos. Instead, you propose a constitutional regime with Chinese characteristics based on a modernized Confucianism. Can you explain what you mean by this?

In my view, China needs to consider the idea of establishing a modern République. Now, remember, despite it being a one-party system, China is no longer a dynasty. That's for sure. They cannot go back to a dynastic system anymore. And they cannot deny that China is already, in some way, a westernized state system, a Republic. They officially adopted the title of “People's Republic” which means that the only concept in the Chinese political system, today, that has a lot of room for improvement is the concept of République.

Now, the question is what kind of République are you going to build? [chuckles] Since China is a République, we also have a so-called parliament. We have two houses as well. The only problem with the two houses is basically that they are a rubber stamp. They don't do anything, seriously. One possibility is to increase the importance of the parliament, step by step, without destroying the existing system too quickly. We should gradually move into a situation where the two parliamentary houses contribute to our decision-making more and more.

I am puzzled. First you call Montesquieu your “chief intellectual enemy,” then you propose to increase the importance of the Chinese parliament. In other words, you propose a clear step towards a division of power between executive, legislative, and judicative. And you suggest to proceed step by step. It seems this would be Montesquieu's division of power à la Chinoise.

I do not consider my proposal as equivalent to the Western model of three-way division of power. I would call it “consultative democracy,” and the parliamentarians should not be political rivals to the leadership as we witness in the US. By the way, Switzerland is not a Montesquieu model either. I do believe the Chinese should learn more from direct democracy.

Direct democracy works in a small country. How do you imagine it to function in gigantic China?

China should learn something from direct democracy. I do not mean China can adopt it. The Swiss system, in my view, is closer to the Chinese traditional system than many have thought. Democracy is a label. It can be interpreted many ways. By the Swiss standard, the US system, especially the electoral college, is hardly democratic. Good governance must go together with an effective and tight internal control system. This is why Singapore is always proud to be labeled the “Switzerland of the East.”

The second thing I propose, obviously, is we need what's called the “intraparty democracy.” China has 90 million Communist Party members. It is a one-party system, but the party leadership is not elected. We need to use the concept of democracy or the election concept. It is too chaotic to apply election directly to the population right now, but at least they should start within the party.

How long a process are we talking about?

A couple of decades, maybe. But the trend cannot be stopped.

Professor Lanxin Xiang, 63, is a historian at the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies, Geneva. Xiang was born in Nanjing, Jiangsu, China. He studied at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies from which he earned a Master of Arts and in 1990 a Doctor of Philosophy. Xiang is a distinguished researcher and author of a number of works. His main research focus is East Asia, foreign and security policies, and modern China.


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