China Power

Why We Should Study China’s Machiavelli

The similarities and differences between Niccolo Machiavelli and Han Feizi are illuminating.

Why We Should Study China’s Machiavelli
Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Ryan Mitchell wrote a fascinating piece for The Diplomat entitled “Is ‘China’s Machiavelli’ Now its Most Important Philosopher?,” outlining the role the ancient philosopher Han Feizi plays in shaping President Xi Jinping’s political agenda. For example, Xi Jinping quoted Han Feizi’s dictum “when those who uphold the law are strong, the state is strong. When they are weak, the state is weak” to justify his tough anti-corruption campaign and his allegedly more authoritarian style of government. Xi Jinping’s quote of Han Feizi was subsequently reprinted thousands of times in state-owned and party-controlled media outlets.

Xi’s citation of Han Feizi is an instance of ruling political men relying on and defending their actions per the authority of recognized political thinkers. It is curious to me the way in which public figures use philosophical elites to empower and elevate, or at least attempt to justify, controversial praxis and principle. It provides them with a mantle of legitimacy by continuing an apparent tradition already established a long time ago. Mitchell also seems to indicate that Han Feizi’s ambiguous reputation is analogous to the controversial rap on Machiavelli in the West.

What I found interesting to ponder over is the public reaction if a European or American president cited Machiavelli in a speech (e.g., “Politics have no relations to morals,” or “Men should be either treated generously or destroyed, because they take revenge for slight injuries – for heavy ones they cannot.”). Of course, there are ontological and philosophical differences between Machiavelli and Han Feizi and their respective philosophies, and any quote, by definition, is taken out of context, which is especially problematic for philosophical texts.

However, what makes the comparison to Machiavelli more interesting is not so much the obvious similarities in the authoritarian streak of both philosophers and their amoral counsel on how rulers ought to run their affairs (by the way, I strongly suspect that Machiavelli’s core political philosophy is buried in his Discourses on the First Ten Books of Titus Livy rather than the Prince), but in how the fundamentals underlying their political thought have evidently much more in common than the Italian thinker has with other great European philosophers. This makes Han Feizi’s work more “European,” and Machiavelli’s philosophy more “Chinese.”

Plato, for example, argues in his Republic that the best regime happens by chance, the unlikely coming together of political philosophy and political power. This is based on the ancient Greek understanding of human nature and in a sense cautions against social engineering or the attempt to make utopia, the ideal state, a reality. However, Machiavelli broke with this tradition publicly by pronouncing that chance (fortuna) can be influenced: “For my part I consider that it is better to be adventurous than cautious, because fortune is a woman, and if you wish to keep her under it is necessary to beat and ill-use her; and it is seen that she allows herself to be mastered by the adventurous rather than by those who go to work more coldly.”

Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.

“Beating and ill-using” chance is the foundation of any radical political reform and has openly been part of Chinese political tradition if one studies writings from Han Feizi to Mao Zedong. The big question to ask is what is in the water in China that allows a world leader to cite an evidently infamous or, at least, somewhat disreputable source to defend authoritarian policy?

I believe Mitchell’s essay calls for a greater understanding of Han Feizi and his relative status in the popular and pundit thinking in China. There’s an interesting study there regarding the use of philosophical (and/or ancient) intellectual reputation to defend political behavior and the perhaps unique cultural applications of this practice in China regarding Han Feizi.