China Power

Are China’s Leaders Disciples of Machiavelli?

A deeper look at Machiavellian thought and how it relates to Chinese leaders’ political philosophy.

Jin Kai
Are China’s Leaders Disciples of Machiavelli?
Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Recently, two articles on The Diplomat (here and here) discussed an interesting and very important issue: relations between proclamations by Han Feizi (the so-called Chinese Machiavelli) and contemporary Chinese (or, more specifically, Xi Jinping’s) political philosophy. These two pieces raised very good points, and I would like to add some comments from a different perspective. In particular, I want to answer a more realistic question that has repeatedly occurred in my own research: Are Chinese leaders the disciples of Machiavelli?

In The Twenty Years’ Crisis: 1919-1939, E. H. Carr regarded Niccolo Machiavelli as the very first important political realist (importantly, Carr also claimed that “more than four centuries after he wrote, the most conclusive way of discrediting a political opponent is still to describe him as a disciple of Machiavelli”). Carr pointed out three essential tenets of Machiavellian thought that later constructed the whole theoretical basis of classical realist political philosophy: first, history is a sequence of cause and effect and cannot be directed by “imagination;” second, practice creates theory; and third, ethics is a function of politics (or to put it another way, ethics is the product of politics).

So we can discover whether Chinese leaders truly are the disciples of Machiavelli by probing into these three tenets, while roughly evaluating China’s domestic politics and foreign affairs.

Tenet one: History is a sequence of cause and effect and cannot be directed by “imagination.” This is a view that has some roughly historical-materialist elements and particularly targets the weakness of utopian beliefs. Interestingly, historical materialism has an essentially important role in the CCP’s political ideology and philosophy, although the CCP also acknowledges that subjective consciousness may have certain impacts on the objective development process – see, for example, the role of historical figures and heroes. Nevertheless, in view of historical materialism, Chinese thinkers may find Machiavelli’s viewpoint on history agreeable to a certain degree.

Tenet two: Practice creates theory. This view is even more familiar to the CCP and even to the Chinese public, especially after Deng Xiaoping made his famous claim that “practice is the only standard to test truth” in the late 1970s. The Chinese leadership does not indiscriminately copy existing theories from its ancient philosophies or the Western ideologies. Instead, the CCP consistently insists that all theories, institutions, and patterns should be weighed with regard to the real situation in China – in other words, combined with “Chinese characteristics.” Of course, the Chinese leadership also emphasizes the role of theories as guidance for practice. In China’s political practices, theory and practice are actually in a dialectical unity.

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Tenet three: Ethics is a function of politics, or ethics is the product of politics. This actually is the key issue with regard to my query. At least on this point, Machiavelli, E. H. Carr, and Han Feizi shared some common ground. For example, like Machiavelli, both Han Feizi and Carr described ethics (or political ethics) using a very realistic approach; they generally agreed that ethics were subordinate to states or politics. But what kind of role does ethics, including rules and institutions, have in the Chinese leadership’s political philosophy? In contemporary China, does ethics rule over politics or is it the other way around?

First, the leadership of the CCP seems to have a very unique and strong characteristic: to recommend and select “the wise and able” that are ethically qualified (推贤举能). So far, an obvious difference between Chinese politics and Western politics lies in a single letter of the alphabet: “S” – “selection” vs. “election.” The CCP emphasizes the inner qualities of candidates, including their ethical accomplishments, through years of observation, cultivation, and examination. The Chinese do not seem to trust a single election when they try to choose their national leaders, since that could be too risky for such a geographically huge and ethnically, economically, and culturally diverse country (though “in-party elections” have been tested at the local, provincial, and national levels, especially in the past decade).

Meanwhile, generations of Chinese leaders have been very enthusiastic about educating party cadres and the public with ethical rhetorical practices. Jiang Zemin urged cadres to “rule the country by virtue (以德治国)”; Hu Jintao had “the campaign to maintain the advanced nature of Communist Party members (党员先进性教育)”; and and now Xi seeks “to establish the people with virtue (以德立人).” Hence, we may confer that at least in the CCP’s political value system, ethics is still higher than politics.

Likewise, regarding foreign diplomacy, the Chinese leadership has been trying to overcome the somewhat illusory nature of ethics in politics described by many classical realists. For example, China summarizes its policies toward neighboring countries with four Chinese characters: “亲, 诚, 惠, 容,” meaning “amity, sincerity, mutual benefit, and inclusiveness.” Meanwhile, China acknowledges but does not over-emphasize the importance of hard power when it comes to conflicts and disputes, and especially works very hard to avoid the “natural” and “inevitable” conflicts between states that classical realists see when it comes to great power relations. Could we thus conclude that contemporary Chinese leadership are not really disciples of Machiavelli?

It is natural and understandable that we may find some common points between the political thoughts of either Han Feizi or Machiavelli and the political philosophy of contemporary Chinese leadership. For example, “rule of law” pledged by Xi Jinping could remind us some of Han Feizi’s classical writings. That is indeed a very interesting research topic. But coming back to my own question, the whole political philosophy and ideology of the CCP can hardly be tied to classical philosophers, whether Han Feizi or Machiavelli. In his piece on the subject, Ryan Mitchell described Xi as a pragmatic legalist. In fact, pragmatism (rather than Machiavellian realism) is a better way to describe on-going changes in both China’s political and diplomatic practices.