The rise and rebirth of Chinese realpolitik

Wealth and Power: China’s Long March to the Twenty-First Century, by Orville Schell and John Delury, Little, Brown (£14.99, $30)

Confucius taught that “propriety and righteousness” were the foundations of the state, and “power and profit” were its enemies. The history of modern China, culminating in the wealth-creating reforms unleashed by Deng Xiaoping, has been dedicated to proving him wrong.

In their superb book, Orville Schell and John Delury, scholars of China, chart the intellectual struggles of the nation’s great modern thinkers. They conclude that a “common chord rings through all their work”: how to make China strong and wealthy after its 19th-century collapse under foreign assault and internal putrefaction.

“Wealth and power” is a concept dating back 2,500 years, to before China was unified under the brutally pragmatic Qin emperor in 221BC. A group known as the Legalists had emerged as critics of Confucius, rejecting the ancient philosopher’s idea of a harmonious society and advocating what we might call realpolitik. Legalist philosopher Han Feizi put it in a nutshell: “If a wise ruler masters wealth and power, he can have whatever he desires.”

In the 19th century, it was in Japan, not China, where the concept of “rich nation, strong military” gained most traction. The Meiji leaders determined that, if they were to resist foreign predations, they would need to shore up the country’s wealth and technological capacity. Only thus could they expel the barbarians.

In China, the Legalist tradition had been overshadowed by Confucian concepts of piety and loyalty. The authors of Wealth and Power convincingly argue that the rebirth of China has involved a rediscovery of its pragmatic Legalist roots. The book charts that process through the intellectuals who wrestled with the problems of how to overcome foreign domination and a dysfunctional domestic system. They trace those ideas through early 20th-century thinkers such as Liang Qichao through to Sun Yat-sen, Chiang Kai-shek, Mao Zedong and Deng himself.

The earlier parts of the book are the most fascinating because they are the least familiar. Wei Yuan (1794-1857), a scholar who became increasingly preoccupied with China’s military inferiority, aired the ideas of the long-ignored Legalists. Even a “sage king” needed to make his subjects wealthy and his nation strong, he wrote.

After China’s humiliation by the British in the first opium war (1839-42), Wei arrived at the same conclusion as Japan’s Meiji leaders. China needed to look abroad to restore its greatness. He also advocated what would become a powerful motif: to spur change, the Chinese must nurture their humiliation. “To feel shame is to approach courage,” he wrote, a sentiment echoed in Mao’s famous “China has stood up” speech of 1949. That sense of humiliation burns in China’s youth today, manifested in what the authors call a “hypersensitive patriotism”.

The book is beautifully written and neatly structured around the lives of the actors in China’s philosophical and revolutionary drama. That allows us to draw threads together and start making sense of what can seem a chaotic, stop-start history, at least until Deng. All the protagonists are motivated by overcoming humiliation and securing national wealth and power.

So when Deng was sent to Europe to study, he told his father: “China was weak and we wanted to make her strong, and China was poor and we wanted to make her richer.” Today, President Xi Jinping’s Chinese Dream melds the twin goals of creating prosperity and securing the “rejuvenation of the Chinese nation”.

The book even places the mad and brutal years of Mao in this tradition. In one of his first essays, in 1912, Mao celebrated what the authors call the Legalists’ emphasis on “strong leadership, rigid authoritarian controls, strict centralism and an uncompromising system of laws and punishments”. His destruction of feudalism, through his murderous collectivisation campaign, created a tabula rasa on which Deng could build, they write. The China Deng inherited was “far closer to escaping the drag of its four thousand years of tradition”.

That, though, leaves modern China with a deep problem. If its rise is the triumph of a Legalist “whatever works approach”, where is the moral core vacated by Confucianism? The book ends on Liu Xiaobo, the jailed Nobel Peace prize winner, who has challenged the party’s centrality. In his view, regaining national pride is as much about just, humane government as about impressing the world through brute wealth and power.

Many of the thinkers named in the book were out of step with their time. Chen Duxiu, founder of the Communist party, died in obscurity. Still, their ideas ended up at the heart of the modern Chinese project. The unfashionable convictions now being advocated by Mr Liu, the authors imply, could yet play a pivotal role.

The writer is the FT’s Asia editor

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