Confucius Envy

American reactionaries look to China for inspiration.
China’s then–Vice President Xi Jinping points at a bust of Confucius, 2009 (REUTERS/Boris Roessler/Pool).

On March 20, 2020, Tucker Carlson Tonight featured an unusual segment—the show’s host close-reading the remarks of a Chinese diplomat named Yang Jiechi. “Our leaders are weak, and so the Chinese press their advantage,” Carlson warned. “In fact, they have a name for our self-hating professional class. They call them baizuo. The rough translation from Mandarin is ‘white liberal,’ and it is definitely not a compliment.”

Others have pointed out that Carlson grossly mischaracterized the term baizuo, which originates not in right-wing criticisms of “the Democratic Party’s emphasis on affirmative action” but in intra-left debates about Chinese nationalism and “geopolitical Darwinism.” But regardless of the imprecision of Carlson’s usage, the term baizuo soon became a fixture in right-wing writing about the culture wars. Rod Dreher, the author of The Benedict Option and senior editor at the American Conservative, even coined the term “baizuocracy” to describe “government by white Western leftists.”

The Carlson baizuo episode reflects an emerging attitude toward China within America’s so-called “post-liberal” circles. Many of America’s right-wing intellectuals and commentators now openly express a fascination not just with China generally, but more specifically with the country’s contemporary politics. They have adopted some of its formulations, accepted its terms of debate, and admiringly contrasted the loftiness of its priorities with the mundane concerns of American discourse.

“China,” proclaimed Carlson on another edition of his program, “emphatically rejects identity politics.” “It’s illegal there,” he said, because “leaders in China don’t narrow-cast to tiny constituencies based on their identity. The idea is appalling to them.”

In fact, China’s government promotes an exclusivist vision of Han ethnic identity, and explicitly discriminates between different racial and ethnic groups in a way that would presumably strike Carlson and his ilk as the rankest identity politics if applied in America. All of this scarcely matters, however, to the small but influential faction of American right-wingers for whom China has become a convenient foil to America’s decadent liberal empire. For them, China’s rise portends both the imminent decline of Western civilization and the authoritarian possibilities that lie beyond it.

 

Until fairly recently, the American right was uniformly critical of China. Mitt Romney railed against Chinese currency manipulation and Tea Party deficit hawks howled about Communist-controlled debt. China could be understood as either a rival or an enemy. Republicans were allowed to hope that it might one day become a partner, if not a friend, once capitalism had led to democratization, as many had assumed it would. But no one on the Right talked about China as a model for the United States; such talk would have been regarded as deeply unpatriotic.

That has begun to change in recent years. In 2016, Donald Trump griped on the campaign trail that China’s leaders “are much smarter than our leaders.” On a panel at the University of Notre Dame in 2018, Gladden Pappin, a political theorist at the University of Dallas and the editor of American Affairs, approvingly noted the way in which China devotes state resources towards “the spiritual guidance of its people.” China, Pappin’s argument went, understands the relationship between “soulcraft” and “statecraft” in a way that America does not. Rod Dreher, who was in attendance at the Notre Dame conference, later wrote that the Chinese government’s willingness to engage in such soulcraft makes it “more ‘Catholic’ than the United States.”

As with Tucker Carlson’s remark about how China rejects “identity politics,” this assertion strikes most people with a background in China studies as ridiculous. China’s now-defunct State Administration for Religious Affairs—the government agency to which Pappin’s comments presumably refer—was not devoted to “spiritual guidance” as any Western integralist might understand that term; it was an atheistic, totalitarian, and anti-Catholic regulatory apparatus. (I say “presumably” because Pappin’s comments appear to conflate two different organs of the Chinese Communist Party. Pappin attributes the Chinese’s government’s efforts in “spiritual guidance” to the Central Guidance Commission on Building Spiritual Civilization, the Party’s top propaganda-steering body, despite the fact that responsibility for the type of religious management being discussed in his talk actually fell to the State Administration for Religious Affairs. The source of Pappin’s confusion may arise from the fact that the term “spiritual” (精神) does not translate neatly into English, giving the impression that the commission in question is more concerned with religion than it actually is. In an effort to avoid this error, some translators have instead rendered the commission’s name as “the Central Commission for Guiding Cultural and Ethical Progress.”) But however detached from reality, Pappin’s argument does appear to reflect a growing belief about the Chinese state’s spiritual and moral wisdom, a belief which extends even to anti-liberal thinkers outside the tight-knit circles of conservative media and American Catholic academia. In a sprawling critique of “liberal thought,” Archbishop Marcelo Sánchez Sorondo, chancellor of the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences, claimed that Western liberalism had “liquidated the concept of the common good” even as “the Chinese seek the common good, subordinate things to the general good, [and] defend the dignity of the human person.” “At the moment,” Sorondo remarked, “those who best realize the social doctrine of the Church are the Chinese.”

A common refrain in post-liberal circles is that China is what Bruno Maçães—a critic of liberalism and a frequent commentator on Chinese affairs—has called a “civilization-state,” as opposed to a nation-state. A cottage industry of tendentious right-wing explorations of Chinese civilization, or at least Chinese political thought, has emerged in recent years in the pages of journals and magazines critical of liberalism. American Affairs and Palladium, a self-identified “post-liberal” publication that focuses on “governance futurism,” have both published several articles on China’s governance model and the applicability of Confucian thought to contemporary political issues. Some of these articles, such as an American Affairs series on contemporary Confucianism by the Harvard intellectual historian James Hankins, are clearly written, well researched, and exceptionally even-handed in their assessments. But others suffer from flaws typical of much American writing on China: credulity toward China’s claims about its technological and urban-planning achievements, mischaracterizations of Chinese nationalism, and a tendency to use the fear of Chinese economic domination to prod Americans into supporting the policies favored by the writer.

More interestingly, Matthew Schmitz, a former editor at First Things and a founding editor of the new online publication Compact, once wrote an article rebutting Archbishop Sorondo’s claims about China and the common good, but later praised the work of the Confucian revivalist Jiang Qing. Tracing the connections between Jiang’s arguments and the work of Marx, Locke, Rousseau, and Richard John Neuhaus, as well as the Chinese classics, Schmitz ends up describing Jiang’s political proposals, which would turn China’s government into a Confucian quasi-democracy ruled by a tricameral legislature, as a kind of “Confucian integralism.”

Well-written and compelling, Schmitz’s article on Jiang Qing is in many ways emblematic of the post-liberals’ engagement with Chinese political thought. To his credit, Schmitz evinces real familiarity with the source material, but his characterization of Jiang’s vision as integralist is clearly intended to instrumentalize Confucian philosophy in support of his own political agenda for the West. Drawing parallels between Confucian and Catholic-integralist political philosophy, Schmitz emphasizes Jiang’s belief that “the spiritual has primacy over the temporal,” and commends his desire to create a “state that serves a creed.”

Indeed, even the title of Schmitz’s essay, “Confucian Integralism”—a term since adopted by publications such as Palladium—serves to conflate Confucian political thought with a specific tradition of beliefs about the Catholic Church’s role in the world. Jiang Qing would likely be surprised to discover that he has been enlisted in support of the post-liberal argument that, as Gladden Pappin has put it, “most societies are integralist.”

Not long after the publication of “Confucian Integralism,” Sohrab Ahmari, one of Compact’s two other founding editors, offered a shorter, less elegant version of this argument on Twitter. “I’m at peace with a Chinese-led 21st century,” Ahmari wrote. “Late-liberal America is too dumb and decadent to last as a superpower. Chinese civilization, especially if it recovers more of its Confucian roots, will possess a great deal of natural virtue.”

 

Drawing parallels between Confucian and Catholic-integralist political philosophy, Schmitz emphasizes Jiang’s belief that ‘the spiritual has primacy over the temporal,’ and commends his desire to create ‘a state that serves a creed.’

The post-liberals are not alone in their fascination with China; in a certain sense, they are merely the latest example in a long tradition of Westerners looking to the East for remedies to the West’s political ills. Years before the current “post-liberal moment,” the political scientist Daniel A. Bell expounded extensively on China’s “new Confucianism” as part of a broader set of writings on the case for meritocracy and technocracy. Even today, Bell, now an administrator at China’s prestigious Tsinghua University, writes admiringly—sometimes in outlets such as American Affairs—about the Chinese governance model.

Like Bell, many post-liberal Western commentators are simply using an idealized model of China to highlight the perceived shortcomings of their own countries. These writers tend to view China, the object of their fantasies, with a shocking single-mindedness and simplicity; in many cases, their writing is characterized by an obvious unfamiliarity with the realities of both Chinese history and contemporary Chinese life. In an article in the New Criterion examining whether “China represent[s] the fatal crossroads of Western civilization,” the philosopher Angelo Codevilla argued that, since the time of Confucius, China has usually been governed by “impartial enforcement” of customary law by juridical officials who presided over a “mostly static” society of stable borders, little poverty, and steady population growth—all assertions that would be rejected by any serious historian of China.

This opportunistic and ill-informed interest in Chinese politics and political thought sometimes serves as the basis for concrete policy recommendations. Before his death, Codevilla wrote and spoke frequently on U.S. foreign policy toward China; Hankins has likewise written on the prospect of an American retreat from East Asia. Looking away from America, Pappin and Harvard Law Professor Adrian Vermeule have defended the 2018 Vatican-China deal, arguing that China has “evolved away from ‘Communism’ per se to a kind of neo-Confucian authoritarianism” and that Catholics in the West should therefore give the Vatican a “broad measure of deference” in its dealings with the Chinese government.

There is, to put it as politely as possible, a tension between what post-liberals imagine China to be and what today’s China really is. One needs only a glancing familiarity with the mechanics of Chinese rule to see why the post-liberals should find the “China model” not just incompatible with their values but uniquely so. Any reader of “Against the Dead Consensus,” a sort of post-liberal manifesto published in First Things and signed by many of the right-wing intellectuals who now profess their interest in the China model, will notice that the problems these post-liberals associate with the West—a “soulless society of individual affluence,” “attempts to compromise on human dignity,” the mistreatment of workers and displacement of families—are much worse in China.

What explains this cognitive dissonance? Perhaps some of it can be understood in terms of what Vermeule has called the “horror of retrogression.” Vermeule coined the phrase to explain the paradox of liberals who profess horror at any sign of authoritarianism in Hungary or Poland, while seeming less alarmed by the much greater authoritarianism of countries like Saudi Arabia. (He does not cite any examples, but never mind.) His argument is that liberals regard European countries that violate the norms of liberal democracy as backsliders, and that, according to their own view of history, such backsliding should not be possible. Meanwhile, they expect much less of openly authoritarian regimes that have no history of liberal democracy. They grade such countries on a different curve. One might use the same concept to explain the nonchalance of Western post-liberals with respect to the abuses and failures of the Chinese government. Because of their poor understanding of Chinese history—and their tendency to Orientalize what they do understand—the post-liberals are convinced that China, as a non-Christian, non-Western society, has always suffered from what we would now call human-rights abuses. It would therefore be unreasonable to expect too much of China. Another, older term for this reasoning is “the soft bigotry of low expectations,” though in the case of the post-liberals it is often disguised by a tone of Orientalist fascination.

But China’s role in the right-wing imagination is complicated. Some of the same reactionaries who present it as a model for America have also described it as a looming threat to Western civilizational preeminence. If we do not learn from China’s strengths, these writers warn, then China will defeat us—and we decadent Westerners will deserve our defeat. Of course, they add, it would be better if we weren’t defeated because the West is, despite all its faults, the legatee of Christendom. The argument swings back and forth, from envy to fear, from chauvinism to self-loathing.

Some of the same reactionaries who present it as a model for America have also described it as a looming threat to Western civilizational preeminence.

This dual role of the imaginary China sometimes leads to flagrant contradictions. Schmitz’s instinctive reaction is to dismiss Archbishop Sorondo’s comment about the Chinese conception of the common good as an apologia for tyranny, but he cannot help fawning over the work of Jiang Qing, which seems to fit Sorondo’s rosy picture rather nicely. Rod Dreher finds himself enthralled with a poorly understood anti-baizuo critique of American liberalism, but still worries that sex ed at Princeton is a “gift to the Chinese.” Even Sohrab Ahmari, who claims to be at peace with a Chinese-led twenty-first century, has written recently about the seriousness of the Chinese threat in a call for industrial policy and an American decoupling from China.

 

Quite often, writes the literary critic and intellectual historian Lydia Liu, “the making of the myth of national character involves a large measure of coauthorship.” It would be a mistake to pretend that this imaginary China—land of customary law, Confucius, and the common good—was invented by American post-liberals without assistance. The reign of Xi Jinping, now entering its tenth year, has seen a renaissance in Chinese authoritarian political theory, almost all of it coming from a group of Chinese “statist” political thinkers who lean heavily on the work of the political theorist Leo Strauss and the Nazi jurist Carl Schmitt. More broadly, China’s rise on the world stage has produced many talented and serious critics of the so-called “liberal international order.”

These thinkers, some of whom go back and forth between government consulting positions and academic posts at the country’s elite universities, have helped shape perceptions of China in intellectual circles around the world. Many have also shown a willingness to write for Anglophone readers abroad; American Affairs, for example, has published the work of several Chinese critics of liberalism on subjects such as state power and international law, the relationship between state and worker identity, and the strengths of authoritarian regimes.

Elsewhere, the Chinese jurist Jiang Shigong—profiled in Palladium and cited in American Affairs—has drawn from Schmitt and other European thinkers to mount wide-ranging attacks on liberalism. Like Vermeule and other post-liberals in the West, Jiang rejects the idea of liberal legal neutrality. In an academic talk at Jiang’s home institution (the Peking University Law School) earlier this year, Vermeule echoed Jiang in arguing for the primacy of legal norms and principles over a preoccupation with the letter of the law.

The Chinese academic and Communist Party apparatchik Wang Huning has also found his share of admirers among Western post-liberals. Wang’s work is the product of a bizarre and lengthy career, during which he has written a wide variety of political treatises for different sets of party bosses who believe fundamentally contradictory things about China and the world. But Wang’s ideas have nevertheless drawn a significant amount of attention from reactionaries in this country. Sohrab Ahmari, Rod Dreher, and Palladium’s N. S. Lyons have all argued that Wang’s 1991 book America Against America is correct in diagnosing America as a society “close to coming apart,” crippled by, among other things, “rural decay…a self-perpetuating rentier elite; powerful tech monopolies…addiction, homelessness, crime; cultural chaos…family breakdown…plunging fertility rates…spiritual malaise…a loss of national unity and purpose in the face of decadence [and] racial tensions.” It is not surprising that Wang’s writing, despite its inconsistencies and anachronisms, has struck a chord with the post-liberal crowd. It eerily anticipates their own jaundiced view of American culture and politics. Of course, it also adds little to their own critique, except the suggestion that America’s decline must be well advanced if it can be seen so clearly all the way from China.

 

In their essay defending the 2018 Vatican-China deal, Vermeule and Pappin explicitly note that they “are not China hands.” Indeed. It is notable that none of China’s new post-liberal admirers are experts in East Asian affairs; none of the American post-liberals whose work I’ve discussed in this article—Vermeule, Pappin, Ahmari, Sorondo, Schmitz, Codevilla—can read Chinese. Not even the well-read and fair-minded James Hankins, whose engagement with Confucian political thought seems to span far beyond that of his compatriots, seems to have a strong background in Chinese history; his training as a scholar is in the intellectual history of the Italian Renaissance, and his reading of the work of contemporary Confucians appears limited to the texts that have been translated into English by Princeton University Press under the guidance of Daniel A. Bell. Unlike Viktor Orbán’s Hungarian regime, the Chinese government has not invited luminaries of the American right to stay in the country for long periods of time; no post-liberal intellectuals have summered in Shanghai or Suzhou. In fact, it isn’t clear that some of these writers have ever even visited China.

So if the post-liberals are simply casting about for a country on which to project their hopes and fears for America, why have they chosen this one, about which they know so little? Writing in the preface to the Chinese edition of his book Fanaticism: On the Uses of an Idea, the Italian critical theorist Alberto Toscano argues that, since at least the nineteenth century, the idea of “China” has served as a sort of metaphorical expression of political possibilities to thinkers on the fringes of Western intellectual life. Drawing on the Italian literary critic Franco Fortini, Toscano characterizes China as an “allegorical country”—a “land and history grasped as bearers of a distinctive configuration of human possibilities, but also a vast and distant screen onto which to project the political impasses of the ‘Western’ present.”

Toscano outlines a pattern of Western fantasies about China, one that includes not only Marx’s writing on the Taiping Rebellion, but also French postmodernists’ interest in Maoism, Italian labor organizers’ reverence for the Cultural Revolution, and modern socialists’ hope that China might stop the depoliticization of capitalist countries. We can place this tradition next to a similar but separate history of Western reactionary intellectuals looking abroad for inspiration. In America, this sordid pattern runs through star-struck visits to South Africa in the late Cold War, curiosity about Russia in the last years of Obama, and uncritical support for Hungary and Poland in the age of Trump. Across the Atlantic, one finds a similar history of European reactionaries seeking foreign authoritarian counterweights to the status quo. The new confluence between Chinese statists and American reactionaries is part of this larger story.

Much has been written lately about the American Right’s embrace of Hungary, which is said to reveal both the increasingly authoritarian tack of America’s conservatives and one possible outcome for America’s future. I would argue that the American Right’s fascination with China should be seen the same way—as telling us more about post-liberals than about China. When the new reactionaries write about China, their admiration involves a good deal of projection. In China, they see a powerful state organized around the “common good,” leaning on ancient traditions to maintain order and guide the lives of its subjects. In the writings of Chinese thinkers, they see a trenchant critique of American decadence and a substantive vision for a post-liberal politics. Their imaginary China is a model for their ideal America: a regime that won’t let democratic scruples keep it from restoring social order, a culture not unduly sentimental about pluralism. The China they praise may not be the real China, but the praise itself is sincere and significant. We should take it seriously.

Published in the October 2022 issue: 

Mason L. Wong writes about politics, literature, and East Asian history.

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