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.”