Statue of Confucius Statue of Confucius. Photo: Peggy_Marco / Pixabay

China’s greatest thinker is once again being promoted to justify authoritarian rule, writes Sean Ledwith

A week rarely goes by now without some example of Western paranoia about China hitting the headlines. Earlier this year we witnessed the farcical situation of US jets being scrambled to shoot down a rogue Chinese weather balloon. Secretary of State Antony Blinken then cancelled a bilateral meeting with his Beijing counterpart in protest at the helium-powered transgressor. Blinken’s boss, President Biden, is currently enforcing a ban on exports of semiconductors to China out of fear about falling behind in a tech trade war.

Edge of confrontation

The two superpowers frequently flirt with catastrophe over the Taiwan Strait and South China Sea as their air and naval forces indulge in near misses and dress rehearsals for a nightmarish confrontation. The Ukraine war is perceived by some analysts as a de facto tussle for hegemony between the US and China in Eurasia. As usual, the British government dutifully follows its US master with overblown rhetoric about the supposed threat, Rishi Sunak recently claiming: ‘China poses the biggest challenge of our age to global security and prosperity. They are increasingly authoritarian at home and assertive abroad… it is the only country with both the means and intent to reshape the world order.’ Sunak apparently is oblivious to the fact the US military budget dwarfs that of China and every other major power.

Age of Xi

This Western paranoia is not entirely without foundation. Since coming to power a decade ago, it is beyond doubt the Xi Jinping, the Chinese President, has accrued a degree of control that makes him the country’s most powerful leader since Mao Zedong who died in 1976. We witnessed the enormous reach of the state into the lives of ordinary people during the pandemic when the pursuit of Zero Covid led to extended and ruthlessly enforced lockdowns. Earlier this year, Xi was elected by the Chinese Communist Party for an unprecedented third term in the top job, having engineered a convenient modification to the constitution that barred anyone for serving more than two terms. The Xi era has seen an expansion of the authoritarian power of the CCP, most visibly in the crushing of the democratic movement in Hong Kong and the suppression of Uighur nationalism in Xinjiang province.

Neoliberalism with Chinese characteristics

The Belt and Roads Initiative, launched by Xi ten years ago, is the largest infrastructure project in the world and promises to embed Chinese economic influence right across Asia and even onto the doorstep of Europe. Xi’s dominance has even found expression into a modest revival of the cult of personality most infamously associated with Mao in the 1960s and 70s. The country is now governed according to the principles of what is modestly known as ‘XI Jinping Thought,’ justified by its living embodiment in grandiloquent terms:

‘It is Marxism-Leninism and Mao Zedong Thought that guided the Chinese people out of the darkness of that long night and established a New China; it through socialism with Chinese characteristics that China has developed so quickly.

China’s 1%

What Xi is less keen to talk about, apart from the ruthless repression of internal dissent, is the mounting evidence of massive inequality in Chinese society. Ever since the turn to globalisation associated with Deng Xiaoping in the 1980s, the country has experienced the economic polarisation that inevitably accompanies greater integration with the world market. Beneath the veneer of its Communist rhetoric, the ‘People’s Republic’ contains an elite 1% which have an income share roughly equal that of the bottom 50%. The personal wealth share going to the top 1% exceeds by five times the wealth going to the bottom 50%. The state that absurdly claims descent from the ideas of Marx and Engels  anachronistically  boasts of 969 billionaires, putting even the epicentre of capitalism in the shade (691 billionaires in the US). China’s level of income inequality as measured by the internationally recognised Gini coefficient has increased rapidly, from about 0.30 in 1980 to 0.47 in 2017 by official estimates (compared with an OECD average of 0.31 and the US’s level of 0.39).

Back to Confucius

Inevitably some people in China have started to question whether Xi’s policies of authoritarian enrichment for the upper echelons of the Chinese Communist Party are compatible with the official ideology of Marxism-Leninism. Noticeably, many Chinese students have drawn attention to the discrepancy between rhetoric and reality in the Kingdom of Xi. One anonymous activist has written:

‘The workers and students have lawfully defended workers’ rights but have been cruelly suppressed by local negative forces… I believe, no matter what the result, once a flag has been raised, once a lamp has been lit, once a path has been opened, then more people will see the truth, find our direction and unite.

 In response to this type of criticism about its ideological trajectory from within and without the country, the Communist Party is increasingly turning to the ideas of a thinker from the distant past to prop up its legitimacy. On the birthday of its ancient founder, Xi proclaimed in 2014:  ‘Confucianism is key to understanding the national characteristics of the Chinese as well as the historical roots of the spiritual world of the present-day Chinese. Confucianism has morphed with the times, and evolved in accordance with corresponding conditions, constantly refreshing itself while responding to demands of the times. This is why it has had such lasting vitality.’ This rehabilitation of Confucius represents a remarkable turnaround for a thinker who for most of the history of the CCP was regarded as the ultimate embodiment of China’s imperial and reactionary past.

Master Kong Fuzi, or Confucius as he is known in the West, is undoubtedly the most influential thinker to have ever emerged from Asia. His ideas have influenced not only China but the whole continent, including neighbouring dynamos of modern history such as Japan, Korea and Vietnam. He lived from 551-479 BCE, before China became a unified state during a period known as the Warring States. This was an era when the introduction of iron-making technology was facilitating the rise of a new city-based landowning gentry to challenge the hereditary nobility that had dominated for centuries.

Mandate of Heaven

Confucius briefly served as a local administrator in the state of Lu but for most of his life was an itinerant teacher, promoting loosely humanistic values summarised by his followers as Jen, Li and Chih or altruism, etiquette and righteousness, respectively. In his own lifetime, Confucius’ attempts to restrain the greedy plotting of ambitious generals and politicians mostly went unheeded but three hundred years after his death, the ideas published by his disciples in the ‘Analects’ became the official ideology of the Han dynasty (202 BCE-220 CE). Just as Jesus’ teachings were ossified into the ruling belief-system of the later Roman Empire, Confucius’ emphasis on obedience and respect to ancestors and elders became the justification for a rigid hierarchy of personal and political behaviour that ultimately bound everyone to the emperor who ruled China in the name of the ‘Mandate of Heaven.’

Dogma and despotism

Dynasties such as the Tang, Song and Ming came and went over the following centuries but Confucianism remained firmly esconced as the conservative ideology of China’s mandarinate, the imperial civil service which formed the immovable core of the feudal state. A dogmatic interpretation of the Master was used to justify the despotic practices of a privileged elite such as the pigtail hairstyle for men and foot binding of women. Despite China been technologically more advanced than the West for many centuries-with innovations such as gunpowder, printing and paper occurring there first-Confucianism over time degenerated into an ideological buttress against scientific thought and merged with mystical conceptions of a divine social order.

As historian Nancy Wei notes:

‘It evolved during the Song Dynasty into a rigid set of ideologies emphasizing hierarchy and absolute obedience. Institutionalized and internalized through civil service examinations, the neo-Confucianist interpretations proved instrumental in making the Middle Kingdom agrarian, arrogant, inward-looking, and resistant to change. Such a Confucian China would be doomed in its first encounters with the West.

Fossil of the past

The Confucian grip on the Chinese mind came crashing down at the beginning of the 20th century, first with the 1911 revolution that ended the imperial monarchy. A few years later, students inspired by the Bolshevik revolution in Russia in 1917, formed the May Fourth movement which sought to deepen the revolutionary momentum and take it in a left-wing direction. Chen Duxiu was one of the leaders of the student rebellion and would later become a founder of Chinese Trotskyism. For Chen, the modernisation of China was dependent on an uncompromising attack on the philosophy of the old order:

‘Confucianism is fundamentally an inefficacious idol and a fossil of the past… If we wish to construct a Western-style new state and organize a Western-style new society in order to seek an existence suitable to our modern times, then the fundamental issue is that we must import the foundation of a Western-style society and country, that is to say, the new faith in equality and human rights… Unless Confucianism is suppressed, the new Way will not prevail; unless supporters of Confucianism are stopped, the new Way will not be practiced.

Chen v. Mao

Along with Mao Zedong, Chen became one of the founder members of the Chinese Communist Party in 1921. The two men would have major strategic differences, however, about the nature of the Chinese revolution. Chen disagreed with both the subordination of the CCP to the nationalist KMT Party and Mao’s preference for mobilisation among the peasants rather than the urban working class. The former policy in particular would have a calamitous consequence, prompting the extermination of the cream of the CCP cadre by Chiang Kai-shek’s KMT death squads in 1927.

This disaster made Mao’s rural-focused strategy appear more viable and that would become the foundation of the CCP’s rise to power in 1949. The regime that took power at that point was far from the Bolshevik-inspired vision that had inspired the creation of the party nearly three decades before. Mao cultivated a totalitarian leadership style that promoted a crude personality cult and suppressed inner party debate. Workers’ democracy was never part of the agenda under Mao or any of his successors in the new People’s Republic. The post-1949 regime would evolve into a state capitalist formation, paying lip service to Marxism but primarily committed to making China a self-sufficient state that could ultimately compete with the other great powers.

Red Vandals

When Mao needed to purge rivals within the CCP in the late 1960s, a renewed assault on residual Confucianism provided the pretext. In the so -called Cultural Revolution, Mao’s Red Guards launched violent attacks on Confucian temples and smashed relics associated with the great philosopher. The ‘Analects’ were banned and pilgrimages to Confucian sites became impossible. Mao cynically tied his main rival for the leadership with the ideas of a figure still regarded as the embodiment of the old order, labelling this outbreak of hysterical vandalism as the Criticise Lin Biao and Confucius campaign. Mao pronounced that ‘those who worshipped Confucius and advocated reading the classics of Confucianism stood for old ethics, old rites and old thoughts, which were against the new culture and new thought. As imperialist culture and semi-feudal culture which served imperialism and the feudal class, they should be eliminated.

Confucius returns

The chaos unleashed by the Cultural Revolution threatened to destabilise the whole regime and Mao was forced to rein in the excesses of the Red Guards. Following his death in 1976, Deng Xiaoping acted swiftly to end the international isolation of the state and begin the process of integration that now leaves China on the brink of overtaking the US as the cornerstone of the global capitalist order. Not coincidentally, Confucius’ rehabilitation also commenced in the 1980s. The first International Conference of Confucian Studies was permitted in his birthplace of Qufu in 1987. Two years later, the CCP authorised celebrations of the philosopher’s birthday (with grim irony, just as they were crushing the student rebellion in Tiananmen Square). Another of Mao’s successors, Hu Jintao, continued the rehabilitation policy with the creation of Confucius Institutes in 2002 which are tasked with a ‘soft power’ rebranding of China as a peace-loving and non-threatening state.

Confucian state capitalism

The real agenda behind this ideological U-turn by the successors of Mao was neatly summarised by the FT’s Richard McGregor in 2007:


‘The revival is at the heart of the party’s ambitious effort to reframe its single-party rule as a part of a long-standing Chinese tradition of benevolent and enlightened government. Under the banner of the harmonious society, the political catchphrase of Hu Jintao, who holds China’s top leadership positions, the party aims to entrench itself as the embodiment of such traditions and in the process buttress its own legitimacy.

 Xi Jinping is clearly sustaining this latest deployment of Confucius as the ideological anchor of a massively centralised state apparatus. Like all great thinkers, however, the great Chinese sage’s ideas are perhaps not so easily categorised. Confucian scholar Ernest Faber notes another side to this age-old philosophy that may lead China’s ruling class to regret their adoption of it:

‘Confucius himself appears to have regarded with favour rebellious movements in the hope of bringing a sage to the throne.. He justifies the dethroning and even the murder of a bad ruler. No wonder, then, that rebellions have occurred on a large scale, over fifty times in about 2,000 years, and local rebellions are almost yearly events… Confucianism is to blame for it.

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Sean Ledwith

Sean Ledwith is a Counterfire member and Lecturer in History at York College, where he is also UCU branch negotiator. Sean is also a regular contributor to Marx and Philosophy Review of Books and Culture Matters