Artillery Row

Sinicizing the CCP

Xi Jinping’s cynical use of Confucius

At the end of the sixteenth century an Italian Jesuit Matteo Ricci arrived in China. To try and win a respectable position among the Chinese he copied the Buddhists, who were also known as “monks from the West” thanks to their Indian origins. However, it was not long before he realized the Buddhists were not quite so highly esteemed as he had assumed. In fact it was the Confucians — who wore their hair long, not shaven — that represented the true elite. A major reorientation was forced on Ricci who then became one of the major pioneers of Confucian studies in the West.

Ricci’s plight was not so dissimilar to Xi Jinping’s today. Both need to peddle a message in the strongest cultural currency possible: Confucianism. Once loathed thanks to Mao Zedong’s antics in the cultural revolution (1966-76), Mao’s terror caused such blowback that it forced Deng Xiaoping to backpedal on his predecessor’s cult and claim he had been “70 percent right and 30 percent wrong,” a formula swiftly adopted as the party line. Xi has pushed matters full circle and — realizing that the people had drifted towards Confucianism since the late 80s — sought to align the CCP leadership to this ancient system of thought.

Communism’s conflicted relationship with Confucianism

Communism shares much of the same logic as Mozi’s utilitarian critique of Confucianism, as well as the legalist school’s realism. The Mohists — like Communists — emphasized practical goals and equality, while Confucianism stressed personal character and familial affection. The former dismissed ritual and music as useless, Confucianism claimed they possessed great symbolic importance. Legalists attacked Confucian learning as a path to vulnerability and weakness not civilization. The fourth-century BC philosopher Shang Yang even argued that if too many people became Confucian the whole country would fall apart, creating ranks of epicene gentlemen instead of effective soldiers. Confucians countered that though Legalism was ideal for a culture of death (war) it was unsuitable as the basis of life (permanent government).

Communism, at root, stands in a western soil. It is a materialist ideology with little comprehension of a morality that stands outside class equality. So Mao followed a prepacked logic when he denigrated Confucius as a slave-owner whose teachings enforced oppressive hierarchies. During the early years of the revolution the CPP banned the Analects (known as Lunyu [Conversations] in Chinese) and had Confucian texts burned in a repeat of the May 4th demonstrations (1919) which had shouted slogans such as “Down with Confucius and sons!” In Qufu, Confucius’s tomb was blown up. As late as the mid-1970s Mao continued to wage war on the sage, launching the anti-Lin Biao and anti-Confucius campaign. Such was his toxicity that Confucian texts were planted on the persons (and in the houses) of party bigwigs who had fallen out of favor.

Mao’s behavior can be considered especially eccentric given he had been an ardent lover of the classics in his youth, while his readings in Marxist literature were narrow by comparison. Like most activists in the early days of the CCP he was attracted to action and revolution first and its ideological coloring second. Inspired by Robin Hood-type heroes of popular culture, the major planks of his intellectual formation came from copying the reading lists of the intellectuals he encountered as a library worker at Peking University. In his published works the two largest sources are Stalin and Confucian works (24 and 22 percent) followed by Lenin (18 percent) and references to Marx and Engels (4 percent). Yet he grew to loathe Confucius, demoting him from a great founder — an opinion he had held in his youth — to a useless idealist who had neglected the basics such as agricultural productivity.

When Mao died this attitude evaporated. In the mid-1980s the CCP even quietly shifted to support Confucianism’s revival. The creation of the Academy of Chinese Culture in 1984 serves as a useful milestone. Afterwards newspaper articles began referring to Confucianism in coded terms as a “powerful culture,” which “provided significant meaning.” Later, as confidence grew, it was linked to a “harmonious society.” This climaxed in 2008 when at the Olympic Games a passage from the Analects was quoted during the opening ceremony.

The reasoning behind Xi’s rehabilitation of Confucianism

Despite the public’s placid pro-Confucian stance, literally raising him to a plinth still constituted fraught territory in the party. As much was made clear when a 30ft, 17-tonne statue of the philosopher, placed in Tiananmen Square in 2011, disappeared without warning a few weeks later — a vanishing act celebrated by conservatives. Whereas Hu Jintao had been sensitive to this schism and only referenced Confucianism in polite, apathetic nods to culture and history, Xi’s Confucian turn has been loud and proud. This brashness is considered necessary to stake out a new ideological grounding for both his pivot from socialism to nationalism and his elevation to the rank of great leaders such as Mao, the founder, and Deng, the reformer. To join this prize crew Xi needs to replace consultative Leninism with strongman rule and be associated with China’s rise to great power status, an ambition that has motivated the nation’s elites since its “century of humiliation” (1839-1949). Contextualizing his reign as a continuation of la chine profonde amounts to Xi’s big move, and the national media has lapped it up bestowing upon him the title of lingxiu – a very grandiloquent way of saying “leader.”

Confucian messaging

It is in fleshing out his concept of the Chinese Dream (Zhongguo Meng) that Xi most explicitly employs Confucianism. Most famously with the phrase “Great Harmony under Heaven” (Tianxia Datong). One could be forgiven for suspecting the dream is a poor copy of the American one minted in the 1930s. Xi’s references to a “moderately prosperous society” (xiaokang shehui) rather than Yankee excess, however, reveal that his ideal is framed by a Confucian mindset (where great harmony [datong] is achieved when the people are moral and the ruler just) rather than a US model. This vocabulary aligns neatly with Xi’s wish to establish hegemony without calling it such since the Chinese are sensitive to violations of sovereignty after their historical experience of imperialism. It also allows Xi to position China as morally superior to the US, which it portrays as being guided by power politics, hedonism and materialism. Conversely, according to Xi’s narrative, Beijing is constricted by Confucian tramlines which hold it to higher standards.

While Xi’s discourse-switching has been bold, he also clearly sensed which way the wind was blowing. Since 2005 “classics fever” (guoxue re) has gripped Chinese schools and subsequently several newspapers have devoted articles to traditional learning. Climbing on the Confucian train, Xi visited the master’s hometown Qufu, Shandong province, in November 2013 where the president pledged to read more of him. A year later he gave a speech to mark the scholar’s 2,565th birthday. And after stating that the “classics should be embedded in the minds of students and become the genes of Chinese culture,” lectures on Confucius for CCP members and school children were made mandatory. This led the National Museum in Beijing to curate its winter 2019-2020 exhibition around Confucian artworks and texts, while apps like Xuexi Qiangguo accrued 100 million users. Aiming to educate its fans on Xi Jinping thought, this app blends CCP versions of history with Confucian wisdom before quizzing its audiences and publishing public scores. A remarkable fate for a philosopher who was derided as one of the “four olds” in the cultural revolution.

Xi’s uses and abuses of Confucianism

Xi understood that the extent of corruption — compounded by income inequality given China’s Gini coefficient was 46.8 in 2020 at a time when the German result was 34.4 — had taken its toll on the CCP’s legitimacy. In a speech to the party in 2014 Xi quoted the Analects, pushing officials to imitate the example of Confucius whose “Rule of virtue may be compared to the pole star, which stays in place while the myriad stars pay it homage” (Lunyu, 2:1). And this was evidently the correct button to push given the polls were still tallying 47 percent (Ipsos) as believing moral decline formed one of society’s biggest issues three years later.

However, Xi also knows that the Confucian platform is a shaky one given the sheer range of the sage’s opinions. Confucius’ conflation of both heaven’s mandate and the people’s will might make Beijing uncomfortable and can be easily countered: “If the masses dislike someone they must be examined, and if they like someone they must also be examined” (Lunyu, 15:28). This wry cherry-picking of the tradition also gives Xi the moral upper hand, enabling him to paint the US as a peculiarly amoral and materialist culture interested only in opening up markets, in stark contrast to Confucian China which subordinates profit to the pursuit of moral values (“the petty person is conversant with profit, the noble is conversant with righteousness” [Lunyu, 4:16]).

Thanks to popular confusion over whether Confucianism amounts to an academic discipline, religion or a philosophy, Xi is also able to deploy it despite the CCP’s ostensible atheism, which historically only tolerated monotheistic faiths if they served the state, and denounced their competitors as “cults” and “feudal superstitions.” Hence the party’s treatment of Falun Gong in 1999, as well as Jiang Zemin’s decision to defrock and place under house arrest a six year-old anointed by the Dalai Lama as the second holiest figure in Tibet in 1995.


Confucianism accounts for just one plank of Xi’s new dual-philosophy approach. If the sage provides historical heft to Xi’s exhortation to “rule by virtue,” Legalism provides the equivalent for ruling through law. In tapping these two rich veins, Xi can claim a cultural particularity that distinguishes it from western liberalism, and so aims at a critical autonomy. As Xi said to the Greek prime minister Antonis Samaras in 2014, “Your democracy is ancient Greek and Roman. That is your tradition. We have our own tradition.” In other words, stay in your lane — China has a Sinocentric discourse just as Europe and America is built on a Eurocentric one. This is still an odd stance, however, given the guiding ideology of the state remains Marxism, a western ideology.

If Confucianism is the carrot, entreating people to behave how Xi desires, Legalism is the stick that ideologically justifies streamlining power. Its founder, Han Fei Zi (d.233 BC), noted that apparatchiks were untrustworthy and so rulers should be given absolute power in order to tackle their fraud and deception. He also argued that personal relationships were vulnerable to abuse so the interests of the ruler and nation had to be melded. Moreover, according to this worldview morality’s power is insignificant and society’s true glue is fear of the law and its punishments.


Both Xi’s moves (towards Confucian and Legalist platforms respectively) are efficient strategies to depoliticize the people. The first pushes them into spiritualising politics, seeing Communist edicts as part of a sacred order. The second forces them to view the state’s legal apparatus as hovering above politics — part of the scientific realm of objectivity as opposed to part of the contested agora. At least Legalism is a fairly clear-cut philosophy, ultimately statist in character, an outlook Xi can hardly be said to be abusing. The same cannot be the same for Confucianism, which Xi mutilates to fit his heady fusion of socialism and nationalism. Given these contents Confucianism makes for a strange wrapper. Not least because in presenting himself as a leader in the Confucian mold Xi must aim at becoming so benevolent that he renders laws and jails unnecessary (people would follow him out of moral compulsion). In short, the higher Xi stands on the Confucian pedestal, the further he has to fall.

Perhaps more worrying, however, is Xi’s use of Confucianism to gain purchase on the Chinese soul. Confucianism’s utility to Xi is that through integrating politics, religion and education, it sanctifies the first, an arena he happens to monopolize. And thanks to the utopian nature of Confucianism, which places earthly morality, decorum and rituals on a level with Heaven, opposition can be framed as transgression which — when viewed through the prism of Confucian civilisation versus barbarism — reduces dissenters to a sub-human level. Meanwhile, thanks to the merger of morality and politics, the ruler can justify political decisions via morality and vice versa. This is unobjectionable if the ruler is sincerely invested in Confucianism. But it is clearly vulnerable to abuse if used to underpin a state orthodoxy that doesn’t just enforce order on bodies, but pushes messages on to souls.   

Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print

Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10

Critic magazine cover