Xi Jinping, Chinese president and general secretary of the Communist Party of China. Photo: Xinhua

“When the people are weak, the state is strong; hence the state that possesses the way devotes itself to weakening the people.” – Shang Yang

Shang Yang was one of ancient China’s greatest thinkers and statesman, who introduced the concept of Legalism to Chinese society. Legalism played quite an important role in the formation of China’s empire, especially the Qin dynasty, and many of its ideas continue to be influenced its political elites to this day. It teaches that human beings are essentially bad because they are inherently selfish.

According to the precepts of Legalism, if it’s in one’s best interest to kill another person, then that person will most probably be killed. Morality was of no concern to the legalist philosophers because they felt it played no part in people’s decision-making processes. Later on, Chinese scholars credited Shang Yang for his thought process. One of the prominent voices in support his ideas was Han Fei, a great Chinese scholar. 

But Legalism was the philosophy of Chinese elites, which they tried to impose on the general masses to serve their own interests. The purpose was to help rulers strengthen their control and remain in power, rather than serving society at large. It turned the entire Qin dynasty into a militarized state. This resulted in a huge loss of life and culture during the Qin era.

Currently, one of the top contemporary Chinese leaders who are highly influenced by this thought process is Xi Jinping.  

The modern legalist

In modern times, a legalist has been defined as one who believes in the rule of law, and that those rules are above all, even the emperor. The Legalism school, on the other hand, emphasizes the absolute power and authority of the ruler and uniform enforcement of punitive codes intended to curb political rivals in name of a political campaign like anti-corruption, the Cultural Revolution, and so forth.

Under the imperial dynasties, penal codes worked to reinforce state powers as well as to curb political opponents. Much of Xi Jinping’s rise can be attributed to his belief in this philosophy. He considers the law an important source of legitimacy and status, one that can be wielded against other political factions, interest groups, or bureaucratic systems.

This makes sense if we see his policy up to now that has been used to target political, business, and social opponents in the name of upholding legalism and the state’s principles.

His anti-corruption campaign was one such key demonstration of his belief in Legalism, where for the first time in history close to 120 high-ranking officials and more than 10,000 other people were indicted for corruption. It was a high-profile campaign targeting party, government, military, and state-owned company officials suspected of corruption.

The list included army generals, 35 members of the Communist Party’s influential Central Committee, nine members of the party’s internal disciplinary body, and other senior officials. 

But the most important were two high-ranking officer who were supposed to be Xi’s main political rivals: Bo Xilai and Zhou Yongkang. Bo was taken down at the time he was expected to be appointed to the influential Politburo Standing Committee.

But corruption is part of the historically based guanxi practices of China. For instance, historically Chinese politics is traditionally steeped in nepotism and the ruling class is made up of the taizidang or “princeling party” – even Xi’s position is based upon his princeling roots.

In countries where corruption has been successfully addressed, the steps included strengthened rule of law, greater judicial independence, accountability and institutional transparency as well as more space for media and civil society. We have seen none of these reforms in today’s China; on the contrary, Xi supersedes the law through Xi Jinping Thought, which is now enshrined in the constitution. 

If his intentions were truly to rid China of corruption, he should have stressed the need for clearer property rights. That would have prevented officials from exploiting public assets for private gain. Such measures would both limit the opportunities for graft and more easily expose corruption.

But Xi has shown little interest in these kinds of reforms because it would question his “Mr Clean” image, whether it’s a reality or just a mirage. So his campaign is reshaping the magnitude and composition of the ruling coalition and the size of the payoffs to its members who are closest to him, thereby strengthening his hold on the country.

The recent purge against Chinese businessmen and intellectuals such as Jack Ma and Ren Zhiqiang and prominent party reformist and intellectual Cai Xia is an official testimony that no one dares to challenge Xi and the groups close to him, irrespective of their position in Chinese society. 

In recent months, there has been a general environment of fear among Chinese business and intellectual elites that after the political elites they may face the music in the name of anti-corruption as Xi Jinping tightens his grip on power.

The best example is that of Ren Zhiqiang, a former real-estate tycoon and an outspoken critic of President Xi. Ren went missing in March last year shortly after writing an essay said to be critical of Xi.

Shortly after the essay was published, which was mainly about Beijing’s handling of the Covid-19 outbreak, it was announced that Ren had been put under investigation for “suspected serious disciplinary violations.” In September, a court in Beijing found Ren “guilty” of corruption, bribery, and embezzlement of public funds. He was later sentenced to 18 years in jail. 

Deng’s pragmatism or Xi’s idealism: tough choice

A number of party cadres, academics, and officials in Chinese think-tanks privately blame Xi Jinping’s aggressive policies in both domestic and foreign affairs for China’s growing international isolation and rapidly deteriorating relations with the world after the Covid-19 outbreak. The global reputation of China has turned negative in recent months and reports of racism and xenophobia against Chinese nationals have increased across the world.

Certainly, this was never what Deng Xiaoping wished for. Deng’s vision was quite the opposite of Xi’s vision; he believed in empowering people rather than leaders, which resulted in China’s massive economic rise and the emergence of millions of entrepreneurs, skilled workers and scientists, who currently add to the strength of the party and the nation.

This year marks the centenary of the Communist Party of China and many at home and abroad will be watching to see what road China will take from now on. It’s up to the Chinese people and leadership to decide whether they want to choose Deng’s pragmatism, which resulted in massive economic growth, prosperity, and a good reputation, or Xi’s brand of idealism, of better fall in line or fall by the wayside.

If the Chinese leaders recall history correctly, they understand that the nation has already paid the price of idealism in the name of the Cultural Revolution, but can they afford to do so again? Only time will tell. While the CPC is seemingly under no imminent threat of popular upheaval, it cannot take the support of its people for granted. The only man standing between the Chinese people and the Chinese dream is Xi Jinping.

Ravi Kant

Ravi Kant is a columnist and correspondent for Asia Times based in New Delhi. He mainly writes on economics, international politics and technology. He has wide experience in the financial world and some of his research and analyses have been quoted by the US Congress and Harvard University. He is also the author of the book Coronavirus: A Pandemic or Plandemic. He tweets @Rk_humour.