How Xi Jinping thinks about Chinese characteristics

Xi Jinping has told us over and over again that we must respect the “Chinese characteristics” of his socialism. Thus to fathom his ambitions, his policies and his politics, we need to understand better what he means by “Chinese characteristics.”

The best guide to “Chinese characteristics” is Richard Solomon’s 1971 work Mao’s Revolution and the Chinese Political Culture, Parts I and II. 

Solomon executes a brilliant assessment of Chinese national character, a modal personality profile for Chinese. His data were, first, careful individual interviews on child-rearing and family socialization goals and objectives and, second, adult narratives exposing concerns for interpersonal relationships, especially themes centered on power and authority.

The adult narratives were stimulated by astutely drawn Thematic Apperception Test illustrations of interpersonal interactions.

Solomon’s conclusion was that in the modal Chinese personality profile, the core of “Chineseness.” is a zero-sum antagonism between harmonious unity (da tong) and chaotic conflict (luan).

According to Solomon, Chinese political culture chooses harmony over conflict. Great care is taken to avoid chaos or disorder in all cases – with personal behavior, in families, in friendships, in society at large, in organizations, in business, in politics.

Solomon’s insight was notably addressed by two of the greatest modern Chinese leaders, Sun Yat-sen and Deng Xiaoping.

In his Three Principles of the People, Sun wrote that “China is but a lot of separate sand particles. Take up a handful of sand; no matter how much there is, the particles will slip about without any tendency to cohere.”

On June 2, 1989, Deng and seven of his top associates debated how to respond to the “disorder” of the Tiananmen protests. Li Xiannian said, “China will lose all hope if we let turmoil have its way.”

Deng replied: “Imagine for a moment what could happen if China falls into turmoil.… If the turmoil keeps going, it could continue until Party and state authority are worn away. Then there would be civil war, one faction controlling parts of the army and another faction controlling others. If the so-called democracy fighters were in power, they’d fight among themselves. Once civil war got started, blood would flow like a river.…”

Previously, Solomon’s insight also had absorbed the attention of China’s greatest thinkers: the Duke of Zhou, Confucius, Mencius, Mozi, Shang Yang, Quan Zhong, Han Feizi, Xunxi, the authors of the Doctrine of the Mean, the Tao Te Jing, and the Classic of Filial Piety, Dong Zhongshu, Han Yu, Zhu Xi, Wang Yang Ming, and Kang Youwei.

Simply put, writing in 1971 Solomon argued that Mao Zedong used the psycho-social forces leading to chaos – luan – in order for him to mobilize Chinese to overcome their cultural disposition to submit to authority. He wanted them to let loose – “liberate” – their very personal feelings of fear, anxiety, and resentment so necessary for social harmony but nevertheless bottled up in their “stomachs.” 

With their inner emotional rage out in the open, many Chinese could first be guided toward rebellion against the constituted authorities and, then, inducted into a new politics of continuous mass struggle.

Forbidding disorder

Mao’s famous dictum was “political power grows out of the barrel of a gun.” Accepting conflict and welcoming violence – the dynamics of luan – were, for Mao, very useful “Chinese characteristics.” His manipulation of the emotions associated with luan put him on a different political journey than his French-educated and more Westernized Marxist/Leninist colleagues Zhou Enlai and Deng Xiaoping.

But now even a hint of such luan breaking out into the open is anathema for Xi Jinping. 

Where Mao sought to overthrow order, Xi needs to preserve it. His Party rules China. He leads the official national establishment as its lingxiu – Leader. Thus he situationally must privilege those “Chinese characteristics,” quite precisely identified by Solomon, that call for systemic repression of individualism and avoidance of all expression of disharmony, dissent, and discord.

Xi’s masterstroke of evil genius in doubling down on what Richard Solomon discovered to be modal collectivist norms of Chinese political culture has been the creation of the social credit system. 

No Chinese emperor had available a similar mechanism to track every individual Chinese in order to reward obedience and punish deviation from approved norms, though insistence on the cult of filial piety did bring every Chinese family within the orbit of Imperial power and authority.

Looking at Xi’s China using Solomon’s paradigm of national character shows us why Xi has invigorated and reimposed the Imperial Order first erected by Qin Shihuang in 221 BC. Xi’s personal priority is to repress luan at all times and in all places. Xi’s Communist Party replaces mandarins and their families as the means of inculcating proper “Chinese characteristics,” those that seek to marginalize self-referential feelings in every Chinese.

For Xi, an independent Taiwan is an offensive normative discordance demanding subjugation to his structure of repressive control (as was the once free-wheeling Hong Kong). Xi, most likely, is psychologically very discomfited by the potential and the real dissonances made possible by the more flexible formula of “one country; two systems.”

Internationally, Xi’s policies are to oppose the fissiparous forces of luan as they arise here and there around the world – especially democracy and human rights. Order enforced by political regimes thinking along his lines, he proposes, is to replace the arrythmia of decentralization in politics and economics tolerated by the post-World War II liberal international system championed by the United States. This vision is central to his February 4, 2022, pact with Vladimir Putin.

Philosophy of Imperial Order

In all things, Xi imitates the pattern of the Imperial Order. The Imperial Order drew its inspiration most from the political philosophy of Mozi (470-391 BC). Thus, to understand Xi and so predict his behavior and policies, we should read Mozi.

Mozi saw conflict and disorder as natural to humankind: In the beginning of human life, when there was yet no law and government, the custom was “everybody according to his own idea.” Accordingly each man had his own idea, two men had two different ideas and ten men had 10 different ideas – the more people, the more different notions. And everybody approved of his own view and disapproved the views of others, and so arose mutual disapproval among men.

As a result, father and son and elder and younger brothers became enemies and were estranged from each other, since they were unable to reach any agreement. Everybody worked for the disadvantage of the others … disorder in the (human) world could be compared to that among birds and beasts.

Thus Mozi recommended installation of a command and control hierarchy over all people: “… all this disorder was due to the want of a ruler. Therefore [Heaven] chose the virtuous in the world and crowned him emperor.… The emperor issued a mandate to all the people, saying: … What the superior thinks to be right all shall think to be right; what the superior thinks to be wrong all shall think to be wrong.”

In his chapter on ghosts, Mozi foreshadowed Xi’s social credit system. Mozi regretted that the Chinese of his time did not believe sufficiently in ghosts. Ghosts, said Mozi, had a power of watching over people and rewarding them for doing good while punishing them for doing bad.  Therefore, if only people would believe in ghosts, they would seek to do good and to avoid doing bad.

Guan Zhong

Xi’s system of national socialist corporatism whereby the Party and its government supervise and direct firms, both public and private, also is characteristically Chinese as Solomon describes core ”Chineseness.” 

A practical methodology of efficient corporatism was proposed by Guan Zhong (720-645 BC) so that the production of goods and services would be orderly. 

For example, Guan Zhong proposed that when grain harvests were abundant and prices low, the government should buy grain to raise the price to help farmers. The government would store purchased grain in granaries. Then, when harvests were poor and prices high, the government could sell grain from its storage bins and lower the price to help those in towns and cities.

If you worry about the future of China under Xi Jinping, it would not be a waste of your time reading Richard Solomon’s study of Chinese political culture.