The evidence of Chinese power is everywhere, yet the motives that determine it are barely understood. The perception of the relative decline and stagnation of the West has promoted growing interest in a “Beijing Model” of Chinese governance, but the dissonance between Western discussions of China and the ways in which Chinese intellectuals have conceived of themselves remains as deep as ever. This is true not just among critics of China, who have perceived it as an ideological competitor or totalitarian threat, but also in the disparate factions on both the left and the right. Each has used it as a canvas for their own political ambitions—a source of hope, of anxiety, or simply an aesthetic opportunity.
During the reform era it became common wisdom to justify this lack of attention by claiming that Chinese people are typically pragmatic and non-ideological, or that official phrases such as “socialism with Chinese characteristics” are empty and irrelevant. Today, another tendency has arrived at the same end by interpreting these labels merely through aspirations already held by Western observers. Some Western socialists have sought, for example, to justify the existing Chinese political economy as a total alternative to the capitalist system in ignorance of the actual theory of the Chinese Communist Party—which often, instead, emphasizes a tight, non-binary connection between socialism and capitalism that goes beyond the “dogmatic” labels of “surname ‘socialism’” and “surname ‘capitalism’” (姓社姓资) and admits the important role of the “logic of capital” in China.
The party theorist Ye Xianming (叶险明), for instance, specifically repudiated the postcolonialist tendency, developed in the West, which posits the existence of an Eastern path of development unique, separate, and even prior to capitalism: “socialism with Chinese characteristics,” according to Ye, means exactly the advanced and regulated logic of capital, manifest as the particular development of a universal process. Ye’s writings, however, have not reached the West.
There are important exceptions to this lack of interest. One of the most useful and thorough attempts to engage with contemporary Chinese political philosophy has been the Reading the China Dream project, which has published an ongoing sequence of collaborative translations of prominent Chinese intellectuals. This series has shed light on important tendencies in Chinese political thought that are barely known in the West, including the Confucian integralism of Jiang Qing (蒋庆) and the theory of state power of Jiang Shigong (强世功). Even here, however, the asymmetry between Western aspiration and Chinese intellectual reality seems to emerge, unbidden, in the favorable coverage and disproportionate attention given by the project to thinkers it classes as liberals. As broad as the scope of Reading the China Dream has been—and there will be recourse to it in this essay—the lingering suspicion remains that academics are most comfortable when they are imagining reflections of themselves.
Jiang Shigong is a constitutional law professor who has established himself as one of the foremost Chinese critics of liberalism. He has contributed directly to the policymaking of the central government, particularly on Hong Kong issues, and has offered among the most authoritative expositions of “Xi Jinping Thought.” In an age in which the star of Chinese liberalism appears to be fading, a more detailed study of the thought of intellectuals like Jiang may offer some corrective to the disproportionate favor in which Westerners have viewed that tendency.
This cannot in itself transcend the basic problems of cross-cultural projection and misunderstanding, which in the end infect not just Western discussion of China, but any dialogue between different frames of reference. Difference, however, is also more productive than identity. It is the task of the history of philosophy to map otherwise hidden trajectories that point beyond the limits of current intellectual assumptions. If all novelty in politics is driven by aesthetic induction, we should search not for pristine reflections, but for cyphers. Jiang Shigong’s thought is worthy of consideration not just because of his explanations of Chinese policy or the possible future that he paints for a China politically and intellectually independent of the Western-led world order, but also because he raises questions that have been systematically under-examined in contemporary Western political thought.
Jiang Shigong has garnered a mixed reputation among those who know him in the West. Best known as a popularizer of Carl Schmitt and, more recently, an expositor of the political theory governing China under Xi Jinping, he has been accused of “embracing Maoism, quasi-fascism, and imperialism,” of being a “neo-Maoist,” of reviving Legalism, and of acting as a “black hand” in Hong Kong. Though Jiang is fond of producing provocative quotations, this reputation is to a great extent a disservice to his political theory, which is entirely systematic—if certainly not liberal.
Jiang’s constitutional theory is, at its core, premised on the simple observation that a constitution cannot be abstracted from its real political context. Constitutional norms, as Schmitt once argued against Hans Kelsen, cannot defend themselves in the face of a political force opposed to them, any more than liberal freedom can be defended by freedom itself. Observing the 2004 Orange Revolution in Ukraine earlier in his career, Jiang saw a government ensnared in political paralysis as it attempted to face down an opposition that had renounced constitutional norms with liberal methods of negotiation and litigation. This was a government that had lost consciousness of its own sovereignty—the recognition that in a time of extraordinary crisis, political decisions must obey “the will of God, not the constitution.”
It is his Schmittian insight that the constitution itself depends on sovereignty that has led Jiang to articulate the theory of an unwritten Chinese constitution, expressed summarily in a 2009 article on “Written and Unwritten Constitutions.” The modern Chinese state, he argues here, was founded by a popular revolution that established the sovereign dictatorship of the Communist Party. It is the unwritten historical fact of this dictatorship, not the written document known as the constitution of the state, which structures the whole of the Chinese constitution and has embodied the continuity of the Chinese state through three successive written constitutions—whether it is inscribed as an “absolute” dictatorship or a “constitutional” dictatorship subject to certain written limitations. When the relative position of the Party and the state is brought into question, as in the “unfortunate” conflict between Mao and the chairman of the state Liu Shaoqi in the 1960s, it is the Party, not the state, that has revealed itself to hold the crushing power of life and death.
The positivist and liberal currents of constitutional reformism that had gained currency in China in the 2000s were caught in a formalist obsession with the variance of “facts” from “norms.” They were unable to move beyond the written text of the constitution to the more important substantive norms established by the unwritten constitution of the dictatorship of the Party. In fact, Jiang claims, the Communist Party and the supreme organ of the state, the National People’s Congress (NPC), constitute two bodies of the people analogous to the “king’s two bodies” described in English law by Ernst Kantorowicz: the legally constituted NPC is limited and contingent; the Party is absolute. That the NPC is a “rubber stamp,” then, is entirely by design. The Party may adopt and dispense with written constitutions as it wishes. The state cannot dispense with the Party.
To a large extent, Jiang has won this argument with the ascendancy of Xi Jinping. “Xi Jinping Thought,” he pronounced in 2018, “uses modern legal thinking to perfect the Party’s leadership of the state.” If not explicitly phrased as an “unwritten constitution,” a steady stream of communiqués from the central leadership since 2012 has repeatedly reinforced the comprehensive leadership and ultimate sovereignty of the Party over every sphere of Chinese society. The defining characteristic of Xi Jinping’s political program, indeed, has been his reassertion of the state and the Party.
But there is more to this emphasis on sovereignty and leadership than an assertion of Party despotism. If there is a single “hidden path” of political philosophy to be found in Jiang, it is in his treatment of the problem of political space. It is, in fact, precisely this that he identifies in “Written and Unwritten Constitutions” as one of the most important features of China’s “unwritten constitution”: the relationship between the extensive control of the central government and the teeming diversity of localities that comprise the vast Chinese space.
For Jiang, this relationship is embodied first and foremost in the doctrine of “initiatives from two sources,” an “unwritten” norm derived from Mao and developed successively by Deng Xiaoping and Jiang Zemin. According to this concept, policymaking in China is to proceed not simply according to bureaucratic dictates imposed from above, but through the interplay of both the top-down initiative of the central government and the bottom-up ambitions of the various different strata of local government. As Mao says in “On the Ten Major Relationships,” “the provinces and municipalities, prefectures, counties, districts and townships should all enjoy their own proper independence and rights and should fight for them.”
The purpose of this doctrine is the preservation of heterogeneity. It is, of course, one of the more poorly kept secrets of political theory that Western liberalism is inimical to systemic political heterogeneity. In the West it is largely the critics of liberalism who have attempted to conceptualize possible ways to preserve and promote the existence of political heterogeneity, but even then, they have rarely dealt in any satisfactory way with the distribution of this heterogeneity in space. Contemporary Western discussions of this problem, like seasteading, Singapore-style city states, charter cities, secessionism, and so on, have tended to focus on the right of competing social programs to be embodied in particular spatial units, while avoiding the problem of determining the setting that can enable these units’ existence in the first place. It is the purpose of Jiang Shigong’s emphasis on the comprehensive leadership of the Party, in part, to provide that setting by establishing a mechanism that can support, coordinate, and integrate these different models.
Jiang articulates this concept at some length in his book China’s Hong Kong in the context of the history of empires in East Asia. The historical Chinese Empire, he suggests, was structured according to a Confucian “differential mode of association” that existed alongside the highly centralized Legalist structure of counties and prefectures. Jiang sees this as in contrast to what he claims are insurmountable divides between political roles that emerged in the West, the paradigmatic examples being master and slave, or noble and common. He claims political relationships and roles in the Chinese system were plastic, and different tributary states could succeed or fail to varying degrees in establishing “states of ritual,” thereby moving along the spectrum between barbarian and civilized. This process was observed from an imperial center that could at any point select between these various different systems and integrate their most positive results. The Chinese Empire was not “universal and homogenous,” but sustained instead by “the pursuit of peaceful coexistence while maintaining differences.”
The world-historical importance of “one country, two systems” is precisely its modern revival of this tradition. Deng Xiaoping’s decentralizing appeal to respect particular historical conditions was not simply an expediency: history itself is the very “source of political legitimacy,” and the application of new models in infinitely heterogeneous conditions is the very essence of governing a large space. Ultimately, “time and history” are “God.” A large political order must function as a setting for the intensive development of local models—but these local models cannot exist outside the ground provided by that extensive political order. This is the salient strength of empire: not the establishment of a total unity, but the enabling of heterogeneity within a great space.
On a larger scale, it is this framework that explains Jiang’s focus in a more recent article on the construction of a “world empire 2.0.” Drawing on geopolitical theorists such as Halford Mackinder, Jiang argues here that the history of civilization is a dialectical interplay between the heterogeneous empire form and the homogenizing state. Until the colonial era, the major world civilizations had found their ultimate expression in traditional regional empires—China in the Far East, the Caliphate in the Middle East, or the Christian empire in the Far West. The emergence of colonialism sundered the remnants of the medieval Christian imperium into new, competing empires that came to span not just one continental region but the whole planet, and propelled the European states into a position of immense material superiority over all the traditional regional empires.
The doctrine of national sovereignty—the traditional hallmark of the modern Western theory of the state—emerged only at the edge of the competition between these European-led world empires, bleeding out of their destructive interactions in the European heartland itself. Empire, in fact, precedes the modern nation-state not just historically but also logically, and the sovereign states of the contemporary world are comprehensible only as moving parts of the single world empire that triumphed in this colonial struggle: namely, the American empire, whose defeat of the Soviet project in the Cold War represented the victory of a particular maritime, commercial model of world empire over a land-based, spiritual-ethical alternative. This world empire now includes China itself: “China and Russia,” too, “are situated within the American-led system.” No country can exist outside it: they can only rebel against the empire from within.
Jiang’s concern in this article is once again the problem of political space, the “internal logic of very large political entities.” Empire represents the balancing of a centrifugal logic of diversity against the homogenizing engine of a central state. In the traditional regional empires, this contradiction worked itself out through a slow process of cultural and bureaucratic assimilation. With modern colonial empires, by contrast, this type of resolution was foreclosed by the perpetual status of colonized regions as areas of exploitation with no claim to participation in the metropolitan sovereign state. The establishment of a true world empire has returned this problem to its beginnings. World empire must be able to provide a mechanism for coordination on a planetary scale while at the same time facilitating the coexistence and productive competition of widely different modes of political organization. The liberal American-led world empire is now failing this delicate task—and so, Jiang argues, it is China’s responsibility, as a dissident force within the present empire, to contribute to the construction of a new model that will be able to maintain the suspension of these imperatives.
Given the antiliberal direction of Jiang’s theorizing, it may seem surprising that he is fascinated—even haunted—by Hong Kong. Yet in the context of the “Imperial” question of space around which his political thought revolves, this focus makes perfect sense. Jiang sees an “astute” and fiercely effective model in the historical British administration of Hong Kong. If antipathetic Westerners and the more unreflective of Chinese nationalists both now see in Hong Kong merely the question of managing the decline of a recalcitrant and increasingly irrelevant city trapped in its colonial past, in Jiang’s work the problem posed by Hong Kong is quite the opposite. Hong Kong, if anything, is the most important problem of Chinese politics. The existence and perpetuation of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region is manifest and indispensable proof of the capacity of the Chinese political order for experimentality, the coordination of multiple opposite systems.
Hong Kong, Jiang has said, is a “fulcrum from which to lever the Western world.” More than that, as he argues in China’s Hong Kong, the relationship between Hong Kong and the central Chinese government is the template for a future nomos of the earth: “The handling of the Hong Kong question does not mean handling matters arising in Hong Kong, but handling the core issues in the rejuvenation of Chinese civilization.” It is no mistake, Jiang says again, that there is “one country” in the slogan “one country, two systems” rather than “one state.” This “country” is not a nation-state, but a wider—imperial—political order that tracks the “edges of an ancient empire.” One country, n systems.
For this reason, the “absurd” gulf of identity between Hongkongers and other Chinese is for Jiang “the saddest page in the tragic modern history of China.” Since 2019, the fires burning in Hong Kong seem to threaten the destruction of an archetype—the immolation of a Chinese-led reconstruction of the world order before it can truly even begin. In this context of tension, Jiang has warned against arguments that make the present Hong Kong conflict a struggle between competing material systems of capitalism and socialism. He has instead emphasized the “postmodern” ideological and cultural character of the conflict, and the need for the Chinese central government to proceed with circumspection. The lethal problem is not, in reality, the contradiction of developmental models: it is the stubbornness of an identity that seems to resist coordination.
This is the contradiction faced by Jiang’s model of political experimentality: the ability to coordinate and select effectively between competing developmental models while avoiding ensnarement in the “postmodern” cultural ambitions that are projected around them. Just as the development of society is propelled by its contradictions, the development of “world empire” can proceed only on the basis of difference—not its resolution, but its productive suspension. The ability of the unwritten Chinese constitution to deal with the emergence of local identity in Hong Kong is the ultimate test of this broader model’s feasibility.
There is nothing new, even to Westerners, in the idea that there is something in modern China that is radically different and new to the conceptual inventory of the West. The Italian theorist Ugo Spirito, who fell out of favor with the fascist regime for his left-wing interpretation of corporatism, authored a largely forgotten booklet on “Russian Communism and Chinese Communism.” After visiting both the Soviet Union at the end of Stalin’s rule and the People’s Republic of China in the 1960s, he argued that Maoism had transcended the materialist bias built into Marxism. Where Western communists were concerned only with economic questions and had reduced the good life to promoting the living standards of individuals, China had established a true organic unity, a system in which nothing individual existed in alienation from the collective, a total state rooted, for all Mao’s protestations, firmly in the primordial legacy of Confucianism.
Thirty years later, some Western commentators saw in the Far East a dissipation of top-down collective destiny into capitalism and special economic zones: the complete opposite of the dreams of Hegelian unity that had commanded the affection of intellectuals like Spirito. China was seen as the center of white-hot planetary deregulation, unburdened by the guilt, exclusivity, and bad faith of the West. Really, China was consummately materialist—and that was no bad thing.
These two responses refract through their foreign cultural prisms particular moments in the course of China’s modern development—projecting the contrasting images of China in the eras of Maoism and Reform. In fact, just as Xi Jinping has sought to synthesize and resolve both of these moments into a continuous historical narrative of party leadership, there is something in Jiang that speaks to both of these views—he has emphasized the sublation of communism into an organic spiritual ideal as much as the experimental development of productive forces. What is distinctive, however, is his folding of these perspectives into the question of political space, seeking to justify a comprehensive leadership system precisely in order to promote and maintain intensive, bottom-up organization within an extensive political framework.
Yet it is a mistake to read Jiang as a passive expositor of China’s present self-image. China is increasingly confronted, like the rest of the world, by the prospect of an indefinite stagnation, an advancing gray horizon relentlessly dashing every hope for a new politics. Jiang’s concept of a spoke-and-hub tianxia that can provide the force and the framework for intensive experimentation is, in this context, a critique. It attempts to ensure the continuation of technical and social development, and the construction of novel forms of politics, by manually harnessing the impulse of social contradictions into an engine for the production of new futures.
Jiang’s work has been interpreted as a triumphalist panegyric for the revival of Chinese power and as self-serving justification of the Party line. But in formulating this idea, Jiang is far from acting as a triumphalist. He appears instead as an impatient critic of a social reality that falls well short of this ideal, and that extends all across the existing world empire. The repair of this reality will, in fact, be a planetary enterprise demanding a “long and terrible will” beyond the limitations of existing Chinese politics—an enterprise that China can catalyze but cannot complete on its own.