Communist Theocracy in China

The Communist Party of China runs a theocracy. Founded 100 years ago, it has followed a trajectory away from Western Marxism toward the religious precepts of China two-and-a-half millennia ago. Under Xi Jinping’s leadership, the Chinese Communist Party has robustly revived the Chinese Imperial structure, which was first institutionalized in 221 BCE, whereby Chinese life experiences were directed by the authorities towards discipline and order.  Mohism is the theocratic justification for totalitarian control of culture, society, politics, and the economy proposed by the ancient political philosopher Mozi (470-391 BCE) that undergirded the Imperial structure.

Mozi (public domain image)

That Imperial system, what I have called the Huangdi Dao, or “the Way of the Emperor,” was created by the founder of the Qin Dynasty in 221 BCE.  The system was then perpetuated over the millennia by the Han, Sui, T’ang, Sung, Yuan, Ming, and Qing family dynasties. Whenever one dynasty collapsed, the system was restored by its successor immediately after recovery from chaos.  Two dynasties, the Yuan and the Qing were founded and managed by foreign invaders, first the Mongols and then the Manchus. But each of those dynasties assiduously restored the Huangdi Dao as used by their Chinese predecessors.

The Huangdi Dao only suffered a serious but interim rejection upon encounter with Western modernity during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. But now it has reappeared with vigor under Xi Jinping.

Emperor Xi

In December 2019, the Chinese Communist Party Politburo elevated Xi Jinping with a new title renmin lingxiu or “People’s Leader,” providing him personally with a status akin to that of the Emperor under the dynasties.

Accordingly, the Chinese people are obligated to learn “Xi Jinping thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a new era.” Such thought includes the “China Dream”, the “four confidences”, the four-pronged comprehensive strategy”, and the “five-sphere integrated plan”.  Andrew Nathan has recently noted the Party’s presentation of Xi as the “all-knowing, benevolent, serenely smiling sage who guides China unerringly 6oward inevitable historic greatness.”

The Chinese neo-imperial order is, in modern terms, a discourse regime with its core legitimating narrative composed by Mozi in the late Bronze Age. This discourse could be described as a story explaining natural law – a realization that “what is” must be so.  The story tells us that our role in the “what is” is to accept and not to challenge; to accommodate ourselves to the happenings which flow around us.

The Party’s diktat now disciplines religions and education, the formative structures by which the Chinese people learn to use words and, therefore, to think and assess reality. In order to control the very foundations of thought and being, no other comprehensive understanding of humanity’s place in the universe can be tolerated.  The repression of Uyghur adherence to Islam reveals the Party’s anathema to rival theologies. A similar ethnicized colonialism has been imposed on the Tibetans and their form of Buddhism. The Party calls this transformation “Sinicisation”

The same theocratic insistence on autocratic Party control of religious expressions drives Beijing’s opposition to the Vatican’s discretion in selecting bishops for its churches in China.  New regulations on the selection of bishops give that privilege to the Chinese state alone.

A third normative institution besides religion and education – public opinion -- has also been brought under Party supervision. Media, both traditional and social, is monitored by the Party through its administrative state for conformity to opinions that are approved by the Party. Other statements - normative and factual – inconsistent with that orthodoxy are prohibited and such speakers are punished for thinking and speaking wrongly.

The road map for the retrogression of China from political convergence with the other advanced nations back to an earlier form of state practice was set forth in the 1980s under Deng Xiaoping’s leadership with the vision of a “socialism with Chinese characteristics.” 

For a time, this program of national development was seen both in China and the West primarily as an opening of the Chinese economy to market forces and private power, free from State management.  What was overlooked, however, was the deep and pervasive orientation of “Chinese characteristics” as having sustained the Huangdi Dao for the prior 2,000 years.  Han chauvinism is now triumphantly proclaimed as the basis for the ruling caste of cadres. So, an apt Western translation of Xi Jinping’s new title of renmin lingxiu could be “der Führer.”

This theocratic discourse was not personified with stories about a deity. Rather, its vision of theism saw a creative force, rather mystical and later to be called by many the “Dao”; a way which was the ultimate architect of all living realities and which disposed of all things in Heaven and Earth.

The name given by the ancient Chinese to the source of such comprehensive causation was Tian, or what we would call “Heaven.”  The Huangdi Dao as it was formulated by the first dynasty proposed this formula: Tian set the standards; a Tianzi or “Son of Heaven” learned the standards of Tian and organized a state to ensure that the Tianxia or “All-Under-heaven” followed those standards with exactitude in every punctilio of thought and behavior. There was to be no deviation from the “Will of Heaven.”

One might consider this ancient Chinese natural philosophy a righteousness code of propriety and correctness applicable to every aspect of our lives, a code sent down to us by the power which created the Universe.

This is the formula being used today by China’s Communist Party. The Party is Tian; Xi Jinping is the Tianzi and the entire world is the Tianxia (“all-under-heaven”).

Thus, arises the current Chinese claim of the right to bring their system to every country and every person in our world.  From their theocratic point of view, each nation and each of us is part of the Tianxia under the authority of the Tianzi.  Xi describes this role for the Chinese as “working to build a community with a shared future for mankind.”

Mozi’s recipe for totalitarianism

Like Thomas Hobbes, Mozi saw humanity as dysfunctional and tending toward social discord. He said:

As we look back to the time when there was yet no ruler, it seems the custom was "everybody in the world according to his own ethic." Accordingly, each man had his own ethic, ten men had ten different ethics, a hundred men had a hundred different ethics - the more people the more ethics. And everybody approved of his own view and disapproved those of others, and so arose mutual disapproval. Even father and son and brothers became enemies, since they were unable to reach any agreement. Surplus energy was not employed for mutual help; excellent teachings (Dao) were kept secret; surplus goods were allowed to rot without sharing. The disorder in the (human) world could be compared with that among birds and beasts. (Identification with the Superior II)

Mozi’s remedy for the dire conditions inevitably brought about by humans following their nature – egocentric and each with his or her own standard of right and wrong – was theocracy -- the lordship of the Will of Heaven.

First, Mozi insisted that all should look to Tian (Heaven) for direction in all things. From Heaven came down the correct ethic for all to follow:

Knowing the cause of the confusion to be in the absence of a ruler who could unify the standards in the world, (Heaven) chose the virtuous, sagacious, and wise in the world and crowned him emperor, charging him with the duty of unifying the wills in the empire.”

To bring order to the people, the State would set all norms of right thinking and conduct.

Moreover, righteousness is the standard. A standard is not to be given by the subordinates to the superior but by the superior to the subordinates. … The emperor may not make the standard at will (either). There is Heaven to give him the standard. That the emperor gives the standard to the high dukes, to the feudal lords, to the scholars, and to the common people, the gentlemen in the world clearly understand. But that Heaven gives the standard to the emperor.…” (Will of Heaven I, 3)

Second, to further secure the theocracy, Mozi proposed for individuals a faith in the virtue of self-effacement. The disposition to care for others deeply and sincerely, called jian ai, would turn individuals away from ego-centricity towards ego-irrelevance, from self-seeking to service of the collective, from individualism to theocratic regimentation.

If everyone in the world will love universally; states not attacking one another; houses not disturbing one another; thieves and robbers becoming extinct; emperor and ministers, fathers and sons, all being affectionate and filial -- if all this comes to pass the world will be orderly. (Universal Love, I, 5)

Third, necessary for the functioning of such an Emperor-centered theocracy for Mozi was Heaven’s Dao for human persons.

When I do what Heaven desires, Heaven will also do what I desire. Now, what do I desire and what do I abominate? I desire blessings and emoluments, and abominate calamities and misfortunes. When I do not do what Heaven desires, neither will Heaven do what I desire. (Will of Heaven I, 2)

When the emperor practices virtue Heaven rewards, when the emperor does evil Heaven punishes. (Will of Heaven II, 2)

Mozi said:

If all the people in the world believed that the spirits are able to reward virtue and punish vice, how could the world be in chaos?”  (On Ghosts, III, 1)

[I]f it could be proclaimed to the whole country and to all the people it would really be a source of orderliness in the country and blessing to the people. The corruption of the officials in their public charges and the immorality among men and women will all be seen by ghosts and spirits. … all these will be no more. And the world will have order. (On Ghosts, III, 16)

In Xi Jinping’s China, the role Mozi gave to ghosts has been given to the government in the form of the social credit system of surveillance whereby individual Chinese are rewarded with points for good behavior and punished with a deduction of points from their obedience account ledger kept up to date in government servers.

In today’s China, there is a small underground of intellectuals who challenge the legitimacy of Xi’s autocracy.  Some of them base their arguments on the observation that Heaven itself has not provided public proof that it approves of Xi’s policies. The theocratic premise which Xi implicitly uses to promote his regime is thus denied.

Steven B. Young is Global Executive Director, The Caux Round Table for Moral Capitalism

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