I recently got a copy of the third volume of Governance of China by Xi Jinping and reading it parallel with the Hanfeizi, it is sometimes uncanny how similar they can get, sometimes down to the very examples used. To me, this is a good thing. In the following few pages I will outline two examples of his inclinations towards Legalism as it was theorized throughout Chinese history, but mainly during the Warring States era (战国时代) as 法家.
Now, I know there are huge inclinations towards “oh, Xi doesn’t write his speeches, sweetie, he has speech writers to do that for him.” I merely have two counters to this. First, even in modern Chinese history, especially ever since Mao Zedong, it was accepted and even expected of leaders to write their own works and speeches. There is no reason to think Xi doesn’t follow this tradition other than cynicism – and that isn’t reason enough alone. Secondly, even if he didn’t write them, he still publicly delivered these speeches, which he most probably wouldn’t have done if he would’ve found anything in them he disagreed with, thus at the very least he most probably took part in the writing/editing process.
Iron rule of the law
Reading “Speech on the 20th anniversary of Macao’s return to China and Inauguration of the Fifth-Term Government of the Macao Special Administrative Region” (Xi Jinping: The Governance of China III, Foreign Languages Press, 2020, pp. 478-489) I came across a very interesting reference. In the context of economic development, he makes a reference to the 盐铁论. Before I continue, a bit of context on the 盐铁论 or Discourses on Salt and Iron. It is a Han dynasty classic from 81 BC recounting a debate in the imperial court about certain economic state policies. It is generally seen as a classic of legalism or 法家.
Emperor Wu of Han reversed the “free trade” policies of his predecessors and imposed a wide variety of centralized interventions, such as creating monopolies on China’s salt and iron enterprises, price stabilization schemes, and taxes on capital, among other economic policies. These actions sparked a fierce debate which was characterized by two opposing factions: the reformists and the modernists. The reformists were largely Confucian scholars who opposed the policies of Emperor Wu and demanded the abolition of the monopolies on salt and iron, an end to the state price stabilization schemes, and huge cuts in government expenditures. They were opposed by modernists, sometimes seen as legalists in context who agreed with state centralization.
The modernists supported the continuation of Emperor Wu’s policies in order to appropriate the profits of private merchants into state coffers to fund the government’s military campaigns in the north and west, and generally strengthening the state against the wealthy aristocracy. These views largely go back to such legalist classics as the Book or Lord Shang (商君书) attributed to Shang Yang (商鞅), in which he outright advocated prohibiting the merchants by law from buying grain so that they cannot hoard all the cheap grain in prosperous years and sell them back to the starving population with raised pricing during famine years, thus making unethical profits (The Book of Lord Shang, Commercial Press, Beijing, 2006, pp. 27 as well as 53 etc.). One of the main tenets of legalism was cracking down on unethical trade relations and merchants – which survived well past legalism’s hay day during the Warring States period of Chinese history.
The results of these debates were mixed. Although the modernists were largely successful and their policies were followed through most of the Western Han after Emperor Zhao, Emperor Wu’s son who called the debaters together, the reformists repealed these policies in Eastern Han, save for the government monopoly on minting coins.
The exact quote he uses from the 盐铁论 is: “Those with sound grasp of governance will leave no problems unresolved and no defects unrepaired”, which in and of itself is a remarkably Legalist thought. So with one single historical reference he reinforced future plans on submitting private capital under state control. This is the whole point of mentioning this classic in this context. But Xi puts a further spin on this to explain that while the west loves talking about the rule of law, their law is partial, hardly enforced at all on the wealthy and the trading sectors, allows capital to run wild over every single other concern (“we gotta save the economy”, anyone remember?), even actual lives of the people.
Meanwhile, in China there is true rule of the law since
- The law is strict,
- Judgments when made are definite (to a large degree and only solid counter-evidence can nullify a legal decision) and
- Everybody is subject to the law, even the wealthy who get imprisoned and even executed on the regular if they overstep the country’s laws and regulations.
This is classical Legalism in its purest form: it is extremely clear what is lawful and unlawful, what you can and cannot do, nobody gets special treatment, and if you overstep that line even (and especially) with that knowledge, that’s on you. With this Xi is basically saying that rule of law means that law is used to conduct every aspect of social life.
That is why it is rule OF law, since it is the law that literally rules, not interchangeable officials BY the law or WITH the law or maybe THROUGH the power granted by law. This can also be seen in the speeches and articles of the third volume of Governance of China dealing with the struggle against bureaucracy and modernizing the organization of the body of state officials. That is a remarkably Legalist thought in its purest, most inner essence – it was one of the main points of the entire Hanfeizi back in the 3rd century BC – and I was glad to have come across it in modern Chinese philosophy of governance. It also reinforces what I’ve been thinking of for a while now: if you bring classical Legalism to its absolute logical conclusion, it becomes clear that what it actually entails: society is ruled solely by law, not even the sovereign, but pure and absolute law. In modern terms this would mean that there is no governing body made up of people, but a governing body of laws that are autonomously functioning to keep society functioning.