How does culture shape politics? In her classic book Strategic Intelligence and Statecraft, Adda B. Bozeman argues that "American citizens must be fully aware of non-American approaches to statecraft if they are to render informed judgments on the merits or demerits of their own government's foreign policies ..." Her study amounts to a cogent call for cultural realism, a realism that entails an effort to understand the political cultures of our allies and adversaries and how those cultures might influence their internal and external behavior. This is a vital enterprise now as Western political ideas have been largely discredited, or at least are in significant decline, in much of Asia, the Middle East and Africa. The response has been a resurgence of ancient, indigenous political ideas and movements now redefined in modern terms. The cataclysmic rise of political Islam in the Middle East is clear to all. Equally consequential over the long term are an emerging national Hinduism in India and the reassertion of Great Russian power in Moscow and Eastern Europe.
In East Asia, the major question is China. There are many factions in the Chinese political debate: New Left intellectuals, neo-Maoists, Westernized reformist liberals, nationalists and militarists. There is also a great deal of talk of a "New Confucianism" promoted in Chinese official discourse as a form of soft: authoritarianism that emphasizes harmony, stability, benevolence and avoidance of conflict.
Recent trends in Chinese politics, however, argue for a new look at an ancient political philosophy that has never been far from the center of Chinese political thought and practice--Legalism. Indeed, we are now seeing a resurgence of Legalist discourse and methods in the presidency of Xi Jinping. Journalists have reported on Xi's fondness for the Chinese classics, including the Legalist writers. But much more significant signs of a move toward a modernized Legalism are clearly evident in recent CCP Central Committee communiques, internal CCP documents leaked or discussed in the press, and in the speeches of Xi Jinping collected in his book The Governance of China.
Despite talk of grassroots democracy and official accountability at the Third Plenum of the Eighteenth CCP Central Committee held in November 2013, the real news was a move toward greater centralization of power in Xi himself and in the new institution of the National Security Committee. The Fourth Plenum held in October 2014 represents a further development in the same direction. The official communique especially emphasized legal reform, the foundation of the anticorruption drive. One of the main sources of social unrest in China is the tendency of officials to coopt the law and make it a tool of personal profit. The reform is designed to take the law out of the hands of local officials with private interest and institute it in a system of impartial regulations, founded in China's constitution. But this is not a move toward "constitutionalism," which Xi and the CCP have explicitly rejected. It is rather a move to strengthen the law as a method of political rule and governance. The key phrase, "govern the state according to law" (yi fa zhi guo), means enforcing discipline from the top down on party and government officials first, and then, by the party, on the population.
These measures are much more than a means to restore the moral authority of the CCP. They represent a fundamental shift from a discredited Communism and tentative flirtations with limited Westernization--both foreign imports--to a greater reliance on political thought and practice deeply rooted in Chinas own traditions. All of these reforms and trends in recent Chinese politics are thoroughly consistent with Legalist thought and practice.
Legalism has for centuries been the center of gravity of Chinese political culture. Even Confucianism, commonly believed to be China's ruling ethos, was first articulated in the sixth through third centuries BC in opposition to the practice of establishing legal codes. The earliest of these were inscribed on bronze vessels in the sixth century BC in the states of Zheng and Jin. Confucius's (551-479 BC) classic argument against this use of law as a tool of statecraft is recorded in the Analects-. "When you...