Event Recap – 13th Annual Tsai Lecture: China's Worldview Under Xi Jinping

April 30, 2018
Event Recap – 13th Annual Tsai Lecture: China's Worldview Under Xi Jinping

With China's increasing footprint and influence around the globe, there is an urgency for scholars and policymakers to understand China’s worldview under Xi Jinping. The Honorable Kevin Rudd, 26th Prime Minister of Australia and President of the Asia Society Policy Institute, delivered the 13th annual Tsai lecture on this topic, joining the company of previous Tsai lecturers including Professor Wang Gungwu of the National University of Singapore.

Rudd is not only a seasoned China scholar who speaks fluent Mandarin, but also a former politician, having twice held the office of Prime Minister of Australia, from 2007-2010 and again in 2013. With the perspective of both a scholar and political leader, Rudd explains the origin and evolution of the concept of “worldview” as a Marxist framework of analysis, and applies it to help understand China's internal ideological constraints, its perceived threats and opportunities, and its corresponding political and policy responses over time.  

Whereas the theories of dialectical and historical materialism mostly died in Russia with the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, they continue to play a central role today in shaping the Chinese Communist Party (CCP)'s worldview and the way it articulates this publicly. Rudd traces the CCP's historical worldview to the German word, “Weltanschauung,” first used by Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) in 1790 to mean our perception of the world as mediated by our senses. Friedrich Hegel (1770-1831) then incorporated it into his understanding of human progress through the dialectical processes of thesis, antithesis and synthesis.

Karl Marx (1818-1883) and Friedrich Engels (1820-1895) further developed these ideas in their theories of dialectical and historical materialism. These theories became both an explanation for historical change and a method of reasoning about the mechanisms of historical change. They implied that one should accelerate material change through conscious political action, not just passively observe it. The “end-state” of change through class struggle was a communist society in which all material human needs are met without class exploitation.  

After analyzing Marxist epistemology in general, Rudd explains its Chinese variants over the last century. The early members of the CCP, established in 1921, viewed “Marxist-Leninist” theory as being largely consistent with the original philosophical texts. After 1945, “Mao Zedong Thought” emerged as an official addition to this theory. Later, Chinese Marxist theoreticians further liberated Chinese Marxism from Soviet ideological dogma, and modified China's worldview at different times to suit different historical realities, including the Sino-Soviet split in 1958, the Cultural Revolution from 1966-76, and the CCP’s re-evaluation of both Chairman Mao and his thought in the 1980s.

These revisions culminated in a post-1978 invention of the concept of “socialism with Chinese characteristics” under Deng Xiaoping, as the CCP tried to justify its decision to embrace market reforms, encourage money-making, and marginalize the idea of class struggle. Since the theory of dialectical and historical materialism claims scientific exactitude, certainty, universality, and objectivity, any alternative world views must be inherently “un-scientific” and therefore irrelevant. How then could Chinese theoreticians justify this overturn of Marxism? They went back to Hegel, for he conceived that universal realities could be perceived through different prisms, thereby different “worldviews.” This conceptual groundwork gave rise to the linguistic innovation as an epistemological means of breaking from the traditional socialist worldview of the past. China was deemed to be only at “the earliest stages of socialism,” so the core challenge at the time was to fully develop the country’s productive forces, thereby creating the conditions for a more advanced form of socialism in the future.

Even though the content of the CCP’s official worldview has changed significantly, the Marxist methodological framework, through which these worldviews have been developed, has remained formally intact, as demonstrated in much of Xi's rhetoric. In dealing with China’s core challenges, Xi said "[We] must deploy the accumulated wisdom of Marxism, consciously harness ... the worldview, theory and method of dialectical materialism, and strengthen our dialectical and strategic way of thinking.” Xi stated further that party leaders should regard “contradictions” as a normal part of a Marxist worldview, and that a dialectical method of problem-solving included the “recognition of objective, universal contradictions” arising from given actions and the “counter-actions” that they generate.

Thus Rudd identifies the defining characteristics of China's official worldview (世界观) through the study of the CCP's use of Marxist methodology, and the analysis of the content of these conclusions: the CCP's perceived nature of the world, the strategic threats and opportunities presented by the world, and its responses. So what is the actual content of China’s worldview under Xi Jinping today?

Rudd sees a profound, qualitative change in China’s worldview under Xi compared with that of his predecessors. This new worldview is why we observe that China no longer accepts American global hegemony as consistent with Chinese national identity, political ideology or core national interests; why some Chinese perceive a “strategic opportunity” to bring about changes to the liberal world order in China's favor; and why Beijing seeks a regional order in Asia where Chinese interests are accommodated by neighboring states, and a global order with little consideration of human rights and other traditional liberal values. Under this worldview, a new term has been invented, the "new era" (新时代), which is a new methodological device to conceptualize the nature of the world and craft responses to it.

These deep changes in China’s worldview have resulted in the replacement of the Deng maxim of “hide your strength, bide your time, never take the lead” (韬光养晦,绝不出头) with foreign policy innovation, activism and contestation in various domains through bilateral and multilateral diplomacy. However, Rudd does not anticipate China to impose changes by force, but to engage in an incremental process to achieve its aims. For Rudd, China has entered into a third phase - Xi's nationalist-realist period since 2013 - in the evolution of its official worldview, after Mao’s Marxist-realist period between 1949-76 and Deng’s liberal-realist period between 1978-2013, when China embraced the liberal international order with a parallel process of domestic liberalization.

Rudd senses a widening dissonance between the authoritarian values championed within China and the foundational values of the liberal international order. He foresees diminishing prospects for “convergence,” as China seeks to change aspects of the world order to make it less incompatible with its domestic arrangements, rather than continuing to internalize the liberalizing pressures from the external order. He postulates foreign and domestic reasons for China's changing worldview. Foreign factors include a Chinese perception of America's relative decline in terms of “comprehensive national power” and increasing evidence of global multipolarity.

Domestic factors include the changing structure of the Chinese economy and rising nationalism. The Chinese economy has developed in such a way that China has become less dependent on foreign markets. Chinese nationalism, a major legitimizing force for the CCP, is rooted in the complex identity politics of China’s imperial past and a sense of being victimized by what it sees as a century of Western aggression and humiliation from 1839-1949. This self-perception reinforces Xi's campaign for “national rejuvenation,” and provides justification for a new Chinese worldview which places China at the center of the regional and global order.

Finally, Xi’s political personality is important in understanding China's international behavior since 2013. The strength of his character, his sense of history and mission, his commitment to the Party, and his consolidation of power all represent critical factors shaping China’s foreign policy. Rudd notes that the West's response to China should be a separate question, but understanding China's worldview, as well as the extent of continuity and change from Xi's predecessors, is a necessary foundation for considering how to engage China in the future.