Steven Bannon – the economic nationalist and chief propagandist of the alt-right movement has repeatedly warned that China’s meteoric economic rise will end America’s supremacy in world affairs. Yet during his trip to Hong Kong and Beijing a few weeks ago, Mr. Bannon met with an avid historian, Wang Qishan, to learn more about the ideas that shape China’s foreign policy. Apart from his decisiveness in eliminating corruption, Wang is also famous for restraining the influence of financial capital and tailoring it to the imperatives of the communist party during China’s early “gilded age” in the late 90s. For Wang, Politics drives economics and not the reverse. With Xi Jinping’s eponymous thought now enshrined into the Party, it is even more obvious that Politics is supreme in China and market forces are bowing to the Party.
To better understand the operational core of Chinese party elites, the intellectual output of Yan Xuetong, the father of the “Tsinghua School of Thought” and a staunch “Political determinist” is essential. Yan has for more than three decades analyzed the role of Politics in shaping social development and enhancing the dimensions of national power, setting up indicators and assessing the relative capabilities of the world’s leading nations. Thoroughly examining the vast literature of Chinese political philosophy spanning millennia, he has defined Politics as the quintessential element of power. A vehement critic of “material determinism” Yan has declared that ideas and their manifestation through political leadership have been the key to understanding the rise and fall of empires and the very survival of civilizations. Military, economic, and cultural radiance are important, yet it is political leadership that serves as a multiplier, and thus carries maximum influence over national power.
Yan has frequently – yet erroneously – been labelled a Chinese “foreign policy hawk” who prefers mightiness to righteousness. Still, Yan’s books, reports and scholarly articles remain some of the core texts that Western analysts study to understand the intellectual foundations of China’s Foreign Policy and its potential strategic or even operational developments. Two of his texts have attracted a lot of attention in the West. The 2011 book, “Ancient Chinese thought, Modern Chinese Power,” and a 2014 academic publication on China’s foreign policy reform, “From Low Profile to Striving for Achievement.” Yan was the first scholar to note that Xi’s call at the foreign affairs conference of the Chinese Communist Party in 2013 had been an inflection point in the history of Chinese diplomacy and so should be placed on the triad of “revolutionary” turns from Mao’s call for a World Revolution to Deng’s support on “biding time and hiding capabilities.” As if to confirm this, last week in the 19th Party congress, Xi declared that China has now become a model for other developing nations to follow.
The fundamental premise of Yan’s treatise on global affairs is that Politics is Architectonic, with its structure shaping both domestic and international affairs. While material conditions are still relevant for Chinese national strength, it is political credibility that’s needed to form a positive strategic environment for China’s grand foreign policy goal of shaping a “Community of Shared Destiny.” That community of shared destiny can only materialize when China attracts allies, thus representing a break with the outdated non-alignment policy of “biding time and hiding capabilities.” The overarching principle of such a transformational shift of Chinese foreign policy must not be the single-sided pursuit of material-economic interests or “Mammonism,” asserts Yan, but political support springing from probity. Only humane authority and moral political leadership can provide an order that allows the fruits of human effort to flourish and that will attract key allies. Brute force and imperialism have only short-term benefits, if any, and cannot build lasting bonds among countries. For Yan, wealth does not automatically translate into strength. “Our military budget is already 1.6 times that of the Russians but we cannot build the same military,” Yan once told a Western author. “Our education spending is much larger than India’s, but we cannot have one single person win a Nobel Prize. They already have ten. We have more rich people than Japan and we have more first-ranked companies, but we can’t build world-class products. We have more foreign reserves than anyone in the world but we cannot build a financial center even like Hong Kong.”
Yan’s political determinism is shared by China’s most powerful statesman since Mao - Xi Jinping. When Xi rose to power in 2012, he urged senior party members to study the fall of the Soviet Union as a political phenomenon—not an economic one. According to Xi, the Soviet Union’s political weakness, not its failing economy, led to the sudden unravelling of the all-powerful Soviet empire. Accordingly, during his first five years in power, Xi has solidified the political authority of the Communist Party, limited the influence of economic elites by empowering CPC committees in corporations, authored a best seller on the “governance of China,” and put political reform at the core of leadership. Meanwhile in his foreign policy he has promoted global development initiatives by creating new multilateral institutions like the Asian Infrastructure and Investment Bank that enhance the political legitimacy of China as a leader of globalization. His 2017 Davos speech stands as a testament to his aspirations for global guardianship, now enshrined in the Party’s constitution.
The impact of broken Politics in the U.S.: human capital drain
Across the pacific, Trump’s election and its impact on the United States strongly attests to Yan’s “Political Fundamentalism.” The United States remains the largest economy in the world, its military budget outspends the next five countries’ defense expenditures combined, and Hollywood continues to shape cultural norms globally. Yet in a sharp reversal from the Obama’s years, it is China that is now seen as the core advocate of globalization. It was the ancient Chinese political theorist and strategist Xunzi, more than 2,500 years ago, who argued that, “humane authority is the highest end of world leadership which is based on the strongest state leader’s morality” relative to other contenders, Yan reiterates. However authoritarian at home, Xi Jinping, is now seen as a morally superior leader to Donald Trump. Yet Yan cautiously asserts that moral superiority and political leadership should always be examined in a “relative perspective.” There will never be an “all-virtuous leader” irreversibly bending the “long arc of history towards justice.”
Some would probably argue that “Trumpism” is only a blip on the political radar without serious repercussions for the U.S.’s global influence. Yan would counter that Politics carries certain degrees of permanency. In the United States, Trump’s rhetoric has polarized the nation while his foreign policy inexperience and economic nationalism have alienated key U.S. allies in Europe and Asia. Meanwhile, his anti-immigration policies have been so devastating that the number of foreign applicants to U.S. universities has already declined. As Michio Kaku, an American nuclear physicist put it, the H1B visa and the ability of the United States to attract the best and brightest human talent have been “America’s secret weapons” and now are seriously undermined by bad Politics. Meanwhile in Tsinghua, breaking from precedent, the top ten graduates of its state of the art computer science department decided to remain there for doctoral studies instead of enrolling in America’s top schools.
In Yan’s theory of political leadership, human capital attraction is the “litmus test” of national strength. Inspired by the treatise of the Chinese political philosopher Xunzi, Yan asserts that good Politics is essential for the attraction of good talent and good talent is the sine que non for a vibrant economy and strong national defense. If that was true for an agricultural economy like ancient China, it is true even more today when human capital is a scarce resource for innovation and technological disruption.
Leo Strauss, Donald Kagan and Aristotle on Politics
Surprisingly, Yan’s approach to Politics and focus on probity, so absent from America’s commander in chief, is also echoed in the thoughts of a Western scholar of extraordinary caliber. Donald Kagan, the intellectual successor to Leo Strauss, has framed Politics as architectonic drawing from the father of western political theory, Aristotle. His eloquent argument needs to be cited in full.
Aristotle, a man with as broad interests as anyone who ever lived; of all his pursuits held that of Politics as supreme. At the end of his Nicomachean Ethics he sets out the issues that most urgently require study. “Let us study what sorts of influence preserve and destroy states, and what sorts preserve or destroy the particular kinds of constitution, and to what causes it is due that some are well and others ill administered. When these have been studied we shall perhaps be more likely to see with a comprehensive view, which constitution is best, and how each must be ordered, and what laws and customs it must use, if it is to be at its best.” For Aristotle this work was of supreme importance. Every art and investigation aims at achieving some good, but some of these pursuits are subordinate to others, as bridle-making is to horsemanship, which is the master art, that is, architectonic. Architectonic ends are more desirable than subordinate ends, and the master end of all is the Supreme Good. That is the object of the most authoritative science, the science of Politics.”
Politics is the most authoritative science of reaching to the supreme good, as the western political tradition puts it, or to the “humane authority,” as the Sinic worldview defines it. Politics determined China’s fate when admiral Zheng He’s (鄭和) massive ships were burnt on the order of the Ming Emperor who arbitrarily sealed his country from outside influence. It will be Politics that tames unbounded markets, and determines the future of the global order, America’s place in it, and China’s lasting contribution.
Mr. Bannon went to China looking to learn more about the ideas that shape Chinese foreign policy. Yan would strongly have advised him that Political morality – at least in relative terms – is a necessary condition for domestic stability and global leadership. To be sure, Mr. Bannon is not bereft of historical sensitivity, nor is he untutored in history. He has boasted about his study of Thucydides’ history and highly recommended the book to his subordinates when at the National Security Council.
With the right guidance and a moral imperative to radically reform his nativist ideology, Mr. Bannon could tame the special interests that have taken over the legislative process of his nation, moderate extreme partisan passions, and guide his president toward a moral political direction. Perhaps he could guide Trump toward a fairer and more inclusive brand of globalization instead of trying to shut it out. Listening to Yan and rereading Aristotle would benefit Mr. Bannon’s mission to save the nation. He would do well to recall “what sorts of influence preserve and destroy states, and what sorts preserve or destroy the particular kinds of constitution.”