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Nick Spencer: Beware ideas sanctioned by the State

03 September 2021

The sword and the word are a dangerous mix, declares Nick Spencer

Alamy

A seminar on the study and implementation of “Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era” in Shanghai, in May

A seminar on the study and implementation of “Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era” in Shanghai, in May

WE NEED a governing party that serves the interests of the public. The primary goal of development should be the improvement of people’s well-being. Scientific progress must be innovative, co-ordinated, open, and green. National energy policy must focus on conservation. And national ambitions are inseparable from a stable international order.

Assuming that you agree with these, it may be a little disconcerting to learn that they are drawn, almost word for word, from the 14 principles of what is now known as “Xi Jinping Thought”.

“Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era”, to give it its full name, was first propounded by the Chinese Premier four years ago at the party’s 19th National Congress. It is part of Xi’s increasing assertion of authority over party and country, running in parallel with the abolition of the presidency’s ten-year term, which was rubber-stamped by the Chinese parliament at around the same time.

There are various ways in which you can read “Xi Jinping Thought”. Doves will maintain that it shows there is far less to fear from China than many do. Hawks will say that it is all whitewash (scientific research . . . “open”!?). Velociraptors will claim that it all disguises something far more sinister. However one views it, it is clearly here to stay.

Since the Congress in 2017, the party has opened 18 Xi-thought research centres across the country, “think tanks” in which Xi’s ideas are be studied. And, last week, it was announced that Xi’s thought would be introduced into the Chinese school curriculum. According to the state media outlet Global Times, “primary schools will focus on cultivating love for the country, the Communist Party of China, and socialism . . . [and] middle schools . . . [will] help students form basic political judgments and opinions.”

This, as they say, is the rub — because where an idea comes from is almost as important as what it is. Put another way, it is one thing to teach in schools the thought and ideas of philosophers, ethicists, religious figures, and community groups. It is quite another to teach those of the current (and undisputed) head of government — even, counterintuitively, if they end up saying similar things in effect. And this is because, ultimately, the hard power of politics and the soft power of culture do not mix well. The former almost invariably constricts and evicts the latter.

This view lies at the heart of much Christian political theology. It was articulated most famously by Pope Gelasius in a letter to Emperor Anastasius I in 494, in which he declared that “there are two things . . . by which this world is ruled: the consecrated authority of priests and the royal power.” The statement cannot but be seen with hindsight, standing as it did at the threshold of a thousand years of Christendom in which royal and priestly power, hard and soft, were all too often coterminous. Yet the principle, drawn straight from Christ’s teaching, remains not only valid but essential. The sword and the word do not mix well.

Westerners need to be a little careful about casting stones at China here. After all, it is not unknown for Western governments to fund think tanks or to dictate school curricula. But the principle — which will not be found among Xi’s thoughts — that, to paraphrase Gelasius, power is and must be plural remains a precious one, to be guarded with great care.

Nick Spencer is Senior Fellow at Theos.

Paul Vallely is away.

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