Chinese President Xi Jinping has markedly shifted the ideological center of gravity within the Communist Party. The limited tolerance China had toward dissent has all but dissipated, while ostensibly autonomous regions (geographically as well as culturally), including Xinjiang, Inner Mongolia, and Hong Kong, have seen their freedoms curtailed. All the while, a new group of scholars has been in ascendance. Known as “statists,” these academics subscribe to an expansive view of state authority, one even broader than their establishment counterparts. Only with a heavy hand, they believe, can a nation secure the stability required to protect liberty and prosperity. As a 2012 article in Utopia, a Chinese online forum for statist ideas, once put it, “Stability overrides all else.”
Prioritizing order to this degree is anathema to much of the West, yet perspectives such as these are not unprecedented in Western history. In fact, China’s new statists have much in common with a faction that swept through Germany in the early 20th century.
That affinity is no accident.
China has in recent years witnessed a surge of interest in the work of the German legal theorist Carl Schmitt. Known as Hitler’s “Crown Jurist,” Schmitt joined the National Socialist Party in 1933, and, though he was only officially a Nazi Party member for three years, his anti-liberal jurisprudence had a lasting impact—at the time, by helping to justify Hitler’s extrajudicial killings of Jews and political opponents, and then long afterward. Whereas liberal scholars view the rule of law as the final authority on value conflicts, Schmitt believed that the sovereign should always have the final say. Commitments to the rule for law would only undercut a community’s decision-making power, and “deprive state and politics of their specific meaning.” Such a hamstrung state, according to Schmitt, could not protect its own citizens from external enemies.
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China’s fascination with Schmitt took off in the early 2000s when the philosopher Liu Xiaofeng translated the German thinker’s major works into Chinese. Dubbed “Schmitt fever,” his ideas energized the political science, philosophy, and law departments of China’s universities. Chen Duanhong, a law professor at Peking University, called Schmitt “the most successful theorist” to have brought political concepts into his discipline. “His constitutional doctrine is what we revere,” Chen wrote in 2012, before adding, of his Nazi membership, “That’s his personal choice.” An alum of Peking University’s philosophy program, who asked not to be identified speaking on sensitive issues, told me that Schmitt’s work was among “the common language, a part of the academic establishment” at the university.
Schmitt’s influence is most evident when it comes to Beijing’s policy toward Hong Kong. Since its handover to China from Britain in 1997, the city has ostensibly been ruled under a “one country, two systems” framework, whereby it would be part of China, but its freedoms, independent judiciary, and other forms of autonomy would be preserved for 50 years. Over time, these freedoms have been eroded as the CCP has sought greater control, and more recently have been undermined completely with the national-security law.