Ahead of his arrival in the United States and scheduled state dinner in Washington later this week, Chinese President Xi Jinping answered a set of written answers to written questions submitted by the Wall Street Journal, published earlier this week, and can be read here.
China's leaders, particularly Xi and his predecessor Hu Jintao, are not known for their frank or illuminating public statements. They preside over a highly centralized one-party state and never face awkward press conferences or impromptu debates in the media spotlight. So it shouldn't be surprising that Xi's extended discourse with the Journal doesn't make for exciting reading.
When pressed about the issue of hacking and cybertheft, Xi adamantly denied the implication that Beijing encourages Chinese companies or proxies to engage in these activities. He then went on to defend his government's sophisticated systems of cyber-censorship, particularly of foreign media companies.
"We need to fully respect netizens’ rights to express themselves, while at the same time, ensure a sound cyberspace order to better protect the lawful rights and interests of all netizens," Xi said.
He prefaced that statement with this: "Freedom and order must be upheld side by side in both cyberspace and the physical world. Freedom is the purpose of order, and order the guarantee of freedom."
That's what Xi said, and it's worth unpacking. The political concept of "freedom" in the United States and other democracies is complex and, at times, contested. But it's not often paired, seemingly inseparably, with the idea of "order."
In Xi's worldview, though, order is paramount. The mantra has guided his systematic anti-corruption purges of the Communist party's ranks, and lies behind China's deepening layers of surveillance and censorship.
Rather than appeal to decades of existing Maoist or Marxist dogma, Beijing's leadership has steadily sought to build a new national ideology, steeped in Confucian principles that center on imperatives of harmony and deference to authority.
"To solve China’s problems, we can only search in the land of China for the ways and means that suit it," Xi said last year, when addressing the communist party Politburo. "We need to fully make use of the great wisdom accumulated by the Chinese nation over the last 5,000 years."
“Do not impose on others what you yourself do not desire,” he said in a [September 2014] speech, quoting one of Confucius’s most-famous sayings. Earlier in the year, he extolled the wonders of benevolent rule in an address to party cadres with another, well-known passage from the Analects, the most authoritative text on Confucius’s teachings: “The rule of virtue can be compared to the polestar which commands the homage of the multitude of stars without leaving its place.” Last year, Xi, like so many Emperors of old, visited Qufu, Confucius’ hometown. During his tour, he pledged to read Confucian texts and praised the continuing value of Chinese traditional culture.
As Schuman explains, Confucius' ideal government "was topped by a 'sage-king' — a person who was so learned, benevolent and upright that his virtuous rule would bring peace and order to society and uplift the Chinese masses both spiritually and materially." This has its contemporary uses. Schuman concludes:
By combining one-man rule with the morality of Chinese antiquity, [Xi] appears to be painting himself up as some newfangled communist/Confucian sage-king — an all-commanding figure who will usher in a new epoch of prestige and prosperity.
That epoch, though, is far from guaranteed. Xi comes to Washington after weeks of economic upheaval and unease back home, met by a perhaps uncharacteristically frantic and confused government response. It sets the stage for an awkward moment of bilateral diplomacy, at a time of rising nationalism in both countries.
In his interview with the Wall Street Journal, Xi seemed to dismiss the idea of universal values, and stressed China's fundamental uniqueness, both cultural and political. The subtext is simple: Spare us your lecturing about human rights and democracy.
Xi did so, of course, by invoking the past. "As an ancient Chinese philosopher Mencius said," Xi told the Journal, "'It’s only natural for things to be different.'"