Conservatives in the West see in the People’s Republic of China a daunting nemesis: an oppressive tech dystopia ruled by a Leninist party that negates conservatism’s attachment to civil society, Christianity, and individual liberties. You might expect the intellectual mainstream in mainland China to denounce Western conservatism in return. China is still formally communist, and its leading traditions of political thought—New Confucianism, Marxism, and Dengist reformism—do not overlap with Western conservative outlooks. What affinities could there possibly be between Western conservatism and the intellectual mainstream in China?
A closer look reveals a surprising answer. In China there is a great deal of love for Western conservative authors: The works of Samuel Huntington and Leo Strauss, for instance, are studied and admired by Chinese intellectuals and academics. And Chinese interpretations of American politics often parallel those of the American Right. These affinities undoubtedly have many causes, but one shared belief stands out: a profound sense that any society, and a healthy one in particular, is held together by an integral, holistic culture.
Chinese thinkers are “politically incorrect” when measured against the progressive liberal standards dominant in North American universities. The Chinese term for North America’s identity politics—baizuo (“white Left”)—is strongly derogatory. It implies something like “the wild stuff lefty whites say these days.” Even scholars from China’s most liberal faction, such as intellectual historian Xu Jilin, judge North America’s baizuo to be excessive and divisive. In a forum on Black Lives Matter, Xu criticized “the coercive tactics the movement employs,” which amount to “purging history” and only provoke “deeper racial and ethnic conflicts.”
To many of a certain age, such as the dissident artist Ai Weiwei, baizuo recalls Mao’s Cultural Revolution (1966–76). The memory of its terror against “class enemies,” committed in the name of cultural equality, leaves these thinkers allergic to progressive hyper-idealism—the kind of idealism that believes egalitarian utopia would materialize if only critics and moderates did not stand in the way of historical progress. They recognize that thought pattern wherever it emerges, and they know that narrowmindedness, coercion, and worse come in its train. No more of that, please.
This wariness extends to social and political theory. The Western thinkers shunned by today’s progressive liberals in the West attract the most interest in China. When I worked at Peking University a few years ago, I noticed that Samuel Huntington was cited frequently and taken seriously. As David Ownby of the Center of East Asian Studies at the University of Montreal observed, “Huntington, a cultural conservative, is strangely beloved by many Chinese intellectuals, even Chinese liberals.” But “strangely” is the wrong word, for obvious factors favor Huntington’s popularity in China.
Huntington rejected the West’s universalistic self-understanding, predicted a rise in Asian confidence, and disentangled modernization from liberal democracy. His Political Order in Changing Societies (1968) argued that political order and state capacity are more important variables than liberal democracy when it comes to modernization. As it happens, contemporary China prides itself on having disproven the thesis, widely touted by liberal theorists after the end of the Cold War, that modernization requires the West’s liberal-democratic model. Jiang Shigong, a prominent political theorist and public intellectual on the Chinese mainland, expresses a central reason for the Harvard political scientist’s appeal: “Huntington criticized Western political theory for its dogmatic ideological belief that liberal democratic governments represent the highest political ideal.”
Huntington’s Clash of Civilizations (1996) offers another point of contact. Though initially unpersuaded by its pessimistic forecast of inevitable conflict, Chinese intellectuals have come to judge the book’s thesis about the geopolitical importance of civilizations and cultures to be correct. Huntington’s strongly “culturalist” angle, which accords religion and cultural values superordinate roles, reinforces China’s official self-understanding. CCP propaganda consistently plays the culture card, arguing that China should not become a Western-style liberal democracy, because to do so would go against China’s cultural values. Huntington argues that cultures should respect each other’s political systems and manage differences rather than attempt to eradicate them. Chairman Xi’s call for “inter-civilizational dialogue in difference” approximates this line so closely that, as literature professor Huimin Jin of Sichuan University observes, it is as if Xi were “intentionally responding to Huntington’s expectations and concerns.”
A similar contrast—admiration in China, abhorrence in American academia—applies to Leo Strauss. Strauss, who taught at the University of Chicago in the 1950s and 1960s, is often cited at gatherings of conservative intellectuals who don’t have academic posts. In departments of political science and philosophy, his ideas are confined to a few eccentric corners. How very different is the situation in China. There, Strauss has gained a “cult following,” as Matthew Dean observed. Chinese translators and editors of his work are so enthusiastic and diligent that, at present, “more Strauss is available in print in Chinese than in English.”
Two pioneers of Straussianism in China, Liu Xiaofeng and Gan Yang, studied under Allan Bloom. They preface each volume in their coedited series, Sources of Western Scholarship, with a warning that Strauss and his students would have appreciated: “Chinese scholars who embrace a healthy reading of the West maintain an attitude of skepticism toward the systems of Western thought, and are even more vigilant in the face of the various fashionably strange theories found on Western college campuses.”
What attracts Chinese scholars to Strauss’s works? According to Mark Lilla, who wrote an essay on this question after spending time in China in 2010, widespread dissatisfaction with liberal conceptions of political life makes Strauss appealing, for Strauss, too, doubted the adequacy of modern liberalism. Lilla also identifies Strauss’s “idea of an elite class educated to serve the public good,” which resonates with China’s Confucian tradition. He adds that Chinese readers appreciate that Strauss takes them on a grand tour of Western political philosophy.
I would add another factor: Strauss’s view of society matches a Chinese preference for what might be called “cultural holism.” Drawing on the Greek tradition, Strauss treats societies as politico-cultural wholes, each with a particular overall character, its politeia, or, in his translation of the Greek term, its regime. As he put it in “What is Political Philosophy?” (1957): “Regime means that whole, which we today are in the habit of viewing primarily in a fragmentized form; regime means simultaneously the form of life of a society, its style of life, its moral taste, form of society, form of state, form of government, spirit of laws.”
Chinese thinkers likewise reason in terms of regimes. In his 1991 travel memoir America Against America, Wang Huning approached American society as an integral cultural-political regime. Wang—then a professor of international politics and now one of China’s top political figures—tried to capture the overall spirit of American life. He noted that Americans have a much more fragmented social imagination than do the Chinese. This lack of an integral sense of who they are makes Americans incapable of grasping the interlinked nature of their country’s ills. Americans prize individualism. Belief in it is a cornerstone of the American regime. But Wang sees this mentality as the cause of social breakdown, or worse still, break-up.
There is a pattern in the Chinese attraction to conservative thinkers. Strauss and Huntington conceive of politics as embedded in distinct national and regional “forms of life,” that is, in what we commonly call cultures. Chinese intellectuals see the world in the same way. Social life and political reality are formed within (and form in turn) cultural wholes. “Culture,” writes Huimin Jin in Telos, “can never be just one thing, divided from other things, since culture appears as a whole.” Cultural values hold a society together. As Xu Jilin explains, “A country’s internal order of justice requires powerful common values with substantive content.” He criticizes the strands of American liberalism that neglect this fact. Xu argues that such liberalism, which relies on legal rights and procedural norms, demands too little from its citizens—while ironically expecting too much normative convergence internationally. Modern liberalism promotes “Western human rights standards” without realizing that they are narrowly Western and incongruent with “many axial civilizations.”
Progressive liberal ideology seeks to downplay cultural wholes. It envisions the world in universal, globalist terms, while reducing national societies to collections of atomized individuals. In its advanced form as identity politics, this version of liberalism views individuals as members of intersecting identity categories—categories that are not real communities and cultures, but rather demographic abstractions such as “Asian American” and “LGBTQIA+.” The word “community” may be added to such abstractions—as in “LGBTQIA+ community”—but it is empty, for none of the identity-politics categories are concrete communities with shared cultural lives. Indeed, the pseudo-solidarity of identity politics further atomizes the individual by undermining the legitimacy of inherited cultures. This outcome is not accidental. Progressive liberals seek to weaken the hold of larger cultural collectives by erasing them from their accounts of the social world, accounts they disseminate using their dominance in the West’s humanities and social science departments. Many conservatives in the West criticize this project, and Chinese intellectuals find themselves in agreement.
Western intellectual life has not always been hostile to a culturally holistic understanding. The founding figures of Western sociology conceived of societies as organic wholes or as distinct and coherent arenas of conflict and resource allocation. True, French sociologist Émile Durkheim (1858–1917) and German sociologist Max Weber (1864–1920) highlighted the ways in which modern societies had become more internally differentiated on the level of professions and value spheres. But according to Durkheim, modern societies nonetheless continued to be unified by a shared social imagination. And though Weber was more attuned to value conflicts within cultures than Durkheim was, his studies of the socioeconomic legacies of various world religions compared different civilizations. For Weber, the civilizational orders of Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, and China each consist of a unique dynamic of values and traditions, giving rise to distinct forms of social life.
In Western academia, comparative civilizational theorizing of the sort Weber undertook was last entirely respectable in 1963, when Israeli sociologist Shmuel Eisenstadt, in The Political System of Empires, explained how Europe, Japan, China, and Islam had produced different versions of modernity. Since then, fragmenting visions have reigned. Etiquette in Western academia requires that we not “reify” or “essentialize” cultures, and that we avoid the terms “civilization” and “Western world,” which are said to stimulate jingoism and underwrite the oppression of non-Western peoples. Large cultural units are suspect. It is acceptable to attach the adjective “cultural” to micro-groupings; subcultures are fine. But postulating something like “American culture” would seem overly stereotyping, insufficiently attuned to diversity, even reactionary.
Reflections on what unifies a society—the cultural holism that Chinese scholars take for granted—is said to benefit nationalist political programs, which professors and students must ostentatiously abhor. Against this possibility, Western academics highlight subcultures and thin identity groups, alongside the study of formal institutions and globalization. Anything is fine, really, as long as it breaks open the supposedly suffocating patchwork of national attachments and civilizational blocs.
As a result, Western academics reject out of hand cultural comparisons based on shared traditions, and they underestimate the extent to which humanity’s cultural life is organized in distinct and well-consolidated blocs, as Huntington describes. Of course, cultures are not perfectly distinct. There have always been porous border zones, diasporas, subgroupings, local variations, and free-roaming individuals with unique identity assemblages. But if we focus exclusively on these aspects, we underestimate how bloc-like much of cultural life on earth nonetheless remains.
A recent study, “On ʻNationology,ʼ” by Plamen Akaliyski and others, compares the explanatory power of national units in the World Values Survey to that of alternative grouping units such as religion and ethnicity. It turns out that “nations capture the bulk” of the explainable variation in an individual’s cultural values. “Contrary to many scholars’ intuitions, alternative social aggregates, such as ethnic, linguistic, and religious groups, as well as diverse socio-demographic categories, add negligible explained variance to that already captured by nations.” Thus, the prevailing view of Chinese scholars and of many Western conservatives—that nations are not only very real units of culture, but in most instances more important than other differentiations—turns out to be true.
In an earlier study, sociologists Ronald Inglehart and Christian Welzel presented their well-known world culture map (see graph). It shows that respondents to the World Values Survey and European Values Study, if grouped by nationality, cluster into larger world-cultural regions or civilizations. Inglehart and Welzel contrasted traditional and secular values, as well as survival and self-expressive values. The y-axis (traditional–secular) shows the weight respondents give to religion, family values, and legitimate authority. The x-axis (survival–expression) runs from economic and physical security concerns to subjective well-being and quality of life. World-regional patterns are discernible if the national averages are placed in a scatter plot. European countries with a strong Protestant tradition, for example, score high on secularism and self-expression, whereas the Anglosphere countries are equally self-expressive but more traditional.
Putting together the two research findings—that national belonging covers the bulk of variation and that nations group into larger cultural regions—it appears that our cultural world, to a great degree, is one of “people within nations and nations within civilizations.” So, the tendency of Western conservatives and Chinese scholars to imagine a world of cultural boxes is not wildly off the mark. The view of nations and civilizations as central realities for political life has a far sounder empirical basis than do progressive-liberal attempts to think outside the culture box.
Society has moral substance; cultural differences matter; and civilizations are real. Chinese thinkers and Western conservatives agree on these fundamental points. Both groups regard society as a thickly cultured whole held together by shared values. But, of course, the convergence has limits. The cultural holisms that Chinese thinkers and Western conservatives perceive in society and embrace politically differ in substance. The holism that is aligned with Western conservatism’s emphasis on national culture and civilizational identity differs from the holism of Chinese political thought, as the latter is grounded in views of human nature, social cohesion, and political authority that Western conservatives reject.
Chinese thinkers often hold the utopian belief that leaders and society are morally perfectible. This optimism allows modern Chinese philosophers to expect that, with good leadership and sustained efforts of moral education, selfishness and partiality will one day disappear from people’s hearts. When I first stumbled on this belief in my readings of Chinese philosophy, I could not get myself to take it seriously. But in 2017, I tutored a high-schooler in Beijing. On various occasions, this student suggested that having discussions with people was pointless, for such “discussions are soon going to end.” He explained that a unifying moral truth would soon emerge, after which people would have nothing to debate. Why bicker when disagreement itself was about to become obsolete?
This sincere, bright teenager was echoing a broad strand in Chinese political thought, one that sinologist and political theorist Thomas A. Metzger labels “Chinese utopianism.” In A Cloud Across the Pacific, Metzger characterizes Chinese utopianism as “the belief that the concrete here-and-now not only should but also could be made morally perfect.” This faith derives from a modern reworking of Confucian idealism. For premodern Neo-Confucians, humanity’s golden age lay in a distant past, when the Duke of Zhou’s perfect rule (1042–1035 BC) brought all under heaven into one harmonious family. Since then, humanity had declined, with the gradual downward trend interrupted only sporadically by partial restorations. Influenced by socialism and modern Western notions of historical progress, this representation of history was turned on its head at the dawn of the twentieth century, when modernizers such as Kang Youwei (1858–1927) moved the state of salvation into the near future. Kang’s famous Book of Great Unity foresaw a harmonized, peaceful world in which all would be equal in all respects, including economically, and rivalry would be overcome as everyone strove to be humane and self-cultivated.
This fusion of the Confucian and the modern, Metzger explains, prepared the way for the importation of Marxist-Leninist utopianism in the mid-twentieth century, and it remains influential in Chinese thought. Philosopher Zhao Tingyang of Peking University has made waves in recent years by outlining a vision of global moral revolution whereby partiality will be eradicated from the hearts of all people, diplomatic tensions will become obsolete, and the world’s cultures will come to respect one another. His latest monograph, All Under Heaven, reiterates his plea to replace political conflict with a worldwide order of friendship: “Politics must become an art for transforming enmity into friendship rather than a technology for coping with competitive conflict.”
This moral utopianism conflicts with the core of Western conservatism. Whether Burkean, Hayekian, or theological in persuasion, a robust conservatism rests on the Christian notion of human fallenness. It accepts that sin, including everyday selfishness, is an ineradicable feature of human existence, and therefore seeks to impose safeguards against the worst abuses of power. Checks and balances, the rule of law, and open debate are indispensable, because leaders can never be trusted fully. And political disagreements will always remain. Even the best leaders and citizens have interests and perspectival limitations that affect their judgment.
A pessimistic view of human nature leads conservatives to conceive a well-ordered society as a balancing act. Order is possible when different institutions and cultural traditions keep each other in check and compensate for the fallibility of human beings. In the optimistic Chinese view, by contrast, the collective is integrated harmoniously; all of society’s parts, including all individuals, can rise to higher moral planes in unison. Chinese demographics has a concept of “population quality” (renkou suzhi). As defined by Baidu Baike, China’s largest online encyclopedia, this term denotes a population’s “ideological, cultural, and physical qualities.” All such qualities, it is believed, can be improved. Everything in society, including the moral character of individuals, can—and must—grow together when the cultural collective rises and improves, finally yielding a morally perfect society with flawless leaders.
Belief in the possibility of fundamental collective improvement of the people’s moral character makes Chinese thinkers posit a cultural holism more collectivist than even the most integral visions of Western conservatives. In that sense, the Chinese mainstream might be called more “right-wing” than Western conservatism itself. But at this point, comparisons shift. Chinese utopianism, a prominent strand in Chinese political thought, has its closest Western counterpart in radical socialism and the dreams of a perfectly harmonious multicultural society of inclusion. In this sense, Chinese utopianism might be characterized as leftist.
The pivoting of the Chinese social imagination from right to left demonstrates the folly of placing something so complex and complexly different on the Western left-right spectrum. Chinese intellectual life is a different world—albeit one that bears affinities with, and shows a great deal of interest in, Western conservatism. Perhaps we can return the interest and even muster sympathy, since, so long as perfect global harmony has not yet materialized, it will be necessary for the West and China to coexist while disagreeing about many things.
Eric Hendriks-Kim is a Dutch sociologist and visiting fellow at the Mathias Corvinus Collegium in Budapest.