THR Web Features   /   October 21, 2021

Why Carl Schmitt Matters to China

Uncovering the pathology of Schmitt Fever.

Addis Goldman

( Carl Schmitt in 1930; Ullstein Bild.)

Despite his virulent anti-Semitism and high-profile affiliation with National Socialism, Carl Schmitt (1888–1985) is considered a giant of twentieth-century legal and political thought. “He seems to me even more precise than Kant,” wrote Hugo Ball in 1923, “a savant…rigorous like a Great Spanish Inquisitor.” Indeed, Schmitt––a lifelong Roman Catholic and self-styled “theologian of jurisprudence”––is remembered for his dubious and compelling critiques of cosmopolitanism, Romanticism, popular sovereignty, democracy, and the rule of law, among other things. He is most famous, perhaps, for declaring that “all significant concepts of the modern theory of the state are secularized theological conceptions.”

By most accounts, Schmitt’s pre-war writings––among them, Dictatorship (1921), Political Theology (1922), The Crisis of Parliamentary Democracy (1923), and The Concept of the Political (1932)––eroded the intellectual foundations of parliamentary democracy during the constitutional crises of the Weimar era, and, thus, legitimized Hitler’s assumption of emergency powers under the Enabling Act of 1933. In the context of the rise of modern mass democracy, Schmitt thought that the influence of “big capitalist interest groups” and “party coalitions” had led to the “pluralistic dissolution of the state.” Before the war, Schmitt felt Hitler was an “empty nobody”; the Nazis, “barbaric.” Yet he joined the Nazi Party in 1933, was appointed as a Prussian state officer by Hermann Göring, and valorized Hitler’s gestapo tactics as the “highest justice.” He was accused of opportunism and ousted by intra-party rivals by 1936.

In Schmitt’s theory of the “absolute constitution,” the will of “the people” (Volk) is made manifest in the élan vital of the “Sovereign,” which he famously defined as “he who decides on the exception.” In other words, the power of a leader, endowed with charismatic authority, to suspend or make decisions outside the law is itself the definition of sovereignty. This “existential” conception of political legitimacy––a perversion of Machiavelli, Thomas Hobbes, and Jean-Jacques Rousseau––is known as “decisionism.” Schmitt believed that “all law is situational,” and emanates from a “concrete order” of society. His bellicose “concept of the political”––an extension of Clausewitz’s idiom that war is the continuation of politics by other means––dictates that distinguishing between “friend” and “enemy” is the ultimate essence of political activity and, thus, constitutive of a true political community. In the end, the Krönjurist proffers a blood and soil politics that presupposes the virtues of dictatorial power and ethnocultural “homogeneity.” In 1933, he wrote: “The idea of ethnic identity will pervade and dominate all our public law.”

Schmitt’s wartime and postwar writings, such as “The Turn to the Discriminating Concept of War” (1937) and The Nomos of the Earth (1950), develop conceptual histories of international law and geopolitical order. Schmitt takes up the Monroe Doctrine, for instance, which, to his mind, reproduced a medieval understanding of hemispheric sovereignty for the purpose of advancing the “liberal democratic-capitalistic,” “pan-interventionist” ideology at the core of American foreign policy. Schmitt appropriated the Monroe Doctrine as a “precedent case” for advancing the cause of German expansionism, landing on his “spatial theory” of Großraum (“greater space”). At the Nuremburg Trials, Schmitt tried to disentangle his concept of a greater Germanic estate from Hitler’s adventurism. But today, Großraum is viewed not only as a corollary to the Monroe Doctrine and a challenge to Wilsonian universalism, but also a key articulation of the German imperial notion of Lebensraum (“living space”), or “the territory that a state…believes is needed for its natural development.”

However odious his reputation may be, Schmitt’s ideas continue to influence thinkers across the political spectrum, no example of which is straightforward. Theorists of many persuasions are attracted to Schmitt’s view that liberalism tends toward “depoliticizations” and “neutralizations”––in other words, the banality of positivist-technocratic evil. In the mid-to-late twentieth century, Schmitt’s influence was evident in the transformation of émigré and American socialists, social democrats, and Trotskyites into super-charged classical liberals, paleoconservatives, and neoconservatives––critics of the New Left, who, in Irving Kristol’s words, had been “mugged by reality.” We might think of Daniel Bell, Hannah Arendt, or Raymond Aron, the great French champion of liberalism who turned to Schmitt in his critique of French Marxism in the 1950s. Scholars like Heinrich Meier stress the fact that Schmitt enjoyed a “hidden dialogue” with Leo Strauss; both men appealed to anti-Enlightenment classicism as an antidote to the bankruptcy of modernity. More recently, in 2007, Peter Thiel toyed with, but mostly rejected, Schmitt’s “concept of the political” as an impetus for the war on terror.

The appropriation of Schmitt by thinkers on the ostensible Left has garnered special attention. Already in the 1950s, Frankfurt School theorists like Otto Kirchheimer were being designated as “Left-Schmittians.” Diagnosticians of neoliberalism take interest in Schmitt’s characterization of modern democracy as an “economic administrative factory…a façade,” concealing a “demagogic plutocracy.” In Empire (2000), arch post-Marxists Antonio Negri and Michael Hardt invoke the German jurist in their critique of the “juridical structure” of global governance regimes. Matthew Specter observes that Schmitt’s wartime and postwar writings “prefigure postcolonial critiques of international law and Eurocentric world order.” Schmitt did argue that “the concept of humanity” is an “ideological instrument of imperialist expansion in…ethical-humanitarian form.” Thus, in 1999, at the height of the “unipolar moment,” Chantal Mouffe proposed that “Schmitt’s thought serves as a warning against the dangers of complacency that a triumphant liberalism entails.” Finally, in the wake of 9/11, Giorgio Agamben and countless others enlisted Schmitt’s notion of the “state of exception” to indict the Bush administration’s prosecution of the war on terror. 

It’s clear that we are experiencing a Carl Schmitt moment. Simply put, Schmitt has fresh appeal in a time of authoritarian populism and reactionary conservatism. As Roland Paris has pointed out, it is no surprise within this context that intellectuals are interested in the ascent of “extralegal” and “organic” sovereignty—that is, modes of governing rooted in hostility to liberal norms that embrace civilizational notions of political legitimacy. From Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Turkic-Islamic identity politics to Vladimir Putin’s Russo-Christian nationalism (see Aleksandr Dugin’s essay “Carl Schmitt’s Five Lessons for Russia”), and the chauvinistic demagoguery of Donald Trump, Rodrigo Duterte, and Jair Bolsonaro, “illiberalism” is on the rise––in this familiar story, as a response to unfettered globalism.

But what to make of Schmitt’s popularity in China? Ever since philosopher Liu Xiaofeng began publishing his translations of Schmitt’s major works in the 1990s, “Schmitt fever” has taken hold of many influential Chinese legal scholars and leading Chinese Communist Party (CCP) ideologists. Perhaps more than any other appropriation of Schmitt, the Chinese case has been the subject of the most sensational coverage (as exemplified by Chang Che’s recent Atlantic article, “The Nazi Inspiring China’s Communists”).

At a glance, it seems the “Crown Jurist” enjoys prestige in China for a simple reason: There is a spontaneous affinity between Schmitt’s conceptual contributions to legal and political theory and the Chinese view of world order and human government. As Ryan Mitchell, a professor of law at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, brilliantly argues in “Chinese Receptions of Carl Schmitt Since 1929,” the essence of Schmitt’s ideas about politics, culture, law, and society are deployed in China either “as justifications for the total power of the state and the elimination of challenges from civil society…or, alternatively, as articulating dissatisfaction with…the possibilities afforded by Western liberalism.”

Already in the 1920s, according to Mitchell, prominent Chinese legal scholars educated in Berlin and Cologne, such as Zang Junmai or Xu Daolin, a high-level associate of Chiang Kai-shek, “appreciated [Schmitt’s] formulation of basic questions regarding the concrete preconditions for a stable political and legal structure,” predicated on “the basic grounds of state legitimacy.” Schmitt’s ideas were somewhat overlooked during the Cold War, given the establishment of the Peoples Republic of China (PRC) in 1949, when Marxism came to dominate intellectual life under Mao (whom Schmitt, not incidentally, admired).

In the 1980s and 1990s, with Deng Xiaoping’s “Reform and Opening,” Schmitt’s ideas helped generate an “ethos of state-led but market-oriented developmentalism built upon the reception of Western economic ideas.” Hu Jintao, the technocratic president of the PRC from 2003 to 2012, abided by Deng’s dictum of tao guang yang hui: that is, to “…hide our capacities and bide our time; be good at maintaining a low profile; and never claim leadership.” This posture allowed Hu to lay the groundwork for China’s “miraculous” emergence onto the world stage in the twenty-first century.

In recent decades, the nation of 1.5 billion has grown incredibly rich and powerful, more emboldened abroad, more repressive at home. Its “rise” has provoked a dizzying stream of expert analysis, and, in recent years, much discussion of a “new Cold War,” which portends an epochal showdown between “techno-democracy” and “techno-autocracy.” In response to its growing prominence as the object of international ire, with respect to both domestic statecraft and the conduct of foreign affairs, the Chinese have assumed a resolutely Schmittian posture.

Analysts have taken special interest in the ascent of Chinese “statists.” According to The New York Times, these thinkers “stand out for their unabashed, often flashily erudite advocacy” of the sovereign prerogatives of the CCP. Statists envisage, according to intellectual historian Sebastian Veg, “the powers of the state (guarding against external and internal threats) as the highest political principle, overriding, if necessary, the powers of the constitution.” Thus, Veg’s fellow historian Peter Zarrow describes “statism,” or, rather, Chinese political constitutionalism, as “the view that the state––the institutions of governance––is the ultimate locus of sovereignty, self-legitimating, and the highest source of good.” Both implicitly and explicitly, statists promote Schmitt’s theory of the “absolute constitution,” which posits an existential unity between the state and “the concrete wholeness of a given country’s territorial unity and social order.”

Within the upper echelons of the CCP intelligentsia, statists abound; their views would make Schmitt blush. We might consider, for example, Chen Duanhong, a Peking University law professor and member of the nominal “New Left.” Chen has written that “Carl Schmitt is the most successful theorist who has introduced political theory into constitutional studies. His constitutional doctrine is what we revere.” In a 2008 article, Chen quotes Schmitt’s Constitutional Theory (1928) and Legality and Legitimacy (1932) to argue that “The leadership right of the Chinese Communist Party is the fundamental fact of the Chinese Constitution.” Chen is wary of the “judicialization” of politics––that is, the empowerment of a liberal constitutional court. In Schmittian style, he believes that “the validity and vitality of the constitution are bestowed by the sovereign.”

We might also consider Wang Huning, viewed as the éminence grise of the CCP––or, according to The Washington Post, the “mastermind behind Xi Jinping.” Wang is associated with an erudite circle of influential Chinese academics who, in the 1980s, grew to believe that sustained economic growth required centralized state authority. Today, Wang is viewed as a pioneer of “neo-authoritarianism”––a label he rejects, instead favoring the designation of neoconservative. Though, Ryan Mitchell’s 2017 profile on Wang in Foreign Affairs, “China’s Crown Theorist,” puts a fine Schmittian point on things.

Wang wrote a master’s thesis at Fudan University in the early-1980s on the French political philosopher Jean Bodin, the French Catholic philosopher Jacques Maritain, and the concept of sovereignty. In 1941, Maritain wrote: The progress of liberty implies the decay of authority.” And Bodin, the sixteenth-century monarchist who advocated the “absolute” and “perpetual” rule of French kings, literally wrote the book On Sovereignty in 1576. In America Against America (1991), a quasi-Tocquevillian screed against Western decadence, Wang describes liberty and democracy as “self-defeating” notions, perceiving in the “American spirit” an “unstoppable undercurrent of crisis.”

Wang was central in mandating the teaching of “Xi Jinping Thought” at all levels of national education in 2021. For Xi, “the blood of the Chinese nation” flows in the veins of each citizen, who carries “the distinctive brand of the Chinese culture” and “civilization.” Thus, for Wang, the study of “Xi Jinping Thought” is meant to “cultivate patriotic feelings” about “Chinese wisdom” and help to establish national “harmony via organic unity.” For Jiang Shigong, described as the “preeminent representative” of Schmitt in China, the brilliance of “Xi Jinping Thought” is that it “uses modern legal thinking to perfect the Party’s leadership of the state.” Jiang also leans into the work of Friedrich Nietzsche, Michel Foucault, and Max Weber to legitimate Chinese ethnocentrism, surveillance regimes, and the state’s monopoly on violence.

Statism at home informs Chinese approaches to building a new regional order in its backyard. Hu Angang, a professor of economics at Tsinghua University and a doyen of “Chinese exceptionalism,” argues that China has achieved “comprehensive national power.” Therefore, since 2014, the CCP has maintained that “the complete rise of China” and its ability to serve as the “defender of a Harmonious Asia-Pacific” is contingent on securing its “territorial integrity, national sovereignty, security, and development interests.”

The Chinese see ample precedent for asserting their own kind of Monroe Doctrine in the Indo-Pacific––and again find a friend in Carl Schmitt. In his wartime defense of German expansionism, Schmitt quotes British foreign secretary Sir Austen Chamberlain, who, during negotiations over the Kellogg Pact in 1928, pronounced on behalf of England that “there are certain regions of the world the welfare and integrity of which constitute a special and vital interest for our peace and safety.”

Surely, the CCP feels the same way about China’s “vital” regions of interest: among them, Hong Kong, the South China Sea, and Taiwan. In these instances, the party’s position links state-sovereignty and national security to irredentism: that is, “a policy of advocating the restoration to a country of any territory formerly belonging to it.” In vigorous defense of the Hong Kong National Security Law implemented in 2020, Chen argued that “The survival of the state comes first, and constitutional law must serve this fundamental objective.” He also compared Xi’s actions to Abraham Lincoln’s suspension of the rule of law during the American Civil War. Jiang, who conceives of the state as an “ethical totality,” helped author the whitepaper that sanctioned Beijing’s “comprehensive jurisdiction” over Hong Kong, which, through annexation, was to be left without “residual sovereignty.”

In the case of the South China Sea, the CCP argues that the Chinese people have long been the “master” of this highly contested body of water. In an echo of Schmitt’s polemics against the British weaponization of the doctrine of “freedom of the seas” and the incursions of “spatially alien” powers into the “great space” of the German Reich, Wang has opined––with reference to Samuel Huntington’s The Clash of Civilizations (1996)––on Western “cultural expansionism,” countered only by the assertion of Chinese “cultural sovereignty.” Finally, in the case of Taiwan, Xi and his army of statists have assumed a clearly Schmittian friend-enemy posture in order to define China’s security interests in existential terms. In October, 2021, Xi announced that “Taiwan’s independence separatism is the biggest obstacle to achieving the reunification of the motherland, and the most serious hidden danger to national rejuvenation.”

Beyond its regional interests, Xi envisions a new kind of international system: a “Community of Common Destiny” based on a “new model of great power relations,” characterized by “win-win competition” that “embodies China’s understanding of power, stressing equality and fairness.” In the words of Jiang, the ancient Chinese empires-of-old were not “universal and homogenous,” but rather, defined by “the pursuit of peaceful coexistence while maintaining differences.” Today, this amounts to a foreign policy doctrine of “live and let live.” As such, it tracks closely with Schmitt’s appeal to medieval notions of geopolitical order and civilizational pluralism.

Making the international system in China’s image is one thing. But for the time being, Xi welcomes the limitations of the modern state-system. The CCP wields Westphalian sovereignty in defense of China’s right to self-determination––again, especially in its own backyard. Jiang Shigong’s 2018 essay “Geography and Right: Mackinder and Schmitt on the Conflict of Empires,” sheds light on the vision of a Sinocentric regional order, Halford Mackinder’s “Heartland Theory,” and Schmitt’s Großraum: a conception of hemispheric hegemony in which a “völkish order of life,” an ideologically charged ethnocivilization, “radiates” its power and influence outward. In “Großraum Principles of International Law,” delivered as a lecture in 1939, Schmitt describes the developmental tendency of a “politically awakened nation,” via “an economic process of expansion,” to establish a “technical-industrial-economic order” represented by “networks covering great distances.” With this in mind, as Ryan Mitchell writes: “It is possible that Schmitt’s greatest impact in China could ultimately lie less in domestic affairs than those concerning the organization of Asia’s ‘great space.’”

China’s “Silk Road Economic Belt,” or the “One Belt, One Road Initiative” (OBOR), can be viewed in light of the Großraum “principle.” OBOR is portrayed as a benevolent, nation-to-nation infrastructure and economic development program, spanning Asia, Africa, the Middle East, and Europe. To the mind of most Western analysts, however, OBOR is a geostrategic Trojan Horse––an embodiment of the “China Dream.” In this view, the Chinese hope to resurrect the “classical ‘tribute system’...of concentric circles in which the civilized imperial capital [Beijing] at the centre flows out to embrace the periphery, forming a pattern of interdependence, coexistence, and co-prosperity.” Observers like Elizabeth Economy go further: OBOR resurrects tianxia (“all under heaven”): the ancient imperial Chinese vision of a past golden era, in which Confucian values and a preponderance of power in Beijing, charged with a “Mandate of Heaven,” served to maintain a hierarchical global order comprised of quasi-vassal states.

A Sinocentric Großraum that spans all of Eurasia––or, perhaps, a Sino-Reich––has yet to be realized. However, Chongqing Communist Party School scholar Fang Xu’s 2018 essay, “Saying Farewell to Universal Empire with a Großraum Order,” might put some speculation to rest. Here, we might do well to invoke Occam’s Razor. If China’s approach to domestic politics is any indication of its geopolitical ambitions, epochal great power confrontation may be inevitable. Though we should steer clear of fear-mongering and exaggeration, it would be prudent to take the Chinese at their word––especially if it is bound up in the mystifying language of Carl Schmitt.