When Thomas Hobbes looked at an England torn apart by civil war, he penned his first outlines for what was going to be a classic in pragmatic authoritarian philosophy: Leviathan. Centuries earlier a Chinese aristocrat called Han Fei looked at the warring states of the period so-called in Chinese history, and he started propagating a philosophy long ignored outside China, but crucial in its development: authoritarian legalism. President Xi Jinping is fond of quoting Han Fei, the Chinese Hobbes.

Master Han Fei

Han Fei was born around 280 BCE and was a leading philosopher in the Chinese Warring States period of the Legalism school. His ideas were so influential that he was given the honorific suffix zi, or ‘master’: Han Feizi. In the period of great social and political upheaval in which he lived, Han Fei sought to provide a pragmatic answer to the challenges of the time. His reaction to the chaos of continuing warfare and existential insecurity was instinctively autocratic.

han feizi
Han Fei. Photo: big5.cri.cn.

Han Fei and Xi Jinping not only share an ideological outlook, but also a social background, since they were both born in the ruling caste of Chinese society. Where Xi Jinping is the son of a Mao era revolutionary hero, Xi Zhongxun, Han Fei was a member of the ruling family of the state of Han during the end of the Warring States period.

However, where Xi rose through the ranks of the CCP and reached its apex in 2012, Han Fei resembles an Old Testament prophet who is not heeded at home and dies in a foreign prison cell. His aristocratic background has led some scholars to believe some or most of his advice was meant for his cousin, the king of Han. When his verbal advice was not heeded, he put it down in writing.

Han Fei’s entire recorded work is collected in the 55 chapters of a work simply called Han Feizi, which is not only an important work of political philosophy, but also important for historians since it is the only surviving source for numerous anecdotes from the Warring States Period.

When Han was at war with the Qin, Han Fei was sent to Qin as a diplomatic envoy. Han Fei was thrown into prison after the total victory of Qin. However the first Chinese emperor, Qin Shi Huangdi, adopted many of his political theories for ruling the newly united empire.

This Chinese school of Legalism was primarily a political strategy which centred on the authority of the leader, who was to maintain firm control using three concepts: his position of authority (勢, Shi); certain administrative techniques (術, Shu), and laws (法, Fa). The ruler’s responsibility was to create ideal laws which would ensure the smooth functioning of his government.

Legalism assumed that everyone acts according to one principle: the desire to avoid punishment while simultaneously trying to achieve benefits. Thus, the law must reward those who obey it, and severely punish any unwanted action.

In the Han Feizi, the philosopher sets out to solve the problems of his age. The Warring States period was, as the name suggests, a period of military conflict, but giving a year in which the Warring States period started is a relatively random act of backwards interpretation, since there is no single battle or war that begins it.

The most famous of Chinese historians, Sima Chen, puts it at 476/575 BCE, with the inauguration of the weak king Yuan of Zhou. Nobles and warlords in the Zhou kingdom became increasingly independent and started to style themselves as kings, but it would take until 403 BCE before these kingdoms were officially recognized by the Zhou court, and therefore other ancient historians use that year as the beginning of the Warring States period, since these are now proper states.

Although the great power shifts, alliances, betrayals, battles and conquests make the Warring States period interesting for military historians, the reason for all this military strife lies, as so often, in social change.

The End of Feudalism

Most profoundly changed in the period previous to the Warring States, the famed Spring and Autumn period, was the relationship between the lord and the peasantry. The altered military situation now made farmers doubly valuable to their lords: they represented not only his main source of income, but the heart of his war machine as well.

Systems of taxation in state after state were reformulated so that the peasant’s payment to his lord no longer took the form of field labour, but was a direct payment in cash or in crops, resources that could sustain the lord’s household or be converted into funds necessary to raise and provision armies.

In the course of this transition, the peasantry for the first time were viewed as, in some sense, possessing the lands upon which they paid tax. In some states they were even allowed to buy and sell land, the truest test of ownership in the modern sense.

With taxation came the rise of a new class of bureaucrats, a legacy that is still in place in China today, where the civil service has a far more distinct prestige than in most other countries. Administration became a science that scholars studied and debated, while the lord needed to employ the most worthy of this new class to ensure a smooth functioning of an increasingly centralized state.

The nature of the changes differed among states, but there was a common thread. In virtually all cases, state administration was restructured so that lands and cities were divided into centrally designated units and control over these units was directly determined by the ruler and his close advisors, rather than becoming the hereditary prerogatives of patrician clans. The decline of feudalism in China, therefore, is both different and similar from the same development centuries later in the west, and the various reactions to this social upheaval are again both different and similar.

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The start of the warring states. Map: Wikicommons.

In Warring States China the fast growing need for skilled men able to administer the vastly more complex military and political demands of the time created an opening for men of intellectual talent who were not necessarily high-born.

The most prized skills of the Spring and Autumn period in China had been the charioteering skills and ritualized etiquette of the patrician born, abilities that can be drilled in any man whose father has the ability to purchase free time, material and training. However, the Warring States prized the ability to devise clever and original strategies of war, or of economic and diplomatic policy.

Raw intelligence and learning which was often derived through study of books or with an expert teacher were now the qualities most prized; whatever their virtues of bravery, bearing, and clan loyalty, the patrician class held no monopoly on intelligence, and, in time, little advantage with regard to learning as well.

Consequently, the Warring States was a time of sharply increasing social mobility. Positions of power gradually shifted into the hands of men of wit in China, creating the meritocracy that has waxed and waned throughout Chinese history, but which has virtually almost remained the ideal until this very day.

Confucianism and Legalism

Han Fei was not one of the self-made men of the era and like most notables he was originally attracted to Confucianism, since it promoted a society in which people were born into certain roles and had both loyalties and expectations from these loyalties to create stable and lasting bonds. Although Confucianism was a relatively optimistic ideology, it was conservative in the sense that it wanted to return to the values of the feudal past.

However, Confucianism maintained as a radical tenet that personal virtue, rather than birth, was the qualification for membership in the ruling elite. Virtue was expressed in terms of ritual skills and humane dedication to social rather than personal advantage. Confucius looked to the existing ‘legitimate’ sovereigns, men like the Zhou kings or the dukes of Lu from his own native lands, as the best potential bases for a social revolution.

All things being equal, birth still counted. If the men who occupied the thrones of the Zhou patrician rulers could, by means of revived personal virtue, lead the population as a whole, the new order could be more effectively established.

Confucius. Picture: Wikicommons.

When he was still a student, Han Fei encountered a slightly more pessimistic and pragmatic strand of Confucianism in the work of his master Xun Kuang. Master Xun, or Xunzi, even more than Confucius himself, had been an eye-witness to the further demise of the Zhou Dynasty and this might have accounted for his interpretation of Confucianism.

In the 200 or so years between the death of Confucius and the birth of Han Fei the prospects of a Zhou restoration had withered and for Han Fei a more practical Confucianism did not go far enough to solve issues of social stability.

Where Confucianism advocated rule through virtue and copying successful examples of previous rulers, Han Fei believed political institutions should adapt to changing military and economic circumstances. Confucianism taught that virtue conferred the right to rule on a king, and abuse of power removed that right. Han Fei insisted that the moral qualities of a ruler were immaterial; possession of authority gave a ruler the right to rule.

According to Han Fei, duty to the nation came before any other duty, while for Confucians the duty of a son to a father is the paramount duty. Han Fei scoffed at this, in a clear sign of the tumultuous times in which he lived: ‘if a soldier runs away from battle because he thinks that if killed he cannot serve his father, he is a traitor first and a filial son second and traitors need to be put to death’.

Han Fei taught that authority should not be wielded arbitrarily, but through laws that the ruler propagates and all must obey. An intelligent ruler will use the law to select men for public office, and will not make appointments using his own judgment, but let the law measure a person’s merit and qualifications. The ruler himself should obey his own laws, though he has the authority to abrogate them.

To protect his authority and ensure that his government runs smoothly, a ruler must employ statecraft in which any person appointed to a government post should be required to perform his duties satisfactorily, and the ruler should punish anyone who is derelict of duty or oversteps his authority. Good behaviour on every level of society should be maintained by a system of harsh punishments and rewards, regulated through laws and enforced without exceptions.

For Han Fei “good” and “bad” were defined by whatever was in the interest of the ruler: ‘The interests of the ruler and the ruled are not of the same mind; superior and inferior wage 100 battles a day.’

Therefore, a ruler should trust no one; be suspicious of those who were overly subservient; permit no one to gain undue power or influence; and be alert for plots against the throne. Once his authority was secure and his empire in order, a ruler could proceed to expand his realm through the use of military power.

Han Fei considered military power to be the deciding factor in relations between states. The military and agriculture were the only productive occupations

The Modern Disciple

In many respects Han Fei seems an awkward philosopher for Xi Jinping to embrace, unless one realizes that the Marxist-Leninism of the Party is no longer a living ideology and the only existential reason for maintaining CCP rule is a self-perpetuating one: to stay in power in order to stay in power.

Xi has used all three of Han Fei’s elements of power: his shi, or authority is unquestioned as Secretary-General of the CCP, President of the People’s Republic and Chairman of the Military Committee, his use of shu, or statecraft, can be seen in a plethora of decisive moves to further modernize the country while attacking corruption within the CCP and his use of fa, or laws, can be seen in his campaign to create yifazhiguo, which is often translated as ‘rule of law’ – although, true to Han Fei, the law will never restrict, only reinforce, the power of the ruler and the ruling party.

xi jinping
Xi Jinping. Photo: Michel Temer via Flickr.

In contemporary Chinese writing, ‘western values’ are seen as dangerously destabilizing and decadent. But when looking for the roots of modern western political thought, one cannot escape its authoritarian beginnings. Thomas Hobbes was the first philosopher to describe the Social Contract and, although his thinking about this contract is long surpassed by those who came after him, he is important in the history of political philosophy.

It is a bit silly to call Han Fei the Chinese Hobbes, it would be more accurate to call Hobbes the western Han Fei, since Hobbes lived over 1,800 years later than Han Fei. The similarities are striking, but the most striking of all is that no western leader is an outspoken fan of the autocratic philosophy of Hobbes, while China’s dictator, Xi Jinping, has called Han Fei  ‘one of his favourite political thinkers’.

Among his other favourites are Mao Zedong, Karl Marx and Carl Schmitt. Schmitt? Who? Yes, Carl Schmitt was a Weimar-era German legal theorist and outspoken critic of liberalism. To adjust a well-known aphorism: show me your favorite philosophers and I will tell you who you are…

This essay was published in Dutch in Eerst Xi dan geloven (‘Xi-ing is Believing’), a book of which the author’s remuneration will go to Hong Kong Free Press. If you read Dutch or know anyone who reads Dutch, order the book here and support Hong Kong Free Press.

Alexander is a lecturer at the Arnhem Business School in the Netherlands and a fellow of the Sima Qian Foundation, advising governments and businesses about how the rise of China affects the global economy. With over ten years of work experience in China, he has written extensively about Chinese business and how free market solutions would solve many of China's problems. He has published books and articles in Dutch and English. On Press Freedom Day 2016 a Dutch collection of his essays was published by Pharos publishers and the proceeds were donated to HKFP.