A long essay by Chinese constitutional scholar Jiang Shigong has been making the rounds of China-watching circles, thanks to an impressive full translation by David Ownby (Don Clarke has made some interesting comments on it already). It’s a fascinating document in a kind of court philosopher mode, with Jiang interpreting the Communist Party’s current political priorities and leadership into an intellectual framework using both Chinese history and Western philosophy.
One part that I found particularly surprising and interesting was Jiang’s analysis of Xi Jinping’s consolidation of power in terms of Max Weber’s tripartite classification of authority:
In terms of Weberian theory, General Secretary Xi Jinping’s position as the core of the Party center, the core of the entire Party, his authoritative position as leader, arises not only from the ‘legal authority’ obtained by virtue of his legally defined positions as Party Secretary, National Chairman, Chairman of the Central Military Committee and not even from the ‘traditional authority’ born of the Party’s historical tradition.
More important is the fact that Xi Jinping, at a particular moment in history, courageously took up the political responsibility of the historical mission, and in the face of an era of historical transformation of the entire world, demonstrated the capacity to construct the great theory facilitating China’s development path, as well as the capacity to control complicated domestic and international events, thus consolidating the hearts and minds of the entire Party and the people of the entire country, hence becoming the core leader praised by the entire Party, the entire army and the entire country, possessing a special ‘charismatic authority’.
One of the interesting things about this passage is that it comes remarkably close to admitting that there is in fact a cult of personality around Xi Jinping: “charismatic authority” in Weber’s formulation is based on people’s personal devotion to the leader and their belief in his special qualities. Perhaps this Weberian terminology is a useful way for his supporters to recognize that Xi Jinping has in fact shifted toward personalized rule without evoking the more problematic Communist precedents of Mao and Stalin.
But I think Jiang’s framework is not just interesting as propaganda: it is significant, I think, that he argues that Xi possess all three forms of Weberian legitimate authority: traditional, legal, and charismatic. This analysis in my view is correct, and actually helps us understand how Xi differs from his predecessors.
Xi is more powerful than Hu Jintao because he has a charismatic authority that Hu never managed. But Xi’s charismatic authority is a complement to his traditional and legal authority, not a replacement for it. This is the major way he differs from Mao Zedong, who tried to use his personal charisma to overthrow tradition and law. Xi is an organization man as well as a charismatic figure, who has put lots of effort into clarifying bureaucratic reporting lines and emphasizing traditional morality–things that Mao never had much time for.