The Architectonic of Ideas:

Xi Jinping's The Governance of China

Speech at the Booklaunch at the Chinese Embassy, London, on April 15th, 2015

Martin Albrow

Your Excellency, Ambassador Liu, may I thank you first for allowing me the honour and privilege of speaking at the launch of President Xi Jinping’s new book. Not just Western countries should welcome this major initiative to communicate the ideas of China’s leadership about the direction of a country that will affect all others over the coming century.
     To my lasting regret I have never taken the arduous road that leads to becoming a sinologist. But as a sociologist of global society I wholeheartedly welcome a book that brings China to the rest of the world, and at the same time offers a huge contribution to understanding between nations and towards co-operation in meeting the global challenges of our time.
     There is so much to this book that should lead to new thinking in the West in particular, but in the short time available to me I shall draw three lessons from it.
     The very title is a triumph. It is a masterstroke to adopt ‘governance’ as the leading concept. Though it may be very recent compared with the Chinese idea of li it still has a relatively rich history in Western thought.
     To take an English example, a manuscript bearing the title The Governance of England, (Fortescue) dates from the sixteenth century. So the term ‘governance’ has the merit of predating modern ideological conflicts. Today it enjoys a renewed popularity, I would suggest, because it invites us to examine the relation of government to social order in a spirit free from the preconceptions of the twentieth century.
     That is the first lesson I draw from this book. It teaches us that to understand the present we have to embrace the past. President Xi evokes China’s history and demonstrates how age old ideas are a motive force in the present, deeply embedded in practices today, even when we don’t recognise them.
     Western readers may not be surprised by his emphasis on the development of Chinese Marxist ideas, on socialism with Chinese characteristics since Mao Zedong, through Deng Xiaoping, Jiang Zemin, to Hu Jintao. They may, however, open their eyes wider when they read the tribute to Sun Yat-sen who led the revolution of 1911 and is seen as the forerunner of the Chinese democratic revolution. They may expect quotations from Confucius. But they may be startled by the profound reflections on the theme of harmony from a prime minister living over 2500 years ago.
     Ideas live on, and in China they provide both continuity with a prodigiously long and complex history and also the frame for shaping the future. This is the second lesson I wish to draw from this book. It demonstrates how much we should value systematic thought in political leadership.
     It brings to my mind a word even older than governance, infrequently used today, but exactly appropriate, namely ‘architectonic’, that is to say, related to building, to making structures, creating an enduring order. The world needs an architectonic of ideas, flexible enough to meet national and global challenges. We have the example here of what President Xi Jinping advocates in his own country and what the world outside in general so grievously lacks.
     The West has lost its grip on ideas. They have become a factor of economic production, a key input for the advertising industry, the source of political slogans and the plaything for entertainers. But lost is the belief in a higher ordering of ideas that might provide guidance for our leaders, or in a common frame of concepts for attending to the acute existential problems of the world of today. We have to go back at least a century to Max Weber to find anything meeting this requirement.
     Xi Jinping demonstrates that the virtues of Chinese systematic thinking for modern society are not simply a matter of a well-chosen quotations from revered sources. Though the reader will take pleasure in the colour and imagery they offer. More fundamental is an underlying drive for systematic interconnectedness that characterises both ancient and modern Chinese thought.
     This was recognised in the West as long ago as 1700 when one of its most spectacular minds, Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz pointed to the ethical superiority of the Chinese, even if the West had recently surpassed them in scientific advances.  It should cause us to reflect on our current awareness of the past when a Chinese President feels the need to remind us that Leibniz was an advocate of mutual understanding between peoples.
     The overwhelming thrust of this book is to provide the ideas that will mobilize the mass of the Chinese people in a drive towards national rejuvenation, reform and innovation-led growth. With an implicit nod towards the American equivalent, Xi calls it ‘the Chinese dream’, but it is a hard headed, systematic approach to enhancing what he calls national governance capacity, involving the promotion of political stability, economic growth, social harmony and ethnic unity.
     The ‘Dream’ involves principles, goals, values and ideals, all expressed in characteristic Chinese enumerations: the six ‘Centering-ons’ that give the market a decisive role but endorse political and social structural reform to enhance ‘the Party’s capacity to govern in a scientific and democratic way in accordance with the law’; the ‘three Stricts’ for Party members, self-development, limiting the use of power and self-discipline;  the ‘three Earnests’, making plans, opening up new undertakings and upholding personal integrity. They fit with the ‘three Furthers’ for the country: freeing the mind; releasing and developing productive forces; strengthening the vigour of society.
     There will be those in the West who scoff at the implausibility of realising all these goals and standards. They will miss their point. This is an ordered frame of thought required for guiding action and judging achievement. Its application is in the first instance to China, but implied is a general theory of governance, where government is embedded in a wider system of norms, values and common understandings that create the kind of social order where people can go about their lives with purpose and a sense of security.
     This leads to the third lesson I draw from Xi’s book. The idea of governance prepares us to bring China, the West and the rest of the world together in the idea of global governance. It points to the gross distortion of global affairs when global governance is seen as a matter primarily for the international financial institutions. In the global age the issues that challenge our existence on this planet call for far more than general agreements on trade.
     Xi Jinping affirms China’s support for the United Nations, for the Eco Forum Global Conference, for the Millennium Development Goals, and for the UN Security Council. China he says belongs to a world where exchanges and mutual learning make civilizations richer and more colourful. He calls for partnership, co-operation and mutual development with other nations.
     This book encourages us to hope that the ideas behind the governance of China may sometime soon be extended to rethinking the governance of the globe. As Mencius said: ‘One can never unify the world if the hearts of all the people are not won over.’

 

Prodessor Martin Albrow, Fellow of the Academy of Social Sciences and Honorary Vice-President of the British Sociological Association, Emeritus Professor of University of Wales, Senior Fellow at the Käte Hamburger Centre for Advanced Studies, University of Bonn, was President of the British Sociological Association, founding editor of the journal of the International Sociology, and Visiting Professors of many universities in the UK, USA and China. His The Global Age: State and Society Beyond Modernity (1996) won the Amalfi Prize for pioneering work on social and cultural globalization. Other books include Bureaucracy (1970), Max Weber's Construction of Social Theory (1990), Do Organizations Have Feelings? (1997), Sociology: The Basics (1999), Global Age Essays on Social and Cultural Change (2014).

 

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