Totalitarian Friendship: Carl Schmitt in Contemporary China

First posted October 04, 2020

By Jackson T. Reinhardt

For the past several years, the study of German jurist Carl Schmitt has exploded in China. Floria Sapio remarks that Schmitt has enjoyed “enormous currency among mainland Chinese scholars since the 2000s.” Even though Schmitt has received a recent revitalization of interest of his thought among Western scholars, he is still known primarily for his aphoristic (and largely untranslated) texts on political theoryand his infamous association with the Nazi Party. Yet, the reason that this esoteric and controversial thinker has garnered any consideration within Chinese academia is no mystery: Carl Schmitt was a political philosopher of illiberalism. He believed that liberalism had “a tendency to undermine a community’s political existence” because a state founded on such an ideology “will lack the power to protect [citizens] from external enemies.”

What is needed, Schmidt argued, is “a strong state… with the capacity to defend… ‘the unity of the state.’” While his argument in totum is more elaborate, it is Schmitt’s hostility to liberalism as embodied in Western political culture, governance, and ideology that has spurred interest in his work in China, for “[the Chinese] now feel… [that] liberal thought… doesn’t help them understand the dynamics of Chinese life today or offer a model for the future.” In Mark Lillia’s conversations with Chinese scholars and students, there is a pervasive desire “across the political spectrum… that China needs a stronger state, not a weaker one.” Liberalism has not provided an answer.

Schmitt’s analysis on the crisis of liberalism is thus an ideological tool that helps not only legitimate current CCP one-party rule, but also an attempt to “ground new forms of Chinese political agency on an anti-Western value discourse…”

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