China’s ‘Liberal’ Traditions and Its Mandate to Resist Communist Rule

August 17, 2021 Updated: August 22, 2021


The question of what should constitute the relationship between the individual and the state has been discussed in Chinese philosophical circles for as long as—if not longer than—it has in Western political discourse.

Consider, for instance, the writings of Chinese philosopher Laozi, who lived in the 6th century B.C.

He’s the author of “The Way” (Tao Te Ching), which urges rulers to refrain from interfering too much in everyday affairs and to allow the people to pursue their own individual actions.

Excerpts from “The Way” demonstrate that Laozi was the first-ever “libertarian:”

The more prohibitions there are,

The poorer the people will be.

The more laws are promulgated,

The more thieves and bandits there will be.

The people are difficult to keep in order because those above them interfere too much. That’s the only reason why they’re so difficult to keep in order.

In the Taoist political philosophy, harmony can be achieved only through competition, not government control or regulation.

This Chinese political philosophy is strikingly similar to those developed much later in the works of Adam Smith, Friedrich Hayek, and other Western liberal theorists in the late 17th to 18th centuries.

They also played a role in the discussions of the Founding Fathers of the American Republic.

Thomas Jefferson was especially aware of such philosophies, talking about an “aristocracy of talent and virtue” and a system of government schools that was clearly borrowed from China, sinologist H.G. Creel noted.

While landmark Western documents such as the English Bill of Rights 1689 and the 1776 American Declaration of Independence enshrined ideas such as limited government or the rule of law, the origins were most certainly not Western.

Epoch Times Photo
John Trumbull’s “Declaration of Independence” circa 1818. Oil on canvas in the U.S. Capitol Rotunda, Washington. (Public Domain)

In fact, the Chinese had a “political” doctrine that, in many respects, predated Western liberal tradition by at least 2,000 years.

Traced as far back as the 12th century B.C., the concept of the “Mandate of Heaven” (Tian Ming) tied the legitimacy of political rulers to their moral integrity.

In the Analects—an ancient Chinese book collecting the sayings and ideas of the great philosopher Confucius—one can find statements such as: “He who does not understand the Mandate of Heaven cannot be a ruler.”

As a Confucian doctrine, the Mandate of Heaven is considered to be the most important concept to master in order to understand the Chinese political tradition. It was a well-accepted principle among the Chinese people and invoked not only to curtail the abuse of power, but also to overthrow an oppressive government.

According to the Chinese scholar Chan Kei Thong:

“If the emperor became immoral or his rule tyrannical, the people would be justified in thinking that he had lost the right to rule and that he and his dynasty should be replaced, even by revolt.”

An emperor who was no longer ruling with benevolence could be overthrown—an interesting consequence of the continual nature of obedience. Chinese history has recorded many examples of those acts, too.

The Zhou Dynasty’s (1121–249 B.C.) overthrow of the preceding Shang Dynasty (1765–1122 B.C.) was credited to this concept.

It also mandates that certain people may be in charge as long as they rule justly and wisely, and not with their own self-interests at heart.

The mandate isn’t limited to any particular ruler, dynasty, or social rank—interestingly, the founder of the Ming Dynasty (1368–1644), Zhu Yuanzhang, began his early years in abject poverty.

It’s also because the mandate promotes principles such as divine retribution, principled governance, accountability, and benevolent rule, that the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has spent the past half-century attempting to suppress and purge this political tradition from China—for it would present a very real threat to the legitimacy of the CCP.

The principles that stem from the mandate—which resonate with modern democratic norms—are the antithesis of CCP control and would provide a real existential threat to the Chinese regime.

A question worth asking is, can the Chinese people rediscover the true meaning of that mandate amid the decades-long oppression of the communist regime, and can they draw inspiration from such a mandate and resist CCP rule?

Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.

Augusto Zimmermann
Augusto Zimmermann
Dr. Augusto Zimmermann is professor and head of law at Sheridan Institute of Higher Education in Perth. He is also president of the Western Australian Legal Theory Association, editor-in-chief of the Western Australian Jurist law journal, and a former law reform commissioner in Western Australia.