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The Nazi Inspiring China’s Communists

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A decades-old legal argument used by Hitler has found support in Beijing.
When Hong Kong erupted into protest this summer against a national-security law imposed by Beijing, the fact that Chinese scholars leaped to the Communist Party’s defense was perhaps predictable. How they argued in favor of it, however, was not. “Since Hong Kong’s handover,” Wang Zhenmin, a law professor at Tsinghua University, one of China’s most prestigious institutions, wrote in People’s Daily, “numerous incidents have posed serious threats to Hong Kong’s prosperity and stability.” The city, Wang was effectively arguing, was in no position to discuss civil liberties when its basic survival was on the line. Qi Pengfei, a specialist on Hong Kong at Renmin University, echoed those sentiments, insisting that the security law was meant to protect the island from the “infiltration of foreign forces.” In articles, interviews, and news conferences throughout the summer, scores of academics made a similar case. Though Chinese academics are often circumscribed in what they can and cannot say, they nevertheless do disagree in public. At times, they even offer limited, and careful, critiques of China’s leadership. This time, however, the sheer volume of pieces that Chinese scholars produced, as well as the nature of those arguments—consistent, coordinated, and often couched in sophisticated legal jargon—suggested a new level of cohesion in Beijing on the acceptable scope of the state’s power. Chinese President Xi Jinping has markedly shifted the ideological center of gravity within the Communist Party. The limited tolerance China had toward dissent has all but dissipated, while ostensibly autonomous regions (geographically as well as culturally), including Xinjiang, Inner Mongolia, and Hong Kong, have seen their freedoms curtailed. All the while, a new group of scholars has been in ascendance. Known as “statists,” these academics subscribe to an expansive view of state authority, one even broader than their establishment counterparts. Only with a heavy hand, they believe, can a nation secure the stability required to protect liberty and prosperity. As a 2012 article in Utopia, a Chinese online forum for statist ideas, once put it, “Stability overrides all else.” Prioritizing order to this degree is anathema to much of the West, yet perspectives such as these are not unprecedented in Western history. In fact, China’s new statists have much in common with a faction that swept through Germany in the early 20th century. That affinity is no accident. China has in recent years witnessed a surge of interest in the work of the German legal theorist Carl Schmitt. Known as Hitler’s “Crown Jurist,” Schmitt joined the National Socialist Party in 1933, and, though he was only officially a Nazi Party member for three years, his anti-liberal jurisprudence had a lasting impact—at the time, by helping to justify Hitler’s extrajudicial killings of Jews and political opponents, and then long afterward. Whereas liberal scholars view the rule of law as the final authority on value conflicts, Schmitt believed that the sovereign should always have the final say. Commitments to the rule for law would only undercut a community’s decision-making power, and “deprive state and politics of their specific meaning.

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