The division between Liberalism and the New Left that emerged in the mid-to-late 1990s polarized the Chinese intellectual world. Adherents of Liberalism, guided by the theories of free markets and constitutional democracy put forth by Friedrich August von Hayek and Milton Friedman, argue that China’s key challenges are returning power to the markets and combating corruption. Liberalism emphasizes concepts such as negative liberty, indirect democracy, and procedural justice. The other camp, the New Left, draws on the ideas of Western Marxism, radical theory, dependency theory, postmodern theory, and world-systems theory. The New Left seeks to expose unjust extreme social inequality, state appropriation of assets, and other problems characteristic of China’s transition to a market economy. The New Leftists call for“ state interference,” “positive liberty, “freedom,” and “direct democracy.” The Liberals say the New Left is too far to the left, and the New Left accuses the Liberals of being too far to the right. Of course, the debate also includes advocates of a Third Way that transcends left and right. Drawing on the theories of thinkers such as John Rawls and Jürgen Habermas, these centrists seek to augment the premise of constitutional democracy with republicanism and consultative democracy. In addition to elective democracy, the Third Way emphasizes civil society, citizen participation, and public discussion.

By now, the debate has subsided, but the contest between Leftist and Rightist ideologies continues to dominate intellectual circles. In contrast to the collective awakening of the 1980s, the present debate demonstrates that the intellectual world has become more closely engaged with reality in China. The key to moving forward lies not in resolving differences but rather in figuring out how to elevate the discussion. In this regard, we find that theoretical discourse since 2000 has become less vitriolic and accusatory than it was in the 1990s. But this is not because the differences have been resolved. As the intellectual scene has grown more complex, these controversies have not faded, and indeed, they now possess a more diversely divisive potential.


After 2000, the rising popularity of the ideas of Leo Strauss changed the landscape of the Chinese theory scene. Strauss’s repudiation of the modern values of liberty and democracy helped form a new, anti-Liberal ideological trend centered on his political philosophy of “ancient versus modern.” In the same vein, Jiang Qing, an advocate of Political Confucianism, draws on traditional Chinese Confucian political ideas to launch a parallel challenge to Modernist democratic politics. The result is an emergent Neoconservative movement that combines Eastern and Western philosophical underpinnings. This movement, like the New Left, articulates a vociferous rejection of Modernist politics and lifestyles.


Liu Xiaofeng and Gan Yang, the principle Chinese advocates of Straussian theory, provide more than an abstract criticism of a certain kind of politics. They thoroughly analyze classical texts and primary sources using Strauss’ methodologies, levy critiques of historical nihilism and value relativism, and claim to reveal the original intentions of the works—what Strauss calls hidden meanings. These interpretations reveal political traditions and ethical structures previously whitewashed by modern political discourse.

Strauss formulates his critique of Modernity on the basis of his interpretations of Western thinkers such as Plato, Xenophon, Maimonides, Machiavelli, Spinoza, Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau, Burke, and Nietzsche. In his eyes, Modernity is characterized by three waves: first Machiavelli and Hobbes; then Rousseau and Marx; and finally, Nietzsche and Heidegger. If Modernity begins with Machiavelli, then Rousseau, Marx, Nietzsche, Heidegger, and the subsequent Postmodernists offer reflections and critiques of Modernity. However, these critiques have not only failed to constrain Modernity, but actually have contributed to the spread of Modernity and nihilism. Faced with this predicament, Strauss revisits the philosophies of classical political systems.

The rise of Neoconservatism based on Straussian theory offers an effective repudiation of the popularization, flattening, amoralization, and disorder of society resulting from contemporary China’s economic transformation. Of course, this critique is based in reinterpretations of classical traditions—not everyday reality. It poses a new value dichotomy of ancient versus modern, and thus attempts to identify a means of escaping the predicament of Modernity.

Jiang Qing’s Political Confucianism and his critique of Modernity echoes Straussian theory. In Jiang’s eyes, the challenge facing contemporary China is not how to realize liberal democracy, but rather how to attain political legitimacy on the basis of China’s indigenous resources, i.e. Confucian politics, the unquestioned cornerstone of Chinese political traditions. To this end, Jiang posits a three-pronged basis of legitimacy for Political Confucianism, AKA “kingcraft” politics: “The popular tendency toward the common good yields the collective basis for political legitimacy; the natural tendency toward the balance of Heaven and man yields the transcendent basis for political legitimacy; and the unifying tendency toward respecting leadership yields the cultural basis for political legitimacy.”This approach offers another response to the pitfalls faced by contemporary China in adopting a modern Western political system. In Jiang’s eyes, “the historic mission of Political Confucianism is to create a Chinese-style political system,”and facilitate an escape from the quagmire of Modernity. He earnestly explores possible means of returning to classical, traditional modes of government and their accompanying ethical structures. It is worth questioning whether the governance systems of Chinese antiquity are an appropriate response to modern Western political systems, but this line of thinking clearly also relies on the value dichotomy of ancient versus modern.

When a number of scholars questioned whether Political Confucianism had been influenced by the ideas of Strauss and Carl Schmitt, Jiang Qing candidly stated that he was not familiar with either thinker when he conceived his theories; however, his colleagues’ allegations led him to consult their works, and he discovered that they did, in fact, share many similarities with his own. Jiang does admit to admiring Burke as well as Joseph de Maistre. He also on one occasion stated—somewhat sentimentally—that “In past years [Liu] Xiaofeng said to me, ‘I understand you, but you don’t understand me.’ But now, I understand Xiaofeng, too. The similarities between Political Confucianism and the theories of Strauss and Schmitt lie in their mutual aversion to the political Modernity of the present. The former comes from the perspective of Confucian politics (the politics of Gongyang scholarship), whereas the latter assumes the standpoint of traditional Western theology and ancient Greek philosophy. Indeed, China and the west face similar problems, and all lineages of human thinking share commonalities.” Thus it is evident that although the two approaches draw on different theoretical resources and value conflicts, they hold consistent views on Modernity and the significance of the ancient/modern dichotomy. Together, they constitute the intellectual underpinnings of Chinese Neoconservatism.


From the 1990s to the present day, Wang Hui has maintained a highly consistent New Left position on the basis of his reevaluations and critiques of Chinese Modernity. Drawing on theories such as Karl Polanyi’s state interference in market economies, Fernand Braudel’s capitalism as antimarket, Andre Gunder Frank’s dependency theory, Antonio Gramsci’s theory of hegemony, and Edward W. Said’s post-colonialism, Wang Hui denounces the “politicized politics” of China since the 1990s and exposes the extant and latent social ills of such a system. In fact, Polanyi, Braudel, and even Frank were more historians than political scientists or economists, and their positions on capitalism and market economics are based on profound understandings of history. Experience of history’s transformations reveals truths that the abstract ideas of economists and political scientists fail to encompass. In the unequivocal words of Wang Shaoguang, another fan of Polanyi, “History has no record of what Hayek calls a spontaneously ordered market economy. Markets are an intrinsically bidirectional phenomenon.” He continues: “China’s achievements in thirty years of Reform and Opening Up have only been possible with state interference in markets.”

According to the arguments of Max Weber and Octavio Paz, Modernity is a self-conscious break with one’s own tradition: the paradox of rationalization and its limits. Wang Hui’s definition of Chinese Modernity—the Modernity of Anti-Modernity—is grounded in a similarly nonsensical framework.The implication is that the Modernity of Anti-Modernity is reality and historical fact, and the problem lies in how we address the attendant dilemmas of the condition of Modernity. Thus, as the New Leftists explore the historical legitimacy of the Modernity of Anti-Modernity, they place a special emphasis on the critical position of Anti-Modernity. This investigation of the historical legitimacy of Anti-Modernity is intrinsically and intangibly endowed with the political insinuations of the ancient-versus-modern dichotomy, namely: how should we return to the historically present value systems of the Modernity of Anti-Modernity?

Although scholarly circles became accustomed to throwing Gan Yang into the New Left camp, he believes himself to be more inclined toward conservatism. In fact, it is not hard to see the evidence for this claim in his enthusiasm for Strauss’ ancient-versus-modern paradigm and his energetic advocacy of general education based on the ancient Greek model of liberal education. His ideas, from the “three traditions” to “Confucian Socialism,” all identify with and affirm traditional Chinese Confucian political thought, demonstrating Gan’s deliberately conservative tendencies. He attributes the achievements of today’s China to the assimilation of three traditions: the ancient tradition of Confucian civilization, the Socialist tradition of Mao Zedong, and the constitutionalist tradition of Deng Xiaoping’s Reform and Opening Up. He interprets the name of the country—the People’s Republic of China—as a direct reference to these three concepts: Republic corresponds to the constitutionalist tradition, People corresponds to Socialism, and China corresponds to Confucianism. According to Ding Yun, this analogy neatly coincides with the triple legitimacy concept of Jiang Qing’s kingcraft politics: “the balance of Heaven and man” corresponds to China, “respecting leadership” corresponds to Republic, and “the common good” corresponds to People. Coincidentally, there also seems to be an implicit or explicit parallel with the rhetoric of Jiang Zemin’s “Three Represents:” “Advanced culture” corresponds to “China” or “Confucian civilization,” “advanced productive forces” corresponds to “Republic” or “constitutional government,” and “the interests of the overwhelming majority” corresponds to “socialism” or “People.” These formulations are clearly imbued with the idea of princely virtuosity expounded in Xenophon’s Cyropedia, Machiavelli’s The Prince, and Erasmus’ Education of a Christian Prince.

Gan Yang took the “three traditions” a step further in “China Road: Thirty Years and Sixty Years,” an essay published in June 2007. The essay suggests that many of the economic and social systems of the Reform and Opening Up period derive from the Maoist traditions of the Cultural Revolution; thus, China’s modern history cannot be divided into two thirty-year period, but rather must be viewed as a sixty-year whole, which he describes as “Confucian socialism.” In a certain sense, Gan is placing a greater emphasis on the Confucian civilization tradition and the Maoist socialist tradition, i.e. the Anti-Modern traditions. This argument subtly undermines the effectiveness of Deng Xiaoping’s market economics and constitutional government, including “One Country, Two Systems.” Gan’s Anti-Modern position clearly underlies these opinions, which demonstrate that it is most accurate to put Gan in the New Leftist camp along with Wang Hui, Wang Shaoguang, and the others, even if he draws on a different theoretical lineage. In his own words, “Chinese people greatly misunderstand democracy. A democratic system is nothing more than a relatively basic method of maintaining a society’s external functions.” The basic question of “how to be a person … has not been resolved by democratic systems.” Consequently, “[democratic systems] only provide external conditions: conditions that are slightly better at ensuring you are not oppressed.”


It is already accepted in intellectual circles that Nietzsche transformed Modernity and originated Postmodernism. The Canadian political scientist Shadia Drury asserts that the ideas of left-wing intellectuals and the mostly Western Postmodern thinkers such as Kojève can be traced to left-wing Nietzscheism, and the Straussian American Neoconservatives are the inheritors of right-wing Nietzscheism. In her eyes, left-wing and right-wing Nietzscheism and their common position of Anti-Modernity constitute the content of Postmodern politics.The rise of Chinese Neoconservatism and its moral overlap with the New Left indicates the transition to Postmodern politics in contemporary Chinese intellectual circles, as exemplified by Gan Yang. Although we previously lumped him in with the New Left, in truth it is not easy to define him as Neoconservative or New Leftist and definitively trace his roots to either right-wing or left-wing Nietzschean. Without question, he is an adherent of Nietzscheism whose Anti-Modernity standpoint relies on the ancient-versus-modern value dichotomy. At the same time, in Jiang Qing’s words, “it’s remarkable that Political Confucianism, which the Liberals criticize as ultra-rightist, is in fact closer to the New Left.”

Of course, there is no lack of disagreement between left-wing and right-wing Nietzscheism, particularly on the subject of democracy, on which the two positions are completely antithetical: the New Left emphasizes democracy, and the Neoconservatives oppose it. However, the two sides have a tacit agreement to avoid the topic. As Drury points out, Neoconservatism and the New Left are both part of the “Nietzsche family,” particularly with regard to their common enemy: Modernity. On that subject, they reach the same goal by different routes: the one denounces it while the other embraces its nihilism. This common condition similarly characterizes Neoconservatism and the New Left in China.


In concert with the rise of Neoconservatism and its intersections with the New Left, Liberalism itself also evolved in the years since the turn of the millennium. Liberalism’s role in the debates of the 1990s was characterized by a dogmatic loyalty to the theories of Hayek, but Liberalism since 2000 has expanded on its one-dimensional advocacy of spontaneously ordered markets. Liberals have put forth more rational and constructive arguments for integration of and balance between law, economics, politics, and culture. They maintain that the so-called “political narrative of Modernity” described by Neoconservatives and New Leftists is “destructive and toxic in essence. By negating and denying rather than building and improving, they employ a historical nihilism and political romanticism that only serves to further threaten the already arduous progress of Modernist Chinese politics. Consequently, the key to advancing contemporary Chinese political thought lies not in blindly mimicking Western Modernist ideas, but rather returning to the fine tradition of Modernist political growth: studying the true lessons of Anglo-American development of Modernist politics, not the false recriminations of Franco-German Anti-Modernist politics.” Based on their qualms with the Postmodern politics and ancient-modern value dichotomy presented by the Neoconservatives and New Leftists, the Liberals conceive an alternative, generative value proposition: mastering ancient and modern.


Unlike the 1990s, Liberals since 2000 have explicitly acknowledged that Anglo-American Liberalism originates in the balance and tension between three traditions: the English tradition (Hobbes, Locke), the Scottish tradition (Adam Smith, Dave Hume), and the common law tradition (Edward Coke, William Blackstone). There is no lack of disagreement between these three traditions, including Smith’s and Hume’s criticisms of the positions of Hobbes, Locke, and the common law tradition vis-à-vis morality, and Hobbes and Coke’s classic dispute over law and politics. But it is precisely these disagreements that endow Modernist politics with a rich content of concepts, reflection, and balance.

In fact, the topics of dispute within the three traditions, such as morality, rights, and legal institutions, neatly align with the dilemmas facing contemporary China. Similar differences and tensions characterize China’s Liberals. Gao Quanxi emphasizes national sovereignty, whereas Qin Hui focuses more on limited government; Yao Zhongqiu argues that a free constitutional foundation is the appropriate implementation of common law, but in Gao Quanxi’s eyes, “common law by itself is not enough,” and must be supplemented with metaphysical moral support. These debates subtly fuel a tension between morality, rights, legal institutions, and sovereignty, but the tension ultimately enhances the degree to which the concepts mutually benefit each other. Consequently, the Liberals insist that “the principle task facing China at the present is not the elimination of Modernist politics, not the illumination of all of Modernity’s shortcomings, and not the endless glib criticism of Modernist politics from the standpoint of a narrative of Modernity based on the left-versus-right political systems in the West. Rather, we must earnestly start at the beginning and study the constructive lessons of the Anglo-American path of Modernist politics.”

History has demonstrated that the left and the right in the West all operate on the basis of a common premise: the basic moral undertone of Modernist politics and Liberalism. The contests between left and right always take place within the system. Even if the disputes between the two sides grow more intense, they both remain essentially committed to the principles of Liberalism and Modernist politics. In this setting, the Anti-Modernity critique of Modernity—and even the ancient-versus-modern dichotomy—take on a constructive significance. Herein lies a fundamental difference between the Western systems and the arguments of the Chinese Neoconservatives and New Leftists.

It is precisely due to the absence of this moral undertone in China that the Liberals propose the construction of Chinese Modernist politics on the basis of Western modern political systems. In addition to adopting that foundation, China must “diligently recognize China’s own new and old traditions. The old traditions come from dynastic politics, which seem to have ended a long time ago, but in fact continue to linger in subtle ways. The new traditions can be separated into two parts: one is the Kuomintang tradition of governance, and the other is the Communist Party tradition of governance. They each represent a different political form of Modern dynastic politics, and each played a constructive role in twentieth-century Chinese history, molding the political undertone of Modern China.” Evidently, there is more than a little consensus between the Liberals, Neoconservatives and New Leftists on the subjects of reassessing Chinese traditions and re-acknowledging their values. In this sense, China may indeed possess a potential moral undertone and premise of consensus for debate. The question is, would the establishment of this sort of consensus ultimately prove positive or negative in its significance for Chinese Modernist politics? If the goal is to establish a crucial moral undertone of Modernist politics, then would not the adoption of Chinese traditional politics as a moral undertone push Modernist politics yet further into the distance?


In the 1990s, the New Leftist thinker Cui Zhiyuan argued in “‘Mixed Constitution’ and the Three-Layer Analysis of Chinese Politics” that the “mixed constitution” theory of republican government described by Aristotle and Machiavelli and its associated method of “three-layer analysis” constitute the mainstream of Western political thought. The essay included an analysis of the ways in which it was consciously or subconsciously adopted and reformed by modern Euro-american political systems, as well as by Chinese local politics. Although these systems underwent modern democratic reforms, they essentially remain within the category of classical political systems.

Since 2000, the Liberals and the New Left have found more common ground, and the focus has shifted to a “Third Way” that transcends the left-right binary. This line of inquiry has centered on the “soft republicanism” espoused by Habermas and Rawls. The difference between soft republicanism and the republican government of Cui Zhiyuan’s mixed constitution is that soft republicanism is based on a reconsideration and accommodation of the premise of Modernist politics, whereas Cui basically calls for a return to classical republican governance. In other words, the goal of soft republicanism is to return to enlightenment by attaining political balance. In Habermas’ opinion, Modernity is far from over.Habermas’ advocacy of “communicative rationality” and “public exchange” is intended to “mediate the conflicts between reason and will” in hopes of attaining a “consultative politics” between “the approaches of Liberalism and Republicanism,” thus “providing a new basis of legitimacy for the political principles and policy decisions of constitutional democracies, and ultimately reestablishing the connection between legitimacy and the truth of standards and objectivity.” Although Habermas issues more than a few challenges to Liberalism, and although Rawls, one of his supporters, was criticized by Robert Nozick, he is in essence still a Liberal.

In fact, the debates of the 1990s have long been flustered by questions such as “Whose public?” and “Which Modernity?” At the time, the New Leftist Wang Hui suggested that the loss of publicness and the obliteration of cultural difference were the same affair, in that they both occurred within the basic operating principles of Modern society.In the eyes of the post-2000 Liberal, free constitutional government is the prerequisite of publicness. Habermas clearly states that “the capitalist societies of seventeenth and eighteenth century Europe only achieved economic civil society because they had markets. Only then did the demand for public services arise and give birth to a political public sphere.” The difference is that the “public” of the New Left is essentially rooted in the considerations of Anti-Modernity, whereas the “public” of Liberalism springs from the intention to return to Modernity. According to Luo Gang, there is a double meaning here: “First, there is a criticism of the autocratic systems of tradition, and second, there is the plan for the Modernist road that China must follow.”

Rawls, who also counts as part of the Kantian family, supplements Habermas’ idea of the public sphere with “common reason” and “overlapping consensus.” But in the eyes of Liberals, the attempts of Habermas and Rawls to find a balance between capitalism and socialism are all based on the premise of the Liberal priority of equal rights and the goals of Liberalism itself. With regard to the New Left’s interpretation of “publicness,” the Liberals astutely point out that the “difference principle” could not exist without the principle of equality. They thus conclude that the true intent of soft republicanism is the formulation of a practical means of returning to Modernist politics.

Evidently, the republican system imagined by the New Left should be considered “hard republicanism,” and is consistent with the ancient-versus-modern value spectrum, as demonstrated by Hannah Arendt’s call for a return to classical republicanism. In contrast, the Liberal republican system is essentially a soft republicanism entailing reform of extant Modernist politics. This concept diverges from the ancient-modern dichotomy and could be more accurately described as a political philosophy of mastering ancient and modern.


Prior to 2000, Neo-Confucianism and Liberal Confucianism, exemplified by Yu Yingshi and Du Weiming and based on the theories of Weber, sought to reconcile Confucian culture and Liberal politics. They could even be said to have much in common with the Neoconservatives in cultural matters, the difference lying in that the Neo-Confucians maintain that culture and politics can be separate, whereas Neoconservatives believe that the two are one and the same. Post-2000 Liberals seem to have either dropped culture or reduced it to an aspect of politics, but they have not simply refocused on markets and rights. Rather, they place a new emphasis on thoroughly understanding the political thought of both antiquity and today. They draw on the three traditions of England, Scotland, and common law, as well as Modernist politics and the classical republican political systems of soft republicanism in order to shore up the legitimacy of Chinese Modernity.

Regarding two matters of concern for their potential antagonists—the Neoconservatives and New Leftists—Liberals clearly state their differences of opinion. The first subject is the theories of Strauss and Schmitt. The Liberals have their own interpretations that contrast with the Anti-Modernity readings of the Neoconservatives and the New Left. In their eyes, “Strauss does not oppose free political systems, and is in fact an ally of Liberalism. He attacks nihilist modern political systems, but he sees the empiricist British free political system as a model worthy of admiration.” Similarly, in his eyes, Schmitt is no defender of Nazi totalitarianism. His true argument lies in distinguishing between what he calls political “exceptions” and “non-exceptions.” Evidently, Nazi totalitarianism is a political exception and thus Schmitt defends the constitutional government of the Weimar Republic. Therefore he too is in fact a Liberal. The second subject is the interpretation of publicness. The Liberals believe that the true purpose of the publicness issue is the return to enlightenment and Modernist politics—not the Anti-Modernist politics and anti-enlightenment of the New Left.

This interpretation clearly does not align with Strauss’ so-called ancient-versus-modern value orientation. Rather, its emphasis on mastering ancient and modern rehabilitates Modernity and its legitimacy.


There is no shortage of disagreement between the post-2000 Neoconservatives (including the New Left) and Liberals (or classical conservatives). However, they share an implied basic consensus regarding the ancient-modern debate—“ancient versus modern” or “mastering ancient and modern”—that contributes to the constructive nature of the conversation about Modernity. This consensus provides a premise for a variety of overlapping positions. Both Neoconservatives and Liberals (traditional conservatives) exhibit a conservative moral undertone, which is manifest in their universal recognition of the concepts of nation-state, national sovereignty, and the appeal of moral and ethical order. Moreover, further potential for consensus exists between the Neoconservatives and the Liberals on the subjects of capitalism and socialism. Neither Cui Zhiyuan’s “Petty Bourgeoisie Manifesto,” Wang Shaoguang’s “socialist market,” nor Gan Yang’s “three traditions” negate the capitalist element of the Reform and Opening Up tradition. The Liberal Gao Quanxi likewise draws on the traditions of China’s dynastic rule and Communist Party government, and Qin Hui seeks a balance between capitalism and socialism on the basis of J.S. Mill’s On Liberty.

The formation of this sort of consensus will not return China to an age of collective enlightenment and belief, but it may increase the constructiveness of the intellectual debate. In the end, the twin differences between the two sides remain paramount. The first difference is that the Neoconservatives (including the New Left) endorse Chinese and Western classical political systems and call for a return to what Benjamin Constant calls ancient liberty (the liberty of political participation), or what Isaiah Berlin calls positive liberty; whereas the Liberals seek to draw on mastery of both Western Modernist politics (including China’s experience of Modernist politics) and ancient Chinese and Western political systems, and attempt to realize both ancient and modern liberty (the liberty of private life): a balanced integration of positive and negative liberty. The second key difference is that the ancient-versus-modern dichotomy essentially opposes Modernity, whereas the case for mastering ancient and modern asserts the superiority of Modernist politics over classical political systems and prizes Modernist and negative liberty over ancient and positive liberty.

At this point we must question whether or not problems will arise from taking the two sides’ common acknowledgment of the value of classical political resources as a premise for consensus. For the Neoconservatives (including the New Left), the Liberals’ adoption of classical political ideas is an opportunity for mutual exchange, but for the Liberals, their opponents’ relentless critiques of Modernist politics highlight the differences that remain between the two positions. This unbridgeable gap means that there is no end in sight for the present debate over Modernity. Without question, the ancient-modern debate—ancient-versus-modern against mastering ancient and modern—has already established a genealogy of the dispute over Chinese Modernity.