China’s Changing Worldview Under President Xi Jinping

Speech by The Hon. Kevin Rudd

Asia Society Policy Institute President Kevin Rudd delivered the 13th Annual Tsai Lecture at the Harvard University Asia Center on April 13, 2018. The transcript of Rudd's speech, as prepared, is below. (1 hour, 10 min.)

Its great to be back at Harvard. Harvard offered me “political asylum” in 2014 when I left the parliament and the prime ministership of Australia. It was a rewarding time me for me personally and professionally as I continued my life-long academic, policy and political fascination with the Middle Kingdom.

I published back then on “The Future of US-China Relations Under President Xi Jinping - A Call for a New Strategy of Constructive Realism”.

That was in a pre-Trump world.

I hope to publish again soon on “The Future of U.S.-China Relations Under President Trump - A Call for a New Tremendous Piece of Very Big Beautiful Mar-al-Lago Chocolate Cake”. 

The title is a work in progress.

Thank you also for extending this invitation to deliver the thirteenth Tsai Lecture here at the Asia Center at Harvard University.

The first Tsai Lecture was delivered by the great Professor Wang Gungwu, who was professor in the Department of Far Eastern History at my own university, the Australian National Univesity.

Wang Gungwu was an early inspiration for me as a young undergraduate in the early 1980’s to take seriously the professional study of China.

I am honoured, therefore to join his company today. I am equally honoured that we are joined to day by many distinguished scholars of China from across this great university. 

I wish to particularly honour two professors emeritus - Professor Ezra Vogel and Professor Rod MacFarquar. Both Ezra and Rod are world-renowned sinologists. And both have been great sources of encouragement, and occasional correction, over the years. I honour them both.

Just as I acknowledge that this year marks the 20th anniversary of the Harvard Asia Center, who’s director Professor Karen Thornber joins us today as well.

As the inaugural President of the Asia Society Policy Institute in New York, I see the center as a sister institution.

As we both try to make sense of the rise of Asia at a time when many of us fear the speed of the apparent decline of the west.

Today I wish to address China’s changing worldview under Xi Jinping.

It is the subject of my own personal research program at the Oxford China Center which I began last year.

First, I am seeking to identify the defining characteristics of China’s official worldview (shijieguan, 世界观) under Chinese President and Communist Party General-Secretary Xi Jinping.

Second, I’m also seeking to identify the extent of continuity and change in China’s official worldview between Xi Jinping and those who have preceded him as president and general secretary in the period since the rise of Deng Xiaoping as China’s paramount leader in 1978 - the inauguration of the current period of China’s comprehensive engagement with the world at large.

Third, if change has occurred, I’m also asking why - whether this is a natural product of China’s growing ‘wealth and power’ and the associated expansion in China’s global influence, or whether it is an expression of the particular worldview of Xi Jinping, or both.

Why Understanding China’s Official Worldview Now Matters

The international significance of any country’s “worldview” depends in large part on the relative size of the regional and global footprint of the country in question.

Indeed there is a reasonably large body of literature, deploying different frameworks of analysis, that has sought to define an American, Russian, Soviet, Japanese, British, German, French or Spanish “worldview.”

These analyses have usually sought to explain the national and international behaviours of the leaders, governments and broader political cultures of these states at various times in history.

There is also a parallel literature on China, both for the various periods of classical Chinese history, as well as for the Marxist, Maoist and post-Mao eras of the hundred year long evolution of the Chinese Communist Party, both as a revolutionary movement and now as the government of the People’s Republic.

What is different today, however, is the sheer scale of China’s emerging presence, influence and power, not only in its immediate region, but now in the world at large.

This is reflected across many domains. The sheer size, speed of change and changing international profile of China’s economy, its foreign policy presence, as well as military capacity, underline the importance of understanding China’s changing worldview.

How the Chinese state actually views its standing, place and future in the region and the world, now matters for most governments around the world, not just for China itself.

So whereas an analysis of China’s historical “worldview” might always have been of legitimate interest to both sinologists and the wider academy, it is now also a matter of increasing urgency and importance for policy makers in all global capitals, including Beijing itself.

The Evolving Definition of “Worldview”

What is precisely meant by the concept of “worldview.” This term has a long and complex history in the west, but arguably a more recent and narrower definition in its contemporary Chinese translation - shijieguan.

In the west, the term “worldview” comes from the German “Weltanschauung” which was first used, albeit fleetingly, by Kant in 1790 before undertaking a long conceptual evolution through Hegel, Kierkegaard, Heidegger, Marx, Engels and Freud. For Kant, “Weltanschauung” meant simply our perception of the world as mediated by the senses.

Hegel took Kant’s concept further by incorporating it into his idealist understanding of human progress though the dialectical processes of thesis, antithesis and synthesis, each of which involved different worldviews, although all progressing towards a common “absolute good.”

also conceived of different individual and national worldviews, laying the early conceptual groundwork for Chinese theorists of Deng Xiaoping’s generation and their idea of “socialism with Chinese characteristics” as an epistemological means of breaking the ideological stranglehold of universal communist orthodoxy.

Hegelian concepts of worldview would later cause the philosopher Richard Rorty to note that “the notion of alternative conceptual frameworks has been a commonplace in our culture since Hegel.”

In other words, it was this rich German philosophical tradition of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries that gave rise to the idea that universal realities could nonetheless be perceived through different prisms, in turn giving rise to different “worldviews,” either individually or collectively - although inHegel’s idealist schema, these ultimately found common purpose through the “dialectics” of historical and human progress.

It was the specific imprint of Hegel’s concept of “dialectics,” as developed further by Marx, and particularly Engels, in their related theories of dialectical and historical materialism, that brings us, along a long and torturous road, to current Chinese usage of the term “worldview.”

Major differences would emerge over the course of the nineteenth century between classically Kantian and Hegelian worldviews on the one hand, and those of Marx and Engels on the other.

At its most elementary level, both Kantian and Hegelian worldviews are generally categorised as “idealist” in the sense that consciousness, reasoning and ideation are considered “a priori” to the material world, whereas Marx and Engels were decisively “materialist” in their approach, whereby matter not only preceded consciousness, but indeed matter exclusively shaped consciousness.

Moreover, both were preoccupied with the material political, economic and social conditions of their time.

Furthermore, with Marx and Engels, the nature of dialectics itself also evolved from those of Hegel’s earlier understanding. “Dialectical materialism”, given its absolute focus on human knowledge arising from human inter-reaction with the physical world alone, replaced Hegel’s much broader concept of “dialectics” which embraced both idealist and materialist dimensions of reality.

“Dialectical materialism” therefore became both an explanation of the content of historical change, but also as a method of reasoning about the mechanisms of historical change, as well as the means of accelerating material change though conscious political action.

Finally, this new discipline of “dialectical materialism” was to be applied through a new worldview constructed through the insights of “historical materialism”. This new interpretation of history would provide the temporal framework within which the dynamics of dialectical materialism would play out.

In this view, it was only through the dynamics of class struggle over the course of human history that human progress would be achieved.

For Marxists, “dialectical materialism” became the “scientific” machinery of all human progress, both in the physical sciences, including Darwinian evolution, but also in the social sciences, including politics, sociology and economics.

In other words, dialectical materialism became a comprehensive worldview in itself, embracing all domains of knowledge, as well as a method of “scientific analysis” to be deployed within and between these different domains - and ultimately a means to determine how “to act” in history, not just observe it.

Because of dialectical and historical materialism’s claims to scientific exactitude, certainty, universality, and above all objectivity, its adherents, by definition, rejected the possibility of any alternative worldviews as inherently “un-scientific,” and therefore irrelevant to any legitimate debate on political reality, consciousness, ideation or action.

As Marx himself famously observed: “The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; whereas the point is to change it.” For Marx, the “end-state” of change, though the mechanism of class was a communist society in which all material human needs are met sufficiently, equally and without class exploitation.

It was this uncompromising, dialectical materialist view of the world that found its way to China not long after the collapse of the Qing Dynasty in 1911, the Russian Revolution of 1917 and the emergence of the fledgling Chinese Communist Party in 1921.

The impact of Leninist, Stalinist and later Soviet conceptualisations of a Marxist worldview on the newly-formed Chinese party were profound. Chinese party members, activists and intellectuals including Qu Qiubai, Ai Siqing, Li Da and later Mao Zedong engaged in the monumental task of interpreting the overall Marxist canon, including the earliest expositions of the terms “worldview”, dialectical materialism and historical materialism in Chinese.

Through until the end of the Yanan period in 1945, when we see the formal emergence of “Mao Zedong Thought” as an official addition to what had previously been described simply as “Marxist-Leninist” theory, Chinese renditions of Soviet interpretations of Marxist theory had generally been consistent with the original texts.

Even Mao’s 1937 work “On Contradictions Among the People” adhered in the main to the concept of dialectical materialism as applied to the challenge of class struggle in the context of China’s prevailing historical circumstances, as a peasant rather than a proletarian society.

But starting from 1945, we see a series of concerted efforts by Chinese Marxist theoreticians to liberate Chinese Marxism from what they increasingly perceived as the shackles of Soviet ideological dogma.

China’s indigenous Marxist worldview, as a consequence, underwent a series of transformations as it sought to deal with a new series of historical realities.

These included the Chinese party obtaining political power in 1949; the Sino-Soviet split following Kruschev’s denunciation of Stalin in 1958; the Cultural Revolution between 1966-76; the party’s formal re-evaluation of both Mao and Mao Zedong thought in 1980 including Mao’s calamitous impact on the country through both the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution.

This culminated in the post-1978 period of “Socialism with Chinese Characteristics” under Deng Xiaoping as the party sought to grapple with a new set of theoretical challenges arising from the leadership’s decision to turn much of remaining Marxist orthodoxy on its head, embracing the demands of pro-market reforms at home, as well as comprehensive engagement of international product, services and capital markets abroad.

Under Deng, class struggle, previously the core political dynamic of dialectical and historical materialism, was marginalised in the party’s new worldview. This was reflected both within China and in the cessation of Chinese support for revolutionary movements abroad.

In its place, Chinese theoreticians, applying a new approach to the principles of historical materialism, concluded that because China was only at “the earliest stages of socialism,” the core practical and theoretical challenge in the current period was to fully develop the country’s productive forces, thereby creating the conditions for a more advanced form of socialism in the future.

Furthermore, for this to occur, China would have to apply a form of socialism which addressed China’s particular national characteristics, thereby representing a further departure from the traditional socialist worldviews of the past.

Whereas the content of the Chinese Communist Party’s official worldview may therefore have changed significantly over the last century of the party’s history, including in the “new period” of Xi Jinping’s leadership and thought, what is remarkable is that the Marxist methodological framework, through which these worldviews have been developed, has remained formally in tact.

Indeed, in January 2015, Xi Jinping himself presided over a formal study session of the CPC politburo which was reported in the People’s Daily under the heading “ Continue to Deploy Both the Worldview, Theory and Method of Dialectical Materialism in Solving Fundamental Problems in the Development of China’s Reform Program.”

General Secretary Xi stated that in dealing with all of the country’s core challenges, we “must deploy the accumulated wisdom of Marxism, consciously harness with even greater effort the worldview, theory and method of dialectical materialism, and strengthen our dialectical and strategic way of thinking.”

Xi stated that party leaders should regard “contradictions” as a normal part of a Marxist worldview, and that a dialectical method of problem-solving included the “recognition of objective, universal contradictions” arising from given actions and the “counter-actions” that they generated.

And just in case politburo members may have been of the view that this particular study session was for the purposes of political form alone, Xi reminded his colleagues that this particular session had followed the “Eleventh Study Session” of the Party’s leading organ in 2013 which had focussed exclusively on “historical materialism” - the theoretical “twin sister” of “dialectical materialism” in the rarefied world occupied by China’s professional dialecticians.

So while Marxist dialectics may have died their official death in Russia with the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, they remain alive and well in the Chinese Communist Party worldview of the 21st century.

Therefore, given the continuing centrality of the theories of dialectical and historical materialism to the contemporary Chinese concept of “worldview”, the question arises as to how we should usefully define the term “worldview” .

One approach, which I argue would be too narrow in its scope to be useful, would be to see “worldview” as primarily a Marxist methodology for arriving at different conclusions at different times in the party’s history about “the objective state of the world.”

A different approach would be to disregard “worldview” as a methodology, but instead focus on the more productive exercise of analysing the actual content of the formal conclusions reached by the party at various times in its history about the nature of China’s domestic and external circumstances, and the party’s proposed response to those circumstances.

A third approach would be to ignore official Chinese formulations of “worldview” altogether on the grounds that independent academic inquiry on the international behaviour of states, including China, should not be limited to the public grounds offered by the the governments of these states on why they are acting in a particular way.

In other words it is important to avoid one level or another of official, or for that matter, conceptual capture.

The problem with this approach, however, is that it raises the fundamental methodological problem of how those of us outside the inner sanctums of the Chinese party and state actually “know” what the leadership really believes about the world and their response to it, beyond the formal statements that they from time to time may make on these subjects.

Each of these approaches has deficiencies. My definition of “worldview” seeks to embrace all three.

This is because despite some of the more impenetrable formalisms of Marxist epistemology in general, and its Chinese ideological variants in particular, how the Chinese party formally ideates its view of the world, and how the party in turn communicates its political response to the world it so observes, actually matters.

It provides us with insights into the world of internal ideological constraints and opportunities that confront a party which continues formally to describe itself as Marxist-Leninist.

Furthermore, it gives us some guidance to the party’s changing ideological, political and policy priorities over time.

Moreover, where new conceptual language is deployed, particularly in a political and institutional culture which is notoriously conservative in its approach to linguistic innovation, it invites us to examine what new realities it is seeking to describe.

For thee various reason, China’s worldview should therefore be defined as the Chinese Communist Party’s conclusions, both formal and informal, about the changing nature of the world around them, the strategic threats and opportunities that the world, so understood, represents for China, as well as how the Chinese party and state should respond.

The Nature of China’s Changing Worldview

So having argued why the concept of “worldview” is important in understanding China’s changing international behaviour, how the concept itself has evolved over time as a Marxist framework of analysis, as well as what it means as an organising principle in the Chinese Communist Party today - the real question arises as to what is the content of China’s worldview under Xi Jinping today.

What I offer here are some tentative conclusions.

As a research scholar, I’m always prepared for the evidence to take me in different directions as my research project proceeds.

But a number of trends are, I think, becoming clear.

The argument I advance is that there has indeed been a profound, qualitative change in China’s worldview under Xi Jinping compared with the previous prevailing orthodoxy under Deng, Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao.

This can be seen in a number of critical areas. We see it in the evolution of a new worldview which no longer accepts, passively or otherwise, American global or regional hegemony as consistent with Chinese national identity, political ideology or long-term core national interests.

We also see a worldview which has now concluded that both the global and regional liberal orders that have been built by the United States are in a period of deep transition, presenting China with a new period of “strategic opportunity” to bring about changes to these orders.

Moreover, in China’s new worldview, Beijing does not intend to become a co-chair, or replacement chair of the existing liberal international order.

But instead seeks to craft a regional order in East Asia where Chinese interests are accorded primary consideration by neighbouring states.

And a global order which reduces existing norms in international humanitarian intervention, human rights and other liberal domains.

Although in both cases, the regional and the global, China will engage in a process of rolling, incremental negotiations with both the US, its allies and other states to optimise the results, rather than to impose changes to these orders by force.

Furthermore, these deep conclusions in China’s emerging worldview has resulted in the formal abandonment of the Deng orthodoxy of “hide your strength, bide your time, never take the lead” and its official replacement with a new period of foreign, defence and international economic policy innovation, activism and contestation, albeit within a still fluid ideational framework of China’s amendment to, or replacement of, the existing liberal international order.

Finally, I argue that this new worldview is now reflected in a new culture of policy innovation, apparent in multiple policy domains, including major changes unfolding in China’s bilateral diplomacy, and in its multilateral diplomacy through the UN system.

From a Chinese historical perspective, I argue that China is therefore entering into a third phase in the evolution of its official worldview since the birth of the People’s Republic in 1949:

From Mao’s Marxist-Realist approach between 1949-76 characterised by ideological confrontation with both the US and then the Soviet Union, combined with a strategic re-alignment with Washington to deal with later realist threats from Moscow;

Through Deng’s Liberal-Realist period between 1978-2013, where China’s embrace of the US-led liberal international order was accompanied by parallel, albeit profoundly uneven, processes of domestic economic and political liberalisation;

And now an emerging Xi Jinping Nationalist-Realist period since 2013, where a new divergence is unfolding.

On the one hand, we see China’s increasingly authoritarian, mercantilist and nationalist domestic order.

While on the other hand we see a continuing global order where liberal-internationalist assumptions continue to prevail, but which are now subject to challenges on multiple fronts, including from Xi Jinping’s China.

From a global perspective, I further argue that China is therefore accelerating the processes of change that are now confronting the current global order.

The Reasons for Change

If I am right about these changes in China’s official worldview, then the nest question we should ask is why?

I argue that these reasons are both foreign and domestic.

They are driven by “realist” calculations by Chinese elites concerning the relative decline in American power based on long-standing methodologies for the estimation of “comprehensive national power,” a conclusion that the United States is becoming less predisposed to deploying power unilaterally, as well as increasing evidence of growing global multipolarity in multiple international policy domains.

China’s changing worldview is, however, also significantly shaped by a range of domestic factors.These include official conclusions concerning the changing structure of the Chinese economy, most significantly Chinese calculations that China will be less globally dependent in the future, compared with the first 35 years of its economic transformation process, because of the growing importance of its domestic market relative to foreign trade, investment and technology transfers.

Another domestic driver of China’s changing worldview is nationalism. Nationalism has become a major legitimising force in Chinese domestic politics for the Chinese Communist Party.

Chinese nationalism is compounded by the complex politics of identity in relation to China’s self-perception of its imperial past, the aggression of the west towards China, and the Communist Party’s long-standing campaign of national “victimhood” as a result of a century of foreign humiliation from 1839-1949, reinforced with the new campaign for “national renaissance.”

Nationalism has both fuelled and justified the emergence of a new “Chinese” worldview which cannot be a derivative of the west, but one which once again “rightly” places China at the centre of the regional and global order.

Ideology provides a further domestic political factor in support of a changing Chinese worldview.

As noted above, there is a widening dissonance between the political values championed within China (ie. the re-assertion of Communist orthodoxy including the concept of an authoritarian “China model”) on the one hand, and the foundational values of the liberal international order, of which China has been an informal part, on the other.

The prospects of “convergence” between these two sets values is less evident now that at any time since the events 1989. Divergence is increasingly the norm.

This has meant that rather than China being prepared to continue to internalise the liberalising pressures from the external order, China is now seeking to change aspects of the order to make it less incompatible with China’s continuing domestic arrangements.

Finally, of greater importance than these other domestic factors, is the political personality of Xi Jinping.

I argue that the strength of Xi Jinping’s character, his sense of history, mission and destiny, his deep nationalism, his ideological commitment to both the party’s history, and its future as the only credible political vehicle to bring about the full restoration of the Chinese nation, represent critical, new political factors shaping China’s international policy.

These factors are compounded by the degree of personal power Xi has consolidated within the Chinese leadership structure since 2013.

Together, these individual leadership dynamics constitute a decisive factor in the major changes we have seen in China’s official worldview since 2013.


The extent to which this worldview proves to be coterminous with Xi Jinping’s period in office, or whether it will return to a more ambiguous form in a post- Xi Jinping China, remains an open question.

But what we do know is that major changes are afoot in Xi Jinping’s China.

And the responsibility of the academy to make sense of these changes for the benefit of policy makers around the world.

I’m often asked what an American, western or collective policy should be in response to China’s changing worldview.

That is a separate question.

Just as important as the first.

I had a lot to say about this in my 2015 Report -on US- China relations.

And hope to write on this again soon.

But I’m a sufficiently conservative, trainee scholar, as well as having served in the past as an international policy practitioner, to argue that its important first to get our analysis right of what is actually happening in China’s changing view of its own future place in the region and the world - under the new Great Helmsman Comrade Xi Jinping.