President Xi Jinping’s references to the classics is not being innovative for a PRC leader. He is in line with a trend of the past decade or more of praising Confucius and drawing lessons from him that serve the purpose of the Party. Ten years ago there was a TV series lectures on Confucius that was popular and later released as a book and DVDs. The name Confucius Institute is also a sign of this, naturally with a Party spin on Confucius.
That has a long tradition in China. Mao Zedong discussed this use of Confucius with his nephew Mao Yuanxin during the Criticize Confucius campaign. Mao said “If you look at history, you’ll see that revolutionaries all start by criticizing Confucius. But when they get into power, they all invite him back.” Mao added that every dynasty and ruler dresses Confucius up in their own way to strengthen their rule. Mao said that Confucius and other great thinkers of the past are the heart of Chinese culture and we should study them, but the idealism in his thinking especially as it has been distorted by past rulers for their own purposes, we must reject. Mao said “We communists got started by criticizing Confucius. But we must not follow the path of past rulers of criticizing but then praising him later. If the day ever comes when we for the sake of strengthening our position bring out Confucius for thought work with the people, then we will have fallen into the old cycle. That can’t work. If the Communist Party gets to the point where it cannot govern or runs into trouble, and invites Confucius back, that will mean that we’ll be finished soon.”
The quote I found on a Chinese website outside of China and it appears on a number of anti-communist websites. That may be because it is true and censored in China. Or because it makes a nice story and somebody made it up! In any case the argument is plausible (one of my erudite Chinese friends made the same argument when I asked him about Confucius and Chinese politics a few years ago) even if the source is not reliable.
How is the effort being viewed inside China?
Quoting Confucius or other wise sayings or literary references to make a point or settle an argument is common in China. It is like bible-thumping in some parts of the US. A clever unscrupulous person can use it to prove almost anything.
If this is part of a sustained strategy, what comes next?
Well, a long running propaganda strategy of identifying China with the so-called 5000 year old China and stressing the continuity between the various states that followed one another or co-existed in the Chinese territorial space. I remember reading a book for training Chinese tour guides that made the point that stressing the continuity of Chinese history is an important aspect of patriotic education. Reality is much more complicated; the PRC seems to have been founded twice Mao in ’49 and then Deng in ’78 with reform and opening. Reconciling the first and second thirty years of the PRC is difficult.
Zheng Yongnian郑永年 of Singapore National University, a Beijing University grad and Princeton political science PhD argues that Xi wants to create a synthesis from the Mao – Deng contradiction (sounds weird but Marx pushed the thesis, anti-thesis, synthesis idea, and he sees Xi trying to carve out his own space as the man of his era. See Zheng’s essay Xi Jinping’s Political Road Map 郑永年：习近平的政治路线图
One special characteristic of Xi is the centralization of power (the new institutional arrangements to reduce the decentralization of power in China. There was also much concern with corruption at the start of Hu Jintao’s term as Party Secretary. The difference with Xi is that there is change in the institutional arrangements of the party investigative apparatus — plus up the numbers and stationing them at provincial and local counterpart agencies rather than working through those agencies — that are making possible the much longer-lasting quasi-permanent anti-corruption campaign underway since Xi took office.
How (if at all) will this approach affect China’s internal/external behavior?
The merging of the idea of cultural area and state stresses continuity — looking back on 5000 years rather than just the 60-odd years of New China PRC (handy for expansive territorial claims) and pride in one’s culture.
Many Chinese feel they have had a tough 150 years or so and finally things are getting back to normal, with China playing a major role.