Now, I have no way of knowing if what Lilla reports is accurate about Chinese views regarding Schmitt and Strauss. However, my own experience has been somewhat the same but also somewhat different. Only a few years ago, I had dinner in China with some the leading “leftist” intellectuals. These were scholars who found the current Chinese system, particularly its quasi-capitalist economy, as creating too much inequality and social chaos among the population writ large. Now, it turned out several of my interlocutors that evening had read Strauss and even studied with some of his students in universities in the United States. And, at least for that evening, no one was citing Strauss for his rediscovery of the place of the gentleman in the political order. Rather, they were reading Strauss and Schmitt as in line with each other: anti-democratic, anti-liberal and, in the case of Strauss’ work on Plato and Machiavelli, as in favor of thought-infused dictatorship. What China needed was philosopher kings and a prince to guide it into better rule.
Over several beers, I made the case that this was a perverse use of Strauss who, after all, had made clear that the Plato’s presentation of the “philosopher king” in the Republic was comedic in nature and, as such, a reflection of the impossibility—not possibility—of synthesizing true wisdom with politics. As for Machiavelli, he had written not only about The Prince but also The Discourses, where he lays out the grounds for a sustainable modern republic. And, finally, while Strauss knew perfectly well the problems associated with modern liberalism, his decision to come to America in the 1940s and stay was grounded in his appreciation of the fact that the American political order, warts and all, allowed the most philosophic freedom possible. Strauss would have judged contemporary China as little more than tyranny parading as a “peoples’ republic.”
The key point is that, whether it’s Lilla’s account of his interaction with Chinese intellectuals or my own, it appears that the Chinese remain (at least when talking with foreigners) committed to using ideas to reinforce and justify the current Chinese political system. In that regard, they read philosophy but, sadly, are not themselves philosophic.