Jiang Shigong, "Empire and World Order" - Reading the China Dream

Jiang Shigong, “The Internal Logic of Super-Sized Political Entities: ‘Empire’ and World Order”[1]

Followers of our project will already be familiar with Jiang Shigong (b. 1967), Professor of Law at Beijing University and prominent apologist for state power in China. His longer (and I think more important) 2018 essay defining and defending Xi Jinping Thought (“Philosophy and History: Interpreting the ‘Xi Jinping Era’ through Xi’s Report to the Nineteenth National Congress of the CCP”) is also available in full translation on the site, and we argue that Jiang’s ambitious theoretical arguments aim not only to provide substance to the fluffy propaganda of Xi Jinping Thought, but also to serve as a muscular and critical response to the de facto pluralism that has developed in China’s thought world since the beginning of China’s rise. Jiang’s arguments will likely convince few people outside of China, but his text is thoughtful and rigorous in its attempts to explain why “socialism with Chinese characteristics” is not an empty slogan but instead a description of the Chinese political economy which is currently charting a path to world domination, given the failure of American liberal democracy and Soviet Communism.

The text translated here is of a piece with Jiang’s earlier essay in that it suggests that a Chinese world empire is visible on the horizon. The basic argument is fairly simple: empires have always been the building blocks of regional political orders, even before the rise of imperialism made possible the construction of worldwide empires. The rise of ideas of sovereignty and the nation-state over the course of the modern period added new wrinkles to the construction and administration of empire, and blinded many to its ongoing importance, but empires have not disappeared, only changed in form and function. Jiang's essay ranges widely in time and space, and here and there seems to attempt to construct a typology of empires, but in my reading much of this is filler (which accounts for the text’s somewhat repetitive nature). Jiang’s blunt assertion is that empire—and particularly world empire, structured around markets, currencies, and superpower domestic policy masquerading as universal legal practice—is an inescapable part of the contemporary world. And it is China’s turn to head that empire, given the current state of China and the world. In Jiang’s own words:

“[The current state of world empire] faces three great unsolvable problems: the ever-increasing inequality created by the liberal economy; state failure, political decline, and ineffective governance caused by political liberalism; and decadence and nihilism created by cultural liberalism. In the face of these difficulties, even the United States has pulled back in terms of worldwide military strategy, which means that world empire 1.0 is currently facing a great crisis, and that revolts, resistance, and revolution from within the empire are unravelling the system.”

It was not very long ago that China’s New Left, most of whom, like Jiang, are thoroughgoing statists, trumpeted sovereignty as one of their guiding principles (for one example among many see, Wang Hui, “The Economy of a Rising China and its Contradictions”). Jiang of course does not denounce sovereignty, even as he suggests, with a wink and a nod, that the discourse of the nation-state is something of a sleight of hand. But neither does he address the apparent contradiction between empire and national sovereignty, and where his argument fits in the contemporary nexus of political propaganda and the China Dream is difficult to ascertain. As the anonymous author of the blog “The Credible Target” puts it here: “Jiang’s prose is a little academic, and imprecise; it requires some filling in between the lines. That is partly because ‘Let’s replace the American Empire with a Chinese one which looks like this’ might attract some unnecessary attention.” Perhaps we might read Jiang on empire as a trial balloon?

For those interested in further commentary or context on Jiang and/or Chinese ideas of empire, see “Credible Target” which offers analysis as well as a partial translation; as well as a forthcoming article by Leigh Jenco and Jonathan Chappell in The Journal of Asian Studies, “Imperialism in Chinese Eyes: Nations, Empires, and State-Building.”


An important question in the realm of political thought today is the huge gap in mainstream discourse between the theoretical “expression” of a sovereign nation and the universal political practice of empires. This gap between theory and practice leads us to reflect on the conceptual system of the “nation-state,” and then to use the concept of “empire” to arrive at a new understanding of history and contemporary political life.

In contrast with the concept of “empire” in traditional ideological discourse, in this essay, I am using “empire” as a descriptive sociological concept to describe very large political systems that have existed universally throughout history. These systems possess an inner stability which is both complex and pluralistic, as well as a philosophical-intellectual and political drive to establish a kind of universalism, or in other words, an urge to universalize their own form and occupy an even larger space. In this sense, “empire” is a historical technique through which mankind has sought to manage universalism and particularity, as well as a motive force behind development and change.

Indeed, empire-building and the competition between empires are what propelled mankind to move away from scattered, local civilizations toward today’s worldwide civilization under conditions of globalization. The history of the world is both a history of empires competing for hegemony, and a history of the changing forms of empire. At the present moment, the world finds itself at a crucial historical moment in the development and evolution of “world empire.” Only by beginning from the perspective of empire, and understanding the different forms empires assume as they evolve through history, can we transcend the ideology of the sovereign nation-state and understand the role that today’s China is playing in the historical evolution of world empire, and thus chart a course for China’s future.

The Paradox of “Sovereign” Discourse and Imperial “Practice”

The idea of sovereignty is at the core of contemporary political theory. Within the broad genealogy of Western political thought, all intellectual movements in the history of modern thought, from the Renaissance to the Reformation, from the scientific revolution to the Enlightenment, have advanced the construction and improvement of the modern theory of sovereignty, and the social science concepts that participated in the construction of the theory of the sovereign nation-state constitute, even today, our basic academic and epistemological categories.

Since late Qing times, the Chinese intellectual world has also experienced a thorough-going intellectual transformation, through which it began to construct and imagine the world political order on the basis of modern and contemporary Western political thought. The ideal vision of this world order is what we call the “Westphalian system” in which all “civilized nations” participate in the construction of the world order on equal terms as sovereign states. The League of Nations, emerging from World War One, and the United Nations, developing out of World War Two, have often been seen as the models for this world order. Given this framework, whenever we think about political order, we inevitably start out with ideas such as sovereign nation-states and international society, “domestic concerns” and “foreign countries,” which create nationalism and internationalism as basic political ideologies.

Yet if we look at things truthfully, is this international order that exists in the abstract and on paper the true international order we find in contemporary life? Is the international order truly constructed by equal sovereign nation-states? If we return to the true realm of international political practice, then how many of the nearly 200 countries recognized as sovereign nation-states today truly possess complete sovereignty? The sovereignty of how many states has developed into a powerful “imperial” influence? And how many states are mere “dependencies” or “imperial borderlands” or “provinces” of these empires?

In terms of legal norms and in the opinion of many people, the world order is sustained by international laws, which in turn are determined by sovereign nation-states, but in political practice, the world order has always functioned according to the logic of empire. Some countries (such as post-war Germany and Japan) were not constructed as fully sovereign nation-states even in the legal sense, because their constitutions were not established on principles of sovereignty, but instead on principles of international peace and international law. The origin of this category of “half-sovereign nation-state” lies in the status of Germany and Japan as losing countries in the hegemonic competition of empires. There are in addition other countries, which, while possessing full, independent sovereignty in a legal sense, have, in practice, seen their sovereignty absorbed into a larger imperial system. Some of these supra-sovereign imperial systems have been constructed on the basis of international law, such as the Commonwealth, the Northern Alliance, or the European Union.

And there are some countries which, while being fully sovereign, can also override international law with their national law, or extend their domestic law into other sovereign countries, as in the case of the United States when it fights corruption abroad with its “long-armed jurisdiction” and its economic sanctions, to say nothing of the “color revolutions” that it openly sanctioned and organized. In fact, discussions of concepts such as “hegemony,” the “third world,” “North-South relations,” “multi-polarity,” and the “new international political and economic order” in the field of international relations are all about questions of empire.

From this perspective, the history of humanity is surely the history of competition for imperial hegemony, the history of unstinting competition between empires which has gradually propelled the form of empires from their original local nature toward the current tendency toward global empires, and finally toward a single world empire. Today’s globalization is both the product of imperial competition, as well as a particular form of empire.

When we survey the history of mankind, empire has consistently been the chief actor in political terms, while the sovereign nation-state is a new thing, a product of modernity. Moreover, the political activities of sovereign nation-states are often guaranteed by the imperial order, and one might say that the order of sovereign nation-states is a special expression of the imperial order. If we set aside notions of imperial competition and the construction of the new imperial order, then we cannot even understand the concept of the sovereign nation-state. For this reason, we must re-examine history from the perspective of empire, and rethink the construction of sovereign nation-states from the perspective of the construction of imperial order.

The Axial Age in Human Civilization: The Formation of Regional Civilizational Empires

Empire is first and foremost a universal intellectual concept that extends to the entire world, and secondly a form of political practice that seeks to impose harmony on the world. There has always been a great internal tension between idea and practice: imperial concepts are universal, but imperial practice is often confined to a particular time and space. This tension explains the rise and fall of empires, the replacement of one by another.

The origins of human civilization lie scattered across the globe in regions that best suited the needs of early humans. Mountainous regions were not suitable for human survival, and life in the tropics too easy, sapping the force of civilizational development, so it was the temperate regions that taught people to sustain life through continuous labor and innovation. For this reason, human civilization came to be widespread in the vast temperate regions of the planet.

These various civilizations continued to advance, eventually growing out of their natural geographic boundaries, resulting in exchanges, competition, and even struggles for survival among civilizations. The history of the development of human civilization continually followed this process of development from small, local communities toward ever larger groups. This process was one in which different civilizations constantly learned from one another and blended together, but was at the same time a process of conflict and conquest, challenge and response, and annexation.

If we take “homogenous countries” and “plural countries” as two ideal types of political order in the evolution of the history of civilization, then the history of humanity is the process of “state” and “empire” constantly and dialectically interacting, meaning that we find both the formation of plural empires through the military conquest of one homogenous nation by another, as well as imperial orders that have become homogenous nation- states through a long process of assimilating and integrating a plural imperial order, after which this homogenous state will set off on the path toward the construction of a new empire.

For this reason, the distinctions between nation-state and empire in real political practice have always been relative, dynamic, and continuous. In this sense, empire is not only a noun used to describe a plural order in practice, but has also always functioned as a verb describing a dynamic process of “unification.”[2]

From the perspective of “empire,” the first stage in the history of human civilization was the process through which civilizations all over the planet evolved through the dialectical interaction of the two political forms of state and empire, finally coming together to form local empires with stable geographic boundaries. The universalistic imperial consciousness matured in precisely these geographically expansive, fairly complete and stable empires. What we call the “axial age” of human history was characterized by just such imperial consciousness: empire was no longer a simple matter of economic conquest or political construction, but instead became a universal civilizational order. We can call this form of empire, with its relatively stable geographic space and its relatively continuous civilizational homogeneity, the “regional civilizational empire.”

To take China as an example, in the early period of civilization, communities appeared and grew until they were like “stars filling the sky,”[3] and having gone through endless interaction and integration, finally came together to form separate tribes or tribal federations, which we might call local empires. Through constant competition, these unstable local empires finally became the regional empire of the Xia, Shang and Zhou, the nine states stably settled on the central plains. This Xia-Shang-Zhou empire only became a stable political, ritual and civilizational system after Confucian thought gave it a universal philosophical expression. The later imperial constructions of the Qin-Han, Sui-Tang, and Ming-Qing periods were civilizational renewals of this basic foundational pattern.

Halford Mackinder (1861-1947),[4] the scholar of geopolitics, was acutely aware of the geographical and civilizational foundations of regional civilizational empires. From a macro-spatial perspective, he divided the entire Eurasian continent into a heartland core, [historically represented by the Russian empire] characterized by grassland and pastures, and peripheral areas, characterized by rivers, plains and agriculture.

In the heartland areas, the backward, nomadic lifestyle was the main form of civilization, while peripheral areas were divided into four relatively advanced civilizational areas, with agriculture and commerce predominating: the regions of Chinese Confucian civilization, South Asian Hindu civilization, Arabic Islamic civilization, and European Christian civilization. We can see these five regional Eurasian civilizations as five relatively stable regional civilizational empires. These empires based their coherence on the natural elements of their geographic environments as well as certain spiritual elements of a philosophical or theocratic nature. Over a very long period of history, while specific incarnations of local empires rose and fell, these five regional civilizational empires achieved relative stability in their local area. Even today, thousands of years after their founding, these five regional civilizational empires continue to maintain a relative stability in terms of geographic space and character, which is testimony to the tenacity possessed by regional civilizational empires.

The Rise of Worldwide Colonial Empires: Worldwide Competition between Continental Empires and Maritime Empires

In the first phase of the history of empires, all five regional civilizational empires were located on the Eurasian land mass, and all were continental empires. In terms of the respective locations of the five, the four found on the peripheries possessed important civilizational advantages, while the steppe empire located in the mountainous regions had a lower level of civilization associated with nomadism. But the steppe empire also possessed certain geographically strategic advantages, and always constituted a threat to the four great peripheral civilizational empires. This was especially the case for Western Christian civilization, which was continually pressured by Eastern Islamic civilization and by the steppe civilization.

The reason that the Islamic empire could pose a threat to the Christian empire was not only because of its superiority in terms of religion and military might, but also, and more importantly, because it monopolized maritime trade with the Hindu civilization and the Chinese civilization to the east, which assured it of large amounts of resources and wealth. It was against this backdrop of competition among empires that the Christian empire was finally forced to set sail on the Atlantic Ocean, attempting to locate a sea route that would open up trade and commerce with the Chinese empire to the east. Columbus was looking for a maritime Silk Road to replace the land-based Silk Road that had been destroyed by the empire of the steppes, which would challenge the monopoly of Islamic civilization on trade with the east.

When the Christian empire was forced to take to the oceans, this turned the first page in the history of the world’s empires. For one thing, the Christian empire “discovered” and conquered America, as well as previously unknown territories and civilizations such as southern Africa and even Oceania, in the process seizing hitherto unknown resources. For another, these great geographic discoveries led to the emergence of “worldwide colonial empires” as a new form of empire, which meant that the formerly united Christian empire began to split up into new colonial empires based on newly formed sovereign nation-states.

The competition among these colonial empires led Christian civilization to be the first to carry out the transition to modern civilization, and in turn gave Western colonial empires an overwhelming superiority over the traditional civilizational empires of the East. Thereafter, world history entered into the stage of Western imperial domination. The great geographic discoveries led Western Christian civilization to learn from Eastern civilizations, and they absorbed not only the advanced practices of Eastern astronomy, mathematics, geography, navigation, and ship-building, but were also influenced by the humanism and rationalism of Chinese civilization. Yet the very discovery of different peoples and civilizations in the process of globalization undermined the singular vision of the world found in the Christian bible. This in turn led to the rise of Western rationality, humanism, and science, and hence to the disintegration of the traditional Christian empire.

The age of discoveries led to internal competition within the Christian empire, as each kingdom or nation struggled against the other. This internal competition also stimulated the overall process of the rationalization of Western civilization, as each kingdom sought to put the Christian empire behind them and undertake the transition to a modern sovereign nation-state. This process resulted in the creation of a new political model, understood in terms of modern Western political theory as one based on the individual citizen and his rights, with a social contract linking citizen rights to the construction of a homogenous sovereign nation-state. The same process also eventuated in the Westphalian order that regulated the relations between individual sovereign nation-states.

From this emerged the comparison in political theory between sovereign nation-states and empires as political types, according to which old regional empires (like the Chinese empire, the Indian empire, the Ottoman empire, the Russian empire, etc.), came to be seen as representing an outdated, traditional political form, while only European sovereign nation-states represented the modern political form of the future.

But while the newly formed European sovereign nation-states engaged in overseas colonization and built their colonial empires, they also constructed a new imperial system. In contrast to the traditional empires of regional civilizations, which administered newly conquered territories as part of their empire, colonial empires created a new colonial imperial model in which sovereign nation-states were distinguished from colonies and status distinctions applied to each. The colony was only part of the empire in the sense that it served as a source for natural resources and profits for the sovereign nation-state. The nation-state at the core of the empire practiced republican politics, while in the colonial periphery of the empire, politics was nakedly authoritarian; these were the two faces of the colonial empire. Hence, the competition between European empires was not solely a fight for European territory, but more importantly was also a struggle to obtain or redistribute overseas colonies.

From the Treaty of Westphalia to the Treaty of Utrecht, the system of international law between modern sovereign nation-states was actually the product of the competition—and the achievement of temporary equilibriums—among colonial empires, all of which relied to an important extent on competition for and redistribution of colonies.

If we ask “how did European empires come to rule the world?” an important part of the answer is the modern nation-state system at the core of these imperial civilizations. It was precisely the decision by the various European peoples to abandon the form of the traditional empire of Christian civilization, as well as the constraints that religion and morality had once represented, and to concentrate instead on individual freedom and on the construction of the modern nation-state system, which created in these countries a new style of life as well as great economic, political and cultural strengths, which in turn continually founded colonies throughout the world, creating a new form of empire.

One could say that the Western nation-states built new empires at the same time as they abandoned the old ones, and that these new empires contained not only colonies, but also a system of international law. The completely new imperial form thus combined colonial law, national law, and international law, a two-faced composite made up of the nation-states and the colonies. The precondition for the construction of the Westphalian system of sovereign nation-states was always the globalized colonial system. Only those states that had obtained power through the struggle for colonial empires had the right to enter into the system of sovereign nation-states. It was only because the European powers could develop colonial empires at will in the “new territories” made available by the discoveries that the fragile balance of power of the Westphalian system could be maintained. Yet in the late nineteenth century, with the end of the period of great discoveries, the struggle among European colonial powers for world hegemony led to the eruption of the First World War, which hastened the end of the colonial imperial system, as well as the disintegration of the Eurocentric Westphalian system.

If we compare the traditional regional civilizational empire to the modern global colonial empire, we discover enormous differences in terms of form:

First, while regional civilizational empires knew wave-like rises and falls, expansions and contractions, they more or less maintained a fairly stable regional presence; by contrast, the tentacles of the newly risen colonial empires went well beyond the geographical space of Europe, and extended to every continent throughout the world. Its power found nothing that could resist it in the Americas, in Africa, in Oceania or even in ancient Asia, giving rise to a worldwide empire in terms of geographic space.

Second, when regional civilizational empires conquered others they often sought civilizational development, creating “unity” and “peace” within the region; in comparison, global colonial empires from the outset made commerce and trade their chief purpose, and as a result, the regions they conquered were not territories to be ruled, but instead colonies meant to provide raw materials, slaves, and export markets for the mother country. This is why colonies and the slave system constituted the two basic characteristics of colonial empires. In fact, one important reason that the Christian empire could readily transform into colonial empires was because as early as the era of the Greek and Roman empires, trade and commerce had given rise to a long-lasting slave system.

Third, regional civilizational empires evolved systems of governance that were reasonably uniform internally, and employed different systems of governance solely in local areas on the peripheries; by contrast, global colonial empires from the outset saw colonies as mere sources of economic profit, which led to the modern imperialist system in which there is a strict separation of the central sovereign nation-state and the peripheral colonies. In terms of constitutional regimes, the European sovereign nation-states and the colonized empires existed in two completely different legal worlds.

Fourth, the particular characteristics of regional civilizational empires promoted ethnic harmony within the region and civilization, so that while there were ethnic problems in these kind of civilizational empires, ethnicity did not become an obstacle to the construction of empires; by contrast, while global colonial empires carried out their expansion in the name of civilization (vs. barbarism), because colonial empires from the outset maintained strict divisions between the metropolitan nation-state and the peripheral colony, as well as corresponding differences in citizenship status, the civilizational standards of colonial empires always contained elements of racism. For this reason, colonial empires not only could not promote racial harmony, but instead created unprecedented racial hatred and massacres. The legacy created by colonial empires remains to this day difficult to eradicate.

The rise of European colonial empires was without a doubt the second transformation in mankind’s history of empire, and this process was from the outset linked to maritime discoveries, meaning that the first countries to take to the sea were also the first countries to establish overseas colonies and build colonial empires. Hence, the history of the rise and fall of European colonial empires took the form of the history of taking to the seas, mastering navigation, establishing colonies and competing for colonies. Spain and Portugal led the way in developing maritime explorations and in establishing overseas colonial empires, and these countries relied on the orthodoxy of the European empire to establish the legitimacy of the global colonial empires constructed in these newly discovered territories.

When the next wave of powers, represented by Holland, England, and France began to compete over colonies, they encountered challenges to their legitimacy coming from the European empire. In fact, the Reformation promoted by Holland, England, and France[5] was in reality directed against Spain, Portugal, and the medieval European background sustaining them. This developed into a split in the Christian empire between the traditional Catholic group and the newly risen Protestant group, in which the newly risen Protestant group ultimately won.

Because of differences between continental and maritime conditions, European countries, in the process of competing for hegemony in their construction of colonial empires, gradually developed two types of state governance and colonial governance: the maritime empire and the continental empire. Protestant countries like Holland and England developed maritime empires based on global commerce. At home, they practiced republicanism, and in terms of colonial governance, they did their utmost to practice free trade and commerce under conditions of sovereign rule. By contrast, the earliest colonizers, like Portugal and Spain, as well as the later arrivals such as France, Germany and Russia, mostly inherited the continental-imperial style of rule associated with the Greek and Roman empires and the Christian empire. At home, they practiced autocracy, and in terms of colonial governance they practiced an autocratic form of plunder.

This tells us that ideological dichotomies in modern European thought between republicanism and autocracy, commerce and territory, freedom and despotism, in fact originated in dichotomies in the styles of governance employed by maritime and continental empires. These two different styles of rule, growing out of the different problems faced by continental and maritime empires, deeply influenced the world situation during the Cold War and even after.

The rise of colonial empires accelerated the competition among empires, and the intensification of imperial conflicts also hastened the arrival of the modern revolutions in technology and thought, thus leading to the transition from tradition to modernity. To a certain extent, this colonial competition playing out on the world stage was a competition among the European colonial empires, but at the same time, with the dissemination of modern European culture throughout the world, other traditional empires were stimulated to study the West, and as they went through their own reforms, they also came to participate in the competition.

The German and the Tsarist empires began developing their colonial empires in this context, and came to be caught up in the worldwide struggle. In a similar fashion, Japan, situated at the margin of the Chinese empire, was the first to “leave Asia for Europe”[6] and embrace the maritime world, building itself up as a colonial power and entering the worldwide competition. The two World Wars were the bloody struggle among all of the global colonial empires to build what they called a “single hegemonic world empire.”

“World Empire” 1.0: From England to the USA

At the turn of the twentieth century, following ever intensifying competition among empires, the form of empire also changed. First, in the competition among many worldwide empires there emerged a “world empire,” with colonies everywhere on the planet, capable of directing world trade and commerce as well as regulating the balance of power among the many European empires. This was the British empire of the Westphalian era on which the “sun never set.” In addition, the model of imperial governance within this world empire evolved constantly; no longer satisfied with simple colonial plunder, world empires instead focused on controlling the pulse of colonial economies through the domination of science, technology and finance.

Yet it was precisely this new model of imperial governance that led the empires to grant their colonies ever greater levels of self-rule and sovereignty, creating a tendency toward colonial integration with the mother countries. This was the background against which the British Commonwealth developed. The emergence of this new type of imperial governance provoked many debates between colonies and empires concerning “old empires” versus “new,” “colonial empires” versus “free empires,” and “colonialism” versus “imperialism.”

Just as in Hobson’s and Lenin’s political criticism of “imperialism,” traditional colonial empires came to be labeled as “colonialism,” while the notion of “imperialism” came to be used solely to refer to Great Britain’s new form of worldwide empire, what we might call colonialism without colonies. The emergence of this new form of empire meant that imperial expansion would no longer rely on the occupation of territory, but instead on scientific and technological domination, financial control, and international law. This was particularly true because international law was no longer the shared international law of the imperial era, but instead private laws that had penetrated into the business, commercial and financial territories of all countries. In this sense, a sovereign nation-state could erect a “world empire” simply through global control of science and technology, currency and trade. This was the model of world empire constructed by England and the United States.

The two world wars pushed the construction of world empire into a new historical phase. We call them “world wars” not only because the powers of the entire world came to be involved, but also because many worldwide colonial empires were struggling with the construction of the “world empire,” and in fact the two camps of the Cold War that developed after the Second World War reflected the competition between two models of “world empire:” one was the American model, which had inherited the new “imperialist” model developed by Great Britain’s late-period empire; and the other was the Soviet model, a stable political alliance which relied on a common belief in communism and in the leadership of the Communist Party among allied republics. In ideological terms, these two types of world empire were labeled “liberalism/imperialism” and “communism,” which in values terms came to be translated as “freedom” versus “equality,” but in terms of the imperial tradition, they still reflected the distinction between maritime and continental empires, the maritime empire exercising control through commerce and trade, and the continental empire through community morality.

We have limited our understanding of the idea of “empire” either to what we imagine the classical regional civilizational empire might have been, or to our criticism of the modern worldwide colonial empires, including the emergence of the new form of “world empire,” and for this reason have paid little attention to the particular nature of this imperial form. The Soviet empire was often criticized as a traditional empire, hungry for territory and hegemony, which ignored differences between the Soviet model and traditional ideas of empire, notably the strong beliefs in revolution and liberation contained within communist ideology, leading to the desire to establish a single world empire.

And because the world empire built by the British and the Americans relied on currency and a commercial system, as well as a system of international treaties, people often ignored the newness of this imperial form. It was easy to see this empire as one in which sovereign nation-states on equal terms entered into the international system following the national liberation movements that occurred with the eclipse of the old colonial empires. We only see the United Nations as representative of this international system of equal nation-states, and ignore the fact that the United Nations itself was a result of the construction of world empire, a site of struggle in the construction of world empires. At the end of the Cold War, the American abandonment of the United Nations and embrace of unilateralism fully demonstrates that the construction of the US-led “world empire” is complete; in today’s world, China and Russia are situated within the American-led system of “world empire.” The reason that United States economic sanctions, based on domestic law, can achieve the results they do, is because the world has been organized in such a way as to cater to this single “world empire.”

For this reason, instead of understanding the end of the Cold War as the “end of history” from an ideological standpoint, it is more accurate to see it from the perspective of “world empire.” The American-led “globalization” in the post-Cold War era, whether in terms of ideas, or in terms of military strategy, is promoting American “imperialization,” and building a single world empire. In the Western context, this has often called the “new Roman Empire.”

Henceforth, no country will be able to exist outside of this system of global trade with its freedom, rule of law and democracy. Every country, whether it wants to or not, will of necessity be implicated in the construction of this world empire. The Chinese historian Tong Tekong 唐德刚 (1920-2009) often talked about the “three gorges of history 历史三峡,” which in essence also gets at the process of the “end of history” and “world empire.”[7] We might say that the globalization we live with today is the “single world empire” 1.0, the model of world empire established by England and the United States. In the future, each country must seek out its own developmental model from within this world imperial order of freedom, rule of law and democracy.

At present, America is under great pressure as it seeks to maintain its world empire, the pressure coming especially from Russian resistance and Chinese competition. But we must acknowledge that this competition is a competition occurring within the system of world empire, a struggle to seize economic and political leadership after the realization of “world empire.” In fact, we can understand it as a struggle to become the heart of the world empire. This struggle could lead to the collapse and disintegration of the world imperial system, or to a change in who holds the ultimate power in the world empire, or even to the reconstruction of the system of world empire, but what will absolutely not happen is a return to the historical period marked by the existence of regional civilizational empires.

Even if Huntington saw the post-Cold War world situation as one of a “clash of civilizations,” and even if such civilizational conflicts overlap to some extent with the geographical distribution of the regional civilizational empires, we absolutely cannot confuse the two. What Huntington called a “clash of civilizations” is in fact merely a revolt against the world empire from within, which will necessarily develop within the system of the current “world empire,” just as it must necessarily develop within the universalist, “end of history” philosophical narrative of technology, trade and commerce, freedom and rule of law. For this reason, the future world can only advance and be reconstructed on this foundation, which cannot be thoroughly upended, unless the whole world returns to the world empire built by Islamic fundamentalism.


Since the twentieth century, the inevitable fate of humanity has been to enter into the world empire. No matter whether we see it as a source of “everlasting peace” or if we maintain our Communist expectations, and no matter how much we criticize and or deplore technological, economic and political hegemony, we cannot escape the arrival of the age of world empire. If we say that the origins of world empire can be traced to competition between regional civilizational empires, then today’s world empire 1.0 is the model of world empire shaped by Western Christian civilization.

This model faces three great unsolvable problems: the ever-increasing inequality created by the liberal economy; state failure, political decline, and ineffective governance caused by political liberalism; and decadence and nihilism created by cultural liberalism. In the face of these difficulties, even the United States has pulled back in terms of worldwide military strategy, which means that world empire 1.0 is currently facing a great crisis, and that revolts, resistance, and revolution from within the empire are unravelling the system.

The rise of world empire completely changed traditional political and ideological distinctions between left and right, traditionally based in domestic politics, as can be clearly seen in the competitive elections in the United States and Europe. The right wing, which traditionally defended free markets, has now shifted toward populism, while the left wing has changed its tune and now defends the vested interests of globalization. This ideological reversal is an excellent reflection of the crisis faced by world empire today, in that there are no political programs that can address the three great problems world empire is facing.

​We might conclude that we are living in an age of chaos, conflict, and massive change in which world empire 1.0 is in decline and trending toward collapse, while we are as yet unable to imagine world empire 2.0. Yet we must recognize that change in the form of empire is a long historical process. The several thousand years of the history of mankind have witnessed only three great changes in imperial form, and each of these changes has been accompanied by great conflicts and chaos. At the same time, we cannot deny that these ages of historical transition have also created the opportunity for each civilization to construct world empire 2.0. The civilization that is able to provide genuine solutions to the three great problems facing world empire 1.0 will also provide the blueprint for world empire 2.0. As a great world power that must look beyond its own borders, China must reflect on her own future, for her important mission is not only to revive her traditional culture. China must also patiently absorb the skills and achievements of humanity as a whole, and especially those employed by Western civilization to construct world empire. Only on this basis can we see the reconstruction of Chinese civilization and the reconstruction of the world order as a mutually re-enforcing whole.

Translator's notes

[1] 强世功, “超大型政治实体的内在逻辑:’帝国’与世界秩序,” originally published in 文化纵横, 2019.4, and available online at http://www.aisixiang.com/data/115799.html.

[2] Jiang’s point is clear, but “empire” does not function as a verb in Chinese or in Western languages, to my knowledge. The term 帝国化 is occasionally used in Chinese, but refers to the process of a country becoming an empire (“American imperialization 美利坚帝国化”). The French verb “empirer,” which at first glance looks promising, actually means “to make things worse.”

[3] This refers to the book by the Chinese archeologist, Su Bingqi 苏秉琦, Stars Filling the Sky: Su Bingqi on Primitive China 满天星斗:苏秉琦论远古中国, which was cited by Zhao Tingyang 赵汀阳 in his arguments concerning the Chinese world order. See

[4] Halford Mackinder was a British geographer who pronounced his “Heartland theory” in a paper entitled “The Geographical Pivot of History,” presented to the Royal Geographical Association in 1904. His theory divided the world into three regions: the World-island, the outlying islands and the offshore islands. The World-island included Europe, Asia, and Africa, and thus dominated in terms of population and resources. Offshore islands included Japan and Great Britain. Outlying islands included the Americas and Australia. Mackinder emphasized the importance of Eastern Europe, a region that offered a gateway to control of the core of the Heartland, in part to warn Great Britain that its historical reliance on sea power might have limitations. See https://www.worldatlas.com/articles/what-is-the-heartland-theory.html. Jiang Shigong seems to have adopted Mackinder’s theories to his needs.

[5] Perhaps Jiang meant Germany here? France’s role in the Reformation was marginal.

[6] The reference is to an editorial published in 1885 in the Japanese newspaper Jiji shimpo, and probably written by Fukuzawa Yukichi, which suggested that Japan should “leave Asia” 脱亚 and join the Western world.

[7] Tong Tekong (1920-2009) was a Chinese-American historian who taught at Columbia University and at the City University of New York. His “three gorges” referred to China’s feudal, imperial, and democratic eras, and to the transitions between them.