On the Xi Jinping-Chiang Kai-shek Imperfect Analogy

Throughout my career, I've been intrigued by the way that introducing unexpected comparisons into discussions of China can unsettle entrenched assumptions and stimulate new thinking on familiar topics. I've periodically written journal articles and general interest commentaries in this vein, from an early essay that placed the Chinese Boxers and British Luddites side by side, to a contribution to later ones that argued that Shanghai, more often compared to New York and Paris, was, in some ways, perhaps more like Los Angeles (among American cities) and had a good deal in common with Budapest. Now, for the first time, I have a book about to come out (in digital formats in the United States, though as a tiny paperback in Australia and Asia) that is made up exclusively of short commentaries built around unexpected comparative moves, and which begins with a brief (as everything in the book is brief) explanation of why I am drawn to using "imperfect analogies" in my writing on China. The book, published on February 22, contains the phrase "imperfect analogy," in fact, in its subtitle, as its full name (a long one, especially for a very short book) is Eight Juxtapositions: China through Imperfect Analogies from Mark Twain to Manchukuo. The word "imperfect" is important to have in there, as I am keenly aware that the parallels I draw in chapters that bring together, for example, post-Communist Russia and still-Communist China, the current Chinese author Yu Hua and the long-dead American one Mark Twain, and Xi Jinping and Pope Francis, can only be taken so far. Holes can easily be poked in each comparison, yet, if the commentaries are successful, this will not strip them of their usefulness.

When pulling together that short book, which has chapters linked very loosely to each of the last eight years, I thought it might be my last foray into "imperfect analogies" for some time to come. I was wrong. Since I signed off on the proofs a few months ago, I've already been drawn to the same method of using quirky but I hope revealing juxtapositions twice. First, when writing about the Hong Kong booksellers, I toyed with the value of seeing parallels between the city in question and Berlin. And then, more recently still, I wrote a juxtaposition-focused piece on Xi Jinping, placing him this time not beside a foreign figure but a figure from China's past, Chiang Kai-shek.

When I wrote a post about the Xi-Chiang comparison for the new social media site Parlio, with a link to that commentary, I got one short and one long commentary questioning the value of placing these two leaders side by side. I responded with a long rejoinder, which I feel might be worth sharing with Huffington Post readers, so I am appending it below, with only small adjustments in the language. It begins with a quote from a book China specialists in particular will find it useful to know about (though it has things to offer World War II buffs as well):

The parallels between the nationalist ideology of [Chiang Kai-shek's] China's Destiny and contemporary CCP rhetoric are striking and more than superficial. Increasingly, the CCP has embraced China's past and encourages the Chinese people to embody traditional values, especially a respect for order. The party condemns the espousal of ideas that it deems foreign and not in accord with China's past and current reality, or at least not with the government's agenda.

Daniel D. Knorr, "Debating China's Destiny," in Joseph W. Esherick and Matthew T. Combs, eds., 1943: China at the Crossroads (Cornell University Press, 2015).

I want to respond here to David Cohen's short, querying comment as well as Kaiser Kuo's long and thoughtful rejoinder to my comparison of Xi and Chiang. I thought it useful, though, to begin with those sentences from 1943: China at the Crossroads as a way of acknowledging that I am by no means the only specialist in Chinese studies who has been struck by the value of seeking parallels to post-Mao texts, events, and personalities in the pre-Mao era of Nationalist Party rule (1927-1949). Well before Knorr wrote the book chapter quoted from above, which ends with reflections on the similarities between the discourse associated with the "China Dream," Xi Jinping's most famous slogan, and the rhetoric of China's Destiny, Chiang Kai-shek's most famous book, scholars ranging from Geremie Barmé to Rana Mitter had drawn attention to other kinds of echoes of Nationalist times in the very different China of Deng Xiaoping and his successors.

I accept most of Cohen and Kuo's points relating to specific contrasts between the two leaders and another point, Kuo, brought up, which is the importance of syncretic traditions throughout Chinese history. Those are among the reasons the analogy need to be seen as an "imperfect" one. Why, then, do I still insist that, despite its flaws, the Xi-Chiang parallel is worth pondering? One reason is that is shakes up problematic assumptions, which is what is often best about imperfect analogies. It has become routine within Chinese studies circles to note continuities across the 1949 divide and to stress, in particular, the similarities as well as differences between the Nationalists and the Communists as ruling parties, but this is not always routine within general interest discussions of China. Thanks partly to the lingering hold of Cold War mindsets and a kind of changeless China Orientalism, there is still often a tendency among those with only a passing interest in Chinese events to assume that the best place to look for precursors for post-Mao developments is either in the Mao years (1949-1976) or back before the 1911 Revolution, that is, in the imperial era.

It seems natural somehow for headline writers to ask if Xi is a new Mao (not a new Generalissimo) and for magazine cover creators to show him clothed in Qing Dynasty robes (not clothing that suggests the Nationalist era), in both cases skipping over the time when a Leninist Party other than the Communist one led by Mao held power. The Nationalist years also get overlooked when Xi's wife Peng Liyuan is described as "China's First First Lady," since there was the least partial precedent of Chiang's wife, Song Meiling. Paul Cohen wrote an important piece back in the late 1980s about the value of thinking of many Chinese leaders, from late Qing to warlord to Nationalist to post-Mao times, as fitting into an ideologically eclectic authoritarian modernizer mold into which Xi could certainly be put, but I don't think this has made the jump to broadly understood conventional wisdom, that is, becoming the the sort of notion with which even general readers, as opposed to China specialists, are readily familiar.

My interest in Nationalist era analogies for recent Chinese events, as well as a sense that parallels to that period can get skipped over too easily, long predates Xi's ascension to power. Specifically, it goes back at least as far as the spring of 1989. In early April of that year, I filed a dissertation on the history of Chinese student activism, and then soon after began watching with first excitement and then eventual dismay the Tiananmen struggle. I was struck, during the weeks before the June 4th Massacre, as I followed the protests and then repression long distance, by how often things were said and done that reminded me strongly of the events I had dealt with in the last main chapter of my thesis: the protests of the Civil War era (1945-1949). Then, too, for example, activists had been furious about the corruption of a ruling party that seemed to have lost touch with its professed ideals.

When history was brought into the discussion of the 1989 protests, however, the tendency was often to bring in other periods instead. The students emphasized legitimating parallels to 1919, for instance, and some wall posters likened Deng Xiaoping to an out of touch Empress Dowager. The government stressed delegitimizing parallels associated with the Red Guards of the 1960s, and some journalists looked back only as far as the Democracy Wall Movement of the early post-Mao era. I knew there was much that was problematic about the Civil War era comparison, but thought there was something to gain by paying attention to it as well as those other times -- and not just because some leaders of the Communist Party in 1989 had been student activists in the 1940s, the decade during which, I am pretty sure, incidentally, the term "democracy wall" was first used, as a term for places where placards calling on the Nationalists, rather than the Communists, to liberalize their political system were placed.

Two other times, pre-Xi, when I thought about Nationalist era parallels were when Jiang Zemin and company launched a patriotic education drive in the 1990s, and when Hu Jintao and company moved to rehabilitate China's best known classical philosopher the following decade. The Nationalists in the 1930s had put a great deal of emphasis on "national humiliation" in the official school curriculum, and Chiang Kai-shek had made Confucian values central to his New Life Campaign.

What then has Xi done? He has doubled down on patriotic education and on the Confucian revival. In addition, whereas Jiang and Hu governed as the first among equals in a collective leadership group, Xi has been more firmly in control and the subject of personality cult-style adulation -- something that has Mao era but also Nationalist period antecedents. Another contrast between Xi and his immediate predecessors, whose speeches were not brought together into intensely promoted books until after they had retired, is that his writings are being elevated to the level of sacred texts while he is still in power. There is an important precedent for Xi's increasingly omnipresent books within Communist Party history, of course, in the form of Mao's publications. We need to go back to further, though, to find texts like them that combined appeals to revolutionary and Confucian traditions -- texts such as Chiang's China's Destiny.