Xi Jinping's Authoritarianism Does a Disservice to China's Nuanced Political Tradition

China's leaders assert a very conservative vision of Chinese culture and history, which is self-serving and does a gross disservice to the country's rich, multifaceted traditions. Western commentators must be more careful to bear this in mind.
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Chinese President Xi Jinping waits for the arrival of U.S. National Security Adviser Susan Rice for their meeting at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, China, Monday, July 25, 2016. (How Hwee Young/Pool Photo via AP)
Chinese President Xi Jinping waits for the arrival of U.S. National Security Adviser Susan Rice for their meeting at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, China, Monday, July 25, 2016. (How Hwee Young/Pool Photo via AP)

The People's Republic of China was created by a revolutionary upheaval spearheaded by Chinese Communist Party leader Mao Zedong. The 40th anniversary of his death is Sept. 9 and as it nears, Chinese President Xi Jinping expresses reverence for this radical founding figure, despite the horrendous human misery caused by some of the chairman's policies -- especially the famine-inducing Great Leap Forward.

Curiously though, Xi does this while also, like his immediate predecessors, asserting what can only be described as a very conservative vision of Chinese culture and China's past, which is both self-serving and does a gross disservice to the historical record. Beijing's current orthodoxy on history and culture, expressed in textbooks, the 2008 Olympics opening ceremony and Xi's speeches on a "Chinese dream" of "great rejuvenation," present today's leaders as natural inheritors and legitimate representatives of a unitary, millennia-long "tradition" of top-down, authoritarian, Confucian-based rule.

This is a clear break from Mao's time, when schoolchildren stomped on pictures of the ancient sage Confucius and efforts -- sometimes reaching ludicrous depths -- were made to root out all "feudal" traditions. It involves a wholehearted embrace of a particular sort of Confucianism, carried out to respond to the popular revival of traditional beliefs and practices, to divert attention from social and economic problems and to justify the political status quo by connecting it in dubious ways to a supposedly deep-rooted and everlasting sense of Chinese national identity.

Xi's conservative vision of Chinese culture and China's past is both self-serving and does a gross disservice to the historical record.

This approach to the deep past is selective and self-serving. The government makes little mention of what rulers owe to the people -- an idea crucial to some strains of Confucianism, while emphasizing how much the people owe to the state. Arguments that those within China must hew to "harmony" and other allegedly eternal Chinese values and are duty bound to reject pernicious "foreign" ideas are used to justify detentions, arrests, forced confessions and prosecutions on the mainland, as well as to exert pressure in Hong Kong. They undergird an ongoing crackdown against human rights organizations, lawyers, feminists, Christians, journalists and many others the government claims are defying the Party, and by extension harming the interests of China, which is defended via a familiar vocabulary. References are made to China's "continuous rule" by a singular autocratic government, stretching back into the mists of time, and to calls for liberalization being the work of domestic dupes and outside agents making trouble in a way that threatens a beloved homeland.

These arguments are nonsense from a historical perspective, for reasons spelled out in detail in many scholarly works, including the "Oxford Illustrated History of Modern China," a volume published last week to which we both contributed. Reductionist, misleading approaches to China's past are troubling when the Chinese government promotes them.

Also disturbing are Western writers who lend them more credibility than they deserve by depicting China's people as inheritors of a single set of values, rather than individuals shaped by and able to draw on many strands of indigenous and thoroughly indigenized beliefs and cultural forms. We have in mind commentaries on the Chinese political tradition by everyone from Henry Kissinger to Martin Jacques, the former editor of the British journal Marxism, to communitarian philosopher Daniel A. Bell, whose handling of China's past is more nuanced than the other two, yet who still falls into similarly simplifying traps. A recent and telling new example of the kind of approach we find so deeply problematic appeared on The WorldPost, in the form of Editor-in-Chief Nathan Gardels' Aug. 25 article "Why China Fears a 'Color Revolution' Incited by the West."

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A statue of former Chinese leader Mao Zedong in Wuhan, China, on Aug. 27. (Wang He/Getty)

One point Gardels makes with which we agree is that some Western criticism of China can come across as tone deaf and patronizing. But we see other things differently -- and we come to different conclusions on alternatives for addressing the problem of overly self-righteous efforts to push back against Chinese abuses of power.

First though, let's look at how he presents Xi's forceful anti-corruption campaign, in which hundreds of Party officials have been prosecuted. The drive has received popular support for addressing much-reviled official corruption and doubtless brought down some who deserved to be felled, but we, along with some other specialists, feel it has not dealt effectively with the lack of official accountability -- particularly through the justice system -- which needs attention to solve the systemic side of the problem. The anti-corruption campaign is also selective, especially in that those with ties to Xi have been protected and those with backgrounds similar to Xi himself (a "princeling," or descendent of a top-ranking official of the CCP, or Chinese Communist Party) are rarely, if ever, targeted. Gardels, on the other hand, sees it as a worthy endeavor "rooted in China's historical conception of the respective roles of the central state, society and the individual in governance that has sustained continuous rule for millennia."

The first glaring problem is the assertion that China has experienced "sustained continuous rule for millennia." There have been several periods of foreign rule and disunity in just the past millennium: the Mongol Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368); the Manchu Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) -- which recent scholarship suggests did not adapt Han Chinese practices wholesale as thoroughly as was once thought and Beijing still maintains; and the period of regional "warlordism" from 1917 to 1927. In addition, of course, there are the many groups who would contest that they have experienced "sustained rule" -- or should continue to experience it -- like Tibetans and Uighurs.

The notion that autocratic governance is China's only tradition and is naturally accepted by the people doesn't ring true.

More troubling than the official notion of a supposedly unified China, which just happens to correspond to the government's present-day territorial claims (something that Gardels, admittedly, does not directly endorse but that his talk of a "unitary state" tradition may inadvertently buttress), is the idea that there is one Chinese historical concept of the relationship between state, society and individual. The CCP has pushed the idea of an enduring and particularly "Chinese" notion of governance to link the contemporary political system to hallowed traditions via concepts such as "meritocratic" rule and respect for hierarchy. In the Republic of China (which existed on the mainland from 1911 to 1949), by contrast, many Chinese political thinkers sought to ground liberal democratic ideals and concepts of human rights in indigenous beliefs. Some pointed to the Chinese "well-field system," in which groups of farmers made collective decisions about land use as the basis of participatory democracy, even socialism. Others noted the village tradition of governance by "councils of elders" as examples of proto-democratic ideas. And still others found a basis for dissent in Mencius, a key Confucian figure who emphasized that while heaven legitimated rulers, it favored only those who "saw with the eyes and heard with the ears of the people."

To those steeped in the Chinese historical record, the notion that autocratic governance is the country's only tradition and is naturally accepted by the people just doesn't ring true. Consider the vibrant social movement of the late 1910s known as the "May Fourth movement," where urban youth demanded social reforms, including the right to choose their marriage partners, and promoted the idea that liberated youth should mobilize the masses. Many of them soon saw in the CCP, which was founded in 1921, a vehicle for doing the work of politically mobilizing China's downtrodden urban and rural poor. The May Fourth activists inspired both the Red Guards in the 1960s and the very different activists who called for less corruption and more participatory governance in the 1989 protests that roiled China.

Oddly, in embracing the fiction that there is only one Chinese political tradition -- or even a clearly dominant one -- today's CCP leaders are following directly in the footsteps of Nationalist Party leader Chiang Kai-shek, Mao's onetime archrival. Chiang, too, claimed to be protecting a revolutionary legacy -- in his case that of Sun Yat-sen -- while celebrating age-old virtues. He did this, as Xi does now, to justify a particular style of governance -- one that decries all opposition to one-party rule as illegitimate.

tibet monks china

Tibetan monks walk in fresh snow near Sershul in the Garze Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture of Sichuan province, China, on May 21. (Kevin Frayer/Getty)

Another problem is in how Gardels handles Chinese antagonism to "foreign influence," for here he is adopting what in China has become a code word for a particular strain of nationalism that the government has carefully stoked over the past two decades -- and for which there is indeed some popular support. We must be careful, and we fear Gardels is not, to guard against conflating Chinese nationalism with agreement with the government.

They aren't the same thing. Indeed, the government has shown an understandable leeriness toward allowing protestors who take to the street to express outrage at the actions of foreign governments from staying mobilized, lest they move on to say that a country they love deserves to be governed by better people. This has happened before -- during the May Fourth movement, when outrage at Japanese imperialism fused with disgust over autocratic warlord rule; and in a different way in 1989, when protesters focused on criticizing domestic power holders but also rallied around the intensely patriotic song "Children of the Dragon," with lyrics referring to all Chinese as descending from a common totemic ancestor.

The Chinese media regularly asserts that the government's tight reign on speech -- even sometimes for those proclaiming nationalist sentiments -- is a way of protecting its people from themselves. The notion that the Chinese people "are not ready" for democracy is a canard that keeps reappearing in new guises and gets support from Western writers who defend current political arrangements in China. Sun Yat-sen, the symbol of the 1911 revolution, argued that there needed to be "stages" in China's movement toward self-governance -- he believed that only when the people were educated and properly trained as citizens could they assume the responsibilities of governing themselves.

We must be careful to guard against conflating Chinese nationalism with agreement with the government.

This argument runs through recent advocacy for the benefits of the supposedly "meritocratic" governance system of the People's Republic of China -- only the best educated and informed should rule. If they do, rule is more efficient, rational and not prone to the occasional turmoil of democracies. American politics recently has done little to counter this argument. For its benefits -- including centralized decision-making that allowed Beijing to move rapidly towards widespread industrialization and to make progress on massive infrastructure projects -- it also results in the silencing of many, particularly those on the margins, those whose interests run afoul of government priorities or even official voices that run contrary to guiding notions.

In response to critics, the Chinese government has long made noise about slowly increasing participatory governance, and Gardels stresses these moves. These promises have become more important in the past decade -- China's educated middle class has grown dramatically, become more cosmopolitan, internet-savvy and well-traveled; and, as a result, increased its calls for more say in governance. There has been much attention (particularly in the West) to the idea that democratization of information, particularly via the Internet, would spur a growing autonomous civil society. Gardels stresses this idea, and we were ourselves once more hopeful about such prospects than we are today. Yet, at least since the 2008 Olympics, there have actually been few tangible increases in participatory governance, even as popular desire to have a say -- especially over local issues that affect people's daily lives, such as zoning and land management, industrial construction and local government corruption -- has grown.

In a similar vein, Gardels points to scholars who have used terms such as "inclusive hegemony" to suggest that the Chinese political system has been evolving into one in which the CCP retains its monopoly on formal power, but informal if not institutionalized checks on its behavior grow stronger over time. This parallels in some ways the restraints on imperial behavior by Chinese dynasties that sought a perception of popular as well as divinely given mandates to rule. This notion seems to us based on the idea that the public sphere is something to which those who govern must respond, and the tendency is for this sphere to expand and grow more robust over time, allowing for considerable pluralism.

The current government certainly does show interest in popular opinion, which it takes pains to monitor via polling and other methods, and in some cases, the authorities have responded to bottom-up concerns. But the clear trend line isn't running in this informally liberalizing direction. Instead, moves such as the introduction of ramped-up legislation on non-governmental organizations designed to check and rein in their activities and tightening controls on the press point in the opposite direction. Government actions over the past few years have given the impression that pluralism is waning, not increasing.

As valuable as it can be at times to place current Chinese political arrangements beside past ones, at least one part of the CCP's approach to governance brings to mind, in an ironic way, the rhetoric of a set of non-Chinese actors who are treated disparagingly in official discourse: Western and Japanese imperialists. When China's current rulers claim that the nation's people are not yet ready to govern themselves -- and that in the interim, they should just let the better prepared officials handle it for them -- we hear clear echoes of a past variety of reluctant paternalism: that of colonial authorities. The CCP's legitimacy has always rested in part on a narrative in which the party helped the Chinese people throw off the yoke of imperialism imposed on it in the mid-nineteenth century after the Opium Wars. In recent decades, nationalist education has emphasized China's history of "national humiliation" at the hands of imperial powers.

sun yatsen

A woman takes a selfie in front of a portrait of Sun Yat-sen at Tiananmen Square in Beijing on April 30, 2015. (AP Photo/Andy Wong)

But defenders of brutal forms of empire often argued in the 19th and early 20th centuries that they had the best interests of their subjects at heart and simply felt they were not yet fit to rule themselves. They needed the guidance of colonial authorities, chosen through meritocratic processes to prepare them for self-rule. The CCP's continued insistence on "meritocratic" governance and go-slow democratization can sound a lot like efforts by colonial authorities of waning empires to cling to power in the face of growing discontent. This is a comparison Xi and company would certainly reject. Yet the increasingly public nature of their recent coercive moves point to a government that may be feeling less in control, not more adept -- not quite fitting with the picture of leaders confident in their power and political vision that Gardels and others paint.

Perhaps we should be asking why the Chinese government is so afraid of China's diverse, nuanced "historical relationships" between the state and its people. Scholars and journalists within and beyond China's borders need to remind the government of a history it is determined to erase. One way that Western critics can avoid self-righteousness when expressing concern, even outrage, at CCP policies, rather than claiming or implying that China's leaders should do things more like they are done in the U.S., is pointing to ways (and there are many) that they are failing to live up to the best parts of China's own rich, multifaceted traditions.

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