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The challenge from China

What are the superpower’s plans for the future?

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February 12, 2021

In his address to the nation last month, Xi Jinping, after praising his country’s pandemic efforts, drew attention to the upcoming centenary in July of the founding of the Chinese Communist Party. But his purpose wasn’t to look back into the past. It was to signal his plans for the future, namely for the Party to still be in charge for the next big centenary in its diary — the founding of the People’s Republic of China itself in 2049.

Still, at 100 years old, the Communist Party will have much to celebrate: after 30 disastrous years under Mao, Deng Xiaoping’s opening to foreign investment and global markets laid the ground for decades of growth and made possible Xi’s vision of China’s “great rejuvenation”.

Yet it is interesting to speculate what the twelve delegates, among them the young Mao Zedong, who met a century ago in Shanghai to found the CCP would make of today’s China. With the country’s New Year celebrations starting today, Mao, we can be fairly certain, would not be amused: he spent the last two decades of his life trying to prevent Deng Xiaoping from coming to power, accusing him, not unreasonably as it turned out, of wanting to “take the capitalist road”. But what of the other revolutionaries, men for whom Confucius was the despised symbol of everything that was wrong with traditional, imperial China, who dreamed of a society in which class divisions had ceased to exist and who proposed “liberation” and independence for Xinjiang, Tibet and Mongolia?

They would be pleased, no doubt, that China was stronger and wealthier, and that the era of western colonialism was over. But what would they make of the country’s wealth distribution, which a century later is among the most unequal in the world? Or that the current Communist Party leadership, while proclaiming “socialism with Chinese characteristics”, also promotes Confucius and invokes the glories of its imperial history as a source of its own legitimacy?

In another speech last December, this one to celebrate 40 years since the beginning of Deng Xiaoping’s reforms, Xi repeated the most common, and questionable, claim about that history. “To promote reform and development in China — a large country with a more than 5,000-year history of civilisation and more than 1.3bn people — there is no textbook that can be regarded as a golden rule, and there is no great master who can dictate to the Chinese people,” he said.

His appeal to China’s uniquely ancient calling card is one frequently repeated by visiting foreign dignitaries and business leaders — some, perhaps, because they know no better, others because they understand that making money in China is easier with a smile from above. It is also at the core of Chinese exceptionalism promoted by Xi and all who seek to please him: we are the world’s oldest continuing civilisation and that will never change.

From there it is an easy step to say that these unique characteristics allow the country to make its own rules, and to question them is a hostile act. No so-called “universal principles”  — let alone human rights —  can get in the way of that story. How could they, given China’s serene and unbroken accumulation of wisdom over more than five millennia?

These claims are, of course, historical nonsense. The China of today bears little resemblance to that of the past. Put to one side the fact that the Great Wall, commonly thought of as a defensive fortification against invasion by the intermittently dangerous steppe peoples, is puzzlingly located today in the middle of the map of China. A glance at any historical atlas reveals that the Ming Dynasty borders (1388-1644) enclosed a country that was half the size of its current “immutable” version. Turning the pages further back reveals a pattern of continually shifting boundaries and frequent divisions.

So why does the Chinese Communist Party insist upon its alternative history so strenuously? The answer, I suspect, lies in the fracture of the country’s imperial model in the early 20th century, as well as the new ideas, such as Marxism, that took hold among intellectuals and revolutionaries as they struggled to imagine a different polity. In their attempt to define post-imperial China, these revolutionaries had to grapple with the question of what, in the absence of an emperor to whom all loyalties could be directed, was the big idea that would hold this huge and diverse former empire together.

Reformers were calling for science and democracy, but first there had to be a clear idea of what China was, what it would be called and — given the vast diversity of languages, loyalties and cultures — what common appeal could be offered to people who identified with their province but lacked the sense of China as a nation state.

In the end, they looked less to history for their answers than to western writings on race, eugenics and social Darwinism. The outcomes were not always pretty, and strong racial influences still underscore the way the state defines China and who belongs there. Some drew lines around peoples who did not share their language or culture, and claimed both them and the territory of the collapsed Manchu empire as innately “Chinese ” on spurious genetic grounds.

Yet all this was far from a given. After all, it was Sun Yatsen, the country’s first president, who said: “The Kuomintang (Nationalist Party)… recognises the right of self-determination of all national minorities in China and it will organise a free and united Chinese republic.” And the Communist Party went further, first calling for a federated republic, then, in Article 14 of its first constitution in 1931, stating that the national minorities of China — from the Mongolians to the Tibetans — had the “right to complete separation from China and to the formation of an independent state of each national minority.” It continued: “They may either join the Union of Chinese Soviets or secede from it and form their own state as they may prefer.”

That promise did not last. Today, the party insists that all those territories that could have been independent under the terms of the 1931 constitution have “always” been part of China. In fact, it claims, these regions had only been granted a highly qualified “autonomy” that promised cultural and language rights and a nominally autonomous government. The Party was always in command.

And this message was particularly important following the death of Mao Zedong and, later, the crushing of the student-led occupation of Tiananmen Square in 1989. A new national story was needed and history was pressed into service. Instead of a socialist paradise tomorrow, the party offered the memory of a past greatness cruelly stolen by rapacious foreigners. Only the party, they said, could prevent that from happening again. That story, coupled with rising living standards, more or less held the line until 2012, when Xi became President.

Today, however, living standards are rising less rapidly and that national story again needs a refresh. Xi Jinping’s revision, accompanied by a re-centralisation of power in the party and himself, is that western democracies are decadent and that China’s model — drawn from Marx, yes, but resting on those accumulated 5000 years of wisdom — will emerge triumphant.

In this new narrative, the essential requirement of belonging in the rejuvenated China is to love the Party; a 21st-century version of the imperial idea that allowed barbarians to consider themselves “hua” — civilised — if they embraced the superior culture. In today’s version, however, loyalty is the most important factor. In China’s new national story, assimilation is the only option.