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What Xi can learn from Tsar Nicholas China's stability is just an illusion

The lessons for China could not be clearer.(HECTOR RETAMAL/AFP via Getty Images)

The lessons for China could not be clearer.(HECTOR RETAMAL/AFP via Getty Images)


May 30, 2023   6 mins

As Europe was rocked by uprisings and revolutions during the 1830s and 1840s, one nation remained unaffected, secure in the grip of its authoritarian ruler. Russia’s Tsar Nicholas I watched while groups as disparate as English Chartists and Polish nobility protested and rose against monarchy, culminating in the Revolutions of 1848. As political upheaval set Europe alight, the Russian Empire seemed impermeable to the virus of reform, a society frozen in time, unchanging, eternal, and ultimately becoming the bulwark of ideological reaction.

All this was due to Nicholas, who came to the throne in 1825 with the potential of turning into an enlightened ruler, supposedly being opposed to the serfdom of the Russian peasant. As Adam Ulam notes in his magisterial book The Bolsheviks, however, the aristocratic Decembrist revolt that welcomed Nicholas’s accession forever stamped a suspicious mindset on the autocrat.

For the next 30 years, until his death in 1855, Nicholas created the prototype of the modern police state. The infamous Third Section, the forerunner of secret police throughout the modern world, penetrated all levels of society. Nearly a quarter-century after the Decembrist revolt, Nicholas’s police crushed the reformist Petrashevsky Circle, comprised of lower officials and small landowners, including Fyodor Dostoevsky, cruelly waiting until the very last minute to commute the decreed death sentences to Siberian exile.

On the surface, Nicholas’s domination of Russian society seemed complete. Yet his iron grip had two fatal results. First, in the words of Ulam, “the stability and the power of the regime were bought at the price of neglecting the needed reforms and of leaving the Russian Empire incomparably farther behind Western Europe” at Nicholas’s death in 1825. As tragically demonstrated in the 1854-56 Crimean War, and then more devastatingly in the Great War that erupted in 1914, Russia could no longer match the national power of the Western capitalist-industrialist nations.

Second, Ulam concludes that Nicholas’s complete control over Russian society taught its intellectuals and elites the “dangerous lesson that everything in the last resort is dependent on politics”. Unwittingly, the autocracy itself prepared the ground for professional revolutionary parties and the socialism that ultimately overthrew the Romanovs.

Much like Russia nearly two centuries ago, the People’s Republic of China today seems impervious to reform or liberalism, riding waves of global upheaval such as the 2008 financial crisis and even Covid with little long-term threat to the ruling Chinese Communist Party. Indeed, over the past decade, hesitant reforms have been reversed and political oppression has increased, thanks to the increasingly personalised rule of Xi Jinping.

Could Xi become a modern-day Nicholas I? Since rising to the position of general secretary of the CCP in 2013, Xi has exerted increasing control over Chinese society while buttressing his own power. Most notably, he has ended the tradition of Chinese leaders stepping down after two terms and has successfully named his own allies to the latest line-up of the CCP Politburo’s Standing Committee. He has dominated the CCP through anti-corruption campaigns, revitalised Marxist-Leninist ideological indoctrination, and inserted Party cells into every group in the economy and civil society. Many, such as former Central Party School professor Cai Xia, argue that Xi has fostered a cult of personality second only to Mao’s.

On the face of it, Xi’s policy has been successful. China appears stable, its society politically docile. Xi’s campaign against liberal values has steadily permeated the country, accompanied by exhortations to recover the virtues of Confucianism and its social hierarchy. Various economic sectors have been reined in as reform plans have petered out, and Xi’s campaigns against powerful tech executives such as Jack Ma or high-flying lenders have registered nary a peep of protest from their targets.

As riots and unrest sweep through America, France, the Netherlands, and other countries, China sits seemingly serene. Beijing continues to suppress Xinjiang and Tibet, and crush Hong Kong democracy, but little domestic outrage has resulted. There was indeed significant protest against Xi’s draconian “Zero Covid” policies, but there were no further outbursts once Xi relaxed the most onerous restrictions, and certainly little that seemed to threaten his personal control and that of the CCP. If anything, Xi’s triumphant coronation at last autumn’s 20th Party Congress seemed to show his complete mastery over China.

Here, perhaps, is where Xi, the Party, and the world should be wary. Nicholas I, too, seemed invulnerable, having swiftly disposed of potential threats and built barricades against the viruses of liberalism and reform. Xi is by all accounts increasingly living in an echo chamber, surrounded by toadies, and unhampered by any need to share either decision-making or power. So far, he has avoided making any catastrophic errors, such as Nicholas’s attempts to defeat the Ottoman Empire, which led to the disastrous Crimean War against Britain and France. Yet fears of a conflict over Taiwan have reached unprecedented heights.

Unlike Nicholas, of course, Xi has focused on building up national power, especially military might and advanced technology. One might think, then, that China will avoid the first fatal flaw of Nicholas’s repressive policy — the material weakening of the country. Despite increasing trade with the US even after Covid, however, China’s macroeconomic picture continues to darken, and it is unclear just how much growth is actually occurring. Similarly, despite years of investing billions in semiconductor development, to take one example, China remains at least a half-decade behind America, a gap that seems remarkably stable. Similar questions dog other aspects of China’s technological growth, despite the hype of Chinese research into machine learning and artificial intelligence.

The once-vaunted Belt and Road Initiative, which supposedly invested $1 trillion in infrastructure and trade around Eurasia, has been plagued by corruption, shoddy construction, and wasted investment. By some measures, Chinese personal wealth is decreasing, and the elites remain desperate to offshore both their money and children. As for the Chinese military, until it is tested in combat, there simply is no way to know if all the shiny hardware and advanced weapons will either work or be operated by a well-trained, disciplined, and capable human force. It is entirely possible, perhaps even likely, that we have already seen China peak, and that in another decade or two, its relative strength will seem much less than today. Thus, a major mistake, such as a move on Taiwan, could turn out to be Xi’s equivalent of Nicholas’s Ottoman war: the beginning of an unravelling of the very system he is trying to maintain.

That then leaves Nicholas’s second fatal flaw: the politicisation of all aspects of life and the inadvertent sowing of the seeds of destruction of tsarist autocracy. In the PRC, of course, almost everything has been political since 1949, and Xi is simply further enhancing the state’s power and reasserting control over areas of consumerism and civil society that emerged in the Nineties and 2000s. Yet in doing so he is running against the imperfect spheres of freedom that middle-class and elite Chinese appear to have taken for granted over the past generation. What we can tell from online discussion indicates widespread dissatisfaction with the Party’s reassertion of control; combined with the exposure of endemic corruption among Party nobility such as former premier Wen Jibao, public anger at the hypocrisy and unfair advantages of the Chinese elite roils beneath the surface. Xi’s attempts to smother such anger risks driving it deeper underground but not extinguishing it. While China’s democratic dissidents such as Wei Jingsheng are safely out of the country, the long-term effects of Xi’s repression could possibly engender a new generation of reformists or those opposed to Party control.

The question, of course, is what would replace a Party overthrown in response to Xi’s repressive excesses and weakening of China. In the case of Russia, tsarist autocracy was eventually replaced by the far worse evil of communist totalitarianism. It is hard to see anything worse replacing the system perfected by Stalin and Mao, but few could have predicted the ravaged 20th century. What prevents such an outcome is the current lack of ideological alternative to autocracy (whether socialist or not) and democratic liberalism. There is no nascent movement or ideology on the horizon comparable to the socialism of the mid-19th century that entranced intellectuals and workers.

So, there is at least the chance that a post-Xi, post-Party China would not become more repressive and totalitarian, but less so. Democracy has been having a hard run of it lately around the globe and is far from attracting new acolytes, but in the condition of complete political and even social breakdown, the pull of self-determination would be a powerful one. By attempting to crush all heterodox thought, Xi Jinping may in fact help to ensure its survival. At least, we in the West can so hope.

Another possibility is an internal political oscillation from repression to comparative moderation, as happened when Khrushchev succeeded Stalin and Deng Xiaoping followed Mao. Xi could be succeeded by someone who relaxes some of his restrictions without in any way loosening the CCP’s grip. But there are risks in such an approach as well. In Russia, the autocrat Nicholas I was succeeded by the “Tsar Liberator” Alexander II, who freed the serfs only to fall victim to the terrorists of the “People’s Will” socialist revolutionary group. This in turn led to the reassertion of autocratic control under Alexander III and Nicholas II, and the final confrontation with revolutionary movements.

However, for now, there seems little threat to the CCP. Despite its corruption and inefficiencies, the Party continues to rule largely unopposed — watchful and often vengeful, but not fearing for its immediate future. Such was the tsarist system of Nicholas I. His success in staving off change helped ensure cataclysmic transformation just over a half-century after his death. The lessons for Xi Jinping could not be clearer.


Michael Auslin is an historian at Stanford’s Hoover Institution and author of Asia’s New Geopolitics.


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Peter B
Peter B
11 months ago

I came across this quote by Borges the other day – “dictatorships breed idiocy”:
“One of the most vocal critics of Peronism was the Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges. After PerĂłn ascended to the presidency in 1946, Borges spoke before the Argentine Society of Writers (SADE) by saying:
  Dictatorships breed oppression, dictatorships breed servility, dictatorships breed cruelty; more loathsome still is the fact that they breed idiocy. Bellboys babbling orders, portraits of caudillos, prearranged cheers or insults, walls covered with names, unanimous ceremonies, mere discipline usurping the place of clear thinking […] Fighting these sad monotonies is one of the duties of a writer. Need I remind readers of MartĂ­n Fierro or Don Segundo that individualism is an old Argentine virtue.”
They all self-destruct in the end. Simply a question of how long it takes. Xi Jinping will be no different.

Charles Stanhope
Charles Stanhope
11 months ago
Reply to  Peter B

“dictatorships breed idiocy”:

So rather unfortunately does Parliamentary Democracy as we have witnessed now for many a year!

Perhaps we might learn from the land of William Tell?

Peter B
Peter B
11 months ago

But our system has a working feedback loop. Correcting the idiocies is never as fast as we’d like, but it’s far, far quicker and less painful. Our key advantage is the shorter time constant (apologies for the engineering speak). That also means we never go quite as far off beam as the Russians and Chinese.

Charles Stanhope
Charles Stanhope
11 months ago
Reply to  Peter B

Trial & Error I suppose you might say.
1649 & 1688 were good examples.

laurence scaduto
laurence scaduto
11 months ago
Reply to  Peter B

Our idiots have nicer shoes and better suits!

Charles Stanhope
Charles Stanhope
11 months ago
Reply to  Peter B

Trial & Error I suppose you might say.
1649 & 1688 were good examples.

laurence scaduto
laurence scaduto
11 months ago
Reply to  Peter B

Our idiots have nicer shoes and better suits!

Peter B
Peter B
11 months ago

But our system has a working feedback loop. Correcting the idiocies is never as fast as we’d like, but it’s far, far quicker and less painful. Our key advantage is the shorter time constant (apologies for the engineering speak). That also means we never go quite as far off beam as the Russians and Chinese.

Charles Stanhope
Charles Stanhope
11 months ago
Reply to  Peter B

“dictatorships breed idiocy”:

So rather unfortunately does Parliamentary Democracy as we have witnessed now for many a year!

Perhaps we might learn from the land of William Tell?

Peter B
Peter B
11 months ago

I came across this quote by Borges the other day – “dictatorships breed idiocy”:
“One of the most vocal critics of Peronism was the Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges. After PerĂłn ascended to the presidency in 1946, Borges spoke before the Argentine Society of Writers (SADE) by saying:
  Dictatorships breed oppression, dictatorships breed servility, dictatorships breed cruelty; more loathsome still is the fact that they breed idiocy. Bellboys babbling orders, portraits of caudillos, prearranged cheers or insults, walls covered with names, unanimous ceremonies, mere discipline usurping the place of clear thinking […] Fighting these sad monotonies is one of the duties of a writer. Need I remind readers of MartĂ­n Fierro or Don Segundo that individualism is an old Argentine virtue.”
They all self-destruct in the end. Simply a question of how long it takes. Xi Jinping will be no different.

Dumetrius
Dumetrius
11 months ago

So the lesson for Xinnie the Ping is that things will go a bit wobbly fifty years after he’s cremated, or embalmed for display?

Dumetrius
Dumetrius
11 months ago

So the lesson for Xinnie the Ping is that things will go a bit wobbly fifty years after he’s cremated, or embalmed for display?

Lisa I
Lisa I
11 months ago

People in many countries couldn’t care less about democracy once their living standards don’t decline too much. Look at the Arab spring countries and Russia for example. Most people there weren’t impressed with democracy and turned back to authoritarianism. They want stability. Different strokes for different folks. Western values aren’t universal.

I’m by no means advocating authoritarianism but I don’t understand why some governments want to export liberal democracy. Differences in cultures makes the world a more interesting place. What’s the point in the rest of the world being clones of the US and western Europe.

Last edited 11 months ago by Lisa I
David Harris
David Harris
11 months ago
Reply to  Lisa I

” I don’t understand why some governments want to export liberal democracy.”
Because democracies rarely go to war against each other, whereas dictatorships always try to extinguish them.

David Harris
David Harris
11 months ago
Reply to  Lisa I

” I don’t understand why some governments want to export liberal democracy.”
Because democracies rarely go to war against each other, whereas dictatorships always try to extinguish them.

Lisa I
Lisa I
11 months ago

People in many countries couldn’t care less about democracy once their living standards don’t decline too much. Look at the Arab spring countries and Russia for example. Most people there weren’t impressed with democracy and turned back to authoritarianism. They want stability. Different strokes for different folks. Western values aren’t universal.

I’m by no means advocating authoritarianism but I don’t understand why some governments want to export liberal democracy. Differences in cultures makes the world a more interesting place. What’s the point in the rest of the world being clones of the US and western Europe.

Last edited 11 months ago by Lisa I
Martin Johnson
Martin Johnson
11 months ago

This is a very tortured argument. It took a lot more to bring down the Tsarist regime in 1917 than Nicholas I creating a more repressive regime 90 years before.
btw, the prototype police state was not Russia under Nicholas I, but France under Napoleon and his chief of police, Fouche. Not essential to your argument, but getting the basics wrong does not help your credibility.

Charles Stanhope
Charles Stanhope
11 months ago
Reply to  Martin Johnson

‘They’ were repeatedly thrashed on the field of battle by Max Hoffman & Co, nothing more need be said.

Charles Stanhope
Charles Stanhope
11 months ago
Reply to  Martin Johnson

‘They’ were repeatedly thrashed on the field of battle by Max Hoffman & Co, nothing more need be said.

Martin Johnson
Martin Johnson
11 months ago

This is a very tortured argument. It took a lot more to bring down the Tsarist regime in 1917 than Nicholas I creating a more repressive regime 90 years before.
btw, the prototype police state was not Russia under Nicholas I, but France under Napoleon and his chief of police, Fouche. Not essential to your argument, but getting the basics wrong does not help your credibility.

Charles Stanhope
Charles Stanhope
11 months ago

“War is the father of all things”*

It took the Imperial German Army about 960 days to destroy Tsar Nicholas II and his Russians hordes during the Great War.**

I daresay the US Navy will be able to improve on that.

(*Heraclitus.)
(** 1st August 1914- 15th March 1917.)

Steve Murray
Steve Murray
11 months ago

Heraclitus had a point, which was lost on Saddam Hussein who forecast the “mother of all battles”. That worked out well…

Last edited 11 months ago by Steve Murray
Charles Stanhope
Charles Stanhope
11 months ago
Reply to  Steve Murray

A most ridiculous piece of bombast not heard since the days of Mussolini, yet our lickspittle Press lapped it up.

Anyone with an iota of knowledge of Iraq would have predicted that ‘they’ would ‘run away’ in droves, as they surely did.

Last edited 11 months ago by Charles Stanhope
Andrew Fisher
Andrew Fisher
11 months ago

China isn’t Iraq however but has a far stronger national culture and cohesion.

And even in Iraq the Americans also managed to lose the strategic war, first by alienating almost all the major groups in Iraq excluding perhaps the Kurds, and actually strengthening the position of a major geopolitical adversary, Iran. Which takes quite some doing!

I’m pretty pro American by the way, certainly better than the Nazis or Communists!

Peter B
Peter B
11 months ago

Perhaps so. But so very few had the “iota of knowledge” about Iraq ! That’s my excuse anyway.

Charles Stanhope
Charles Stanhope
11 months ago
Reply to  Peter B

Sadly most people seem to unwittingly accept the modern mantra that all peoples are of equal ability in everything!
History has a rather different conclusion.

Charles Stanhope
Charles Stanhope
11 months ago
Reply to  Peter B

Sadly most people seem to unwittingly accept the modern mantra that all peoples are of equal ability in everything!
History has a rather different conclusion.

Andrew Fisher
Andrew Fisher
11 months ago

China isn’t Iraq however but has a far stronger national culture and cohesion.

And even in Iraq the Americans also managed to lose the strategic war, first by alienating almost all the major groups in Iraq excluding perhaps the Kurds, and actually strengthening the position of a major geopolitical adversary, Iran. Which takes quite some doing!

I’m pretty pro American by the way, certainly better than the Nazis or Communists!

Peter B
Peter B
11 months ago

Perhaps so. But so very few had the “iota of knowledge” about Iraq ! That’s my excuse anyway.

Charles Stanhope
Charles Stanhope
11 months ago
Reply to  Steve Murray

A most ridiculous piece of bombast not heard since the days of Mussolini, yet our lickspittle Press lapped it up.

Anyone with an iota of knowledge of Iraq would have predicted that ‘they’ would ‘run away’ in droves, as they surely did.

Last edited 11 months ago by Charles Stanhope
Steve Murray
Steve Murray
11 months ago

Heraclitus had a point, which was lost on Saddam Hussein who forecast the “mother of all battles”. That worked out well…

Last edited 11 months ago by Steve Murray
Charles Stanhope
Charles Stanhope
11 months ago

“War is the father of all things”*

It took the Imperial German Army about 960 days to destroy Tsar Nicholas II and his Russians hordes during the Great War.**

I daresay the US Navy will be able to improve on that.

(*Heraclitus.)
(** 1st August 1914- 15th March 1917.)

andrew harman
andrew harman
11 months ago

Factual error or typo in the article. Nicholas I died in 1855, not 1825.