The rise of China, Part II: the Party.

In part I, I discussed the general geo-political situation that we are moving towards in the coming decades, which is a world in which China will be the single most powerful country for a long time, constrained by a more diffuse West that is nevertheless wealthier and more populated, as well as large regional neighbours with little innate affinity for China. It seemed likely that China will become a regular member of the world community, interested in international cooperation where-ever possible. The one cloud on the horizon is its internal politics, which may yet drive it to war with neighbours over territory and civil unrest.

As a reaction to my first post, Richard Green here on Troppo expressed his fears that internal Party tension might lead to major foreign strife. I wholly agree and this essay is all about how the Party works and is unable to contain its internal strife.

Surely not though, I hear you object right at the outset when you hear of dire predictions. Would China really jeopardise a growing economy and its primary place in the world for the sake of internal politics?

This mindset, though understandable, is unfortunately wrong. China has known many instances of ambitious politicians completely wrecking the country in a fight with internal rivals. Politics in China is much more brutal than in a democracy and the mass mobilisation of the population for projects that are really not in China’s interest is all too normal in its history.

Mao Zedong’s Great Leap Forward, as well as the Cultural Revolution in the 1970s are perfect examples of this self-destructive behaviour. The Great Leap Forward was foremost about Mao’s attempt to get greater control over the Party and the country by means of mass mobilisation towards one of the figments of his imagination. It cost the country up to 30 million deaths and a major economic slide-back, but it worked for him politically. He was more firmly in charge afterwards than before, having side-lined his opponents.

The Cultural Revolution was started for the same reason: by factions within the Communist party trying to oust others. Hence young people were mobilised to harass, shame, and marginalise other party members. Whole cohorts of children of ‘losing’ party members were sent to the countryside for ‘re-education’. And there was not much other motive than internal politics.

Going back before the dominance of the Communist Party, China has seen civil wars on a scale almost unknown in the west (perhaps with the exception of the 30-year war). And in many cases, fault lines within the ruling elite were directly involved. The An Shi Rebellion in the 7th century, in which large parts of the population rose up against an extremely ineffective and atrophied imperial bureaucracy, led by ambitious elements that came from that very bureaucracy, is proportionally probably the most devastating single conflict the world has ever recorded. It is followed closely in devastation by the Chinese internal civil war in the 19th century, which itself involved around 20 million deaths but was followed by a famine that may have cost it up to 100 million people. That was the conflict that was the direct cause of the waves of Chinese migrants that then came to Australia, the US, and elsewhere (yes, you read it right: a hundred million). Interestingly, that conflict (The Taiping Rebellion) involved ambitious imperial bureaucrats and would-be bureaucrats (those who learned for the exams) joining a small nationalist Han-based rebellion.

So yes, Chinese history has known internal struggles involving factions within the bureaucracy having a devastating effect on China itself, as well as its neighbours. Internal politics in China matters for how it deals with its neighbours and is one of the big unknowns in the next 100 years.

To focus the mind on the present, let us talk about two important aspects of internal Chinese strife: conflicts within the bureaucracy and conflicts with capitalists. The former is certainly more important in the short run, but the latter is also on the horizon. In this essay I will only talk about the bureaucracy, and leave the capitalist issue for the next one.

To set the scene for an analysis, a quick primer on the bureaucracy and the Communist Party is useful. By necessity I will talk in broad terms so will gloss over a lot of detail.

The Chinese bureaucracy is ancient and has over the many centuries completely wiped out all other political opposition. As a matter of course, it has suppressed organised religions, overly wealthy individuals, separatist ideologies, sectarian identities, alternative ideologies, etc. Whilst countries in the rest of the world are full of competing loyalties, this struggle has long been won by a single entity in China: the imperial bureaucracy. It dominates everything. From how people marry, to the importance of education, to everyday manners and language. Hence a Westerner looking at China and expecting to see a civic society and independent business organisations will be sadly disappointed. Everything you see, the bureaucracy watches and controls.

Yet, the Chinese bureaucracy is huge, and it is controlled by an equally large Communist Party. Indeed, the bureaucracy and the Party are for most purposes one and the same. The Communist Party has around 80 million members and includes all the senior bureaucrats, nearly all the senior businessmen, and all the ambitious politicians. It has officials cells inside every business over 100 people.

Yet, apart from the goal of controlling everything outside the party, the Communist Party is not a united front with a single will. How could it be with more members than the entire population of Chile or of the UK ? There are thus factions that mainly run on regional lines – the Beijing faction, the Shanghai faction, provincial factions, etc. These factions vie for control by means of appointments to the politburo of the Communist Party, as well as all the top ministerial posts.

How do factions arise and sustain themselves? You should essentially see factions within the Communist Party as competing entrepreneurial unions of members. They are regionally based only because they make their money by means of local taxation. Hence their relative power is determined by how wealthy their region is and how much of that wealth they manage to tap into. Beijing matters less because it is wealthy itself, but more because it controls central taxation. Shanghai matters not because it has central taxation but because it is the biggest commercial center in the wealthiest region of China. This wealth is held by individual Party members as well as via their collective. Factions have richer sub-groups as well as poorer foot-soldiers. This wealth is mainly obtained by means of networking and family members who are businessmen, meaning that it is both derivative of political influence and instrumental in keeping that influence – it is a symbiotic relationship. In the long-run, the Party lives off the wealth created by business, but it is in the short and medium run the main conduit for easy economic success as well as its political patron.

It is in the internal battle of influence between and within the factions that foreign and domestic policy is decided upon. The main reason China is now growing so quickly is because local growth is the main vehicle for increased wealth of local Party members and increased influence of their regional faction. Outsiders who think it is due to some brilliant deliberate policy cooked up in the center overestimate what the center can do in China. In the last 30 years, the center mainly reacts to and approves regional initiatives, but does not pro-actively come up with much of anything. The last 15 years or so has seen the center trying to regain the power it gave up after Deng Xiaoping, but the regional factions have so far successfully resisted and many new laws coming from the center are ignored. This tugging between center and regions has a long ancestry in China. As the Chinese say, ‘The emperor is far away’.

What should one expect of these power struggles in the coming decades? Well, one should expect them to heat up. In the last 30 years or so the struggles have been deceptively peaceful as all factions have mainly focused on local growth so as to personally and collectively gain wealth and influence. As the growth spurt comes to an end in about 20 years or so, more combative fixed-pie politics will again resume if there are no internal reforms.

Is this danger not recognised within the Party and are there no moves to come to a more permanent conflict-resolution model?

Yes, the danger is well-recognised and fiercely debated within the Party. The obvious solution is for the Party to become an internal democracy – that is to have conflicts between individuals and factions resolved by means of democratic voting within the Party. Reducing conflicts is one the main points of democracy. Within this scenario, as more of the population is then let into the Party, the internal democratic politics of the Party effectively becomes the democratic politics of China.

This solution is acknowledged, mulled over, and even openly advocated by some of the old Party guard, but there is an important barrier. Whichever faction is temporarily more important has an obvious incentive not to dilute its own power by means of democratisation. It is always hence the group in charge that is the one group that doesn’t want to democratise the Party but have an appointment system based on current networks of influence and the current allocation of major posts. The current system of having relatively young leaders groomed to take over 5 years before they do, is just the latest in a long line of technocratic attempts for the most powerful factions to keep control and pretend this does not lead to increased internal tensions.

The usual historical solution to the issue of ‘democracy, yes, but not in my time’ is to have a very slow democratisation process that simultaneously buys out those currently in power. That is more or less what happened in Europe where the industrial/business elite bought out the kings and nobility of old.

However, the problem in China is that its internal politics is a winner-takes-all set-up. It does not have a mechanism to buy out those currently in power. There is no-one who can credibly make the deal and no-one who would enforce it later on. While in Europe, there was the option of guaranteeing power and influence to the kings and nobility via constitutions, property rights, and parliaments, there are no such mechanisms in China. They have all long been destroyed by the bureaucracy. Property rights only exist as networks of influence within the bureaucracy and the Party, and constitutions are worth nothing if not supported by current factions within the Party. So if you lose in China, you lose everything, quite possibly your life. This gives Party members a pretty strong incentive not to lose.

Hence the road to internal reforms must first of all create some notion of outside guarantees via which to be able to bribe the currently powerful into accepting slow internal conflict-resolution reforms. But those outside guarantees only work if the power if the Party would be lessened, which is something that would go against the interest of each individual faction and completely against the current political tide in China, where the Party is only appropriating more control, not losing it.

The Party is thus stuck in a chicken-and-egg problem where its total dominance leaves it without a third party to arbitrate internal problems. One might naively think that the remaining solution then is the road of very slow reforms, in which only regions and layers without much political power democratise and adopt other conflict-resolution institutions. As more of the rank-and-file of the Party experience democratic conflict resolution, the resistance to adopting it in places that do not yet matter would then reduce.

This is to some degree what is happening. At local levels (villages, small cities) there is increasing use of democratic principles to resolve conflicts between different Party members. There is a very gradual up-scaling of this.

Yet, this process is easily reversed and there are perfectly selfish reasons to do so. Regional power brokers can help their own sub-group by un-doing local democratic reforms and simply putting their friends in charge of villages and small towns. This too happens frequently.

Therefore, to be blunt, one should not expect internal Party democratisations to happen without real external pressure. It will need a strong within-China reason for the Party to accept continuing internal democratisation for its own internal dynamics do not lead to it.

Without an emerging within-China-reason, what would this mean for the rest of the world? Well, you should then expect real trouble. For as soon as the easier growth pickings run out, local factions and entrepreneurs will start looking for foreign conflicts to increase their internal standing. We can already see a bit of this in the current conflicts with Japan over some puny islands: the factions in charge can’t be seen to back down.

But I do in fact believe that internal China-pressure will occur in the form of the emerging capitalist class, despite the fact that the capitalists there are nearly all Party members and the Party now has cells inside every major business. That is a topic for the final essay.


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26 Responses to The rise of China, Part II: the Party.

  1. conrad says:

    Paul, one thing I think you are ignoring is that the communist party itself may fall — sure it may have great power over things and many members (Falun Gong is rumoured to have a similar number incidentally, most of whom probably actually believe in it versus are just members to try and take advantage of the cronyism), but its power is already fracturing all over the place thanks to modern technology and it seems almost inevitable that it will need to change to accomodate this. This is already happening — you can see politicians pretending to care about things like earthquakes etc. now. The other problem it has is that most overseas Chinese (many of whom are rather rich and hence have some power) don’t think too highly of it, and I imagine nor do hundreds of millions of CHinese oppressed by it. An alterantive is that it would have to to reinvent itself entirely, even without internal bickering. It seems to me that even those in the communist party must have accepted this once they allowed modernisation and especially the internet and other things they essentially cannot stop, no matter how hard they try.

  2. Beeph says:

    Defying Western and Marxist expectations: traditional relationships, obligations and loyalties have survived despite events, slogans and circumstances since 1949. I caveat this observation with an acknowledgement China did not move into a model of Communism in the way Marx’ model envisaged i.e. skipped capitalism and progressed directly from a feudal like organisation, now associated with the Mao model.
    Could any form of ‘internal party democratisation’ replace these complex power relations which have remained deeply rooted in society despite Communism’ or are the next leaders born under the ‘one child policy’ freed up of uncles and siblings, competing with each other, better placed to an individualistic mantra?
    I wonder whose political history has transitioned into democracy where power relations dominate the glasses through which you view the world in a more far reaching way than any class or caste consciousness.

  3. Beeph says:

    Haven’t read Part 1 sorry for any rehash.

  4. Tel says:

    The main reason China is now growing so quickly is because local growth is the main vehicle for increased wealth of local Party members and increased influence of their regional faction.

    The real reason is because huge amounts of Western technology has been re-deployed resulting is massive efficiency gains. Of course, this process is coming to a conclusion, because there’s not much Western technology remaining that is unique to the West any more.

    The thesis of “Guns Germs and Steel” is that China’s well-connected geography made it susceptible to a central power dominating all aspects of life. On the other hand, for all of recorded history it has been impossible to create a united Europe under a central power, because the geography simply didn’t allow such a thing. However, with modern communications and transport, geography is no longer an obstacle so (at least in theory) the whole world should eventually end up like China under some sort of imperial rule.

    Admittedly, there are those who believe we have a choice in this… and technology changes the ground rules in multiple dimensions simultaneously. We have a better idea of what’s coming than our ancestors did, and perhaps a bit more opportunity to plan.

  5. RT Green says:

    Also I’m keen for Part 3. This same friend thought that the Party had successfully co-opted educated and wealthy classes, so it’d be interesting to see how this might come undone.

  6. Richard Tsukamasa Green says:

    The first time I wrote this I couldn’t log in and it was sent to the spam folder. Fortunately I can rescue it and put it here. It goes before the comment above.

    I had similar thoughts.

    Something I think is important about democracy (internal or other wise) isn’t just the legitimacy, nor the dispute resolution functions, but the capacity to cover information. There’s an idiom, ????? – the mountains are tall, and the emperor is far away – that captures the traditional idea of the relative importance of local government and central power. For huge amounts of history, the imperial court had little way of knowing what their subordinates were actually doing, which could mean resentment could brew in the provinces unchecked and bring an unforeseen rebellion. The Ming Dynasty used a network of eunuchs to spy on the officials to bring back information, but this just fed into resentment inside the bureacracy that fed into intra state conflict. The Party faces similar problems with it’s internal security apparatus which was set up for the same problem.
    I am surprised you didn’t mention the Bo Xilai affair. To outsiders, and probably to most party members, it’s impossible to work out whether his ouster was a case of rampant corruption discovered only after it had turned to murder, or whether it’s a use of the party mechanisms for naked political warfare against a rival faction. Neither possibility is a happy one. The apparatus designed to protect the part from itself may destroy it.

    I think this is why the Party has a strange love/hate relationship with social media. Weibo is adept at exposing the party’s dirty laundry to the party itself as much as the public. They like learning of corruption through it, they just don’t like anyone else learning it. I enjoy reading the Ministry of Tofu for this reason.

    The inability of the party to know what it is doing can be hilarious. Last night I was discussing with a Chinese friend [fn1] the practice of maintaining professional students at foreign universities to spy on Chinese students and keep control of “Chinese Student Associations”. When I was in uni one of these aspiring apparatchiks attempted to shut down a calligraphy class being run by my Mandarin lecturer, on the grounds that it was not a sanctioned event (as apparently all Chinese related things had to be). Strangely, all the materials were delivered by hand from high officials in the Sydney consulate who had driven up the F3 solely for this purpose.

    I’m retreading ground from this old post here.

    [fn1] This was a conversation where, due to language limitations, I had to explain what I meant by the English word “eunuch” with hand gestures, but also could bring up Xunzi, Fukuzawa Yukichi and Nietzsche in conversation without explaining any of them.

  7. Alan says:

    The ‘Han-languages’ is a classification that does not appear in any of the standard references. The Chinese languages are actually remarkably diverse. Mandarin is dominant because of government policy, but much of the diaspora speaks ether Hakka or Cantonese, which are mutually unintelligible with Mandarin. Moreover even Mandarin itself is divided into a number of dialects, some of which really would be classified as independent languages but for pressure from the Chinese government and the army and navy rule. Within China itself many Han groups speak a dialect as the first language and Mandarin is used only for communication with outsiders and the government. There was even a brief period when the CCP tried to classify non-Chinese languages like Mongol and Tibetan as Chinese dialects.

    The Chinese script is is also divided between the Traditional Chinese of Taiwan, the diaspora and some of the intelligentsia and the Simplified Chinese imposed by the CCP. Mao, for instance, while insisting everyone else write simplified characters continued to compose poems in traditional characters. Someone educated in simplified script has difficulty reading traditional characters and in particular from reading literature published before their adoption. Countries in China’s historical community like Japan and Korea also continue to write and read traditional characters rather than simplified.

    Since 1800 China has repeatedly collapsed into warring regional units during the Taiping period and the period between the Xinhai Revolution and 1949. The Taiping rebellion was eventually suppressed, but at the cost of conceding very high autonomy to semi-independent viceroys and generals. Even now, the CCP is increasingly dominated by provincial leaders in a way reminiscent of the rise of semi-independent provinces during the last 60 years of the Qing.

    It is really hard to take an article seriously when it relies on statements about the ‘Han-languages’ that simply do not correspond with reality. Equally it is hard to accept the claims for internal cohesion when they contrast so violently with the actual historical record since 1800.

  8. Paul Frijters says:


    sure, technology transfer was in the mix and I was only talking about the politics of the economic growth phenomenon. As to the basic economies of scale argument that Jared Diamond, and before him Karl Wittfogel, made: sure, a world empire is now much more feasible than it was before. On the ground though, countries are multiplying and there is little sign yet of a world government. It is clear we wont get to a world government in the old-fashioned way (direct conquest by the most powerful region) so the question would be how else we could get there.


    yes, the Bo Xilai affair certainly exposed internal wrangling. What I noticed about it, apart from the obvious points that everyone at that level can always rightfully be accused of corruption, was the sentiment that there was no other way they could sideline him as a populist: only by ‘killing him’ could they stop him. What the underlying reason was for needing to stop him, I have no way of knowing. Everything we hear in the media is already in the ‘official excuse’ category so who knows what undid him.
    The issue of Chinese students syping on each other here in Australia is indeed very interesting. I didn’t used to believe it was happening and thought the rumours about it were exaggerations, but no longer. The speed with which the Chinese student community was mobilised to come protest in Canberra about a small incidence during the Olympics helped convince me the consulate truly was keeping tabs. As long as they mainly spy on other Chinese though, we ‘Westerners’ have little incentive to care about it.


    it is not for lack of awareness of the differences within China that I say it is so unified: the need to come up with a simple rule of thumb putting China today in an international perspective compels me. Without the underlying wish to get to some kind of perspective, I of course would also play the ‘but what about?’ game.

    For instance, I could baulk at my own ‘repressing religion’ statement and remind you that the Taiping rebellion was actually started by a religious Christian. Sure, I could acknowledge that the whole concept of ‘Han’ is a romantic political invention that blew over from the West in the 19th century and became the dominant fantasy. Sure, I could point out that even today you will in Chinese factories find deeply discriminating signs like ‘no-one from Hunan province need apply because they are thieves’. Sure, the supposed continuous dominance of the bureaucracy hides a long and checkered history of ups and downs, even of outright foreign occupation. Sure, Mandarin and Kantonese dont even share the same basic tonal levels.

    So why buy into the ridiculous aggregation of ‘Han-Chinese’ or even of ‘the imperial bureaucracy’? Well, the Chinese script is the same across China. The same exams are in the schools. The self-perception in the history books they get taught is that of a unified ‘Han-China’. Some form of bureaucracy has been around for thousands of years, unlike any other power factor. None of this is true in India or the US or Europe. Hence, I am giving you the best rules of thumb I can think of in order to be able to place China in an international perspective. The question is not whether these abstractions are perfect, but whether you can get to better overall perspectives on the basis of better abstractions. Can you?

  9. Richard Tsukamasa Green says:

    The other issue which isn’t discussed is the military, and the PLA. It says a lot that it hasn’t been mentioned (a good thing) considering military takeovers of government is the go to option when worrying about political instability! China is quite unusual for the lack of military rule, historically. This is particularly so when compared to the almost universal military governance that governed Europe from Caesar to the modern era, and the influence of military leaders in the republics before and after this period (including all the generals elected to US President), or to the last millenia of Japanese history. The periods where military men are on top in China are relatively rare.
    But the military can fuck things up even if they haven’t really taken control. You note that An’s rebellion was an internal fight, but he also was a military leader. the Manchu’s took over China when Wu Sangui opened the gate he was meant to be guarding against them. It was a military rebellion that started the Xinhai revolution that deposed the Qing in turn, and the head of the Army (Yuan Shikai) who delivered the coup de grace where Sun Zhongshan lacked the ability. It was Yuan’s generals that split the country into fiefdoms and another (Jiang Gaishi) that restored a semblance of order. And it was Mao’s military luck compared to Shang Guotao that won him control of the CCP, and Deng decided that Chariman of the Central Military Committee was the only formal office he could not rule the country without.

    But then it can also clearly be in the service of their civilian bosses (for good or ill), such as Marshall Ye’s backroom work for Hua following Mao’s death, or the fact they followed orders in 1989 despite apparent reluctance [fn1].

    And things now are complicated by the fact that the military are massive industrialists in themselves, with many businesses.

    Basically anything could happen. It’s almost equally plausible to imagine the party starting a war to keep the army happy and give them toys, or the army preventing the party starting a war because it would be bad for business. What if a general got it into his head to be a white knight and purge the party of corruption, especially if there is a financial crisis or economic downturn (these happen in all capitalist economies). The fact the whole thing is so opaque is a worry.

    [I’m unable to link all those names I dumped there, but you should be able to wiki them if you are absolutely concerned.]

    [fn1] Note that the memorable image of a massacre is a row of tanks unable to bring themselves to run over someone.

  10. conrad says:

    Paul, here are some China vs US comparisons, and why China is not as cohesive as the US.

    Let’s first look at health, education, and the economy.

    Health: The US has some federal programs, China has essentially none as far as I’m aware.
    Education: China may have one set of end exams, but the differences in educational standards between states goes from exceptionally good to exceptionally bad (only a few years ago, the government mandated compulsary education up to grade 6, and that was for a reason — why worry about exit exams when most of your population will never sit them?).
    Economy: States in both the US and CHinese vary considerably. However, there is no US state where the average person lives a very bad and tough life, unlike China. Thus rather than just money, lifestyle is important, and the discrepancy in lifestyles are bigger in China than the US. This causes a lot of problems in China (and benefits — cheap workers).

    Here are some issues that have been touched upon.
    Language: Almost everyone in the US uses the same language and alphabet — probably a greater percentage than Chinese do thanks to illiteracy and places where people don’t speak Mandarin well. (I’ll call this a tie).
    Freedom of movement: Anyone can pretty much move anywhere in the US they want. In China, you cannot move permanently without a permit. Even if you do, you won’t get the benefits that you would if you were born in the state (indeed, I think this one goes down to the city level). I realize there are few things in the US like this (e.g., university subsidies).
    Breakaway states: Large chunks of Western China probably would rather not be in China.
    Attitudes to each other: We’d need data, but I’d bet that attitude differences between red vs. blue states is less than north vs. south China.
    Political systems: If you don’t like your government in the US, you can try and vote them out and be unhappy if you lose. The only way of getting rid of your government in China is revolution. This obviously has ramifications for stability (and why the Chinese government is desperate to keep social stability at all costs).

    You also claim:
    Big long standing bureaucracy: This has poor validity as a measure — it’s never stopped China breaking up before and indeed some of the most nasty wars of all time have been in China with a big government(s). Given the central government doesn’t do that much, I doubt many of the states really care what the central government does (I guess this latter one is also true of the US).
    Genetic groups: This has poor validity also. Historically, people have generally fought others that are similar to them. That of course might just be because people like to fight others close to them. However, even today, you can see similar groups like to fight each other. For example, if the average Israeli and Palestinian looked like black Africans rather than Caucasian, do you think anyone would care about them? I don’t think so.

    So I think it terms of cohesiveness, China is worse than the US (although I’m happy to admit Europe is worse, but then I don’t think Europe will stay together in the long term anyway — If the French and Germans can’t get along, who’s left?)

  11. Tel says:

    Jared Diamond made an economy of scale argument? I got the impression his thesis was that the dominance of China’s central government is what held them back, and why so many great scientific and technological discoveries of the 18th, 19th and 20th Centuries came from those places on Earth that provided both sufficient personal freedom (i.e. isolation from interference) to allow people could tinker with new ideas, and also offered sufficient interconnectedness that those eccentric individuals could share their discoveries and thus bootstrap each other. This explains why the Chinese found themselves repeatedly smashed by invaders during those centuries, while Europeans had the triumphant luxury of smashing each other.

    Admittedly, I might have been holding the book upside down or something ?!?

    By the way, Stuart Kauffman came to a similar conclusion in a non-historical and abstract mathematical context with his NK networks — there’s a certain level of connectedness which tends to be optimal. Too much and you stagnate, too little and you constantly reinvent the wheel but can’t consolidate the gains. If you do some searching on “edge of chaos” you can find a few places where the concept is catching on.

  12. Paul frijters says:


    I was talking about the reason for China to have been under the control of a single central bureaucracy versus Europe. The lack of mountain ranges meant the marginal cost of bureaucracy within the whole coastal region kept going down with added bits – an economies of scale argument. The opposite is true in Europe where the marginal costs kept going up. As Karl Wittfogel strongly pointed out, the reliance on rainfall agriculture in Europe meant a central bureaucracy had little productive to do, whereas in China organising irrigation, canals, and dikes against floods was a very productive pastime for the bureaucracy. Invaders and rulers thus came and went in China, but the bureaucracy was always kept intact, which is why it so dominant in Chinese life.

    You know more about China’s conflict history than I, such is clear. The reason not to bother with seeing the military in China as separate from the rest of the bureaucracy is the nation state idea that binds them all into a single ideology. Coups are really hard to organise then.
    In Europe, the warlords certainly had their day, such as with William the Conqueror. In the last five hundred years or so, I cannot remember a military person taking over control of a Northern European country against the wishes of the population though. Perhaps I overlook someone, but there haven’t been many. Southern Europe has seen plenty. Franco, the Greek colonels,…

  13. Paul frijters says:


    I really can’t convince you of the cohesiveness argument, can I? :-)

    I wouldn’t dispute any of the claims you make above. In fact, some things are worse than you sketch. Regional inequality is very big in China, with some villages still running a communist system and others in the throws of full blown capitalism. Still, I would call China more cohesive.
    Thee main points: whereas the US has a single alphabet, it shares it with the rest of the world that uses it for very different languages. Indeed, the Latino within the US use it for a different written language. The Chinese are the only ones using their symbols and their written language.
    More importantly, the centre in China might not proactively do much, but it approves and punishes all the time. Hence all the bureaucracy in China has to be aware of not raising the ire of the centre, and all of it can attempt to get noticed and be brought to the centre as a reward. This is not true in the US where it matters not to a mayor in Idaho what anyone in Washington thinks of him: power is far more diffuse and compartmentalised in the US to have to worry about that. In China, the spies of the centre are distributed throughout the system.
    Finally, ideology: the US has it’d fair share of deviant ideologies, including those who hate the government, those who dream of God’s kingdom on eartth, hippie communities, etc. In China, there is just one ideology, the official one.
    While bits of the machine fight each other in China, it is still just one machine. Civil wars are about who leads the machine, and have not led to permanent breakups in the machine.

  14. Alan says:

    As we all know the use of Cyrillic was almost exclusive tot he Soviet Union and a major reason the Soviet system continues to this day. Oh wait…

    If one had written about the Soviet Union and the glories of the command economy in, say 1980, one could have said exactly the same things about the bright future of that country. To say that there is one ideology in China is frankly an argument otherwise found only in the less persuasive statements issued after a CCP congress. If the ideological monopoly of the CCP is as unquestionable as Heaven why does the party throw so much energy into the Great Firewall?

    The PRC inherits its administrative system from the Soviet Union. Like the Soviets there is actually not much central administration. The central Soviet state essentially consisted of the Red Army, the KGB and the foreign ministry. Almost everything else was handled by Soviet republics, just as in China most administrative functions are handled the province-level governments. Both systems depended on the party centre to make the bureaucracy work as a co-ordinated system and the claims about the promotion of people by the party centre was as true of the USSR in 1980 as it is of the PRC today.

    Yeltsin was able to shatter the old guard coup because once the army declined the junta’s orders there was literally nothing else the junta controlled. In particular once the Union republics stopped transferring taxes to the central government the Soviet Union was suddenly paying its bills from week to week. The governor, or more likely the party secretary, in Guangdong could do the same thing to the Beijing government very easily. Fear of just that happening (Chongqing is a province-level government) is why the Bo Xilai case was such a threat to the party centre.

    Note for Paul’s reply. I am not arguing that the PRC will collapse tomorrow. I am not arguing that Bo Xilai planned to be another Yeltsin. I am not arguing the China does not have a bright future. I am arguing only that China is a society like other societies and eternal dictatorship do not work.

  15. I have to go back to a cable I sent from the Beijing embassy in 1985, when people back in Australia were anxious that China’s economy was running out of control. In summary, my comment was: “Isn’t that what you wanted?”

    There is some relevant argument in the books on China and its economy reviewed in the current New York Review of Books. A perspective also picked up with a grump by Hartcher2 in the SMH in commenting on recent ‘China frenzy’ in Australia.

    I don’t see examples out there in the world to encourage anyone in non-democracy to head for democracy at the moment. Not that we do not oursleves offer an example of forward-looking, adaptive, responsive, effective government, but look on the one hand at the neo-democrats – the fate of ‘democracy’ in the USSR/Russia and other descendants, look at the Arab Spring – and on the other at the state of the old democrats, in the US in particular. Paul’s discussion of competitions between people with money interests can be applied to analysis of democracies and one might reasonably conclude that ‘democracy’ is a less efficient way of achieving the outcomes derived.

    Jeremiadic reviews of China do need to take account of the fact that the last 35 years have seen the greatest revolution in human history in China. I don’t know who in China is imagined to be wanting to break the country up. Some of our affront is perhaps at inability to perve on what is going on. It’s scary too. I also remember spooks saying to me about the Chinese intelligence service – “we know they are good, they are very very good, because we can’t find them.”

    As suggested in previous comment perhaps it would be useful to compare the internal world of China in some ways with the British empire at an earlier time, or the western hemisphere under the Monroe Doctrine. Huge income disparities and management issues. It’s a scary ride, running a country on that scale, Mr Abbott, and given our capacity to row about the depth to which we bite our fingernails in this country, some sense of proportion needs to be maintained.

    35 years ago, the right to remain as a foetus, to be born, to live under a roof, to get child care, education, to be a person ‘awaiting job allocation’, to work, to marry, to move, to eat, to have housing, to have medical care, to have a child all depended on membership of a ‘work unit’. All law arising from administrative fiat or upheaval, as for millennia. Ponder chucking that aside and replacing with something entirely different and the social, political and technical issues become apparent. There is so much going on in China that is so amazing now we forget that so recent history perhaps, a continuing process and argument. The task of reform involves design of the whole economic infrastructure and law to support it: the notion of profit and loss** (** a leading thinker from the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences came to Canberra in 1982, to speak of plans for making business reforms. I asked if it would be done on the basis of ‘profit and loss’, he paused and said ‘we can consider that); of financial failure, of bankruptcy, winding up businesses, creating businesses, employment and unemployment, of diverse regulations, of public social security and health systems … and all that continues with potholes and arguments and people grimly hanging onto this and that. Rinehart, Bernardi, Joyce, the CFMEU etc etc … all surely have their equivalents in China.

    My background is policy not researchly worrying, I wonder what policy directions arise from Paul’s perspective? In 1980, in much more precarious and uncertain circumstances, the Fraser cabinet adopted recommendations for twenty or so areas of expanded cooperation in building a civil society in China. In 1989, the Tiananmen matter unbalanced the breadth of the relationship and we went into this dualistic mind state of feeling it’s a bit nasty but gosh the money’s great. What to do now?

    I do agree that there is a serious problem of lack of political and diplomatic infrastructure between China, Japan, the Koreas and Russia, aggravated by old history and face. I know that the textbook issues remain at the base of tensions between Japan and China and South Korea. That is, of democratic Japan persistently rewriting history.

    On a scale of things to wake me in the night in order of concern/probability:
    – the Arctic melts, the Gulf Stream ceases to run as now and northern Europe freezes over
    – Romney wins
    – Australia continues to imagine its interests are served by supporting the United States in a policy of containment of China and in the alteration of customary international law to allow owners of drones to kill people in other countries based on proximity to suspect places
    – that in 2014-16 Afghanistan will implode and crumbling Pakistan, Iran and India will become entangled in the outcome
    – that Netanyahu will have his way
    – that the price of drones gets to a point where everyone can have one behind every hill in the middle east and elsewhere, perhaps indeed as a Second Amendment right in the U.S.
    – that Abbott will get in
    – that Mexico will fall into civil war… with a bottomless-pit US intervention? (start here)
    – that China will come a cropper (to embrace various scenarios in one technical term)
    – that there will be armed conflict between Japan and … PRC, ROC, ROK???
    – that I don’t wake up.

  16. Richard Tsukamasa Green says:

    It’s a superficial knowledge, but it makes me sound impressive.

    This isn’t strictly related to the main point, since it’s not a recipe for violence or unrest but..

    Europe had the 2000 odd years of warlordism, but even before that military leaders had influence in civilian affairs without resort to force, such as the Senatorial class that dominated war and politics in Rome, or the influence of generals in Athenian democracy. Then after the warlord era, one still had civilian leaders raised to power in “European” societies through respect for their military achievements and office (Washington, Wellington, Grant, Roosevelt, Mannerheim, Eisenhower, de Gaulle etc.). This suggests that respect for the military is a source of legitimacy even within constitutional (if not democratic) government, and separate from the capacity to use force to gain power.

    We’ve never really had a constitutional period in China for comparison, but their warlord eras have been the exception rather than the rule, quite the opposite of Europe. When (if) China has a constitutional government, it’d be fascinating to see if leaders with military experience get political support in the same way.

  17. Alan says:

    It’s a side issue but the history of Chinese unity is a little exaggerated. If Chinese history starts with the Xia about 2100 BC, the periods of unification add up to Qin/Han about 400 years, Sui/Tang about 300, Northern Song about 200. That is actually not a lot of time out of the 3300 years before the Mongol conquest. The period since Yuan has been quite different, but even so unification was by no means the default state.

  18. Relevant to Richard’s comment, there is the great difference arising from the difference between managing hydraulic civilisations (Witfogel) and those where power emphasised being on and doing things while on a horse. The horses rode in from the east upon Europe, but also the longbow (in the hands of drones, to make a poor pun) breached all principles of whacking rights at the battle of Crecy . I must re-read Barbara Tuchman’s A Distant Mirror for more insights into sources and patterns of turmoil.

    Two recent items on the South China Sea and other resource disputes:

    Yuan Jingdong

    Geoff Hiscock (as mentioned before)

  19. Alan says:

    Long bows are wildly over-estimated. The magic archery at Crécy and Agincourt did not prevent shattering English defeats at other battles, or, for that matter, their ultimate defeat in the Hundred Years War.

    • Indeed, Alan, but there is huge difference between first shock and subsequent events. Again compare drones and their future; ponder what happens when there is an iPhone app to send a drone to its target.

      Surprise is the consequence of shock and confusion induced by the deliberate or incidental introduction of the unexpected.

      British Defence Doctrine 2011 page 2.5

  20. Paul Frijters says:


    agreed that the ‘military complex’ has been important in Europe right up to at least the second world war in Europe (the Prussian military certainly fits the idea of a warrior class) and according to Eisenhower is a huge interest group in the US today. I find it hard to imagine that things were actually much different in China though. Keeping the generals occupied and happy surely was important there too for the threat of generals siding with some faction has been all too real in its history.

    the Soviet Union is an important case, I agree, but I take very different lessons from that experience. What strikes me is how much the old structures survived the Soviet experience: even after 50 years of Soviet rule, property was organsied differently in Poland than in Russia. Even after long rule, the Fins thought of themselves as very different. Even though they were supposedly part of the socialist ideal, when push came to shove, the Soviet leaders had to appeal to nationalism to win the second world war. Ukraine, Belarus, and many other reginos were still accutely aware of their regional identities and the Soviets hadn’t managed to purge it out of them. Indeed, the structure of the Orthodox church had also not been dismantled. So the example of the Soviets mainly shows just how long it actually takes to truly get rid of the old loyalties and power structures. 70 years of central rule is nowhere near enough.
    Also, dont forget that the Russian expansion was a relatively recent thing: the great treck Eastwards, all through the Siberian planes and up to Alaska, mainly happened in the 19th century. By contrast, the vast majority of the population centres in current day China would have been part of China for much, much longer.

    of course gydraulic societies with their standing bureaucracies are a whole different kettle of fish to mobile nomads. Tel’s main point, as I understood it, was to say that todays world seems ripe economically for a single bureaucracy because it, like the hydraulic societies, has many areas where a single bureaucracy could get better outcomes than many small ones (in the area of environment in particular). Whilst I tend to agree with that, I have a hard time seeing it happen.
    And, as you would expect, I completely agree with your observation that no group in China wants to break it up. I also agree with your astonishment at how much has changed there in the last 35 years already. It is indeed phenomenal what they have managed to get going. They are effectively industrialising and transforming at a rate easily 3 to 5 times as fast as ‘we’ did in the industrial revolution (in GDP and urbanisation terms).

  21. Alan says:

    Russian expansion into Siberia dates from the reign of Ivan the Terrible who died in 1584. They reached the Pacific in 1639. Belarus and the Ukraine do not have histories as independent entities. Belarus was contested between Russia, Poland-Lithuania and various German lords and knightly orders until its final acquisition by Russia. The Belorussian SSR itself was not created until 1939. Equally the Ukraine was contested between Russia, Poland-Lithuania and Turkey until the reign of Catherine the Great. Its current borders include the largely Russian Crimea as a result of decisions in the 1960s which are somewhat resented by the people effected.

    The Russian drive to the Pacific was not an event that ‘happened mainly in the 19th century. Belorus and Ukraine are not ‘old structures’. And the magic of the longbow failed somehow to sing at battles both before and after Crécy and Agincourt.

    • Fyodor says:

      And the magic of the longbow failed somehow to sing at battles both before and after Crécy and Agincourt.

      Second time that you’ve repeated this rubbish. Massed longbows were decisive in battle in the Welsh and Scottish wars before Crecy and in the Scottish wars after Agincourt. There’s nothing “magical” about the effectiveness of massed fire from prepared defensive positions.

      • Golly gosh.
        Hey, can I just say I wish I hadn’t followed a trail away from the main subject.
        I plead guilty to being the first one to mention long bows.

        I acknowledge the superior standing of others in medieval history matters.

        But, but, can I just make the point that I was sort of being metaphorical and all metaphors are sort of inexact comparisons… and somewhere, I have no idea now where the matter got out on such a limb, I was really talking about the way drones will alter strategic perspectives, as fancy knights may have felt when upstarts at a distance began hitting them with arrows.
        Which would be the subject if it wasn’t the wrong subject, the subject here being, I think, China and its adaptive capacities and governance.
        I will now leave the tea room argument and go back to editing someone’s Tasmanian memoirs, relatively safe territory, I hope. After coffee.

  22. With the China-angst doing the media and market round again today, this article may be of interest:

    … connections between countries do not occur solely through the direct impact of market prices. Interacting public psychology is likely to play a role as well.
    This brings us to the importance of stories – and very far from the kind of statistical analysis exemplified by Stock and Watson. Psychologists have stressed that there is a narrative basis to human thinking: people remember – and are motivated by – stories, particularly human-interest stories about real people. Popular stories tend to take on moral dimensions, leading people to imagine that bad outcomes reflect some kind of loss of moral resolve.

    Sort of blindingly obvious but not acknowledged in reporting and analysis generally.

    As well as the rapid movement of stories, there is the impact of increased discussion brought about by the internet with its inevitable tendency to one-up-oneselfship and critiques which focus on or head for the bleak, or away from positive consensus and issue clarification. A curious thing that published academic research largely only reports experiments that worked, whereas academic and less-academic but issue-related discussions tend to the opposite focus. Stories and discussion are different remotely writ compared with face to face.

    Many of the reform discussions in China have been positive and open, others are not. There are terrible wounds too. The Cultural Revolution term for ‘struggling’ a person referred to ‘struggle, criticism, transformation’, bearing a little comparison to trolling on the internet, or perhaps Abbotting in Australian political process now. Without much desire for ‘transformation’ except to social or political corpse.
    The current internal China stories are full of struggle against people, with participants and victims still in the picture, amid a complex of family connections too. Bo Xilai took part in vicious struggle against his father; such matters not forgotten. This article gives some concrete form to it all.
    But it’s not all vicious, any more than is the political and policy process in Australia. For us, Jennifer Westacott worth reading today.

  23. Paul frijters says:


    You are right about the Siberian expansion happening earlier in Russia. My memory served me poorly there. Though the expansion in the 19th century was pretty impressive as well ( they already controlled Siberia. Still, the russian conquest was much later than the empire of the middle, which was my general point. As to countries like Ukraine existing before, the Ukrainians certainly seem to claim they existed before and cite Cossack uprisings as part of their historical independence.

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