80 Million People can’t all get along – China’s past and future

It’s becoming a point of distinction not to have prognosticated on the future of China, especially in Australia as China takes great significance in our region and in our economic future. A lot of this prognostication must be infuriating to veteran China Watchers, being conducted by Johnny Come Latelys who never cared about the country until there was a dollar to be made, and by people who never struggled with the language to earn their right to be heard on the matter.

I’ll join the ranks of the prognosticators though. After all, my Mandarin is merely highly inadequate, rather than nonexistent. I also think that the others are missing something highly important ; The Communist Party (CCP) is huge, and it is not a monolith that acts as if one..

China is a massive and diverse country. It is only to be expected that strong divides will occur. But the Communist Party itself is huge. If it was a country, it would be around the 15th largest in the world (79 odd million), alongside Egypt and behind 11 countries whom have all suffered major unrest, civil wars, division and separatists in the past 70 years. The remaining three are China itself, Japan (more on that later) and the anomalously stable United States which has a polity that has managed its divides without conflict for nearly 150 years. If large countries keep experiencing these conflicts, it is  likely a party the size of a country will also.

The difference, of course, is that these divides happen amongst the powerbrokers of a much larger society, and if managed poorly, they can leverage large parts of that society into greater conflict. And worryingly, the CCP has historically done very very poorly at managing them. It’s almost the story of 20th century China.

It predates the Party. The 20th century effectively began for China with the Xinhai revolution. Not only because it ended the institution of Emperor and replaced it with the ideological turmoil typifying the last century, but because it marked the beginning of the institutions of power turning on themselves. Unrest and rebellion had been common throughout history, but dynastical changes came from outside the establishment, from peasantry or from barbarians and other unrest, such as the astonishingly bloody Taiping rebellion [fn1] and many others over the preceding century had also provincial origins. The Xinhai revolution also nominally began far from the capital, but it involved an institution of the state, the military, in rebellion and provided a basis for other establishment actors to do so. From the chaos that followed, it was not a peasant leader, a barbarian or an Chinese from outside the establishment (such as Sun Zhongshan, better known here as Sun Yat-Sen) that emerged as President but the Empire’s prime minister and military leader Yuan Shikai. Rebellion became revolution when the state turned on itself.

The country descended into warlordism, but the warlords were not local thugs taking advantage of the chaos, but the leaders of a fractured Imperial military. Unification did occur briefly under a leader from outside the old order, Jiang Jieshi (Chiang Kai Shek), after the Northern Expedition, but this new state soon turned on itself.

Jiang recognised a threat to himself in the institutions of the new order, namely the administratively adept Chinese Communist Party with whom Jiang’s Nationalist party (GMD) had allied. Their organisational capacity (and foreign support from the USSR) could prove a rival to the military power of the GMD component of the new Republic. They were expelled, but not eliminated.

Thus civil war began between the two parts of the state. Japanese invasion required a united front in name, but Jiang recognised that the CCP was still the main threat to his own supremacy. Sure enough, in 1949, the former secretary of Peasant Affairs, Mao Zedong, declared the new People’s Republic of China.

After only 8 years things began afresh. Jiang feared the highly trained and Soviet influenced technocrats in his government. Mao began to do the same. It didn’t help that the elitism of a Leninist Vanguard party was too close to Confucian orthodoxy or the educated republican intellectuals who had one rejected him and filled him with resentment. Disquieted by the diversity of views in the 100 flowers period (in which divergent views were encouraged) the state began persecuting rival voices including those within itself. The PRC split from the USSR, cutting technocrats off from a possible patron and the unorthodox, and ultra untechnocratic and ultra anti-elitist Great Leap Forward was launched. Tens of millions died.

Things began to improve again in the early 60s, but it was due to the same kind of technocrats that had earlier been resented, notably the likes of Deng Xiaoping[fn2]. This rising part of the state was again attacked by the anti elitist Red Guards, fostered by the Shanghai clique within the party. Purges and repurges occured, and the state had to turn against the red guards, its own new arm, and ship them off to the countryside. As the technocrats and anti-elitists squabbled, Mao was permitted to float on top (including the occasional implausible allegation against fervent supporters), but the squabbled tore apart the fabric of the country.

When Mao died, the ineffectiveness of his successor Hua Guofeng (chosen for his lack of factional support) allowed realignment. Deng achieved paramount power, Jiang Qing, was arrested and provided a scapegoat to Mao’s sins. The country began to prosper as new divisions arose beneath Deng.

Notably there was a split between liberals and hardliners. The former began in the ascendancy, Hu Yaobang being a prominent example. But liberal movements outside the party elite began to strengthen the case of the hardliners in Deng’s eyes, particularly as the successes of Solidarity in Poland seemed to indicate that concessions to liberal forces outside the elite would only fuel demands for more. Student movements were used as a reason to strip Hu of power and when he died in 1989, groups of mourners began to gather in Tiananmen and then voice other demands. The uneasiness this provoked in Deng allowed the hardliners to use the army to move against their internal enemies such as Zhao Ziyang. In the process thousands were massacred, beaten or arrested.

Deng managed to triangulate the party by engineering a slight liberal shift to counteract the hardline swing post 1989 with his trip to the South in the early 90s and with a compromise President in Jiang Zemin, and since then squabbles have largely avoided spilling over into the general populace or even into public discourse (as “State media” is a variety of organs controlled from different segments of the party). The Tiananmen wounds have been treated enough that Zhao’s offsider Wen Jiabao is the current premier.

Zhao addresses the Tiananmen protestors with Wen.

Lets hope this lasts. The stable United States managed to contain it’s Northern Southern divide for a century after the Reconstruction, albeit at the expense of black people and mad men and mad rhetoric aside, is containing current divisions. Despite the astonishing silliness of the Euro, the European project does seem to have contained and even buried the violent divides that have historically wracked the continent. Maybe the party has found decent institutions to overcome the tendency of Modern Chinese governments to attack themselves. But history goes on for a long time and buried divides can rememerge. For 250 years Japan controlled an East-West divide that had caused much bloodshed by maintaining a complex system of Eastern military dominance. Nonetheless, foreign countries provided an avenue for Western interests to take control (using an obscure part of the state) in another civil war. [fn3]

Or maybe this is just a Great Moderation in Chinese politics. If we think in Minskian terms the relative lack of financial strife during the Great Moderation up to 2008 allowed participants to forget about the consequences of financial crisis and led them to undertake actions that made the GFC much worse. As the memories of the Cutural Revolution and Tiananmen fade, the fear of strife spreading throughout a society may also fade and party members may use methods in internal disputes that could cause chaos.

It’d be speculative to guess at what factions would be involved in a future clash, or what events they would use as justification. It’s hard enough to distinguish current factions. Just as they did in the pre-reform period China Watchers closely read official media and parse official photographs for clues, but unlike in the past there’s no conflicts outside the closed doors to allow lines of division to be exposed.

But speculation is fun.

One possibility relates to the popular idea that managing a rising power is very difficult, just as managing the rise of Japan proved difficult in the past. The popular idea sees this entirely in diplomatic and geopolitical terms. It’s easy to forget that whilst Japan was eager to engage in the unforgivable colonial brutality once in vogue amongst powers, the bit that concerns us – war with other powers – was also the result of internal problems. Edo Japan had military and de facto political rule in the same people. After the Meiji restoration they began to divide, which is not often a state that lasts long. [fn4] The dysfunctionsin Taisho democracy allowed a gradual strengthening of the military’s hand until the power plays in a leaderless society led to a quixotic attack on rival colonialists.

Through the 20th century there wasn’t much divide between the political elite of the China and the military command. Recently however, the professions of politician and military man have begun to diverge [fn4]. Alarmingly, the political elite first learned of a stealth fighter test from American leaders, and not from their own generals. Maybe the naval buildup that is concerning observers here is driven less by concerns about the US than it is a ploy to keep the military placated with new toys, but toys that can’t be used within China. Apart from the Korean war and a brief punitive expedition into Vietnam in 1979, the PLA has most experience within China, with a Tiananmen the most notable recent deployment. Is the CCP afraid of the PLA? Would the PLA use the prospect of conflict with the US as a reason to take political control, or movements in Tibet and Xinjiang from more land forces that can use force within China itself? The recent overreaction to  fishing boat incident with Japan may have been an attempt to preempt Jingoistic fervour from the public.

Other prospects relate to internal unrest in the general public, which is a permanent feature of a country of 1.3 billion. Widespread damage (which the weekly riots have failed to do) would require it to be married to a constituency within the party. This could be a central party trying to appease public concerns about corruption by attacking local politicians whom see their own corruption as legitimate perks, and the head of the state and its appendages may go to war. Alternately, the older conflicts of elitist technocrats and populists may still emerge. The worries of a still vast and poor (especially relative to the cities) country side population and of disadvantaged internal migrants may be harnessed by local politicians whom resent the career ascendancies of city born and sometimes foreign educated elites. A simple economic downturn creates a constituency of losers for those seeking power in the party to latch on to.

Finally, the 21st century may effectively begin as did the 20th. The end of the Qing dynasty saw many new figures and power bases appearing within the state as reformist and counter reformist movements grew. The end came not just from unrest, or from foreign humiliation (the prior century had seen plenty of both) but when the final Qing ministry was announced. It was overwhelmingly Manchu (the ethnicity of the ruling family) and signalled that beyond ideology, power could only be achieved by a predetermined minority. If anyone else was to break into this circle of power, they’d have to break the system. Just over 100 years later, the next President is almost universally expected to be a “Princeling”, Xi Jinping – the son of a previous revolutionary leader. The number of these princelings is large enough that they have been identified as the Crown Prince faction. Whatever Xi’s ideology, the ascendancy of princelings may signal that high power is closed to those outside a minority determined by birth, and the ambitious may choose other means. (Drawing comparisons between the eras is popular at the moment)

I am not a China pessimist, nor an optimist. I feel too ignorant to be either. Call it a weakness of character.

But I am fairly sure that if the “China story goes bad”, it will involve a large amount of conflict within the state, and within the party that is the state. The tendency of modern Chinese governments to attack themselves is not a sufficient way to understand the past 100 years of Chinese history (not by a long shot), but I think it is still absolutely necessary. If the China story does go bad, I think it will almost certainly remain necessary.

P.S Whilst the above comes from many different sources, but one I am very keen to spruik is this lecture series by Richard E. Baum. It is not only the best history of modern China I know of, in any medium. It’s the best history of any country I know of in any medium, for insight, breadth, depth and sheer entertainment value.

[fn1] By my reckoning the toll is surpassed only by the world wars.

[fn2] It’s notable that the agricultural policies that started to achieve successes in this period were very similar to the first reforms of the contemporary era leading to the current prosperity. The 1978 reforms weren’t as bold and out of the box as we tend to think, they started with a reimplementation of what had already worked before, but had been repressed due to internal disputes and struggle.

[fn3] Thankfully this divide is now of mainly a matter of food and comedic stereotypes

[fn4] Note that the vast majority of the world, including almost all of Western Europe, has been under military government at times in the 20th century and that military coups are far more common than revolutions. Professionals in the use of force find it easier to gain power. The fact that in the centuries of post Cromwell English speaking society has the Rum Corps as it’s most odious military government leads us to forget how unusual continuous civilian rule is. It may also follow the Japanese experience.

About Richard Tsukamasa Green

Richard Tsukamasa Green is an economist. Public employment means he can't post on policy much anymore. Also found at @RHTGreen on twitter.
This entry was posted in History, Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.
Notify of
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments