What follows is a probing in-depth article by Sinologist Professor Charles Burton, on the social, economic, and cultural forces that have produced the China we see today. For all of the West who wish to understand China and what it has meant and will mean for the West, I suggest putting aside an hour to read this, pencil in hand for notes as an aide to memory. It will not be wasted.
China: History as Destiny
By Charles Burton,
Senior Fellow, the Macdonald-Laurier Institute, Ottawa
As published by The Dorchester Review, Spring/Summer, 2020
Even today China’s Communist Party (CCP) purports to be a Marxist-Leninist political party. But the CCP nowadays is hardly “Communist” in the sense of being true to Marx’s revolutionary doctrine in any way. But it remains strictly Leninist in its political and social structures and in its reliance on terror and lies to hold power.
Some have proposed that the Party therefore should change its name. But rebranding away from the focus on “Communism” and re-emphasizing its Chineseness as, say, the “Chinese Confucian Party” would call into question the legitimacy of the Party’s revolutionary assumption of power. After all the Chinese Communist Party originally promised a vigorous political program of socialist transformation and radical justice for workers, peasants and soldiers. But today there are over 100 dollar-denominated Chinese billionaires in China’s National People’s Congress, up from 87 in 2013. The incongruous contemporary reality is of a fabulously wealthy Communist élite claiming to have assumed the mantle of the dictatorship of the proletariat. The political dissonance of this has led to considerable efforts to re-identify the bases for the legitimacy of the Chinese Communist régime away from the politically embarrassing and potentially destabilizing touted commitment to revolutionary justice. Moreover it can be argued that the original political intention of Chairman Mao Zedong in founding the Chinese Communist Party was simply as an instrumental application of Marxist-Leninist dogma, to faciliate the establishment of a Communist Party “dynasty” for modern times that would fulfil the mandate of China’s history and traditional culture. We do know very well that Mao spent a lot more time reading and discoursing on ancient Chinese texts than on translations of German and Russian Marxist ideological classics.
Mao’s successor, Deng Xiaoping, who
ruled from 1977 to 1989, claimed to have based his post-Marxist market based
economic program on his pragmatic implementation of a non-ideological
“socialism with Chinese characteristics” through his rubric of “Red cat,
black cat, if it catches rats, it is a good cat.” Under the current
strongman leader, Xi Jinping, who became General Secretary of the CCP in 2012,
the propaganda line has turned to development of “Xi Jinping Thought on
Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era.” The 19th National
Congress of the Communist Party of China was dedicated to advocating the
incorporation of Xi Jinping Thought in all aspects of Chinese daily life and
foreign policy. Subsequently dozens of Chinese universities have established
research institutes for Xi Jinping Thought. Much of this work has sought
sanction for Mr. Xi’s political rule in Chinese historical and cultural
precedents. But how credible and sustainable this is to legitimate and
consolidate the political position of Mr. Xi and his régime in years ahead
remains an open question.
History and the Bases for the Legitimacy of the CCP’s Rule
The legitimacy of the Chinese Communist Party’s assumption of state power was affirmed by the principles of Leninist revolution and the ideology of scientific socialism and dialectical materialism based in Marx’s progressive theory of history. This was radically at odds with Chinese traditional historiography which looked back to restoration of the ideal societies of the virtuous rule of the mythical ancient emperors, Yao and Shun. The overall framework of Chinese history was based on lamenting political deterioration, not anticipating economic development. Moreover, the data of China’s lengthy history strained to fit into the essential Marxian definitions of slave, feudal and bourgeois societies. Furthermore Marx himself in his early-period writings had postulated a distinctive Asiatic mode of production based on analysis of the historically dominant role played by the Indian state rendering Asian pre-capitalist production forms anomalous to Marx’s overall doctrinal model. Trotsky later suggested this also applied to the unchanging nature of “Chinese feudalism” through China’s four millennia of dynastic history. Besides all that, in the final analysis China in the 1930s and 40s had not sufficiently industrialized to have achieved much of a capitalist class for any workers to violently overthrow.
The triumph of the Chinese Communist Party was primarily a peasant uprising repeating the historical patterns of rise and fall of China’s 16 imperial dynasties from the legendary Xia to the Qing (the final dynasty ruled from 1644 to 1912). This aspect was made clear when the Party removed the capital of China from Nanking, capital of the ineffectual 1911 Republic of China (ROC), and back to the Manchu dynastic capital of Peking.
Thus, the Chinese Communist leadership by re-occupying the imperial palaces and by representing Mao as an Emperor-like figure could enhance popular acceptance of the legitimacy of their ritualized political authority. Mao finessed the reality that China’s revolution was not a workers’ uprising against their capitalist oppressors, by his convoluted writings designed to justify that, while unorthodox, his Party’s program could still meet the criteria of Marxist purity. He asserted that the assumption of state power by the Chinese Communist Party could still be understood as representing the vanguard of historical progress to Communism redefined in terms of “Chinese socialism.” In the early years the régime sought popular approbation by programs of “land to the tiller” and justice and prosperity for workers, peasants and soldiers, buttressed by the “glorious prospect” of a Communist utopia.
But Chinese Marxism-Leninism was more Chinese than Marxist, sustained by Stalinist institutions to enforce the Party’s total dominance over society. As Xi Jinping put it in 2017: “government, the military, society and schools, north, south, east and west – the Party leads them all,” Without question, the absolute rule of the Party transcends adherence to Marxist ideology. Marxism for China – as it was for Russia – is a foreign, imported Western ideology always subordinated to indigenous historical and cultural imperatives and national interests.
Chairman Mao inaugurated the new People’s Republic in China in 1949 by declaring that “Ours will no longer be a nation subject to insult and humiliation. The Chinese people have stood up!” So even at this early stage, the Party defined a Chinese nationalist mandate in addition to overseeing China’s transition to utopia. The CCP takes measures to redress the historical ignominy of the Qing Dynasty’s submission to the incursions of Western and Japanese imperialism and restore China to its rightful place as the Middle Kingdom, the pre-eminent world civilization and global power.
Through the Mao era and even more assertively in the writings of Xi Jinping, the current ruler, 1840 is the date evoked as the key event in China’s modern history: the humiliating defeat of the Qing forces by superior British naval technology and training in the First Opium War (1839-42).
Again the facts of history strain to interpret this event as taught in history classes in China. But the national myth is that China had been the pre-eminent human civilization from ancient times. In Chinese school curricula, the 13th century Venetian explorer, Marco Polo, affirmed in his Travels that China was superior to all of Europe in political administration and in technology, from the sophistication of agricultural irrigation systems to silks, porcelains, cuisine, and shipbuilding, as well as refined social customs.
The British refusal to accept the Qing Government’s ban on consumption of opium imported from India is seen as an unconscionable betrayal of simple human decency and an insult to Chinese civilization and sovereignty – even though British importers were exploiting high Chinese demand and in many cases ruling class addiction to the narcotic. Britain is reviled as having taken immoral advantage to China’s weakness in the declining stage in the rise and fall of the Qing Dynasty to inflict a punishing military defeat on China. The Qing in their weakness then acceded to the 1842 Treaty of Nanking – a national betrayal conceding the fledgling port of Hong Kong to Britain, and then dishonourably allowing rapacious foreign powers including Japan to “eat up” China by establishing colonies and giving up urban “foreign concessions” in “treaty ports” along the coast and along the Yangtze River into the interior of China. In the foreign concessions under the doctrine of “extraterritoriality” foreign residents were not subject to Chinese law. In reality, China’s ports, including Hong Kong, were developed only because outside powers drove their modernization and prosperity.
By 1952, the Communist authorities had rapidly completed their comprehensive program of nationalization of foreign-owned industry and had expelled nearly all of the foreign business people and Christian missionaries. Purging the nation of pernicious foreign influence was to set the stage for China’s return to greatness under the restored strong political authority centred in Beijing of the Chinese Communist authorities. As if architecture could bring about the utopia, they built the Great Hall of the People and the National Museum of Chinese History on the Imperial Gate of Heavenly Peace (Tiananmen) Square.
Marx’s theory of history allowed China to claim superiority over Japan and the West, as the Party’s revolutionary transition to a socialist society meant that China had advanced beyond the bourgeois imperialist powers whose people were still mired in the throes of capitalist repression. With an elan that some Westerners found compelling and attractive, China would lead the peoples of the world to the overthrow of the international bourgeoisie and universal political emancipation. It would be China, not Soviet Russia, that would unify the peoples of the world.
After the death of Stalin in 1953, Soviet Communism under Khrushchev was denounced by the CCP as anti-Marxist revisionism, an utter betrayal of the international revolution. A complete split in Sino-Soviet relations had occurred by 1960. Up to the present day, Stalin remains a revered figure in Chinese hagiography along with Marx, Engels, and Lenin.
A personality cult of Mao Zedong developed extravagantly after the Sino-Soviet split. Mao became the “great helmsman” who had “penetrating insight into everything.” The Party under Mao’s supreme command was celebrated as “great, glorious and correct,” and asserted itself globally as the sole international flame-bearer for the transnational liberation of the peoples of the world. Mao’s works, such as the Little Red Book, were translated into foreign languages for the consumption of Western students and for the guidance of Maoist political parties in the third world.
Nevertheless over the 25 years following Chinese Communist Party’s assumption of power, the promise of a prosperous and strong China leading the world through a global revolutionary movement was not fulfilled. Moreover, the remnant Kuomintang (KMT) régime “in exile” on the island of Formosa (Taiwan) was economically booming in sharp contrast. And maddeningly, the prosperous and increasingly democratic Republic of China could lay claim to continuity and legitimacy with the original non-communist Chinese Republic of Oct. 11, 1911 in spite of the Communist defeat in 1949. For some, Taiwan’s freedom and success continue to stand as a rebuke to the monstrous tyranny of a People’s Republic built on 60 million deaths.
Attempts to achieve rapid growth for the PRC through the extreme agricultural and industrial policies of the 1958-62 “Great Leap Forward” campaign ended disastrously with famine taking close to 40 million lives (8% of the population). The 1966-77 “Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution,” intended to purge society of all reactionary, bourgeois, and feudal elements by mass arrests and imposition of totalitarian ideological controls, led only to severe political, social and economic disruption. The CCP’s harshly-imposed policies of import substitution and strictly-planned economy, rather than leading to great prosperity and economic justice, instead produced economic growth lagging behind growth in population. As per capita feet of housing declined, graduates of junior high school, rather than face underemployment in urban areas, were packed off to border regions to open up land to subsistence farming. By April 1976 with Mao largely worn out and inactive in old age and in fading health (he died later that year), large-scale public demonstrations of discontent rose up in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square. One of the masses of sheets of handwritten slogans attached to the Monument to the People’s Martyrs in the centre of the Square summed it up: “mouthing empty words about Communism will not satisfy the people’s desires.”
Eventually in the face of the decline in public confidence, the Communist Party took the drastic and politically daring step of abandoning its commitment to Marxist dogma. As the new liberal-minded Party Chairman Hu Yaobang expressed it, “Marxism cannot solve all the problems of today.” Instead pragmatic policies were adopted to foment economic growth and enrich people’s cultural lives by allowing for popular culture that was not simply for didactic ideological purposes (e.g., Chinese rock ’n roll and some Hollywood movies). The new non-ideological pragmatic rubric of openness and reform was buttressed by Deng Xiaoping’s calls to “emancipate thought” and “seek the truth from facts.” However, the social goal of Communism that legitimates the Party’s grip on power remains intact in theory, to be fulfilled some hundreds of years hence when social and economic conditions are ripe.
In the mid-1980s, there was a movement based on exegesis of Marx’s Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844. Its hopeful thrust was that a Marxist humanism based on “what human nature consists of and what sort of society would be most conductive to human thriving” would suggest moving toward democratic politics based on the rights of autonomous citizenship. But this proto-democratic tendency was stillborn. The subsequent “Spiritual Pollution Campaign” purges against “bourgeois liberalization” scotched any development in that direction.
The Tiananmen democracy movement of the spring of 1989 was also brutally suppressed – and since then its very existence has been systematically erased from any references to the history of those years. As the statement State Council Spokesman Yuan Mu put forth, “not one person died on Tiananmen Square.” This is still the official position of the Chinese Communist Party. Iron-fisted Leninist control – especially of the past, including the recent past – would not be loosened to appease the people’s demands for political democratization or even for truth and a true accounting of what has transpired and what the Chinese people have really experienced.
In the years following, under General Secretaries Jiang Zemin (r. 1989-2002) and Hu Jintao (r. 2002-12), the Party attempted to establish – or perhaps retrench – an ideological justification for its rule as the antiquated and even quaint precepts of Marxism-Leninism and Mao Zedong Thought become more and more irrelevant to China’s increasingly open and modern society, while at the same time giving promise that China would eventually become free and democratic under the leadership of a liberalized Communist Party. As part of its campaign to present a modern and progressive tendency to the world, China signed the United Nations’ International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights in 1998. But over time, as oppression, censorship, and the persecution of minorities increased, and with advent of the weird “social capital” surveillance state, Chinese citizens became more and more cynical about the efficacy and validity of their governing institutions. Pervasive political corruption and an ever-growing gap between the enormous wealth and privilege of the families of the Party élite and the populace were rife.
This reality suggested a process of political decay again recognized by most Chinese and by sinologists like myself, as characteristic of the cyclical process of decline and fall of imperial dynasties throughout Chinese history. This probably holds true despite the CCP state’s insistence upon one of the most distorted authorized accounts of history in the world today, with propaganda entirely pervading the way history is presented and taught in schools and to the public.
The Uses of History
Xi Jinping’s emergence as General Secretary in 2013 marked a signal moment in both redefining the place of the Party’s “post socialist” régime in the context of its narrative of Chinese history, as well as legitimating China’s strategic intentions as a global power in fulfilling the mandate of that historical narrative.
Xi has sought to revitalize the Party’s role in China’s domestic affairs and to stave off societal decline by a vigorous program to recentralize political authority and revive strict Leninist norms to regain control over civil society and combat political corruption.
To this end Xi dropped the veil and explicitly repudiated the notion of “universal democratic values” as identified in the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights and associated covenants. To this end, the Party’s General Secretariat issued “Document 9” shortly after Xi assumed power. The Document requires that educational institutions and the media ban discussion of seven “dangerous” ideas: constitutional democracy (the separation of powers, multi-party systems, general elections, and an independent judiciary as we know them in Canada and the West), universal values, civil society, market neo-liberalism, media independence, “historical nihilism” (criticisms of the Party’s past errors) and questioning the nature of Chinese style socialism.
Xi has engaged in harsh suppression of official corruption as inconsistent with Leninist discipline and morality. But unlike his predecessors, Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao, he has not made the ritual admission that the Cultural Revolution under Mao was “ten years of disaster.” Xi Jinping has neither associated himself with Deng Xiaoping’s pragmatic de facto repudiation of Marxism-Leninism on the one hand, nor on the other with any claim that his ideology is the contemporary development Mao Zedong Thought as the basis for the Party’s ideological legitimacy. Instead Xi seeks legitimacy by identifying his authoritarian strongman rule with traditional Confucian political norms. The new basis for legitimacy is his assertion that the rule of the Party is legitimate because it is the expression of China’s deep traditional historical political culture in this modern age.
Xi legitimates his leadership by appealing to the Chinese “socialist” value system, which Chinese are told is morally superior to Western democratic values and institutions. He urges that Chinese people therefore should have “cultural self-confidence” in their own tradition, far more ancient and authentic than the spurious and decadent Western political inheritance.
Abroad it appears that Xi believes China is not bound by the principles of Westphalian sovereignty. Instead he envisions a post-2050 new world order he dubs “the community of the common destiny of humankind,” which again the People’s Daily newspaper allows is “superior to Western mainstream international relations theory.” It corresponds with Mao Zedong’s larger long-term plan to unify all of the nations of world into a China-led international soviet of the human race and with traditional Chinese visions of the “Great Unity.”
Xi Jinping’s international relations vision resonates with the traditional political order regulated by the Mandate of Heaven. That Imperial-age dynastic doctrine rendered the Chinese emperor as the sole earthly figure whose political authority was sanctioned by the forces of the Universe. The Mandated emperor ruled by rites and virtue under a world order in which civilization radiated in concentric circles from the Forbidden City. The first circle was of lands where the people were ruled by officials who had shown great cultural and moral cultivation by success in the imperial examinations so were appointed to their administrative posts by the Emperor. The second circle was of nearby places where the people were ruled by local leaders who, despite not having been appointed by the Emperor, nevertheless complied with the Confucian rites and whose written language was classical Chinese characters. These second circle areas included today’s Japan, Korea and Vietnam. These lands sent gifts of tribute to the Emperor every three years as an acknowledgment of pre-eminent authority of the Son of Heaven. The third circle was of barbarous people without culture and unworthy of the beneficence of the Emperor and his nobility. Europeans were known to be hairy, smelly, uncouth, red-headed barbarians with appalling customs such as the consumption of cheese, the excrescence of a cow left to go rotten and harden with bacteria and mould (what could be more disgusting?).
The recent PRC demands that nations like Czechia should send their senior political leaders to stand on the tarmac at their capital’s airport to receive COVID-19 masks and ventilators sent from China and listen approvingly to a speech by the Chinese ambassador as this precious cargo is unloaded makes perfect sense in Chinese terms. The leaders of China would naturally not reciprocate by any tarmac ceremony in a Chinese airport such as to celebrate the over the 16 tonnes of supplies sent to China from Canada. Similarly, no senior Chinese government officials attended the 2012 London Olympics despite their ambassadors abroad and their proxies having made very strong entreaties demanding that all the leaders of the world pay their respects to China at the previous Beijing Olympics (and most did). The Chinese régime craves external admiration.
Xi Jinping’s international relations theory of “the community of the common destiny of mankind” is based on the presumption that the Unites States as a global superpower is in rapid domestic decline while also losing its power and charismatic prestige as a leader and shaper of global affairs. The postwar multilateral institutions of global governance such as the UN, WHO, NATO, etc. are seen by Xi Jinping as transnational extensions of US interests and values which are sharply at odds to China’s domestic and international aspirations. In years ahead as the US is expected to dissipate its national vitality and international influence, the UN and WTO and the rest will fade into irrelevance as China regains its rightful and traditional role as the focus of world politics and economics. In the regime’s official mind, China’s history and destiny are leading up to that triumphant outcome.
To this end, China under Xi Jinping has embarked on the hugely ambitious Silk Road Economic Belt and the 21st-century Maritime Silk Road Initiative or Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). It is put forward as a development strategy and framework, that focuses on connectivity and cooperation among all countries of the world but in the initial phase primarily between the People’s Republic and the rest of Eurasia. The coverage area of the initiative already encompasses close to 60 countries. The initiative calls for global integration into a cohesive economic area through building infrastructure, increasing cultural exchanges, and broadening trade.
Apart from this zone, which is analogous to the historic Silk Road, another “belt” is in the works to encompass South Asia and Southeast Asia. Oceania, East Africa, and the Arctic are also included. Thus north, central, and south belts are proposed. The north belt goes through Central Asia and Russia to Europe. The central belt goes through Central Asia and West Asia to the Persian Gulf and the Mediterranean. The south belt runs from China to Southeast Asia, South Asia, and to the Indian Ocean.
The “21st Century Maritime Silk Road” is a complementary initiative aimed at investing and fostering collaboration in Southeast Asia, Oceania, and North Africa, through several contiguous bodies of water – the South China Sea, South Pacific Ocean, and spanning the Indian Ocean to Australia and New Zealand. All the belts and roads begin and end in China. Many of the countries that comprise this BRI are also members of the China-led Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank. Anticipated cumulative investment to achieve the BRI over an indefinite timescale is variously put at US$4 trillion to US$8 trillion.
While the economic feasibility of this massive scheme is dependent on many as yet unknown factors, its very proposal does arguably enhance Xi Jinping’s prestige as the agent of fulfillment of the heavenly mandate of Chinese history.
Nevertheless for many people in China the promotion of the BRI in Chinese media, depicting major China infrastructure projects in Africa and the Middle East does raise a more practical question: will the Chinese Communist Party do the same inside China itself to address persistent poverty and infrastructural deficiencies?
The Chinese Communist Party today seeks legitimacy by identifying itself with the fulfillment of China’s traditional and cultural imperatives. The historiography underlying this authoritiarian political purpose is necessarily based on exclusion of key data and in my cases on highly questionable interpretations (or shall we say, “historical spin”) to serve Chinese Communist Party political ends.
The notion that the repressive, patriarchal, and authoritarian institutions of the PRC today are a true expression of the writings of Confucius and his successors is highly dubious. The arguments of earlier 20th century Chinese thinkers such as Hu Shih and Fung Yulan that liberal democracy is much better suited to the spirit and intentions of true Confucianism have been left by the wayside but cannot be repressed forever. Moreover the CCP’s use and abuse of history and culture is ultimately about maintaining and expanding the power and élite privilege of a Communist apparat in a post-socialist era. As Princeton University’s Aaron Friedberg observes: “It is impossible to make sense of the ambitions, fears, strategy and tactics of China’s present regime without reference to its authoritarian, illiberal character and distinctive, Leninist roots.”
China’s distinctive political culture and nationalistic imperatives to global domination should not be ignored in setting the terms of Canada’s diplomatic and trade relations with China as an aspiring great power. Neutral or “country-agnostic” policy approaches have the virtue of political correctness but regrettably have led to a series of Canadian policy decisions in relations with China which have weakened Canada’s ability to affirm our liberal democratic values in foreign relations, and have inhibited out ability to further our national interests with that régime. Meanwhile across the the West there is a lack of linguistic and cultural expertise, and political knowledge, with which to defend our interests against a very sophisticated diplomatic and propaganda engagement by China, which seems to always come out on top.