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The concept of China’s singular state may grate Western sensibilities, but if you consider their past, it is the only way forward.
I once spoke to the father of a Chinese exchange student, who himself still lived in China, that I asked the question through his daughter as translator.
“How do you feel about living in a one-party state, with no elections?”
He responded by saying, “Of course I don’t like that we don’t get a say, but if you tried to implement democracy in China you’d have a civil war, amongst 1.4 billion people”.
The last Chinese civil war was fought before and after World War Two. They largely focused on fighting the Japanese during the Second World War itself, in a temporary alliance. The civil war raged from 1927 to 1950, with minor conflicts throughout the 1950s. It claimed the lives of 17 million Chinese people, and was fought between the Communist Revolutionaries and the Kuomintang.
The Kuomintang was essentially the Nationalist, arguably more Western early revolutionary party of China. They overthrew the Qing dynasty and proclaimed the Republic of China, however, they were still far too exploitative of the peasantry for the likes of much of the country. It follows a similar theme, because, like Russia, the country was largely an agricultural peasant class at the time of the revolution. So much like Russia it leaned toward a revolution that would get rid of the landlords and bourgeoisie.
Effectively, the Chinese Communists and the Kuomintang were both fighting a revolutionary war in their own minds, for two different visions of China.
So imagine, a World War going from 1769 to now, and then suddenly the United States, Russia or some major power conquers everyone and finally the fighting stops.
Mao galvanised the peasant class in a country that was largely peasants and won around the time the Korean war started. The Kuomintang then retreated to Taiwan and Taiwan to this day is still called ‘the Republic of China’, and neither have ever completely put their weapons down.
There is no room for multiple authorities in China. Multiple authorities has almost always been a bad sign in Chinese History, it is for that reason we have to see and understand how the Chinese Communist party sees itself.
Unification is paramount, disunity leads to death and destruction and exploitation on an enormous scale. That is the lesson of Chinese History, that no matter how hard you have to clamp down.
In 221 BC, the Qin Dynasty, under the first emperor of China, Qin Shi Huangdi, conquered and united all of developed China. This was in answer to a period known as the ‘warring states period’ where the various sub-states that had made up China were conquered by the Qin. The war had been going on from 471 BC to 221 BC.
So imagine, a World War going from 1769 to now, and then suddenly the United States, Russia or some major power conquers everyone and finally the fighting stops. It’s not that different from the stories of the Roman Empire in European history, as every major leader in Europe for the proceeding two millennia attempted to claim themselves to the ‘New Emperor’. Napoleon did it when he conquered most of Europe, Charlamagne and the Holy Roman and then German Emperors did it, Muossolini dressed himself to replicate it. Even the eagles and paraphernalia of the Third Reich echoed it. It held a special and resonant place in the minds of Europeans. The Muslims have done the same thing for the first Caliphate, which stands as being the first, and the purest as it was created and run by an actual holy figure, Mohammed. He is seen as having been responsible for unifying Muslims and bringing them out of the warring tribal period that was seen as pointlessly violent.
Unifying powers and leaders, whether through ideology or seemingly primarily conquest, are held as paragons of humanity in most histories. The differences occur, however, as while the other examples fall apart and never quite regain their position due to internal divisions and nationalism, China continues in this same direction.
China is an endless cycle of civil wars and unification under a single dynasty. The civil wars are periods of incredible tragedy, bloodshed and famine, whereas the dynastic periods are periods of growth, stability and ingenuity. The lesson of chinese history is that things can quickly and easily fall into civil war, and all the gains of the dynastic periods will be for nought, whereas if we keep things together, we will prosper.
In this way, the Chinese Civil War of the 20th century was just the Three Kingdoms repeated, and the Chinese Communists see themselves as the Jin, or any other of the unifying reincarnations. Modern China is simply a more technologically savvy incarnation of what’s been occurring in China for millennia.
Unlike Europe, the continuously moving kingdoms and unifying dynasties have shattered much of what you might call ‘national identity’ among the various regions of China. The vast majority of the country shares a common history and a largely common language. Cantonese and Mandarin are written the same, they’re simply pronounced differently, for instance.
China is an endless cycle of civil wars and unification under a single dynasty.
It wasn’t really until the Xiongnu and then much later the Westerners started to really antagonize China that it developed a sense of what was outside itself. The great wall was built to defend against the northern tribes that would attack and raid northern China, however, it was the western ships and colonies that truly shattered China’s understanding of itself for a while. During the late Ming and Qing Dynasties, utilising superior technology the western powers colonized and subjugated parts of coastal China, profiting enormously from quasi-slave labour and selling opium (heroin) to the Chinese. The Chinese tried to stand up to the westerners multiple times but were outmatched by their naval power. China had never had to deal with anything like this previously. For most Asian powers, also including Japan, encountering the Western naval power was a sharp and painful lesson, that galvanised a leap into modernity.
The old dynasties proved they were unable to stand up against the West, and so their ‘mandate of heaven’ was revoked. The ‘Mandate of Heaven’ was a concept that ranged back to the Qin, that essentially was not dissimilar to Rousseau’s Social Contract theory. In Chinese mythology ‘the heavens’ is like a divine realm, where the forces of nature come from. If things are ‘as they should be’ everything goes well, essentially. Floods and Famine etc indicate heaven doesn’t approve, but they had no concept of a monotheistic deity, there was no ‘God’ that was angry. All emperors sought to prove they had the mandate of heaven. It wasn’t a physical object, but rather an invisible seal of approval. If you had it, it made you the rightful Emperor.
This is the trade-off that all dynasties, and even the modern Communist party have to make, they gain the title of Emperor (or President of the People’s Republic of China) and the people treat it with the due accord. However, they also need to provide stability, growth and prosperity. If they don’t they are failing in their duty and do not deserve the title and accompanying grandiosity.
This leads us to the China of today, it has struck a bargain with the Chinese people, much as the Song, Tang, Han, Qin and all the other dynasties did before it. This one is less nepotistic than a direct hereditary monarchy, but it’s not very far from it either. The danger though, is with Chinese growth slowing to it’s lowest point in 30 years, and a trade war with a belligerent and protectionist US president, it’s the mandate of heaven may not remain for much longer. Further, it faces trouble from it’s supposed satellite Hong Kong, which has proven unwilling to relinquish its autonomy and liberal values.
If the country plunges into recession, and the Chinese people are placed into a position of autocracy without prosperity, Xi Jinping may go the way of Dong Zhou of the Han, who became a tyrant and tried to hold onto the failing dynasty, as the kingdoms of Wei, Wu and Shu rose up to claim themselves the new, rightful rulers of China.
The Chinese historical narrative, however, is to be terrified of civil war, so as to how much they will allow before declaring the mandate void, is a very difficult and ambiguous question.