Disclaimer: The following are my thoughts, speculations and opinions; based upon many and varied readings and research over a long period of time. I do not claim to speak for anyone else but I do claim that these writings represent a valid position in today’s world. It is possible that some of these writings may be in error – if so, I am open to correction, but absent proof of error, I am willing to debate and defend my positions vigorously.
A Bit of History
In order to think cogently about China, you have to know a little of her history. That's not to say that we need to start with the Five Immortal Emperors and the Monkey King or dally with Genghis Khan or with the Ming Dynasty. However the ancient history of China shows a repeating story of resistance, invasion, conquest and absorption. The alien enemy, the plundering hordes, the invading savages conquer all and reap the reward of their struggle – the Dragon Throne – and one by one, they all become seduced and absorbed into the ongoing dream of the Middle Kingdom (Zhongguo – the Chinese name for China)…
Why does this pattern repeat over and over again across the millennia? Is it perhaps a reflection of the process we have seen in western civilization (or are we the reflection?) If so, what makes the outcome different from ours? It is not enough to cite the rise of science in the west nor to credit the difference to the rise of the Athens and democratic sensibility. Something more elemental was at work in the east – Taoism and Confucius.
The Tao of Confucius
OK, to begin with, this discussion must be a simplified, truncated, even bowdlerized version of some of the most extremely complex thought systems ever dreamed up by man (or Zhuangzi) – I apologize beforehand for this short treatment and I urge anyone who is reading this to explore these philosophies further – you will be rewarded. In addition, we are here attempting to express the dreams and desires of one of the most sophisticated societies ever developed, with a people who were used to a level of nuanced thought unfathomable by our ‘frontal assault’ approach to life in the west (see Tang and Song Dynasty poetry). To start…
Taoism is and was a system of philosophy that encourages a serene and accepting approach to the world and its travails, similar in some ways to the Stoics in the west. But Taoism prefers to think in terms of harmony with the world around one emphasizing compassion, moderation and humility in everyday actions. This philosophy permeated all Chinese life in the various empires, and, along with Confucianism, made a very curious mixture.
Confucius was a scholar, minor court functionary and philosopher who lived about 2,500 years ago during the Zhou dynasty. His works on the moral responsibility of the ruler to the ruled, and the obligation of the citizen to improve themselves, morally, by dint of constant self-improvement and the development of superior judgment.
By contrast, in the west, at this time, Thales was ordering the world by means of natural, replicable explanations rather than relying on supernatural intercession; Pericles, Socrates and Aristotle were not yet born.
Confucianism has been called, erroneously, in the west, the foundation of bureaucracy – that honor, I believe belongs more properly to Hammurabi. Nevertheless, there was a strange and unfortunate affect when Taoism and Confucianism were combined in the Middle Kingdom.
The problem arose from the combination of a strict hierarchical government form, with the military power to back it up, and the introduction of Taoist passivity and Confucian respect for authority and moral value. The royal class was able to make a distinction between themselves and the lower levels of society. The essentially feudal nature of politico/economics then prevalent in China en toto meant that a strong, secure, stable, ossified culture extended for over a thousand years. Even several invasions were not able to subvert this monolithic system – the invaders were accepted, beguiled, seduced and… absorbed. But China did not change.
The Oppression of the West and the Opium Wars
The legendary Chinese dynasties of Han, Tang and Song were succeeded by the Mongol and Manchu invasions – which were subsumed into the Yuan and Qing dynasties. The Qing lasted until 1912 but now without serious civil strife. The advent of the western powers in the 19th century coincided with the outbreak of various insurrections and served to weaken central authority. This, along with the British and American policies of encouraging opium addiction (and thus the very lucrative opium trade) among the Chinese led to the aptly-named Opium Wars, which China lost. Beachheads and trade concessions were demanded by the victors and accede to by the Dowager Empress (who had little choice in the matter). Even the popular uprising called the Boxer Rebellion failed to do anything but further weaken the Dragon Throne.
The Kuomintang, the CPC and WWII
Finally, in 1913 the Nationalist Party (Kuomintang) led by the legendary Sun Yat-sen and his protégé, Chiang Kai-shek took control and attempted to establish a representative (though only one party rule) Chinese government. There were hindered by the activities of the powerful groups of warlords who had accrued great power over the long decline of the empire and the various internecine wars. They were also openly opposed by the Chinese Communist Party (CPC) led by the firebrand Mao Zedong.
During WWII, both the Kuomintang and the CPC fought together against the Japanese Empire. Hatred of the Japanese trumped their rivalry for the time being (see the Rape of Nanking, for an example of why). But as soon as that war was over, the battle for power began in earnest. The Kuomintang appealed to the nationalist sentiment among the Chinese people but the same old ruling elite were the leaders. The CPC promised the peasants power over their own lives (falsely of course) and a new way of distributing the wealth – the great communist mantra: “From each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs.” – a phrase so very useful when convincing the downtrodden to hand over control of their lives to you.
Mao on the Dragon Throne
Eventually, four years later. Mao and the CPC prevailed and the People’s Republic of China (PRC) was born. The Kuomintang was forced off the mainland to Formosa (Taiwan) where they have remained in noisy exile ever since. This was not without cost, however, the final slaughterhouse bill for Mao Zedong, including the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution (about which the less said the better) was close to 100 million lives. This makes Mao Zedong the greatest mass murderer in history, easily eclipsing the second place (Stalin at 50 million) and third place (Hitler at a paltry 30 million) contenders. No one else even comes close to these three beauties.
The nature of Mao (“Political power comes from the barrel of a gun.”) Zedong predicted the nature of the so-called Chinese Communist Party. There was no communism at all and functionally it was not a party but a means to exercise control. It was, however, very Chinese, in fact, it was almost indistinguishable from the previous 2,500 years of homegrown Chinese political structure: it was an empire and Mao was on the Dragon Throne.
Deng and the Counter Revolution
Mao had a problem, a very big problem. China was very obviously falling behind the rest of the world in about every quantifiable way. Mao was far too steeped in his ideology (see the Cultural Revolution) and was incapable of leveraging the country into another, more profitable path. His death in 1976 was a relief to the politburo who had been chafing to get some reforms underway. Deng Xiaoping rose to power (after an attempt by the Gang of Four – including Mao’s wife – to grab power). Deng was a canny politician. He saw what democracy was like in the west, and he didn’t much like it. He also saw what capitalism was doing for the west, and he liked that very much. He also saw what we apparently don’t: that democracy and capitalism are not the same thing. Deng thought that if the Chinese people were given a shot at western-style capitalism so they could become rich, they wouldn’t much give a damn about political or personal freedom (they’d never had it so they wouldn’t miss it). So Deng pushed the idea of opening up the Chinese system to allow people to ‘own’ stuff. The Chinese, not being stupid, thought this was a great idea (after all if you have enough money you can buy a kind of freedom) and became capitalists with a vengeance. The Chinese economy took off like a rocket – and it’s still going strong.
Parts 2 & 3 to come...