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Wednesday, August 21, 2013

China in Pre-Revolutionary Phase?

Paul A. Rahe at Ricochet writes about how the Chinese elite seem to be taking the wrong lesson from Tocqueville's Ancien Regime and the Revolution, by attempting to return to their Maoist roots. Party leaders have instructed functionaries to reject seven "Western" influences, including “Western constitutional democracy,” “universal values” of human rights, Western-inspired notions of media independence and civic participation, ardently pro-market “neo-liberalism,” and “nihilist” criticisms of the party’s traumatic past. Rahe notes the similarity between China and pre-revolutionary France:
Today's China really is a lot like late eighteenth-century France. It is a closed aristocracy of birth, and there is hardly anyone left in the country who believes in the old bromides of the Maoist era. If Xi Jinping follows through on the logic implicit in Document No. 9, he may someday be remembered as the Louis XV of old-regime China. When the great-grandson of Louis XIV attempted a crackdown in the middle of the eighteenth century, it not only came to naught. It scandalized public opinion and delegitimized the regime. I am all for reading Tocqueville. But one must read him with discernment and care.
Rahe's view of the French revolution, informed by Tocqueville, is that it was a crises of expectations--the quality of life for most French had been improving for some time, and there was an expectation that they should continue to increase. Rahe sees the same potential in China today:
 All that it would take, I argued, would be an economic downturn -- and the place would blow up. Beneath the surface, deep resentment of the inequalities that came with economic growth was becoming pervasive, and this resentment was bound to be reinforced by the fact that -- given the level of government control and the profound familial orientation of traditional Chinese culture -- the party would quickly turn into a crony-capitalist cabal, as the descendants of famous communist revolutionaries enriched themselves and displayed their ill-gotten lucre in ostentatiously obnoxious ways. All of this might be tolerated as long as rapid economic growth continued and nearly everyone profited. But, I contended, if and when a contraction takes place, if and when unemployment grows, if and when the dreams of ordinary Chinese are dashed, there will be hell to pay.
 He does not have faith that Chinese leaders can make it work:
The evidence now suggests ... that Xi Jingpin and his lieutenants take quite seriously the possibility that China is in a pre-revolutionary situation, and that they are intent on putting a lid on everything. Where Tocqueville might have suggested that the way forward was for the country’s leaders to embrace the “seven subversive currents,” to carry out a revolution from above, and to gradually introduce into the country the rule of law, constitutionalism, freedom of the press, judicial independence, civil associations, and a respect for human rights, they have decided in this year – the 120th anniversary of Chairman Mao’s birth – to return to the path he charted more than 60 years ago. 
Whether this is possible I doubt. One cannot sustain a modern economy without modern communications, and one cannot sustain modern communications without opening up one’s country to influences beyond the control of a centralized administration. The party established by Mao Tse-Tung is long gone. As numerous studies have shown, the party that now exists is dominated at the lower and middle ranks by a technocratic elite – much of it educated in the West. Its members may well fall in line and give lip-service to the new policy, and those in China who denounce the policy may suffer arrest. But Xi’s campaign may well backfire. It may serve only to popularize the “seven subversive currents” -- for, in commercial societies, there is no fruit like forbidden fruit. In the short term, to be sure, it will reinforce party discipline and control. But, in the circumstances, this is likely to strengthen immeasurably the “princelings” descended from the old Maoist elite and deepen the widespread corruption that the Bo Xilai scandal made manifest and that I touched on in January here and here. This may, in fact, be the larger purpose of the Maoist revival, for the party leadership seems unperturbed by the problem of corruption. ...

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