Has China Changed?
There is no shortage of anecdotes and facts about the phenomenal changes that have occurred in the People's Republic of China since Deng Xiaoping unleashed the Four Modernizations (industry, agriculture, science and technology, and national defense) and China’s relations with the United States and other countries were normalized beginning in the late 1970’s. Poverty levels have declined tremendously, middle and upper and super rich classes have been created, and a number of the world’s leading companies are Chinese. The country’s economy is a hybrid capitalist system with a strong command and control superstructure. The country’s social life provides freedoms and opportunity unheard of a generation ago, though freedoms and opportunity that are strictly monitored and constrained. China is a powerful nation.
In the West, a rising China in this first part of the twenty-first century is met with angst. We see China through a black and white lens of capitalist v. command economies, representative democracy v. state-driven oligarchy, independent v. collective philosophy. There is little grey area as we struggle to place China into our box of understanding. We in the West tend to look at life and politics and economy with a short time horizon to our collective memories. Not so in Asia, particularly not so in China. Studies have been and are being conducted as to whether East and West have fundamentally different value structures and methodologies to how we perceive, organize, and interact with the world around us.
We learn in our history books that the Chinese people were ruled by mostly hereditary-based, dynastic empires for close to 2,000 years. Some dynasties were relatively short; others extended for centuries. Some dynasties were ruled by native Chinese (e.g., Tang, Song, and Ming), while others were ruled by foreign conquerors (e.g., Jin, Yuan, and Qing). Then came the twentieth century. The Manchu Qing Dynasty fell in 1912 after more than 250 years of rule and warlord fiefdoms spread throughout the land. Sun Yat-sen and others attempted to establish a republican form of government. There was much bloodshed, turmoil, and death, and then the Chinese people saw the rise of the Communist Party, a civil war, and a victor. China has been seen as a Communist-led nation since. The dynastic cycle was over.
But is that really so?
What if China’s Imperial System did not end in 1912? The turmoil of the early 1900's was similar to that which often accompanied the transitions from one dynasty to another throughout the millennia. The rulers were losing the mandate of heaven, the economy was faltering, advancements in technology were stagnant and regressing, and people were suffering (more than normal) and fed up with the status quo. The bandit and rebellion threats to the leadership expanded exponentially until they became an unstoppable force. Foreign invaders compounded the situation. Conquest has always been the hallmark of dynastic transition. Should the fall of the Qing be any different?
It is my position that the dynastic cycle did not end in 1912. The period between then and 1949 when the Chinese Community Party assumed control of the entire nation fits within the historical episodes of dynastic transition in China. It takes a while to consolidate power. The Party celebrated its 70th Anniversary in power this Fall. While no longer hereditary as in the past, the oligarchy known as the Chinese Communist Party fits the model of a new dynastic ruler. The Party took control of the central power structure of the nation, vanquished opposition, unified the people under its rule, and deputized members throughout the land spreading philosophy, ideology, and political control. It has survived thus far through relatively peaceful transitions from one ruler to the next. This is not to say that China for most of the twentieth century was not a society under siege with vast depredations, disruption, and death. It was. But Mao Zedong ruled for fifty-five years from the founding of the Communist Party in 1921 through his death in 1976, and current leader, Xi Jinping, who assumed the top position in 2013, now has the ability to rule indefinitely after term limits on his office were recently removed.
The China of today appears to be the same as China has always been. She is a collection of people organized under a command and control political, economic, and social system, a system that assimilates much from abroad, but which bends the same to its collective will. She is a grouping of people with mostly shared values and history that is in the historically early stages of attempting to reclaim her place at the pinnacle of world society as in centuries past. Whether this comes to be or not in light of significant internal and external challenges, how we in the West think about and understand what China has been, what China is, and what China may become are important considerations.