the assumption of responsibility for the welfare of the world











2004 September 24


Now that even local papers have given front-page, banner-headline coverage to the recent political drama in China, I feel authorized to inflict an analysis on a general audience. Perhaps you saw it in your own local paper: an orderly transfer of power completed in China, the first such in the post-revolutionary period, with Hu Jintao taking over the last key post from former leader Jiang Zemin. Jiang had voluntarily resigned as commander-in-chief of the military, and President Hu, in office for a year and a half, has finally consolidated his power, and will now usher in a reign of peace and prosperity for all the world. (I am embellishing here. Africa, as usual, will be excluded from the peace and prosperity.)

It would be a good story, if it hadn’t already been used before ― twice, in fact. Hu took over as general secretary of the Chinese Communist Party in 2002, and by virtue of heading the de facto government (the party), became the de facto ruler. Hu took over as president of the nominal Chinese government in 2003, and had thus secured power officially as well. Of course, most local papers possess only enough sophistication to believe that whatever guy is called ‘president’ is the leader (they will not say ‘ruler’) of the country (they will not say ‘state’), and so it was the second transfer of offices from Jiang to Hu that received the greatest attention. China has a new president! A new day is upon us. Break out the moon cakes; call out the giant dragon.

The myth of formal power in China (or anywhere) has blinded even well-educated observers, to say nothing of those who know little of China but that it is big, Communist, and eats rice. All talk of China since 2003 has been of President Hu and Prime Minister Wen Jiabao, younger, better-looking, probably more skilled with consumer electronics, and certainly nicer than Jiang and his generation. (Jiang could well have inspired the Letterman bit about “old guys and enormous glasses”. What is the deal?) One would have supposed that Jiang’s last post, chair of the Central Military Commission and thus head of the military, was not at all significant, for all that he was mentioned in the mainstream press. Or one would have supposed that until the mainstream press made a big deal of his surrender of that post in recent days. So did Hu become the undisputed leader of China in 2002, 2003, or 2004? He is the undisputed leader now, isn’t he?

Even the most awesome of autocrats does not rule alone. It is impossible to control a population without the complicity of a fairly-large fraction of that population. In historical China, up through the 1912 revolution, the system of control was entrenched and institutionalized to a legendary degree. The state religion (or ideology, as some would have it, though there is no difference in this case) of Confucianism was clearly a dominion-oriented doctrine, prescribing a set of hierarchies which gave every person a fixed status above or, more often, below its fellows. Since human freedom and equality have hardly been the norm throughout history, there was nothing exceptional about pre-revolution China, but for the formality.

After the revolution, which had been intended to install a modern liberal republic, things quickly became a matter of force. Of course, any aspiring tyrant would want to exploit the Confucian mindset, which is why warlord Yuan Shikai actually declared himself emperor. That reign was short-lived; but soon China produced its own Napoleon, Chiang Kai Shek, a republican champion who sought to rule in the monarch’s place. More like Cromwell than Napoleon, Chiang did not take the throne. But he, too, benefitted from the Confucian conditioning of his subjects. His attempts to subjugate the entire former empire ultimately brought forth the true heir to the last emperor ― Mao Zedong.

Mao was one of the most powerful figures in the twentieth century, and in Chinese history, with the ability to manipulate the entire society with his every whim, an ability he frequently used. But even he was dependent on the cooperation of others. He began as an object of great respect and ended as an object of great fear, but all along the spectrum his rule required the active participation of millions: “We will do as Mao says.” And they did: Mao said to hate a particular class, and it was hated. Mao said to stop hating the same class, and it was no longer hated. At the height of Mao’s own madness, the country was mad, because Mao’s personal power was so great.

In the case of Mao, personal loyalty to him, by close allies and complete strangers, was a necessity. There were great risks to opposing Mao, lest anyone find out. Most individuals were loyal to Mao (even if perforce), loyal to the system that sustained his power, and those individuals who could not punish a dissident themselves could certainly inform on a dissident to those who could. Open dissidence would have been grossly incautious.

The second-most-powerful person in Mao’s China was clearly Zhou Enlai. Zhou held the official second rank; and his ability to withstand Mao’s society-wide mood swings was unequalled, literally. Zhou held to power even while using his own network of loyalty to mitigate some of Mao’s excesses. (This makes a person wonder how bad things would have been in China without an opposition. Could the Cultural Revolution actually have been worse?)

The third rank, taking the Maoist period as a whole, fell to Deng Xiaoping. Deng could not withstand Mao’s mercurial spasms, and was purged twice. But Deng’s power lay not in Mao’s favor, but in his ability to wield the favor of an entire faction of society. This did not necessarily mean he was popular, but people had confidence in his abilities, and they were willing to entrust their own futures to an alignment with him. Thus, after the deaths of Zhou and Mao, the disgraced Deng managed, from his political exile, to secure his own rehabilitation, and then his own dominance over all rivals. Within a few years he had become ruler of China, a position he held until his own death in 1997. It was no cosmetic reign, either, as he effected economic reform that created China’s present petty capitalism, dismantling the sole rationalization for the revolution and war that brought Mao to power in the first place. (Which means, for those keeping score at home, that the Chinese Communist Party is now ruling for no reason at all, other than to rule. And the entirety of Mao’s butcherous reign is exposed as a disaster without the slightest mitigation.)

Deng’s rule, and Mao’s, had nothing to do with formal positions. They held whatever positions they cared to hold, and Deng spent the last eight years of his rule without an official position or title. (The description ‘paramount leader’ was meant to address this terminological deficiency.) Jiang held all of the official positions during that period that Hu holds now ― general secretary, president, and chair of the CMC. Deng had never been president and had only been general secretary briefly under Mao. But no one supposed that Jiang was actually in charge. With Deng’s death, Jiang did consolidate power, and assume the role of paramount leader. But this, too, reflected the will of Deng, who had given Jiang his titles and designated him for the succession. If Hu does ever become the paramount leader, it will be worth remembering that it was Deng, not Jiang, who selected him for the role.

But Hu is not there yet, as a careful analyst would suppose merely by remembering the example of Deng. Jiang has exalted his legacy and his (paltry) theoretical contribution. He has installed a majority on the policy-making Politburo Standing Committee of the party. That body is therefore loyal to Jiang, not to Hu. They are more likely to follow the guidance of Jiang’s lieutenant Zeng Qinghong, though nominally Zeng is only the Vice President.

And so the news errs in naming this change of titles from Jiang to Hu as the first orderly transition in modern China. Deng designated his own successor, and that successor took over with no evidence of struggle. What could be more orderly? The news errs more, of course, in calling this a transfer of power, since the Chinese system obviously does not hinge on formal titles. Jiang’s influence will not end before his death; and that death will probably do more to test the influence of the long-dead Deng Xiaoping, who may yet achieve the posthumous coronation not merely of his own heir, but his heir’s heir.

And the news errs most of all in implying some cause for hope. We will know that things have changed when China quits menacing Taiwan and allows Hong Kong to elect its own government. And then the CCP will legalize opposition parties on the mainland, hold free elections, and be shown the door by the democrats. That will not necessarily be orderly, but it will be a real transfer of power, several degrees more significant than the dance of old men and bureaucrats that has governed up to now. I eagerly await the day; but until then I feel constrained to point out that the dragon-like creature in the parade is not really a dragon, but a bunch of humans in a dragon costume. I should have thought it obvious, but I’ve been wrong about such things before.


Original version


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