the assumption of responsibility for the welfare of the world
FESTIVAL OF ILLUSIONS
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Now that even local papers have given front-page, banner-headline coverage to the recent political drama in 中國 Zhōng Guó, 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 中國 Zhōng Guó, the first such in the post-revolutionary period, with 胡錦濤 Hú Jĭn Tāo taking over the last key post from former leader 江澤民 Jiāng Zé Mín. 江 Jiāng had voluntarily resigned as commander-in-chief of the military, and President 胡 Hú, 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. 胡 Hú took over as general secretary of the 中國共產黨 Zhōng Guó Gòng Chăn Dăng in 2002, and by virtue of heading the de facto government (the party), became the de facto ruler. 胡 Hú took over as president of the nominal 中國 Zhōng Guó 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 江 Jiāng to 胡 Hú that received the greatest attention. 中國 Zhōng Guó 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 中國 Zhōng Guó (or anywhere) has blinded even well-educated observers, to say nothing of those who know little of 中國 Zhōng Guó but that it is big, Communist, and eats rice. All talk of 中國 Zhōng Guó since 2003 has been of President 胡 Hú and Prime Minister 温家寶 Wēn Jiā Băo, younger, better-looking, probably more skilled with consumer electronics, and certainly nicer than 江 Jiāng and his generation. (江 Jiāng could well have inspired the Letterman bit about “old guys and enormous glasses”. What is the deal?) One would have supposed that 江 Jiāng’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 胡 Hú become the undisputed leader of 中國 Zhōng Guó 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 中國 Zhōng Guó, 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 孔 Kŏngism 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 中國 Zhōng Guó, 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 孔子的 Kŏng Zi de mindset, which is why warlord 袁世凱 Yuán Shì Kăi actually declared himself emperor. That reign was short-lived; but soon 中國 Zhōng Guó produced its own Napoléon, 蔣介石 Jéung Gáaih Sek, a republican champion who sought to rule in the monarch’s place. More like Cromwell than Napoléon, 蔣 Jéung did not take the throne. But he, too, benefitted from the 孔子的 Kŏng Zi de conditioning of his subjects. His attempts to subjugate the entire former empire ultimately brought forth the true heir to the last emperor ― 毛澤東 Máo Zé Dōng.
毛 Máo was one of the most powerful figures in the twentieth century, and in 中國 Zhōng Guó 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 毛 Máo says.” And they did: 毛 Máo said to hate a particular class, and it was hated. 毛 Máo said to stop hating the same class, and it was no longer hated. At the height of 毛 Máo’s own madness, the country was mad, because 毛 Máo’s personal power was so great.
In the case of 毛 Máo, personal loyalty to him, by close allies and complete strangers, was a necessity. There were great risks to opposing 毛 Máo, lest anyone find out. Most individuals were loyal to 毛 Máo (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 毛 Máo’s 中國 Zhōng Guó was clearly 周恩來 Zhōu Ēn Lái. 周 Zhōu held the official second rank; and his ability to withstand 毛 Máo’s society-wide mood swings was unequalled, literally. 周 Zhōu held to power even while using his own network of loyalty to mitigate some of 毛 Máo’s excesses. (This makes a person wonder how bad things would have been in 中國 Zhōng Guó without an opposition. Could the Cultural Revolution actually have been worse?)
The third rank, taking the 毛 Máoist period as a whole, fell to 鄧小平 Dèng Xiăo Píng. 鄧 Dèng could not withstand 毛 Máo’s mercurial spasms, and was purged twice. But 鄧 Dèng’s power lay not in 毛 Máo’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 周 Zhōu and 毛 Máo, the disgraced 鄧 Dèng 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 中國 Zhōng Guó, a position he held until his own death in 1997. It was no cosmetic reign, either, as he effected economic reform that created 中國 Zhōng Guó’s present petty capitalism, dismantling the sole rationalization for the revolution and war that brought 毛 Máo to power in the first place. (Which means, for those keeping score at home, that the 中國共產黨 Zhōng Guó Gòng Chăn Dăng is now ruling for no reason at all, other than to rule. And the entirety of 毛 Máo’s butcherous reign is exposed as a disaster without the slightest mitigation.)
鄧 Dèng’s rule, and 毛 Máo’s, had nothing to do with formal positions. They held whatever positions they cared to hold, and 鄧 Dèng 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.) 江 Jiāng held all of the official positions during that period that 胡 Hú holds now ― general secretary, president, and chair of the CMC. 鄧 Dèng had never been president and had only been general secretary briefly under 毛 Máo. But no one supposed that 江 Jiāng was actually in charge. With 鄧 Dèng’s death, 江 Jiāng did consolidate power, and assume the role of paramount leader. But this, too, reflected the will of 鄧 Dèng, who had given 江 Jiāng his titles and designated him for the succession. If 胡 Hú does ever become the paramount leader, it will be worth remembering that it was 鄧 Dèng, not 江 Jiāng, who selected him for the role.
But 胡 Hú is not there yet, as a careful analyst would suppose merely by remembering the example of 鄧 Dèng. 江 Jiāng has exalted his legacy and his (paltry) theoretical contribution. He has installed a majority on the policy-making Политбюро Standing Committee of the party. That body is therefore loyal to 江 Jiāng, not to 胡 Hú. They are more likely to follow the guidance of 江 Jiāng’s lieutenant 曾慶紅 Zēng Qìng Hóng, though nominally 曾 Zēng is only the Vice President.
And so the news errs in naming this change of titles from 江 Jiāng to 胡 Hú as the first orderly transition in modern 中國 Zhōng Guó. 鄧 Dèng 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 中國 Zhōng Guó system obviously does not hinge on formal titles. 江 Jiāng’s influence will not end before his death; and that death will probably do more to test the influence of the long-dead 鄧小平 Dèng Xiăo Píng, 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 中國 Zhōng Guó quits menacing 臺灣 Tai5 Oan1 and allows 香港 Hèung Góng to elect its own government. And then the 中共 Zhōng Gòng 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.
© O.T. FORD
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