Yesterday, I asked: “Why” is China drifting away from Deng Xiaoping’s vision and back, it seems to me, towards Maoism. In an opinion piece in the Globe and Mail, award-winning author and scholar Professor Julia Lovell of the University of London draws an interesting parallel with Donald Trump. Xi Jinping, she suggests, at “The plenum resolution … [she’s referring to the February 2018 decisions] … proclaims the need to merge scientific Marxism-Leninism with China’s “outstanding traditional culture,” for Mr. Xi’s big project is the “Chinese Dream.” In English you might call it “Make China Great Again”: the restoration of China to its old, pre-19th-century glory.” I would argue that Chinese “greatness” began to decline in the later 16th century, near the end of the Ming dynasty. Two factors made China ‘weak:’
- The Ming emperors lost their strategic nerve and were soon replaced by the isolationist (and Manchu rather than Han) Qing dynasty; and
- The Europeans, starting with the Portuguese and ending (badly for China) with the more economically aggressive British, began to shift the global centre of economic gravity away from East Asia because maritime trade was easier and more profitable than caravans along the Silk Road. That economic centre of gravity was already shifting back towards Asia, because of Europe’s rise in the 1960s and ’70s, Japan’s rise in the 1970s and ’80s and the rise of South Korea and China in the 1980s and ’90s and beyond.
Professor Lovell says that “The directives project a seamless unity between five thousand years of “Chinese tradition” and the “red genes” of revolutionary Marxism-Leninism, ignoring the way that Chinese Communism for decades treated older patterns of belief and behaviour as dangerous heterodoxy. Even in his dying years, Mao still found energy to wage war publicly on Confucius. Mr. Xi’s credo paradoxically lauds the sage’s favourite virtues – benevolence, harmony, respecting the elderly and the family – and merges them with Maoist markers of merit. Chinese emperors promoted Confucian virtues to forge loyal subjects: Just as children should revere their parents, imperial morality preached, so should subjects revere their rulers. The CCP under Mr. Xi similarly hopes to use a Confucian revival to inculcate devotion to the “motherland” and its ruling party-state.” In my opinion, there is very little ‘communism‘ left anywhere in Communist China, Xi Jinping is, as Julia Lovell suggests, mixing some Marxist-Leninist rhetoric with thousands of years of Chinese tradition, which emphasizes imperial and imperious strength.
I suspect that Xi Jinping might actually imagine himself to be, as Mao did, a “helmsman,” steering China on a righteous path. In fact, he is just as capricious as was Mao or any Chinese emperor. But Xi is not ruling 16th century China. Modern China is part of a global system ~ one that was built by the Anglo-American hegemony of the 1940s, and one which, understandably, China wants to amend to better serve its interests ~ and it has global interests of its own, vital global interests. I do not believe that China’s rise to great power status is, inherently, a bad thing. But I do think that the direction that Xi Jinping is following is dangerous to the US-led West, to China and, potentially, to the world. There are too many rough edges where the US-led West and China meet ~ the possibility of friction turning into conflict is, if not exactly high, at least worrying.
The whole world, including America and China, needs to pay more attention to what Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said, in June, about the rise of China and the consequential friction. His key point was that friction need not turn into conflict. That matters and world leaders, geat, like Donald Trump, and small, like Justin Trudeau, need to grasp the essential truth in it.