An etched into stone, unchanging, timeless, immutable… fallacy

As many as a wiseacre has noted, it is easier to criticize errors than to put forward truths. Guided by that wisdom, my first post will be on what is, in my opinion, the most persistent of the many misguided notions that exist concerning China and its leaders.

“Chinese political leaders, thinkers, whatever their own leanings, are merely filling in the blueprints drawn over the course of two thousand years of history.”

Based on my admittedly not comprehensive readings of source materials from the 1960s and 1970s it was common for Western accounts of China to include roughly the following qualifier, “For all the sound and fury coming from Beijing, one has to wonder if the Communists are true revolutionaries, or merely the latest dynasty to rule over China.” In retrospect, however, it is clear that the Communist Party under Mao was one of the most earnestly revolutionary movements in modern history. While the extent to which the CPC was successful at remaking Chinese society can be debated, the tremendous effort put into making a total break with established political institutions, cultural norms, and patterns of everyday life puts the lie to the idea of the Communists as a a modern dynasty. The durability of the this framework in the face of facts can be chalked up to several factors.

First, among Westerners, the idea of China as the epitome of the unchanging, mysterious Orient is hard to shake. That China was sealed off from much of the Western world from 1949 to 1976 meant that even highly perceptive observers turned to nostrums to guide their analysis. The Cultural Revolution, for example, was characterized as a classic palace intrigue triggered by concerns over the health of an aging absolute ruler. This was an accurate description, but the underlying source of the intrigue, as is now clear, was Mao’s realization that many of his colleagues no longer shared his revolutionary zeal, in other words, a thoroughly ideological motive.

Second, the way that political leaders and public figures characterize the past and their own relationship for it is very different in the West and China. Compared to the leaders of the Soviet Union, Mao and his chief lieutenants came off as more historically minded. In China, the weight accumulated history is heavy enough that even cultural radicals are expected to engage with those who came before them. However, that is quite different from actually being inspired by or following in the footsteps of historical figures. There is a long and proud tradition in China of citing historical sources on behalf of policies that, in fact, have little historical precedent.

Finally, and most importantly in the present context, is that the current Chinese leadership relentlessly make the comparison.  To bolster the argument that Chinese’s current political system is a better fit for the nation than liberal democracy, they (and a handful of handsomely paid western academics, most notably the contemptible Daniel A. Bell) draw specious parallels between the political systems of imperial and modern China. Though they vary in content and scope, these arguments tend to revolve around the idea that current CPC leadership, just like the emperors and Confucian officials of Imperial China, possess wisdom unattainable to elected leaders who must face the heady passions of the mob every few years.


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