History lessons for Xi Jinping – Isaac Beech
The People’s Republic of China just turned seventy years old. The fatherland is now the same age as Samuel L. Jackon, Ozzy Osborne and Prince Charles; the Chinese Communist Party is already older than Marx was when he died (64); and the government in Beijing has exceeded the life expectancy in Bhutan. Perhaps most tellingly, China’s latest political incarnation has also reached the average age that its previous forty-nine dynasties lasted.
In an excerpted piece the China Channel ran a year and a half ago, Harvard scholar Yuhua Wang studied lessons from China’s dynastial history, coming up with that seventy-year mean average, albeit accounting for “a wide-ranging variation from the Heng Chu dynasty (403–404), which lasted for less than a year, to the Tang (618–907), which ruled China for 289 years.” (It’s worth noting also that although there have been 49 Chinese dynasties or kingdoms in total, many overlapped with rival territories; there are roughly 16 periods of Chinese history, and half as many dynasties which ruled the entirety of what is now claimed as “China.”)
Wang also itemizes the most common means of dynastial fall, with elite rebellion at the top – that is, factionalism and in-fighting rather than mass revolt or foreign overthrow, although both of those have also brought down the mighty. Only half of China’s emperors left their role of a natural death, with the rest variously murdered, overthrown or killed in war. And those of them who designated a chosen successor were 64% less likely to be deposed than those who didn’t. All food for thought as Xi Jinping, a relatively hale 66 year old with no successor in sight after extending his term limit indefinitely, sees the PRC over the 70-year mark.
As the military parade today rolls out China’s arsenal of DF-41 intercontinental missiles, J-20 stealth fighter jets, DR-8 drones and Type-99 battle tanks, the PRC hardly looks to be in a weak position. The emptied streets of Beijing, and ubiquitous red banners around the rest of the nation, evidence a population that is both cowered into conformity and also, by and large, patriotically supportive of continued Communist Party rule. Xi Jinping has purged his inner circle of all political rivals, and seems set to rule for as long as he well pleases.
Yet that dynastial sense of security is belied by an array of factors, on top of historical precedent. For one, those purges have created an awful lot of enemies. The tigers might be in prison along with the flies, but their networks of patronage – the spider webs that stick to the walls of Zhongnanhai, Beijing’s seat of governance – cannot be entirely swept away, leaving Xi vulnerable to a grouping against him should the opportunity arise. This has all been grist to the mill of China prognosticators, with nothing come of it yet. But the black box of CCP leadership is also a tinder box, and with no chosen line of succession there is incentive for ambitious rivals.
The other key factor is the unrest at China’s fringes, which unnerves the centre. I am writing from Hong Kong, where pitched battles between protestors and police have bathed downtown in tear gas and pepper water (I can attest it stings like hell). Today’s march is certain to bring more violence; quite likely someone will be killed. And while gasmask-clad youths throwing bricks at riot police is hardly going to take down the CCP, it does create an international situation where Xi is under pressure to react, watched closely by his enemies. Meanwhile Xinjiang’s detention camps, where prisoners are shackled and herded like cattle, afford no dissent but also put pressure on Beijing, straining the faultline between hardliners and other factions.
If history tells that tense times lead to in-fighting at court, it also teaches that any cracks in the Emperor’s armor tend not to bode well for the people. Dynastial change and challenge has historically come with loss of public life. Even the Tiananmen square massacre of 1989 – which harbingered a victory of CCP hardliners for the past 30 years – was allowed to happen because of intra-Party factionalism, leading to extreme measures that asserted control not just on the streets but inside the walls of Zhongnanhai. In that respect, we can only hope Xi Jinping feels secure enough in power not to flex his muscles in Hong Kong.
None of this is to say the current Chinese dynasty will not last another hundred years. But there comes a point when, for all of the heartfelt patriotism of many Chinese mainland citizens, it is impossible to say the Party is serving the interests of its people while they are interred in the West, tear-gassed in the South, and silenced everywhere else. The very earliest Chinese rulers talked of losing the Mandate of Heaven as a precursor of change; its Communist leadership has proved more stubborn. Yet the USSR only lasted for 69 years. After 70 the clock ticks backwards. ∎