Last week, the Chinese Communist Party celebrated its 70th anniversary in power with a military parade, but the display of its armies was hardly a sign of success. Communism was supposed to create a new Chinese society of fraternity and equality, not militarization and social inequality. The People’s Republic, by corrupting the virtues of capitalism, is more reminiscent of feudal, prerevolutionary China. The country’s average income gap is now 1 to 3—exactly what it was 70 years ago—despite the Communists’ vow to empower peasants. The Gini coefficient, a universal measure of income distribution, shows a massive gap—the world’s largest—between China’s richest 10 percent and its poorest 10 percent. No society on the planet, it turns out, is as unequal as Communist China. Given the country’s stupefying social polarization and implacable authoritarianism, one must wonder how the Party manages to maintain its undivided power without any opposition. Existing views on this subject are well known, redundant, and, up to a point, correct—but only up to a point.
The first explanation for China’s dysfunctional status quo is based on economic development, which fueled the Party’s absolute power. It’s true that one-third of the Chinese have risen above poverty since the government abandoned its collectivization policy in 1979. Since then, it has become permissible to make money. As Milton Friedman observed, people embrace paid work once it’s permitted by the government—so there is nothing miraculous about the Chinese “miracle.” Today, one-third of the population enjoys prosperity, another third hopes to succeed, and yet another third—especially in rural areas—remains in despair. Their fate stems from government oppression: private property remains forbidden, and peasants can’t leave their villages without permission. But the country’s economic success perpetuates such policies.
A second explanation involves nationalism, a newer trend in China. In the past, the Chinese—though rooted in their provinces, local languages, and customs—were unaffected by nationalist feelings. But the Communist Party now nurtures this ideological sentiment, which aims to fill the psychological void that resulted from eradicating religions and leveling regional differences. It’s even possible that nationalist propaganda, which exalts China’s power, is fulfilling the aspirations of a population long deprived of its history and traditions. This nationalism has particularly seduced young people who consider themselves Chinese, a cultural departure from their parents, who identified with Szechuan, Taoist, or other regional groups.
The third explanation, one rarely mentioned in the West but evident when speaking with native Chinese, is the Party’s reestablishment of peace and social order. The party operates a police state, but the population prefers this condition, and even accommodates it, in order to avoid repeating a century of civil wars and bloody revolutions. Even if the economy slows down, it seems to me, most Chinese will stay loyal to the Party—so long as it maintains order.
A fourth factor, never mentioned, that explains the status quo: fear, the foundation of every totalitarian regime. This is commonly forgotten as regimes flood us with propaganda and statistics, which may or may not be verifiable. And when these regimes fall, as the Soviet Union did, we find that fear still paralyzes people. Since the days of Mao Zedong, the Chinese regime has ceaselessly “modernized” its surveillance apparatus, to the point that all Party opposition confronts the same fate. The few audacious ones—the Tibetans, the Uighurs, and the dissident democrats—know in advance that they will pay for their opposition with their lives. This suits the Chinese regime perfectly: the death in prison of Liu Xiaobo, winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, is part of this machinery of fear that is at once up to date and traditional. “You must kill a cock to frighten the monkeys,” says a Chinese proverb often cited today. Fear is a powerful motive in the history of peoples.
There is, finally, a fifth explanation offered to explain the current situation—but this one, in my view, explains nothing. Chinese president Xi Jinping is supposedly part of an imperial tradition, deeply rooted in a long history and in the Confucian religion. But the Chinese no longer understand their history, or Confucius—both were rejected in 1949 by the Communists—unless one believes that imperialism and Confucianism are transmitted genetically. Indeed, it’s because Chinese culture was destroyed in continental China—not in Taiwan or Hong Kong—and replaced by the cult of the Party that it still holds sole power. If the Chinese were still Confucians, they would rebel; for “the good prince,” Confucius wrote, “is one whose name you do not know.” The rebels of Hong Kong may claim the mantle of Confucius—but surely Xi cannot.
Guy Sorman, a City Journal contributing editor and French public intellectual, is the author of many books, including Empire of Lies: The Truth about China in the Twenty-First Century. Translation by Alexander Uff.
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