The rise of China as America’s chief rival on the international stage has long been a staple of our foreign policy pundits’ alleged wisdom. The Chinese, simply by virtue of their enormous population, have been deemed the inheritors of the earth. China, we are told, has been in the process of overtaking us in terms of virtually every metric imaginable: demographic, economic, and, most important of all, military. There’s just one problem with this Sinocentric view of the future: it’s based on nonsensical assumptions. And the central wrongheaded assumption – that China is a stable unitary country and will always remain so – is being disproved (once again) by the events now unfolding in Hong Kong.
For most of its long history China has been divided into warring regions – or, in the modern era, disparate factions with antithetical interests – with a strong unitary state presiding over a relatively stable empire the exception rather than the rule. Its weakness and disunity made it easy prey for European colonialists, who tore off large pieces of Chinese real estate in the nineteenth century. Its status as the sick man of Eastasia persisted until the aftermath of World War II, when it fell under what appeared to be Russian domination and the "Peoples Republic of China" was established by the Communist Party of China (CCP).
I say "appeared to be" because, in reality, the idea of a "Soviet bloc" totally dominated by the Russians was always a neoconservative fantasy that had little if anything to do with reality. While the Russians had simply been handed eastern Europe by the US and Britain at Yalta, and Stalin sent in the Red Army to impose Communist rule on those unfortunate countries, in China there was an actual revolution led by an indigenous force – Mao’s "People’s Liberation Army" and the CCP. And while the façade of commie unity was kept up for quite some time, it was practically inevitable that Beijing would eventually break with Moscow over some ostensibly ideological difference.
China’s revolution was an essentially nationalist eruption that had little to do with communist ideology and everything to do with China’s status as a third-rate power at the mercy of European predators. The war against the Japanese occupiers – and the Western-supported Kuomintang – legitimized the Communist Party and paved the way for the rule of the CCP. Yet that legitimacy has been seriously tarnished, if not completely neutralized, by two factors: 1) the Cultural Revolution of the 1970s, and 2) the behavior of China’s political class since that time.
Although we often hear predictions that Communist rule in China is an archaic vestige of the past doomed to end sooner rather than later, the reality is that the Cultural Revolution of the 1970s marked the real end of Chinese communism.
Frustrated by the resistance of the conservative bureaucracy to his radical proposals, and paranoid to a considerable degree, Mao ignited the Cultural Revolution when he drew up his famous wall poster denouncing the "red bourgeoisie" and targeting the "capitalist roaders" whom he saw leading the CCP down the path to Russian-style "revisionism." The aim of this group, Mao averred, was to betray the Revolution, restore capitalism, and enrich themselves at the expense of the people – a pretty accurate description, when you think about it, of what has happened in China since Mao’s demise.
With the aid of his wife, Ch’iang Ch’ing, and the so-called "Gang of Four," Mao waged a war of words against his perceived enemies inside the CCP. Summoning a million "Red Guards" to Beijing, he addressed them in Tiananmen Square and exhorted them to "bombard the bourgeois headquarters" in every locality – and they took him quite literally, returning to their homes to take on local CCP officials, whom they hauled out of their offices and humiliated before large crowds of jeering Maoists.
Egged on by Madam Mao’s powerful propaganda machine, the radical "leftists" targeted every aspect of Chinese life in their campaign against the "capitalist roaders": in a blow struck at the "ghosts and monsters" of China’s feudal past, priceless antiquities were smashed and museums were closed as purveyors of "bourgeois ideology." The universities were shut down as students decided they were better off "making revolution" than studying under "petite bourgeois" professors." Factories ground to a halt as workers decided it would be far more productive to focus on the "revisionism" of Liu Shaoqi. Production ceased, the economy came to a standstill, and for the next decade millions were uprooted, tens of thousands killed or tortured, and the country – under the rubric of Madam Mao’s increasingly anarchistic exhortations, such as "It’s Right to Rebel!" – descended into chaos.
Mao finally reined in the Red Guards, in 1976, when they began to challenge the PLA and fighting broke out between rival Guard factions. The defection of Lin Biao and his attempted flight to the Soviet Union did much to discredit the Cultural Revolution in the eyes of the people, and when the decline in living standards could no longer be blamed on the evil "capitalist roaders" the CCP began to look for a way out. Mao’s death and the subsequent arrest of Madam Mao and her "Gang of Four" led to a complete reversal of the official Maoist party line, which changed overnight from Madam Mao’s "It’s Right to Rebel!" to Deng Tsiao-ping’s "To Get Rich Is Glorious!"
The ascension of Deng to heights reached previously only by Mao marked the de facto demise of Chinese communism. Oh, there would still be an entity calling itself the Communist Party of China, and CCP ideologues would still churn out polemics citing the Marxist classics and Mao’s published works: the old forms would remain, even in the total absence of any meaningful content. Rapidly abandoning the commandist, central planning-oriented model of economic development embraced by the old Maoist authorities, the "capitalist-roaders" Mao had denounced did exactly what the Chinese "left" had always accused them of plotting – they took China down the road to capitalism.
They’ve been speeding along that particular highway ever since, but now it looks like they may be about to experience an unavoidable crash.
A form of capitalism – state capitalism, otherwise known as "crony capitalism" – has indeed been restored in China, due in no small part to the efforts of the Communist Party. CCP leaders have pursued a single-minded policy of economic development as the first – and only – priority ever since the Bad Old Days of the Cultural Revolution. By de-collectivizing both industry and agriculture, and introducing radical market reforms, the average standard of living has skyrocketed – along with the expectations of China’s rising middle class, not to mention the rising resentments of the vast underclass of landless peasants. Resentment comes, too, from the rising middle class, which sees the advantages enjoyed by politically-connected oligarchs as obstacles strewn in their path.
Imitating the Keynesian policies of the West, China’s political class has created a real estate bubble of ginormous size, one that makes our own real estate bubble of 2006-08 seem like a minor price fluctuation. When that bubble bursts – and it isn’t a question of if, but when – it will mean a huge step back for the average Chinese worker. Bankruptcies will proliferate because real estate is the basis for a huge proportion of Chinese bank loans, and the fall in prices will set off a domino effect of large-scale deflation countrywide.
The current protests taking place in Hong Kong, supposedly over the lack of democracy, are just a foretaste of things to come on the mainland. The CCP has long since lost any claim to legitimacy, and it’s only a matter of time before this catches up with them. The irony is that the "occupy Hong Kong" rebellion may serve to renew the CCP’s claim to legitimacy rather than witness its further deterioration.
For the Hong Kong rebels are playing up to the Western media, showing off their anti-nationalist credentials – and risking a confrontation with the rising nationalism of China’s teeming masses. The International Business Times captured the tone and spirit of the Hong Kong protesters:
"’Hong Kong is Hong Kong and China is China,’ said Ashley Au, a 31-year-old public relations manager demonstrating in the Causeway Bay neighborhood. ‘We want more of a say in our government,’ she said by telephone. … ‘We don’t feel like we’re a part of China, and I don’t feel Chinese,’ she said."
NBC News chimes in with the same story: Hong Kong students, led by the 17-year-old boy wonder of the pro-democracy movement, Joshua Wong, don’t identify as "just Chinese," and are imbued with "global values."
This is not likely to go over well in the rest of China, especially among the students, notorious for their ultra-nationalist sentiments. To get some idea of the mainland response, conjure the emotions evoked by Jeanne Kirkpatrick when she described "the San Francisco Democrats" in her 1984 speech to the GOP national convention. To the assembled Republicans, who loudly cheered the former Democrat and leading neoconservative intellectual, San Francisco was indeed another country, symbolizing all the values and allegiances they considered essentially foreign. It isn’t hard to imagine some Jeanne Kirkpatrick types within the CCP taking advantage of the resurgent nationalism that has filled the empty void of official Communist ideology and using it as a club to beat down all potential sources of domestic dissidence.
China’s political class is sitting atop a volcano, with the prestige of the CCP at an all-time low and rising economic inequality combined with slowing growth producing potentially volatile conditions. Their rule is so brittle, at this point, that a single incident could shift the balance of forces away from stability and toward the chaos that the older generation remembers from the days of the Cultural Revolution – and greatly fears.
This is the "argument" the government makes continually in the face of rising protests: "It’s either us, or chaos." As a last resort, they can always play the nationalist card – and the US-supported Hong Kong student movement is certainly giving them the chance to do so. With all the public and covert support given to Chinese dissidents by Washington, it shouldn’t be at all hard for Beijing to portray the Hong Kong movement as a separatist plot hatched by foreigners out to divide up China, as in the bad old days of colonial rule.
The US government is making the usual noises in support of "democracy" in China, and giving at least verbal support to the Hong Kong students, but the reality is that the less Washington says about this matter the better the chances of the movement’s success. And US journalists and other Deep Thinkers are portraying the Hong Kong rising as evidence of a long pent up desire for "democracy" in the rest of China, but as usual they have it all wrong.
China has no liberal democratic tradition, and the Confucian culture – with its emphasis on consensus, stability, and authority – is hardly conducive to its development. Chinese history is a series of authoritarian regimes punctuated by periods of chaos triggered by episodes of mass hysteria: the Cultural Revolution was just the modern incarnation of the pseudo-religious manias – tinged with nationalism – that have periodically swept Chinese society since the feudal era.
The idea that the US government can export "democracy" to China in any way, shape, or form is a fool’s errand, and we should simply stop trying, not least because our efforts often have the opposite result. If freedom comes to the Chinese people, it will come at its own pace, ushered in not by us but by them – in their own time, and in their own way.
The Hong Kong uprising ought to underscore a fact that hasn’t yet dawned on our foreign policy geniuses in Washington, D.C.: there is no "Chinese threat." Far from posing a military challenge to the West, Beijing can’t even control one of its own major cities – and the mighty CCP is being humiliated by a 17-year-old boy! For all the predictions of its coming hegemony, the reality is that China is a paper tiger – which is exactly how Mao used to disdainfully refer to the United States. In which case the so-called "Asian pivot" – the strategic reorientation of US forces to meet the alleged "threat" from China – deserves to be re-branded the Asian Misstep.