From "Warring States" to Warring Factions
A response to Shambaugh: and an open question - China's transition from "communist" to "capitalist" ... semantic ploy to mask a project of continuity in government... or real change of socio-economic models? Part One
by Bel Suave
The Coming Chinese Crackup
Authored by David Shambaugh, originally posted at The Wall Street Journal , On Thursday, the National People's Congress convened in Beijing in what has become a familiar annual ritual. Some 3,000 "elected" delegates from all over the country-ranging from colorfully clad ethnic minorities to urbane billionaires-will meet for a week to discuss the state of the nation and to engage in the pretense of political participation.
My response to Shambaugh's piece above begins here:
The recent WSJ essay by well-known American China scholar David Shambaugh has provoked much debate over the future of China's current regime. This debate, while interesting, has been almost exclusively formed from a perspective limited to the past century or so... a period of such slender import for understanding the Sino-dimension that it makes moot whether those weighing in have taken the time to actually reflect upon the question - "Is China Cracking Up? - as "China" has cracked up - and re-formed - many times in the past, the questions that really need be asked are... has yet another foreign power taken control out of the hands of the Han - like Mongol and Manchu before them - or is a renaissance of autochthonous Sino-culture still possible?
As much as it might seem at first glance absurd to invoke an ancient period like that of the Warring States (479-221 BC) as background to the current controversy, the debate over ren zhi xing which rages throughout that era provides a useful prism through which to properly view the present moment of China's evolution. Though names like Mencius or Xunzi may seem folkloric and far distant, the schools which weighed in on the topic of "human nature" bear similarity to those contemporary and competing tendencies reviewing Xi's rule and chances. While that ancient debate is framed as one over virtue and moral agency, it was no more a merely philosophic one than the debate raging over the future of China at the moment!
When Deng Xiaoping seemed to have upset the apple cart of orthodoxy with his "glorious to get rich" maxim, the prevailing wisdom was that a more "western" style of regime was being put in place. Yet it is not properly appreciated that the existing system of that time - "Communism" - was a 'western' import that noticeably lacked for "Chinese" characteristics in it's application. Had Deng not been under constraints to appear as a 'reformer' who would break with tradition, it might have been clearer to all that his gambit was one which took a cultural tradition of the Han - to value the material dimension in it's proper place - and re-instituted it for purposes of propping up a foreign system. A system which, having lost all dynamism and adaptability over time, would either collapse, or be rejuvenated.
"Sparing the ox" is a well known story in which Mencius discusses the matter of King Xuan and the ox ... in which the question of how the ruler protects his people is paramount. After an interregnum of terror such as characterised the Mao tze tung era, it would be easy to suppose that the ruling elite of the CCP was immune to feelings of compassion about their 'subjects;' but that would be a mistake of historic dimension. I well remember conversations with Chinese in their twenties in my wanderings there - when I would bring up the subject of Chou en Lai and Deng. There was a visceral sense of being witness to an emotion of reverence for the former... and a great respect for the later. Which in every way confirmed my longstanding conviction that at least some of those close to the the monster at the top of the CCP heap had been true defenders of their people.... tasked with trying to moderate the worst excesses of a foreign-backed tyrant gone mad!
There was no way of mistaking in other words, the groundswell of understanding on the part of the contemporary Chinese generations - that they had been delivered from a nightmare... into a viable and real transition to a new dawn. This is key to understanding the nature of the debate over Xi and the future. Xi has described Mao as “a great figure who changed the face of the nation and led the Chinese people to a new destiny;” in identifying with the Maoist legacy he clearly seeks champion the role of the party as state power, and be seen as the Emperor who rules over it all. In resuscitating the Maoist legacy, Xi is expecting to be able to reap the rewards of nationalist and putatively 'socialist' sentiment in the Party and wider realms... but I would argue that he is also making clear an agenda which has sources identical to they who controlled Mao... as they control Xi! Herein lies a contradiction and conundrum which will need be resolved.
Previous to the close of the Maoist era, the legitimacy of the CCP, and the state it controlled, more or less came down to it's ability to project power - from the barrel of a gun - or through ceaseless campaigns to direct the Chinese population into ambitious social reconstructions, designed to show the Party as a architect of the future. The sputtering halt to which all of these efforts came with the departure of the "Great Helmsman" called for a means of re-creating the Mandate of Heaven from new material... as in, material progress, rather than ideological purity. Pride in China's position in the world, or state of economic achievement could, under the right circumstances, become a focus to put the energies of it's people to work - provided the system did not simply fall apart before the dividends could manifest.
Deng's situation was therefore one of a middleman between the Party's outdated platform, and those looking on from abroad, with plans to draw China into their blueprint for global hegemony. Only via the financial werewithal needed to visibly improve the lives of it's people could the CCP hope to bridge the gap. The arrival of Kissinger, and the Rockefeller agents of State Dept signaled the beginning of the negotiations by which the gap would be closed, and China set up as a mercantilist state using it's vast labor resources to hollow out the industrial infrastructure of the western world. The rise, in other words, of the Chinese people's standard of living and material comforts, would come in tandem with the decrease of those same qualities in the West. The great convergence was on!
It's hard for the person looking in upon China from the West to grasp just how dramatic has been the change for the better in the material circumstances of the Chinese, in only a couple of generations. It's as if the entire gamut of gradual change which the USA underwent from the pre-Civil War period to the 1960s had happened in the space of 30 years. The average Chinese of middle age now can have no doubt as to the reality of this material transformation - talking to the grandparents is all that is required to understand it! When you ride the train through the countryside, past the backroad small holdings with their owner's walking tractors - or even riding tractors - visible on the land... the impact of this change is equally apparent. Just one generation back, most all of these settlements were performing the same field labor in a manner not greatly changed from that of a millennia ago!
Certainly the Party has a large dividend of goodwill to spend from having overseen this transition. This must not be discounted in the debate of the moment here - like the King who spared the ox, because he could not bear to see it trembling in fear of being led to execution without fault, the rulers of China have gained an aura of concern for the real sufferings of their people... and a sincere desire to guide improvement of their lot. For all it's rigidity and corruption, the CCP is still the party of Chou, the legendary Long Marchers, and the millions who sacrificed themselves so that others might someday deserve a better fate. Tempering the cynicism which supposes contemporary Chinese think of nothing more than of their crassest self interest at the expense of all greater sociality is a necessity. It's exactly at this juncture where our ancient debates over 'virtue' and 'moral agency' once again enter the picture!
There's a longstanding notion that China, via the revolutionary period entered into with the overthrow of the Last Emperor, made a concerted effort to leap out of a "Confucian" past, into a 'modern' present... and by doing so, close the gap between eastern and western socio-economic systems. But this is only a partial truth, as there were many permutations of Ancient China's philosophical discourses which remained embedded - if somewhat disguised - in the political and economic strata which evolved there through the centuries. In fact, challenges to what we might think of as "Confucian" systems of governace - and to orthodoxy in general, occurred even before "confucianism" was a recognized system.
Amongst the many schools of philosophic debate in ancient China, with it's Ruists, Mohists and dozens others, the Daoists, and the Primitivists were groups that especially stood out as anticipating the present juncture at which China finds itself. Indeed, the theme of the famous Zhuangzi, that encyclopedic guide to the art of being,explicitly undertakes to examine the theme of "how to protect and preserve one’s life and last out one’s years while living in the social realm, especially in circumstances of great danger: a life of civic engagement in a time of social corruption." What turn of phrase could better encapsulate the present - when those with capital to protect increasingly do so by sending it abroad - when even the army... as well as the political hierarchy and business realm are identified as rife with corruption - and crackdowns on free expression and personal liberties begin to erode the sense of order which had begun to make it seem safe to assume that the trend of the last thirty years would continue? If there is a danger at the present moment, of China "cracking up" - it is less likely to be a cracking up into another 'warring states' episode than one of 'warring factions.'
I say this because, though unknown to most observers, China, in it's modern incarnation, already has an example - even tradition - to draw upon in allowing for competing ideological currents to exist within what seems to be, on the outside, monolithic structures of policy and ideology. Where many in the current 'crack up' debate see an inflexible, ready to be Humpty-Dumptyized, senility in the CCP, deeper currents of renewal may exist thanks to the presence of that current of accommodation and compromise which allowed Deng and his faction to survive long enough to turn the ship of state around. Much like the neo-Daoists of the Three Kingdoms Era (220-265 A.D.), who gave Confucian thought a reinterpretation that would align it with the traditions of Lao Zi, Deng and the group around him made a reinterpretation of the CCP line possible - and in so doing allowed the Party to survive the transition from the death of Maoism.
The wily Deng, like Hu Yaobang, Zhu De, and Chen Yi, was a member of the Hakka Mafia - the group of leaders who survived from the pre-Long March period through the entire Maoist reign with a competing tendency - right in the heart of the CCP - intact! You might think that the only thread connecting this group was their ethnicity - as a subgroup widely dispersed throughout China and abroad, the Hakka are only rarely -like other minorities - recognized in the modern Sino-discourse. The Han are well known to seek to avoid mention of the diversity that exists within their racial majority. In a way, this served as advantage to the mentioned grouping - who kept that identity both intact... and semi secret for the balance of a century. Visible and invisible at the same time... a very useful duality... and not just for themselves!
Given the kind of heavy-handed doctrinaire quality of 'dialectical materialism'... with it's mechanistic... almost "confuncian" reverence for immutable formula and unquestionable maxims, the willingness on the part of Deng and company to ditch the orthodox approach in favor of new ones can be compared to the way that the neo-daoists of the Three Kingdoms Era were willing to let traditions fade in favor of new practices... and while not quite 'laissez-faire' in intent or execution... the project of "Capitalist China Inc." was more in tune with the daoist wu wei(do nothing)than the Confucian yu wei(do something)interventionalism.
Here we return to the topics both of 'human nature'... and of 'factionalism' - the later being one that has been deliberately underplayed since the return of Deng and his "Hakka Gang" to grace in 1976. During the Cultural Revolution party Vice Chairman Liu Shaoqi and party General Secretary Deng Xiaoping were accused of forming a 'bourgeois headquarters' within the CCP leadership - it is therefore somewhat natural that once in power Deng would choose to downplay the theme of factionalism. With the 'left tendency' effectively neutered from the fall of Jiang Qing's Gang, there was an opportunity to impose an appearance of unity upon the scene with which to effectively screen the jockeying and struggles between the various 'cliques,' 'circles,' and groupings which never stopped forming and reforming all the while.
Foreign observers from this period of deliberate downplaying of the competing tendencies within the leadership were quick to identify Deng's own power base as being 'liberal' or 'reformer'... the powerful dynamics of the Hakka group were not visible to onlooker's even within China -let alone outsiders. Nevertheless, it was the solidarity and shared cultural background of those who were so allied with Deng that brought them all forward successfully into a new era -of power for themselves - and economic revitalization for the country! It was, in other words, those traditional Hakka qualities of rebelliousness, mobility, and commercial enterprise which all blended together to serve as the glue bonding these long-term survivors... and which resulted in the unique opportunity conjuncting with Mao's death, the dismal failure of the leftist tendency and it's "Cultural Revolution"... and the arrival of emissaries from the West with offerings of peace - and plenty!
Reaching past facile interpretations of the "Dengist" group as "liberal" or "reformist" then, we can see the outlines of something that has maintained itself intact throughout the centuries separating our current debate.. and the distant past to which I have previously drawn attention here. The delicate balance of ADAPTABILITY TO CHANGE and THE CONTINUITY OF TRADITION in Hakka culture was the secret recipe which cast so many of their people into the original field force of the Communist rebels... and later, the upper echelons of the government which followed their success. This amazing cohesiveness and continuity of an ethnic minority so dispersed over China and abroad had the happy effect of making some of the values of that minority group ones that would take front stage in the post Mao period... and produce a new "Chinese" consciousness which resonated with their own! While Deng's homey maxims about cats and mice were offered as portraying the deep wisdom of Sino cultural history, they also gained maximum traction from being an accurate summation of his own groups pragmatic outlook on life - a pragmatism which had served them well as survivors of a long and dangerous march to power!
In the ancient period of the Three Kingdoms Era, the tendencies advocating either a)preserving the rules of the past -“do something” (yu-wei), or b) letting tradition fade and adopt new practices as they organically arose - “do-nothing” (wu-wei) were posed by debaters as opposing ones. Millennia later, the new inheritors of the Mandate of Heaven in the post-Maoist Era would synthesize the two to produce a happy medium that would serve the country well for the next half century of transition. An understanding of human nature which respects the profound oscillations that we all feel - between old and new, tradition and innovation - was a legacy of Hakka culture which gave an edge to the Hakka Gang's chances... and perhaps the chances of the Chinese as a whole! If that period of dynamic synthesis and flexibility is indeed ending now - with the dying off of the Hakka Gang and it's replacement by the "Princelings" - then perhaps there is a danger of China "cracking up." But the odds are in favor of a renewal of the countries connection to it's long standing tradition and successes... and a fight/debate between the factions/schools which always heralds these moments of transition!
More than anyone seems to have yet realized - in the pubic domain at least - Mao was a 'manager' ... of a revolution conceived from abroad, funded the same, and given it's ultimate staying power in the same manner. While it's (relatively)much more well known that Stalin, and the "USSR" which grew out of his putsch against the original group of 'managers' of that foreign conceived "revolution" were subsidized, coddled,and given the appearance of greatness by a foreign source... the similar trajectory of Mao's Red China is not well understood even to this day.
That's it for my response to Shambaugh's piece. But thinking about that response set me in a mind to go a step beyond what this glance at the record has addressed. To answer the question 'whither China' ... there's a whole other set of circumstances which have been either ignored or underplayed by China observers... the hidden hand of outside players who have left their mark on the country during most of the past century... and are unlikely to swear off of doing so also in this one! That's for a separate article - but for now ... just a few points that occurred to me in the course of assembling this one. Towards an answer to the open question which I posed in the subtitle!
We might assume from appearances that the present leadership has been given advice that would direct them towards a more "democratic" or "open" social program, but that would be to fall into the trap of taking purely semantic terms at face value. There is little reason to suppose... at a time when "Western leaders" are uniformly reducing the "openness" and plurality of their own fiefdoms, in favor of security states and the steady erosion of personal liberties - which they pitch as the "price" of that "security" .... that the Chinese are being cued to go against that grain. That is the stuff of propaganda for the masses to consume ... the real meaning of the terms "liberal" and "western leadership" at this time is totally antithetical to such a premise. To make an accurate assessment, in other words, one needs look past the appearance to see the real. Which is that Xi is, like Mao, a manager of a foreign born and controlled enterprise ... "Capitalist China Inc." - heir to and outgrowth of "Communist China Plc." The continuity is not obvious until one chooses to step outside of the shallow boundaries of dialectical distraction... left, right, east, west, socialism, free enterprise. All mass deceptions designed to provide a smokescreen behind which a project of convergence... and global hegemony... can proceed apace.
There is a paucity of documentation on this important subject of C20th China's role as a hidden manager of the moneypower's international project of convergence. The little that we have to work with though is enough to allow for a corroboration of the link between monopoly finance capitalism and the highest echelon of the so-called 'communist' government of China...throughout all of it's phases and transitions... including the present. Peeling away the layers of deceptive scholarship - which came from the pens of academics coached and supported by the moneypower itself - we will find a way forward, through the smoke and mirrors of dissimulation discourse, towards an understanding of how China has been positioned to become the new headquarters of the cartel.
I'll leave this segment off with a couple of quotes from other informed observers of the contemporary Sino landscape...
"there is no evidence that the biggest and most important political constituency in China—the rising urban bourgeoisie—has much interest in changing the system. In my conversations with members of this class, I hear many complaints, but more generally a satisfaction with the material progress China has made in the last two decades. Except for a tiny group of brave dissidents, this group in general displays little interest in political reform and none in democracy. One reason may be that they find uninspiring the record of democratic governance in other big Asian countries, such as India. More important is probably the fear that in a representative system, the interests of the urban bourgeoisie (at most 25% of the population) would lose out to those of the rural masses. The Party may well be somewhat insecure, but the only force that might plausibly unseat it is more insecure still."
"First, Xi is a leader who came to power with very few sources of legitimacy. Mao and Deng were among the founding fathers of the People’s Republic. Both Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao were handpicked by Deng and got the backing of party elders at the moment of coming to power. Xi, despite his princeling background, is the first leader who was chosen out of a delicate compromise among party factions."