Thirty-six years after “Great Helmsman” Mao Zedong died of a heart attack, leaving his country briefly rudderless during a time of crisis and uncertainty, the Chinese ship of state is still sailing. But is it still seaworthy? Observers are energetically debating whether the legitimacy of the Chinese Communist Party, which has endured so much, can endure. After all, the government today bases its legitimacy on economic growth, which may well be slowing. We can’t predict the future, but we can examine the past, and Chinese history suggests that, even if the Communist Party does face a legitimacy crisis, it would not be out of character for it to survive this particular storm.
The China-watchers who insist the country faces a crippling legitimacy crisis include, perhaps most famously, Gordon G. Chang, author of The Coming Collapse of China, as well as political scientist Minxin Pei. As they see it, there are simply too many contradictions inherent in the Chinese model for it to survive.
Henry Kissinger and When China Rules the World author Martin Jacques, by contrast, have argued that, for better or worse, the Party is in good shape. And Beijing-based philosopher Daniel A. Bell, praising the China model in the New York Times op-ed pages and elsewhere, is even more optimistic. He portrays the Chinese model as steady and efficient, guided by Confucian values. Such boosters typically concede that China’s government could use some sprucing up — a reform here and there — but maintain that it’s basically sound, and in better shape than many others.
So who’s right? In a sense, they both are. As specialists in modern Chinese history, we see ample precedent to suggest that, despite the Communist Party’s ongoing struggle to maintain legitimacy, it could remain in secure power for the foreseeable future at the least.
In the 18th century, a British diplomat named Lord George Macartney visited China. It was a time when, like now, foreigners were torn between admiring and denigrating the country’s system. Macartney likened China to a first-class fighting ship — for a country not really defined by its navy, China seems to attract an oddly high frequency of nautical metaphors — that had seen better days. The hard work of “able and vigilant officers,” he said, had managed to help the awesomely enormous vessel “keep afloat.” But it was impossible that it would remain seaworthy long, he predicted, as its timbers had rotted and the channels ahead were too treacherous. “She may perhaps not sink outright; she may drift some time as a wreck, and will then be dashed to pieces on the shore; but she can never be rebuilt on the old bottom,” he wrote, adding that he would hardly be surprised if that end should come during his own lifetime.
Lord Macartney, best known for his failed 1790s effort to establish full diplomatic relations between Britain and the Qing Dynasty, never saw the Chinese decline he’d anticipated. He died in 1806; the Qing dynasty, which stretched back to 1644, survived another century, until 1912.
Macartney’s failed prediction offers a fascinating and illuminating perspective on today’s similar predictions of doom. After all, he wasn’t actually wrong about the challenges facing the ethnically Manchu emperors of the Qing Dynasty. His remarkably insightful observations anticipated the spread of political corruption and the potential for rebellion from non-Manchus, who chafed under the yoke of “Tartar” rulers. It’s true that the Qing dynasty fell, but only after outliving not just Macartney but generations of his heirs.
Astoundingly, China’s challenges, and those facing the Qing dynasty and threatening its legitimacy, became even graver after Macartney’s prediction. The stunning succession of crises included a series of internal rebellions, ranging from small-scale insurrections to vast religious risings. The Taiping Uprising, which coincided with the American Civil War but had an exponentially higher death toll (roughly 20 million killed, compared to the Civil War’s 750 thousand), cost so much to suppress that it nearly bankrupted the Qing. The dynasty also survived two crushing military defeats at the hands of foreign soldiers and gunships, first in the Opium War (1839-1842) and then the Arrow War (1856-1860). The wars devastated, among other things, a legitimacy claim that the Qing and previous Chinese empires had used for centuries: that the occupant of the Dragon Throne possessed a divine mandate to govern a polity that was, in every way that mattered, the most powerful on earth.
The Qing case is a reminder that some Chinese governments have been able to endure, for generations at a time, deepening corruption, weakened legitimacy, and major challenges at home and abroad. And yet, of course, mere endurance is not proof of legitimacy.
China struggled to maintain both legitimacy and stability during one particularly difficult stretch from the early 1930s to the late 1940s. Then, as now, China was run by a tightly disciplined authoritarian organization, the Nationalist Party of Chiang Kai-shek, that was widely viewed as corrupt and nepotistic. Then, too, outside critics complained that the party’s then-leaders shared little in common with the ideology of their previous head. Today, the capitalist “communists” are contrasted with actual-communist Mao; then, Chiang looked weak and lacking in vision next to his revered revolutionary predecessor Sun Yat-sen.
Chiang’s regime, hoping to counter the perception that all they cared about was holding onto power, appealed to Confucian values of order — just as post-Mao Communist Party leaders have. They also stressed the need for a strong central government. If the Nationalists fell, the argument went, China would be cast back into the chaos of the warlord era that had preceded Chiang’s rise. A divided country would also be susceptible to becoming a “lost country,” the term used to describe the fate of colonized lands such as India.
This legitimizing idea, which presented the Nationalists not so much as a group to be admired as a bulwark against horrific possible futures, might look a little familiar today. Chinese leaders have repeated similar arguments, notably in their purging populist party member Bo Xilai, which they called essential to keep China from spiraling back into the madness of the Cultural Revolution. Earlier, the government cited the implosions of first Yugoslavia and later Iraq to argue that the fall of authoritarianism leads not to stability and freedom but to international bullying, a violent settling of old scores, and disunity.
Yes, Chiang’s Nationalist Party fell in 1949, ousted by the Communist Party that still rules today. The foreign observers who claimed in 1937 or 1947 that the Nationalist Party was bereft of legitimacy and about to fall turned out to be correct, but they could easily have been wrong. Discredited and embattled though that government may have been, had history gone just a little bit differently, the Nationalists might well have held power longer. Counter-factual histories are impossibly speculative, of course. Yet it would not take too much stretching to imagine that, had the Nationalist Party’s White Terror campaigns of the late 1920s and early 1930s succeeded in their grim mission to “exterminate” Communists, Chiang might have held on at least through the 1950s. Not because his party was popular, but because it was accepted by the country’s citizenry as the only group that might bring stability after decades of civil and international warfare.
There’s probably no way to know whether, in the end, history will judge China’s current leaders as more like the long-enduring Qing Emperors or the doomed Nationalists of the mid-to-late 1940s. Either is possible. For now, China’s Communist Party has disproven observers who have predicted its imminent demise for years. Surprisingly adaptable and self-consciously diagnostic, the regime seems keenly aware of the precedents of history, both in China and internationally.
The Qing dynasty, as the Communist Party seems to see it, was too weak in the face of foreign pressure and failed to suppress disgruntled sectarian networks, including the anti-Manchu sworn brotherhoods (or “secret societies”) that participated in the 1911 Revolution. Four decades later, the Nationalists failed to quash their political opposition. As for the Leninist states of Central and Eastern Europe whose falls Beijing so assiduously studies, they never managed to raise living standards as they’d promised.
The history-minded, stability-obsessed Communist Party’s hold on power thus seems less mysterious when viewed in this historical context. And some of its actions, such as the paranoid and draconian 1999 crackdown on Falun Gong, seem less surprising.
Still, not all of the CCP’s efforts have been so defensive in nature. The Party has also made some positive changes, such as loosening controls on private life, helping boost living standards, and raising China’s global influence, all of which have likely made it easier for Chinese citizens to tolerate or even support the Party’s rule.
The Party is talented at adapting incrementally, changing course a bit at a time. This can work for a while, even a long while, but that doesn’t mean it can go on indefinitely. Both of the CCP’s two most recent predecessors, struggling to maintain their legitimacy, eventually attempted their own complete reinvention. In the early 1900s, the Qing dynasty, in a failed bid to outrun the forces of revolution from within, abolished the Confucian examinations that legitimized it for more than two centuries and tried to reinvent itself as a constitutional monarchy. Taiwan, under Nationalist control from the late 1940s on, began its transformation into a thriving democracy under the watch of Chiang Kai-shek’s son. Today, a Party president rules Taiwan not as a dictator but as an elected official.
China’s military is presently powerful enough and its diplomacy stable enough that the Communist Party faces no realistic threats from outside. Internally, its control over society is effective enough that, while unrest and discontent may be widespread, there are neither well-organized opposition parties nor rebellious armies that might seriously challenge the central government. For now, the Communist Party finds itself in a position that would be enviable to the officials of the late Qing. It could, if it wished, reinvent itself with a new legitimizing narrative, or even open the way to a new multiparty political structure as the Nationalists did in Taiwan, likely without fear of being overthrown in the process. If it does not make such changes, however, then it seems likely that the corruption and internal dissent of today will continue to mount. If that happens, then it is likely only a matter of time until that dissent and corruption reach a critical mass necessary to end the regime. But, as the world learned from the late Lord Macartney’s failed prediction, those processes can take many generations longer than we might expect. Even if the Communist Party’s legitimacy does weaken enough for the party to fall, it might not be in any of our lifetimes.
– Stephen Platt is the author of Autumn in the Heavenly Kingdom: China, the West, and the Epic Story of the Taiping Civil War.
– Jeffrey Wasserstrom is the author of China in the 21st Century and co-editor ofChinese Characters: Profiles of Fast-Changing Lives in a Fast-Changing Land.