A more important, historically speaking, presidential election than America’s concluded last week … where Xi Jinping was entrusted with the leadership of China. The selection followed a process viewed as hermetic by us western barbarians. Yet there is an organic logic to it if viewed as part of a slow-motion, dramatic, transformation. This transformation has important implications for the United States, for China, and for the world.
The USA, counting from the Declaration of Independence, is only 236 years old. China has 6,000 years of continuous, historical, political culture. It has seen the rise and fall of many civilizations, most of them nearly forgotten. China has endured and thinks on a very different timeline than our own. 236 years is a mere blip. Our durability, presumably, is seen by the nation that saw Rome rise and fall as somewhat speculative. Americans think in cycles of unfathomable brevity — quarterly earnings reports, two-year Congressional cycles, four-year administrations….
China thinks in epochs. To achieve even a rudimentary understanding of what is happening in China requires a longer perspective than most Americans are used to employing. We are in the early stages of the Mao Dynasty. It is visibly evolving toward liberal republican governance. Ten years, rather than life, tenure for its leaders is a major step.
A mark of progress is the immediate relinquishment of the role of commander-in-chief of the armed forces by outgoing leader Hu Jintao (in contrast to his predecessor, Jiang Zemin) and the investment of these powers in Xi. As A. Greer Meisels noted in “Power Transitions with Chinese Characteristics” in The National Interest, “…with this move, Hu Jintao has guaranteed that this was the first clean transfer of power the CCP has seen in two decades. This is no small feat.” This is an astute observation … and an understatement.
Hu’s act of remarkable humility bears a striking similarity to that of George Washington’s stepping down, after two terms, from a presidency he could have held for life. It may be seen, in retrospect, as one of the most important political moments in modern Chinese — and world — history. Voluntarily relinquishing power is a decisive move away from the Dynastic and toward humanitarian republican principles. This act distinguishes Hu as a great man.
Even in imperial days a ruling class that neglected the welfare of the people would, inevitably, fall, having “forfeited the Mandate of Heaven.” Many of my fellow conservatives have an animus toward the Chinese Communist Party — the apparatus of the Mao Dynasty. Yet the CCP persists. It has not forfeited the Mandate of Heaven. It retains legitimacy. It is valuable to understand why.
The enigma becomes less difficult to understand by taking the long view. This does not mean that human rights advocates should be any less passionate about advocating for continued transformation. It simply offers human rights advocates a thoughtful context better to be effective in such advocacy. To achieve their goal requires setting up structures to support systemic (rather than impulsive) evolution of better democratic principles, respect for human rights, and the honoring of the great historic spiritual values of China.
Here is the context. At the end of the 19th century, under the decadent and decaying Qing Dynasty, the European colonial powers invaded and brutalized China. The United States, to its credit, declined the big slice of the Chinese pie offered to it. Our refusal to exploit China earned America residual good will among the Chinese people — who have, as noted above, a long memory. Among the many atrocities visited upon the Chinese was the imposition of the opium trade as a means of exploiting its hard-working people.
It was not until the later Japanese invasion that China united in opposition to its exploiters. Two great leaders arose in opposition to the Japanese: Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek, leader of the nationalists who enjoyed the support of the urban elites, and Mao Zedong, leader of the Chinese Communist Party, who enjoyed the support of the farmers.
Chiang was institutionally successor to (this columnist’s honorary great godfather) Sun Yat-sen, but did not share in Dr. Sun’s moral stature. Dr. Sun, revered by Chinese everywhere, was a great humanitarian populist, of at least as great moral stature as Mohandas Gandhi. Sun overthrew the decadent Qing Dynasty and went on to serve, briefly, as the first president of republican China. In the internecine struggle between Chiang and Mao, the more populist Mao prevailed. He restored sovereignty to China. Without in any way condoning Mao’s brutalities the restoration of sovereignty, and its attendant dignity, imbued Mao’s rule with popular legitimacy.
Deng Xiao Ping succeeded Mao. History records Deng as one of the greatest supply siders — perhaps the greatest — in modern history. With five words— “To get rich is glorious” — he unleashed the enterprising nature of the Chinese people. His thought has come to be called “socialism with Chinese characteristics” and is free enterprise by another name. Deng lifted the oppressive state economic controls. With the guidance of that great economist and humanitarian Robert Mundell China set a course for prosperity. With its unleashed economy growing at double-digit rates for 30 years a billion Chinese moved from subsistence to relative affluence.
Deng in turn was succeeded by Jiang Zemin, a leader vilified by the Falun Gong sect with accusations of almost unbelievable brutality. Jiang’s “Mandate of Heaven” can be traced to a factor unappreciated by many outside China. China is far more fragile, as a geopolitical entity, than many outsiders understand. It has a propensity for breaking up into feuding duchies such as the Period of Warring States.
Jiang inherited leadership on the eve of the breakup of the USSR. This is no trivial matter. Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, China’s largest administrative district, has been part of the modern Chinese state only since 1949. China was very much at risk of breaking up, a very bad thing for China and the world, much as it would have been a bad thing had Lincoln failed to preserve the Union in the War Between the States. Jiang averted the threat of dissolution.
In the process, he may have engaged in reprehensible brutalities. And Jiang remained powerful long into his successor Hu’s tenure. There are unverified but deeply troubling allegations of human rights abuses occurring under his rule and persisting afterwards under his influence. If the allegations are well founded, and if they are permitted to persist any longer, they threaten to bring great shame upon China. It therefore must be considered an absolutely essential matter for Xi to investigate such claims in his avowed battle against CCP corruption. The most urgent accusation, as previously reported by Forbes.com to wide notice is that of the widespread execution of political prisoners and the sale of their organs for transplant. If true, it is imperative that such practices be stopped immediately … before they utterly discredit the legitimacy of the Chinese Communist Party in the eyes of the Chinese people and the world.
In the transition just concluded Xi’s great rival for power was Chongqing party boss Bo Xilai, an atavistic Maoist now disgraced and purged. The purging of Bo is another indicator of China’s continued momentum toward democracy and human rights. The Chinese leadership understands that there is much to be done and many challenges ahead. In addition to ceasing brutal persecution of religious sects, more humane treatment of ethnic minorities — such as the Tibetans, who are protesting oppression and cultural liquidation by self-immolation, and the beautiful Uyghur people and culture concentrated in Xinjiang — is essential. This is an imperative if the CCP wishes to retain legitimacy. It is encouraging that the new administration highlights in its platform the duty of the party to “lead people of all ethnic groups.” Deeds must follow such words promptly.
The commitment of the Chinese leadership for the next decade, as reported by the Xinghua News Agency, is this (and these are principles to be taken with utmost seriousness):
“… to unite and lead people of all ethnic groups in the new historic journey to make greater achievements and keep up with the times.
“The theme of the congress is based on … the new requirements of the nation’s development and new expectations of the people. It is closely interlinked with the overall plan for promoting economic, political, cultural, social, and ecological progress in the cause of socialism with Chinese characteristics, Xi said.
“To thoroughly understand the theme of the congress, one must understand the historical background and soberly realize that the Party is facing unprecedented opportunities and challenges, while the key lies in whether the Party can grasp the opportunities and tackle the challenges in a cool-headed way.”
“The Party shall continue to hold high the great banner of socialism with Chinese characteristics, maintain an ideological state to free up the mind, implement the policy of reform and opening up, pool the strength and overcome all difficulties, promote economic, political, cultural, social, and ecological progress and Party building in an all-around way.”
As the canonical Unitarian Universalist divine Theodore Parker famously observed, “I do not pretend to understand the moral universe; the arc is a long one, my eye reaches but little ways; I cannot calculate the curve and complete the figure by the experience of sight; I can divine it by conscience. And from what I see I am sure it bends towards justice.” China appears to be on the long arc of the moral universe, bending towards justice.
China’s renaissance began with the restoration of sovereignty by Mao; continued with the generation of prosperity by Deng; was maintained by Jiang’s gamely defending China as a precariously intact nation; was furthered by the implementation by the great Hu of democratic reforms culminating with “the first clean transfer of power.” Xi Jinping now is charged with helping China fulfill her destiny of regaining full dignity and stature, as a benevolent presence, in the councils of world leadership with cool-headed implementation of more democracy and priority embrace of human rights.
The arc of the moral universe is, indeed, long. “And from what I see I am sure it bends towards justice.” Xi and his colleagues have pledged to move the Middle Kingdom toward something resembling the Great Unity so often referenced in the writings of Sun Yat-sen. The recently concluded presidential election of China portends truly historic importance.
Ralph Benko, an economics policy expert living and working in Washington, DC, served on detail as deputy general counsel to an Executive Office of the President agency under President Reagan and to a Reagan presidential commission.