Chinese leaders in search of a middle path
Lanxin Xiang says by delving into the history of foreign regimes and China's own path to modernity, its leaders are trying to forge a truce between the country's political left and right
After assuming power at the 18th party congress, the "fifth generation" leaders in Beijing seem to be obsessed with the idea of reading history. First, the new anti-corruption tsar Wang Qishan started his job immediately with a book recommendation, and his choice was a foreign work. The Old Regime and the Revolution is a relatively obscure book by French historian Alexis de Tocqueville, whose work on democracy is far more well known.
Wang trained as a historian, and his interest in this work revolves around what is known as the "de Tocqueville puzzle", that revolution rarely takes place when social conditions are at their worst, but starts when conditions are dramatically improving, particularly during the reform period . It seems Wang has adopted a perspective using comparative history, reading French history to find a cure for China's current problem of widespread corruption, the same problem that plagued the Bourbons when none of the "three estates" was willing to rescue the ancien régime during the 1789 revolution.
This is a profound reading of history, although it is unclear whether de Tocqueville intended his case study to be applied universally. In de Tocqueville's account, the Old Regime in France went through two major phases. In the first, France was ruled by a feudal system in which power was dispersed. In the second, modernising French kings undermined the government's traditional base of support. They sought to eliminate the remnants of feudalism in an effort to establish centralised control over French society and promote what they believed to be social progress. But, mistakes made by the kings led to revolution.
Wang's reading suggests that the Chinese are still living under the Old Regime. As a leader of this regime, his politics, like that of de Tocqueville, is necessarily conservative. This means Wang will handle the anti-corruption campaign, which he deems absolutely necessary, with a tough but steady hand, so as not to undermine the legitimacy of the regime.
Surprisingly, Xi Jinping has also shown himself to be a history buff. His down-to-earth speeches are full of substantive rather than decorative historical references. Unlike Wang, Xi focuses more on continuity than disruption.
Two significant themes have emerged so far.
The first is an emphasis on "national restoration". Instead of the "peaceful rise" concept promoted by Hu Jintao , Xi prefers the historically more accurate expression of a nation on the way to recovery and restoration of its previous glory, after more than 160 years of lapse. "Peaceful rise", on the contrary, suggests something sudden and new, and lacks historical continuity.
The second theme appeared at the weekend when Xi spoke at a gathering of newly chosen Central Committee members. Xi said that both Deng Xiaoping's reforms and the period before those reforms, which is commonly described as the dreadful "Mao era", should not be viewed as separate from each other. Indeed, they represented a continuity of the same great enterprise by the Communist Party to restore national power and improve social and economic conditions.
This reading history confirms Deng's historical position as a great reformer, but rejects his approach of treating reform as a new beginning in modern Chinese history, or a "second revolution", as Western analysts used to call it. Indeed, at the maximum, Deng's reform represented a "midway restoration" of the communist regime, or could be seen as broadly in line with the zhongxing, or recovery, phase in traditional Chinese society.
Xi's argument is not historically inaccurate, in the sense that Mao's policies, despite the excesses in political campaigns and personal persecutions (Xi's father was a major victim), were ultimately aimed at improving people's livelihood rather than enriching his own family fortune. There is, for example, no billionaire among Mao's descendents.
It is hard for the "fifth generation" of leaders not to be conscious of history. After all, this generation endured a period of sustained tumult in their formative years and early political careers. They have not only a strong sense of historical mission, but also a forward-looking perspective.
They know that history will help them avoid mistakes. In traditional China, history served as a mirror for a leader's decision-making as well as for moral behaviour. More importantly, this generation understands the link between history and politics, and the logic that "all history is contemporary history", as English historian R. G. Collingwood once declared.
Both Wang and Xi began their new job by trying to correct what they saw as misreadings of history by the Chinese political elite, as reflected by the uncritical promotion of a "Chinese model" by the leftists, and the unconditional and naive championing of Western values by right-wing liberals.
Those who want the new leadership to launch radical and disruptive reforms are clearly mistaken. In fact, through their unique way of reading history, Wang and Xi are searching for a balanced third way in politics. Implicitly, they are calling for a truce between the Maoist leftists and the pro-Western liberals who have been engaged in fierce ideological battles for years.
At this stage, national unity is important. The greatest challenge for the new leaders will be to succeed in eliciting support from both camps.
Lanxin Xiang is professor of international history and politics at the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies in Geneva