• Sun
  • Dec 28, 2014
  • Updated: 9:11am
Xi Jinping
CommentInsight & Opinion

The empty glory of the Chinese empire is not worth reviving

Zhang Xiaomao says in their pursuit of the 'China dream', leaders must avoid seeking a revival of dynastic glory and instead forge a new path

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 04 July, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 04 July, 2013, 3:44am

Since President Xi Jinping first talked of a "great revival of the Chinese nation", I have wondered why the "China dream" should revolve around reinstating rather than developing and reforming. After all, a revival has to include the past, so this would seem to be a way to return the nation to a previous state.

Chinese history reveals that each new dynastic empire has followed a similar pattern: the founders of the empire seize power by force; their descendants consolidate the power through economic growth, punishment and cultural controls; and, finally, the dynasty crumbles due to corruption and ineptitude. Similarities abound in today's China: the Politburo Standing Committee rules with absolute power.

In ancient China, bribery and graft were commonplace, yet they were largely accepted as traditional practices and punished only when rulers deemed such behaviour a threat to their power.

People today, too, have become accustomed to these crimes. Despite the downfall of innumerable senior officials - from former Politburo members Chen Xitong , Chen Liangyu and Bo Xilai to former railways minister Liu Zhijun - the top decision-makers still do not see an urgent need to reform the political system.

To the Communist Party, at least on the surface, to achieve the "China dream" is to make the nation the most powerful on earth once again. At the recent Sino-US "shirtsleeves" summit in Sunnylands, Xi spoke of China as an equal global power to the US in international affairs. President Barack Obama's lack of positive response was a reminder that China still has to prove itself on the world stage.

Before the second world war, force and military capability largely determined a nation's strength and power. After the war, many nations began to use technology and culture as a tool for demonstrating might. Over the past several years, China has begun to display some of its own technical advances, such as its aircraft carrier, Liaoning, and the world's most powerful computer, Tianhe-2. However, these products lack creativity, and are largely the result of imitating and modifying similar foreign products.

This lack of creativity also pervades Chinese thinking. Since the times of Lao Tzu and Confucius, China has struggled to find another great thinker with an innovative spirit. This long absence of creative energy is largely the result of the long-standing suppression of freedom of thought by Chinese rulers, both ancient and modern. This is also a root cause of China's lack of scientific tradition.

It seems clear, therefore, that until freedom, democracy and human rights are introduced into China and protected, Xi's "China dream" will remain just a state pronouncement that China will formally return to past forms of governance and culture. In other words, Xi will maintain his grip on power in the same way as previous dynasties.

Yet, China's own history has shown that this cannot last forever. Eight different dynasties have unified China; yet each lasted on average only 200 years or so. Perhaps it's time to try a new form of government, one based on democratic principles, to help curb corruption and enable China to win the world's respect.

Zhang Xiaomao is a Shenzhen-based scholar and commentator


Related topics

For unlimited access to:

SCMP.com SCMP Tablet Edition SCMP Mobile Edition 10-year news archive



This article is now closed to comments

This is very well written.
Confucianism is the likeliest cause for the lack of a scientific tradition. This cancerous, quasi religion can be seen to be the primary contributor to stagnation and egregious inertia of China prior to the 20th century. Rather in promoting critical thought and intellectual pursuit, Confucianism focuses on maintaining harmony and social stability; in other words, it opposes change since any change causes instability. It has no passion, it does not dare to innovate or to dream. And the method it devised could not have been more perfect--rituals, ceremonies, preeminence of the older generation over all else, and indoctrination through rote learning. The fact that one had to do well in the civil service examinations--little more than an exercise in memory recall of the Classics--to enter the government meant policies would be dictated by individuals who were brainwashed and thoroughly steeped in the religion.
In fact, during the Warring States period prior to the adoption of Confucianism, it could be argued that social and technological development was progressing at a much higher rate. It was also in this time that the three primary schools of Chinese philosophy--Mohism, Confucianism, and Taoism--were conceived. I would posit that it was competition that was the main driver, and since the Qin dynasty there has not been meaningful competition.
Home truths indeed. Since the Communist revolution the composition of the Party has changed from well meaning, honest idealists into an entrenched, corrupt, privileged, neo Imperial bureaucracy under which all the ancient vices have flooded back. A society with hidebound beliefs and prejudices cannot innovate or change and mere conceit does not entitle China and its people to success or dominion.
Each dynasty may have lasted on average 200 or so years, but today history moves faster than ever because of rapid changes in economics and technology. Mostly foreign capital investment, foreign know how and foreign technology lie at the heart of China's last 3 decades of rapid economic growth. Another 3 decades, indeed far less, could easily see it end. The present dynasty too, contains the seeds of its own destruction because it displays the same racial and cultural arrogance as the Qing dynasty did and it too, will fall victim to its own hubris because it cannot bear to face its own shortcomings and change. The world will not tolerate another Master Race ideology. The Chinese have to grow up, stop their petty resentment of Western countries and realise that the quality of a people resides in its conduct, not ethnicity.
The Chinese Dream is just another version of the Manifest Destiny of the United States, no more no less.
"Zhang Xiaomao is a Shenzhen-based scholar and commentator."

It is a positive sign that clear-thinking voices like this can be heard from within the PRC's borders as well. I suspect however that Mr Zhang has a packed bag standing near the door, and an escape route to Hong Kong or beyond planned... just in case. Let's hope he won't need it.
Confucianism is too dogmatic for creativity. Taoism is too philosophical for comprehension. Yet China and Chinese for its past and even today practices them consciously or subliminally. While the followers love to pick and choose to reference them what suiting the best, there is no criticism that levels of their shortcomings – the destructive shortcomings that make Chinese selfish, belligerent and corrupting. I wish there are scholars devote their time to give us a new assessment on these two influential thoughts. I am glad to see at least one scholar begins to make that conection.
The period when China's land mass was largest was when China was ruled by foreigners, both Mongul, then Manchu. The Map of what is known as "China" has changed so many times during the last few thousand years that it contrats sharply with today's China.
Apparently, the Chinese dream is to hold onto all parts of Chinese controlled territory with brute force and expand the territory to gain access to resources.
Ethic tensions, cultural differences and Chinese attrocities lead us to beleieve that China too will face a Soviet Styled Break up, if for no other reason than the continution of brute force will be required to hold it all together as policies have pushed minority people too far awar already. The influx of Han into distant provinces will not prevent this anymore than the influx of Russians into the Baltics or Central Asia prevented the Soviet break up. Chinese must be prepared for the reality that will eventually befall them. For some, this will be the realization of the "Chinese dream." The acceptence of reality.
I agree.
From Wikipedia:
The American Dream is a national ethos of the United States, a set of ideals in which freedom includes the opportunity for prosperity and success, and an upward social mobility achieved through hard work. In the definition of the American Dream by James Truslow Adams in 1931, "life should be better and richer and fuller for everyone, with opportunity for each according to ability or achievement" regardless of social class or circumstances of birth.[1]
For those who disagree with the American Dream,here I will rewrite it so to help them to express themselves of what they see as American Dream:
The American Dream is a national ethos of the United States, a set of ideals in which excludes the opportunity for prosperity and success, and an upward social mobility achieved through hard work. …….”life should be better and richer and fuller for few, with opportunity for each not according to ability or achievement” much to do with social or circumstances of birth.
"In ancient China, bribery and graft were commonplace, yet they were largely accepted as traditional practices and punished only when rulers deemed such behaviour a threat to their power." This is still true today, add to the list having multiple mistresses. All OK as long as the people involved "keep the party line and play the game right". That those things are "unknown" is a joke in China where the security people know pretty much everything.
Interesting article and the very knowledgable comments that followed added value to it and made it even more enjoyable reading.



SCMP.com Account