The Chinese Revolution

12 October 2011

Wednesday


We do not hesitate to speak of the American Revolution or the French Revolution or the Russian Revolution as political events and punctuated the modern era, and we do not hesitate to speak of the Scientific Revolution or the Industrial Revolution or the Technological Revolution that have shaped, and continue to shape, the modern world, but the recent observance of the centenary of the Chinese Revolution of 1911 may have some people asking: What Chinese revolution?

To the credit of the Chinese Communist Party, they didn’t try to sweep the centennial under the rug, but openly celebrated it. The official media organ of the CCP, Xinhua News, carried several stories on the anniversary and its official celebration, including a speech by President Hu Jintao calling the revolution in 1911, “a thoroughly modern, national and democratic revolution.” A portrait of Dr. Sun Yat-sen was even erected in Tian’anmen Square for the centennial.

The official speeches, however, also included calls for Taiwan to be peacefully reunited with the rest of China. The CCP probably feels that they have proved that “One Country, Two Systems” is not only possible, but practically workable, though the example of Hong Kong has been a mixed bag. Hong Kong was always capitalist and always tolerant of free expression throughout the British lease, but it was never democratic. The attempt the put democratic institutions in place as the British lease was ending was well-intentioned but as artificial as many attempts at democratic social engineering. And on the Chinese side, while they have tolerated the open markets and open expression of Hong Kong, they have still tried to trim it around the edges, and, probably more important for the long term, are seeking to develop Shanghai into the banking center of east Asia, which constitutes a de facto demotion for Hong Kong.

Taiwan remains a thorn in the side of the CCP leadership. When Mao was consolidating the hold of the party over mainland China, he had to strike deals with ethnic minorities like the Uighers, and in the case of Taiwan he let sleeping dogs lie. There was enough on Mao’s plate that he couldn’t practically pursue a cross-straight invasion at that time. But the split between the communist Chinese mainland and the Republic of China on Taiwan played into the political division of the Cold War, and Taiwan became (not unlike Hong Kong) a bastion of capitalism and economic development in east Asia while Mao was busy destroying the Chinese economy through the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution.

But the Chinese revolution remains historically important, and not only on Taiwan where the remnants of the Chinese Nationalists had to hole up when the communists under Mao seized control of the mainland. The imperial family had controlled China for two thousand years — almost as long as the entire record of Western Civilization from the Greeks to the present day. Unseating this dynasty abruptly and rudely brought China into the twentieth century, and this rude and rapid transition probably made the communist Machtergreifung possible.

The contrast with Japan is especially instructive. Japan seized not on the revolutionary tradition of the West, but the industrial tradition of the West, and rapidly transformed its society into an industrial power not long after Europe, parallel in time to North America, and long before the rest of Asia. There was no Japanese revolution, except for a Japanese industrial revolution that left Japanese traditional life in place, in so far as that remains possible within an industrialized society. And when Japan surrendered at the end of the Second World War, its unconditional surrender included the one condition that, whatever was to become of the occupation, the Emperor would remain.

And the Emperor remains to this day, whereas the Chinese have now a century of history under their belts without an Emperor. This is remarkable, and points to the dramatic changes in Chinese society — changes more dramatic than experienced in Japan during the course of its modernization and industrialization.

Indeed, the Chinese have experienced the shocks of modern history in the reverse order of their experience in the West. Europe was already more or less fully industrialized before the industrialized carnage of the First World War brought down the old order of society and the fall of most of Europe’s remaining imperial houses and their ties to the deep history of the European Middle Ages. In China, the political revolution came first, and only now are we seeing the industrialization of Chinese society.

China, like the West, has experienced (albeit in reverse order) the dual politico-economic revolutions that have issued in distinctively modern societies. Japan, in contrast, experienced only the economic revolution without the political revolution. And while Japan is now a functioning democracy, it is unlike other democratic systems in the world. And it is more than merely the retention of a royal family, which is an historical condition that Japan shares with Britain and the Netherlands, for example.

Contemporary strategists and sociologists have looked far and wide for an explanation of Japan’s arrested socio-political development, and why, when Japan seemed poised in the early 1980s to once again dominate a greater east Asian co-prosperity sphere, that this did not happen. Even the visionary Cold War thinker Herman Kahn failed to see Japan’s (at that time coming) “lost decade” (now “lost decades“), and in his last years wrote The Emerging Japanese Superstate: Challenge and Response.

To me, the answer to this riddle seems obvious: despite an overlay of democratic procedure, Japan’s society is still essentially feudal. Even in an apparently anonymous metropolis of the size of Osaka (where I have visited many times), everyone knows who comes from a Samurai class family, and everyone knows who comes from a Yakuza family. Japan’s socio-political evolution stalled, and while it enjoyed great economic development, it never experienced a traumatic political revolution that would have served the purpose of severing ties to the past and therefore opening the future to unprecedented developments. And now the window of opportunity has passed: Japan can’t very well have a revolution today.

China, of course, is no democracy — its path to modernity lies elsewhere — but unlike Japan it has severed itself from its feudal past, both socially and economically, and this bodes well for the Chinese ability to embrace a future of unprecedented developments, whatever they may be.

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7 Responses to “The Chinese Revolution”

  1. Visiting China the Easter before their Olympics and the crash, I was struck by understanding that they showed of their and the world’s economic, social and poltical situation, at a time when the west was mostly in denial.

    They were very open about their history, and I learnt a lot about Britains informal links in the 20s-40s.

    On Taiwan, both sides seem keen on making conflict unthinkable, by building economic and symbolic ties.

    They had a notion of democracy according to which they were more democratic than Britain. With Egypt in mind, I don’t think we should be to fussy in the use of the term.

    On Taiwan, as with Mao, there was a lot of historical baggage and a few respected ‘old guard’ that constrained what they said. One needs to be sensitive to this, or get them one-to-one.

    The main thing that struck me was the extent to which they were preparing the population for a post-Olympic crash, and the extent to which they seemed to have buy-in to their vision of renewal.

    They set themselves a target of 8% growth to avoid undue social unrest, and achieved this, and even helped prop-up the west. This sense of going somewhere distinguishes them from most other countries. I think the world will become a very much more dangerous place for all of us should China fail.

  2. geopolicraticus said

    Dear Dave,

    I defer to your observations as someone who has been there. I have not yet had the privilege.

    I would observe, however, that it would be likely for any society that has experienced sustained economic growth of nearly ten percent a year for several decades running that the population would largely “buy-in” to this increasing wealth and would not be likely to ask any questions that might kill the goose that lays the golden egg.

    For similarly reasons, I regard it as nearly laughable that the Chinese regime “plans” a target of 8% growth, because past plans either to increase growth or reduce growth have been thrown out in the window in light of continued industrialization that results in growth, like it or not. China’s economy will continue to grow despite the wisdom or stupidity of its leadership, because its industrialization is still in a phase of rapidly transforming society.

    China has yet to experience the kind of economic shocks that are visited upon fully industrialized society, and when it does eventually experience these shocks it will do so without the benefit of an open and resilient political system. Whether you want to call what follows “failure,” or rather the further development of Chinese society in the wake of industrialization, is in some senses irrelevant.

    And, yes, the world will be a much more dangerous place, but that increase in danger will not somehow prevent catastrophic social, political, and economic developments from occurring.

    Best wishes,

    Nick

  3. Nick, As a Brit I was made most welcome in China. It was a good time to go because in anticipating the crash they wanted to draw upon our experience and insights. You might not get the same reception, but it is still good as a tourist experience. I noted that the Emperor’s throne hall was sponsored by McDonald’s!

    Perhaps I should have emphasised that at the time I was there China was already preparing for the crash. There was tremendous dislocation to their growth plan, with whole towns being left empty, riot police in Tianamen Square and the Army everywhere. The people seemed to understand the need for all this, and to accept that while they might not now benefit from the reforms personally, their children or grandchildren would. They all seemed to take a very long view.

    The government was not aiming to reduce growth to 8%. Rather, it assessed that if growth fell below that level they would be out on their ear and there could be social collapse. China has had a small shock, and avoided a larger one. I wouldn’t take their continued growth for granted, in which case we may be living in ‘interesting times’. Maybe western states will need to help them out, as they recently helped us out?

    Dave

    • geopolicraticus said

      Dear Dave,

      While I wouldn’t quite say that I take continued growth of the Chinese economy “for granted,” I would say that I would expect Chinese economic growth to continue more or less (with stops and starts) until its industrial infrastructure approaches modernity and it eventually creates a consumer market commensurate with its export market. At this point (how many decades down the road I cannot say), China will be in the same boat as the rest of the industrialized economies, though still at least a hundred years behind in terms of social evolution.

      I can’t imagine the industrialized nation-states of the west “helping” China, since nation-states have no friends, only interests. However, I could see Western nation-states seeing it to be in their interests to prop up stability in China, and I would view such moves as potentially disastrous, as has been the attempt to “stabilize” the Arabian Peninsula in the interests of maintaining an uninterrupted supply of fossil fuels.

      Best wishes,

      Nick

  4. I tend to see potential disasters all around. I only tend to worry about them when the political class seem blind to them or otherwise are failing to create a suitable climate in which they have adequate room for manouevre. The current steps towards a trade war seem ill-advised, unless we have a clear grasp of the situation, which I doubt.

  5. xcalibur said

    Japan’s society retaining feudal elements is an interesting idea. The business culture of Japan emphasizes group effort, coordination, and loyalty (it’s expected for coworkers to drink together, etc.) would you say that this is another example of residual feudalism?

    • geopolicraticus said

      In this case I would not say so; I think this is just the business culture that happened to emerge in East Asia once capitalism got a real foothold in the region. Koreans also have a strong drinking tradition among co-workers.

      But, generally speaking, all cultures have retained some elements of their feudal past, sometimes preserved in obvious ways (the continuing use of royal titles in Europe) and sometimes in very subtle ways (the different forms of courtesy practiced in different sectors of society).

      Best wishes,

      Nick

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