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To understand China's Future, Look to its Past

June 25, 2008

Confucius is enjoying a revival and Communist Party leaders
consciously ape their Imperial forebears
Jonathan Fenby
The Times (UK)
June 24, 2008

Visitors flying in to Beijing's new Norman Foster-designed airport,
or gazing across Shanghai's Huangpu River from the Bund to the tower
city of Pudong, are liable to think of China as a land that has
turned its back on the past.

Watch the destruction of old Beijing to make room for a city of
concrete, steel and glass, take the world's highest railway to Tibet
or drive across 20-mile bridges, and you seem to be witnessing a
country on steroids that cannot wait to embrace a future in which it
feels destined to displace the hidebound powers that dominated the
last century.

In one sense, this is correct. It is exactly 30 years since Deng
Xiaoping unbottled the genie of market economics after the power
struggle that followed the death of Mao Zedong in 1976. Growth on
capitalist terms has become the leitmotiv of the last important power
ruled by a Communist party. But, while the party leader, Hu Jintao,
preaches the virtues of a "harmonious society," wealth disparities
increase and the gap between the booming coastal provinces and the
poor interior shows no sign of narrowing.

In the past 30 years, more people have been made materially better
off in a shorter time than ever before - in part simply because of
the sheer numbers involved. But the past is no more another country
in China than anywhere else - and that past needs to be understood to
grasp the deeper currents beneath the gleaming modern China.

Though it has evolved over the centuries, the pattern of top-down
autocratic rule set by the First Emperor after he united China in
221BC persists. In its Marxist-Leninist-Maoist-Dengist form, the
present regime claims the Mandate of Heaven as Imperial rulers did
over the centuries before the fall of the Qing dynasty in 1912.

In his speech to the five-yearly Communist Party Congress last
October, Mr Hu insisted that only communist rule could ensure China's
future. It is as if Gordon Brown tapped into the divine right of
kings to insist that new Labour must remain in power.

Under the Qing, provincial magistrates feathered their nests and
oppressed the peasants. Today local party bosses cut deals with
businessmen to grab land from farmers and use the police or their own
bully boys to harass anyone who dares to stand up to them.

But the more benevolent strain of the Imperial heritage encapsulated
in Confucianism, with its emphasis on mutual obligations is also
enjoying a revival. A huge Confucian Disneyland is planned for the
sage's birthplace in eastern China.

This represents the rediscovery of a tradition held up by Mao as
being at the root of China's backwardness. But it may not be entirely
innocent - it has always seemed to me that one reason for
Confucianism's appeal to China's rulers is its strict system of
obligations, based on the filial piety of the father-son
relationship. If the ruler is benevolent, the people owe him
allegiance. Since it is the ruler who defines benevolence, this can
be a one-way street. As a 19th-century defender of Confucianism put
it "all in proper place, just as hats and shoes are not
interchangeable." What could be more fitting for a regime dealing
with a social and economic revolution on the scale of China's?

There are many more examples of the way in which the past is showing
through the hubbub of the 21st century. The power of provinces is as
much a problem for Beijing as it was for the late empire. A new
aristocracy consisting of "princelings" children of first-generation
party leaders has emerged.

Shanghai has recaptured the glittering economic role it played before
the communist victory in 1949, founding its wealth - now as then - on
an army of poorly paid migrant workers. Deng's embrace of foreign
technology echoed the motto of late 19th-century economic
modernisers: "Use barbarian methods to defeat the foreigners." And,
when autocratic rule is at risk, force remains the ultimate arbiter.

Another echo of the past is evident in how the Prime Minister, Wen
Jiabao, reacted to this year's natural disasters. In the West, it is
part of any national leader's job to fly in to assure victims that
their pain is shared. Less so in China. But when winter weather
disrupted public transport in southern China, Wen popped up
unannounced with a loudhailer at a railway station in Hunan province
to tell stranded migrant workers unable to get home for the Lunar New
Year holiday he was "deeply apologetic." Last month he broke off a
provincial tour in another part of the country to fly to Sichuan to
assure victims of the earthquake that "Grandpa Wen" was looking after
their interests.

At the weekend Mr Wen toured two other provinces hit by the
earthquake, Gansu and Shaanxi, eating potatoes and maize with
farmers, telling schoolchildren of the need for solidarity. As he was
about to leave, he saw tears in the eyes of the students and offered
to lead the class in song: "If everyone contributes a little bit of
love, the world will be a better place." And during a visit to the
Communist Party newspaper The People's Daily on Friday, Mr Hu went
online at the paper's website. Three hundred questions flooded in.
The party leader, jacketless and in an open-necked shirt, answered three.

His answers might not have been the usual laid-back chat-room stuff
("The web is an important channel for us to understand the concerns
of the public and assemble the wisdom of the public") but they
represent a recognition that the people want greater openness. This
may be only gesture politics - Chinese internet portals are closely
monitored and a retired schoolteacher who criticised building
standards of schools in Sichuan has been arrested on charges of
"inciting state subversion."

But "Grandpa Wen's" visits to the disaster scene fits neatly into the
historic pattern of the concerned ruler speeding to care for his
people and Mr Hu's chat-room excursion can be seen as the emperor
going down among his people.

Given the fault lines created by 30 years of invigorating but
unbalanced growth, China's leaders need to show a degree of
benevolence to buttress popular support. How to do that without
relinquishing their grip on power is a problem they share with rulers
dating back through the millennia.

The Penguin History of Modern China by Jonathan Fenby has just been
published by Allen Lane
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