Losing legitimacy might not mean the end of the Communist Party. Past Chinese governments have survived worse.
Thirty-six years after "Great Helmsman" Mao Zedong died of a heart attack, leaving his country briefly rudderless during a time of crisis and uncertainty, the Chinese ship of state is still sailing. But is it still seaworthy? Observers are energetically debating whether the legitimacy of the Chinese Communist Party, which has endured so much, can endure. After all, the government today bases its legitimacy on economic growth, which may well be slowing. We can't predict the future, but we can examine the past, and Chinese history suggests that, even if the Communist Party does face a legitimacy crisis, it would not be out of character for it to survive this particular storm.
The China-watchers who insist the country faces a crippling legitimacy crisis include, perhaps most famously, Gordon G. Chang, author of The Coming Collapse of China, as well as political scientist Minxin Pei. As they see it, there are simply too many contradictions inherent in the Chinese model for it to survive.
Henry Kissinger and When China Rules the World author Martin Jacques, by contrast, have argued that, for better or worse, the Party is in good shape. And Beijing-based philosopher Daniel A. Bell, praising the China model in the New York Times op-ed pages and elsewhere, is even more optimistic. He portrays the Chinese model as steady and efficient, guided by Confucian values. Such boosters typically concede that China's government could use some sprucing up -- a reform here and there -- but maintain that it's basically sound, and in better shape than many others.
So who's right? In a sense, they both are. As specialists in modern Chinese history, we see ample precedent to suggest that, despite the Communist Party's ongoing struggle to maintain legitimacy, it could remain in secure power for the foreseeable future at the least.
In the 18th century, a British diplomat named Lord George Macartney visited China. It was a time when, like now, foreigners were torn between admiring and denigrating the country's system. Macartney likened China to a first-class fighting ship -- for a country not really defined by its navy, China seems to attract an oddly high frequency of nautical metaphors -- that had seen better days. The hard work of "able and vigilant officers," he said, had managed to help the awesomely enormous vessel "keep afloat." But it was impossible that it would remain seaworthy long, he predicted, as its timbers had rotted and the channels ahead were too treacherous. "She may perhaps not sink outright; she may drift some time as a wreck, and will then be dashed to pieces on the shore; but she can never be rebuilt on the old bottom," he wrote, adding that he would hardly be surprised if that end should come during his own lifetime.
Lord Macartney, best known for his failed 1790s effort to establish full diplomatic relations between Britain and the Qing Dynasty, never saw the Chinese decline he'd anticipated. He died in 1806; the Qing dynasty, which stretched back to 1644, survived another century, until 1912.
Macartney's failed prediction offers a fascinating and illuminating perspective on today's similar predictions of doom. After all, he wasn't actually wrong about the challenges facing the ethnically Manchu emperors of the Qing Dynasty. His remarkably insightful observations anticipated the spread of political corruption and the potential for rebellion from non-Manchus, who chafed under the yoke of "Tartar" rulers. It's true that the Qing dynasty fell, but only after outliving not just Macartney but generations of his heirs.
Astoundingly, China's challenges, and those facing the Qing dynasty and threatening its legitimacy, became even graver after Macartney's prediction. The stunning succession of crises included a series of internal rebellions, ranging from small-scale insurrections to vast religious risings. The Taiping Uprising, which coincided with the American Civil War but had an exponentially higher death toll (roughly 20 million killed, compared to the Civil War's 750 thousand), cost so much to suppress that it nearly bankrupted the Qing. The dynasty also survived two crushing military defeats at the hands of foreign soldiers and gunships, first in the Opium War (1839-1842) and then the Arrow War (1856-1860). The wars devastated, among other things, a legitimacy claim that the Qing and previous Chinese empires had used for centuries: that the occupant of the Dragon Throne possessed a divine mandate to govern a polity that was, in every way that mattered, the most powerful on earth.
The Qing case is a reminder that some Chinese governments have been able to endure, for generations at a time, deepening corruption, weakened legitimacy, and major challenges at home and abroad. And yet, of course, mere endurance is not proof of legitimacy.
China struggled to maintain both legitimacy and stability during one particularly difficult stretch from the early 1930s to the late 1940s. Then, as now, China was run by a tightly disciplined authoritarian organization, the Nationalist Party of Chiang Kai-shek, that was widely viewed as corrupt and nepotistic. Then, too, outside critics complained that the party's then-leaders shared little in common with the ideology of their previous head. Today, the capitalist "communists" are contrasted with actual-communist Mao; then, Chiang looked weak and lacking in vision next to his revered revolutionary predecessor Sun Yat-sen.
Chiang's regime, hoping to counter the perception that all they cared about was holding onto power, appealed to Confucian values of order -- just as post-Mao Communist Party leaders have. They also stressed the need for a strong central government. If the Nationalists fell, the argument went, China would be cast back into the chaos of the warlord era that had preceded Chiang's rise. A divided country would also be susceptible to becoming a "lost country," the term used to describe the fate of colonized lands such as India.