Of all the similarities between the present and the late Qing, the one that seems most compelling to me is the role of new media. In the late Qing, it was the telegraph and newspapers. The two combined to bring news of current affairs to an eager reading public, and from this a vigorous public opinion emerged to propel reform. Today it is the Internet and blogs that challenge the state’s command of public discourse.
On the other hand, it is difficult for me to see the current regime subject to threats similar to the Qing in its final years. Most fundamentally, the army today is fully controlled by the Chinese Communist Party. Its loyalty is beyond question, and its willingness to use force to maintain the current regime is clear.
The most fundamental difference I see between the late Qing and the present is the culture of confidence in China today. In the last years of the Qing, Chinese generally believed that, in order to survive, China needed to abandon many of its traditional institutions and learn from the West and Japan. Now, especially after the Euro-American financial collapse of 2008 (also the year of China’s triumphal Olympics), China’s leaders are confident that its political and economic system is superior to that of the West. In many ways, these leaders remind me less of Cixi than of Qianlong in the 18th century, who disdained any need to learn of the West’s new technology. Like Qianlong, the current leaders have experienced years of unbroken progress. What will happen if they are challenged by setbacks in the economy, the environment, or the always troubled ethnic frontier?
Orville’s musings on Xi and Cixi are stimulating and intriguing. But the parallel simply doesn’t extend far enough. Cixi presided (I intentionally misuse the word—nothing about Cixi was “presidential”) over a moment of supreme civilizational cataclysm. It was, as Orville and John Delury’s fine new book Wealth and Power reminds us, a long moment, already underway decades before Cixi’s final spasm of reform mandates, but it was really civilizational in dimension.
Xi Jinping, by contrast, has architectural reforms to present, if predictions of this fall’s Central Committee Plenum are correct. Mostly they are likely to be in the realm of economic policy, intertwined with social programs designed to alleviate some of the terrible stresses confronting China after four decades of reform and opening. But they are essentially different in kind—and Xi’s position is different in kind—from what China and Cixi faced eleven decades ago.
What these musings remind us of, however, are continuities—deep seated “Chinese Characteristics,” one might almost say, to twist the C.C.P. usage of that term—that turn out to have persisted from the late Qing (and before) to the present (and beyond, I suspect). I’ll just name three:
- The problem of the Center’s control over the localities. In this vertically organized political system, even though the whole late Qing imperial bureaucracy only numbered about 40,000 and today's Communist Party numbers 80 million, the problem of establishing and maintaining the probity of the bureaucracy that runs China, persists. Leninist parties like the C.C.P. have their own rules, and their own enforcement mechanisms—but like its imperial predecessors, the C.C.P., as today's high-visibility corruption cases attest, still has only itself on which to rely in dealing with its own behavioral problems, high and low. So did the Qing.
- The persistence of reactionary conservatism. The power of anti-reform thinking and writing in the late Qing can hardly be overstated, though Orville’s book hints at it on several occasions. Today, the virulence of contemporary reactionary conservatism is widely visible, even if its full extent remains hidden. Xi Jinping’s handling of this tremendous anti-reform power, which is interlarded with the “vested interests” that are so widely referred to in China, will largely define his regime, and China’s course in the short to mid-term. Signals so far suggest that at a minimum he is bent on adhering to such rigid perspectives in the realm of “stability maintenance,” but we will have to see whether the economic and social policy changes he might espouse this November actually have, built in, capacities for less reactionary evolutionary changes in Chinese society.
- Ideological incompleteness. Cixi’s setting-sun reforms, above all the severing of the link between the vast corpus of Imperial Confucian writings and the exam-based recruitment of imperial government officials after a thirteen-hundred year run, took place as a tidal wave of ideological confusion engulfed China. But the notion that Chinese society must rest on a body of shared normative concepts—a social-ideological consensus—did not die. The C.C.P. after 1949 set about re-establishing that consensus around a body of Marxist-Leninist precepts and practices, and it has dominated the cultural and educational apparatus of the state ever since in an effort to set that consensus in stone. It very much remains to be seen, however, whether that circle has been fully closed. Ideological incompleteness, for lack of a better term, remains a challenge to this and future P.R.C. administrations. So far, the emphasis appears to be on fire-fighting when someone gets too creative and pervasive fire prevention, from the Great Firewall of China to the unending attempts to guide popular thinking. None of this has been particularly successful, however. It may turn out that Mr. Xi and his successors place their bets on policies conducive to social and economic development, in the belief that from such social success normative consensus will emerge. In any event, the nagging problem of ideological incompleteness—sometimes front and center, and at other times a sort of background noise—links the China of Cixi’s time to the China of Mr. Xi.
This post first appeared at ChinaFile, an Atlantic partner site.