‘Guard against arrogance. For anyone in a leading position, this is a matter of principle and an important condition for maintaining unity. Even those who have made no serious mistakes and have achieved very great success in their work should not be arrogant.’
Chairman Mao Zedong’s Little Red Book
China was blessed by two great leaders in the 20th century. Mao Zedong created modern China out of the wreckage of a nation devastated by war, western and Japanese imperialism, ferocious poverty and lack of national spirit. ‘Great Helmsman’ Mao made catastrophic mistakes that killed millions and was dotty at the end, but he put modern China on the path to greatness.
Clever, crafty, deeply wise Deng Xiaoping took the inchoate mass of China and laid the groundwork from 1978-1989 for his nation’s miraculous transformation from dire poverty into the world’s second largest economy and newest great power. The only title the great Deng held was Chairman of the Chinese Bridge Association. He didn’t need titles or fanfare: everyone knew he was the boss. Deng urged China to discreetly grow rich and strong while keeping its head down so as not to alarm the outside world.
I saw much of this happen from the mid-1970’s when I began exploring China, which was then still in the final stages of the crazy Cultural Revolution. To my wonder, I saw the new city of Shenzhen rise from rice patties into a booming metropolis of 11 million, one of the world’s fastest growing cities. The magical transformation of China continues to leave me awestruck.
After Mao and Deng, China’s collective Communist leadership imposed rules limiting party leaders to two five-year terms. The Communist Party heeded philosopher Vilfredo Pareto’s warnings in his ‘circulation of elites’ that to preserve itself, an elite group had to allow new members from below to join. Collective leadership was intended to end or at least lessen the murderous power struggles that, with regionalism and separatism, had cursed China for centuries.
China’s last two leaders, Ziang Zemin and Hu Jintao, both chosen by Deng, followed Pareto’s maxim. But China’s new supreme leader, Xi Jinping, did not. Using his power base in the Central Military commission, the most powerful organ of government and party, Xi steadily eliminated his powerful rivals over a decade and put his men into key positions. Xi’s sleepy demeanor belied his startling ability to wage political siege warfare and his ruthless elimination of opponents.
This past week in Beijing, China’s 19th Party Congress not only re-appointed Xi as party leader but enshrined him in the Communist pantheon right next to Chairman Mao. In effect, Xi has become China. Paraphrasing France’s Louis XIV, Xi was saying, ‘I am the state.’ Which means that anyone opposing Xi Jinping will become an enemy of China.
Xi now appears poised to become as all-powerful as Chairman Mao, though he does not yet command the Great Helmsman’s near-divine status or adulation. If recent years are any guide, under Xi a severe crackdown will continue against dissenters, religious groups, and would-be westernizers. In Xi’s view, the west has little to offer China besides decadent behavior, racial mixing, loud music, and social rot. The United States, Japan and India are seen as dangerous, determined enemies bent on destroying united China.
The major problems facing Xi and his men will continue to be the deep unrest and resistance by the persecuted Muslim Uighurs of China’s western Xinjiang province (once Eastern Turkestan), Tibet’s equally restive people, ‘rogue province’ Taiwan, and the irksome North Koreans. Further on, China is girding for a Pacific war with the US, and a mighty struggle with southern neighbor India over control of the eastern Himalayas and Burma (see my book ‘War at the Top of the World).
At the same time, Xi has said that he will press ahead with plans to continue advancing China’s soft power around the globe through trade, culture, medicine, foreign aid and investments. His eventual plan is to divert the primary flow of trade between the US and Europe eastwards to China. The People’s Republic will also continue to buy up key foreign industries and export Chinese abroad. While the US bleeds itself through small but expensive wars in Asia and Africa, China is using its huge trade surplus to buy key assets and influence around the globe.
China is doing all this at a time when its ruler, Xi Jinping, commands absolute authority and has a clear strategic vision, backed by a mighty economy and some of the world’s most intelligent people. The same cannot be said for Washington which is floundering.
But before you put all your bets on China, recall Lord Acton’s famous dictum about absolute power corrupting absolutely. Even the great Mao went off the deep end later in his rule, sending millions to their deaths due to starvation and terrorized all China with his demented Red Guards. No one dared challenge Mao’s later-life follies. Xi Jinping is a voracious reader of history like predecessor Mao. Let’s hope the lessons from Mao’s days are noted.