Someone told me, or I read somewhere, that if you want to understand the United States today, you have to understand the Civil War. Years ago, following this admonition, I began to study the Civil War, and lo and behold, I learned that the political divisions of today are similar to those that led to that War. ‘Don’t tread on me’ (one of my all time favorite sentiments and flags, although for me it’s personal not political) has been a theme and a banner since the Revolution. It picked up steam in the years before the Civil War began, and has again today. Can’t keep those pesky states-rights folks down.
All this by way of saying that it’s tough to understand what’s happening at present in this or any country without understanding past events and thinking. Perhaps because I have spent my life trying to figure out China and still find it mysterious, I think that this applies all the more to the Middle Kingdom.
But, when it seems that commentators in the mainstream media don’t agree. Often when I read something in the New York Times or hear someone on CNBC talking about China, I say to myself if so-and-so only knew more about happened in, say the Taiping Rebellion, no way would he written or said that.
For this reason, I was heartened to read, ‘China’s Long History of Defying the Doomsayers,’ in The Atlantic. Authors Stephen Platt and Jefferey Wasserstrom bring perspective to predictions the Chinese Communist Party’s imminent downfall. They only go back to the Qing Dynasty and forward to the demise of the Nationalists in 1949, which is enough to make their point in a short article. Had they looked back further in dynastic history, as I have no doubt both are capable of, they would have given numerous examples of dynasties holding on way past the sell-by date that a contemporary Gordon Chang (author in 2001 of The Coming Collapse of China)would have set.
Regarding the Qing, Lord Macartney, who had the first notable diplomatic failure with the Chinese in the 1790s, wrote, comparing China to a warship:
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.
Then, the authors note:
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….
And, still it hung in.
Bringing us to the present:
China’s military is presently powerful enough and its diplomacy stable enough that the Communist Party faces no realistic threats from outside. Internally, its control over society is effective enough that, while unrest and discontent may be widespread, there are neither well-organized opposition parties nor rebellious armies that might seriously challenge the central government.
For now, the Communist Party finds itself in a position that would be enviable to the officials of the late Qing. It could, if it wished, reinvent itself with a new legitimizing narrative, or even open the way to a new multiparty political structure as the Nationalists did in Taiwan, likely without fear of being overthrown in the process. If it does not make such changes, however, then it seems likely that the corruption and internal dissent of today will continue to mount. If that happens, then it is likely only a matter of time until that dissent and corruption reach a critical mass necessary to end the regime.
But, as the world learned from the late Lord Macartney’s failed prediction, those processes can take many generations longer than we might expect. Even if the Communist Party’s legitimacy does weaken enough for the party to fall, it might not be in any of our lifetimes. [paragraphs mine]
And, if that is the case, there will still plenty for Gordon Chang’s great-great-great grandchildren to the write about in The Coming Collapse of China for their generation.