“At seventy, I follow all the desires of my heart without breaking any rule.” — Analects, 2.6.
Famously, when asked sometime in the 1970s about the impact of the French Revolution, then-Chinese premier Zhou Enlai (周恩來) was recorded as having replied that it was still “too early to say.”
The remark is somewhat less profound than it is often held to be. We now know that Zhou (once labeled, unforgettably, “an empty boat” by the Belgian Sinologist Simon Leys, whose translation of the Analects of Confucius serves here as epigraph) was thinking about the failed student revolution of 1968, not that of 1789.
At seventy this year, the People’s Republic of China (PRC) has outlasted two previous unifying dynasties, the first of them, the Qin (秦朝) (221-206 BCE), which lasted only a short 15 years, and the Sui (隋朝) (581-618) that brought under single rule a China that had long been disunited, but which lasted only slightly over double that number of years.
As conventionally dated, another decade needs to go by before it outlasts another of the great unifying dynasties of China, the Yuan (元朝) (1279-1368), the only time that the Chinese empire has been part of a larger and global empire.
By contrast, the Republic of China (ROC) — also to celebrate its anniversary at a slightly later date this October and sadly now a decreasing presence on the international stage — was established in the ruins of the all-but-accidental collapse of the last dynasty of China, the Qing (清朝) (1644-1911), and has lasted over a century.
On average, the major dynasties of China (since that first unification) have lasted approximately 140 years each, which, depending on one’s perspective on the matter, in both cases is either good news or bad.
I suspect that a verdict can already be arrived at in the case of the ROC, this remarkable and unique entity, for however much longer it might remain a member of the family of nations.
Over the decades since its retreat to the island of Taiwan, and by dint of hard work and self-sacrifice on the part of its some 20 million or so inhabitants, the ROC has transformed itself into a prosperous and vibrant democracy in which the asymmetries of wealth are amongst the narrowest in the world.
Culturally, Taiwan (like Hong Kong, and in stark contrast to the state-sponsored manipulation of a plastic past that characterizes the mainland of recent years) is a bastion of confident and intelligent traditional Chinese culture. In addition, excitingly and in a way that has particular resonances for us New Zealanders, it is a place that is becoming increasingly interested in and knowledgeable about the nature of its specifically Taiwanese identity. In a word, it is a decent society.
Whatever else might be said about the PRC, on the other hand, decent is not a word that leaps immediately into mind, something that after a more than 40-year engagement with the place one admits to oneself only reluctantly.
Writing some forty years ago about the desecration of Beijing, Leys said: “It is not easy to foresee how future centuries will judge the Maoist rule,” and very much the same remains true. Neither the economic successes of the past three decades, nor its political failures are sustainable.
Now a fragile superpower — seemingly incapable of any authentic dialogue with either its own past or its present and future responsibilities — domestically it has become a society characterized by a catastrophic collapse in trust, while externally, the PRC increasingly acts with the swagger of the playground bully, its rhetoric marked by vainglory and bombast.
Why is it that the 1.4 billion people who inhabit the PRC continue to be denied that modicum of agency over their own lives that democracy, for all its manifest flaws, provides? Why is it that the PRC needs to continue to expend more on ensuring domestic order, as defined by the party-state, than it does on external defense? Why is it that that party-state is so anxious about its own legitimacy that it needs to incarcerate over 1 million Uighurs in Xinjiang, for instance, or to impose increasing levels of repression (over art and literature, religion and dissenting views, over any language other than Mandarin) and surveillance over its own ordinary citizens?
It is surely a sobering reflection that perhaps the 20th-century’s most recognizable image of China, tank man as he became known, standing there alone with his shopping bags in hand as he sought to halt the march of the tanks into his capital, is an image that is banned in the PRC and which, increasingly, would not be recognized by most young Chinese.
If China, understood as the repository of a civilization that might have important contributions still to make to the wellbeing of humankind, rather than continuing to be simply another one-party nation-state, then one suspects that that alternative future is to be found somewhere among the many alternative pasts that characterize the grand arc of its historical trajectory.
At seventy, the PRC seems all too ready to “follow all the desires of [its] heart” (從心所欲) while forever “breaking the rules” (踰矩) of humane and righteous governance.
Duncan Campbell is a New Zealand sinologist and a former teacher at the Australian National University.
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