History lives from telling stories. An ancient culture such as China’s has many to offer. Much can be learned from them: about the country, about how it looks today and perhaps also how this new world power will look like in the future.
Deeply rooted in China’s history and mythology, for example, is the novel The Journey to the West (西遊記), dating from the Tang Dynasty and written down in the 16th century. It recounts a wealth of adventures experienced by four travelers in search of Buddhist enlightenment in what was then Central Asia and India. This is where caravans connected the East and the West on what Europeans later called the Silk Road. It is literary fun, an entertaining kaleidoscope that was meant to explain and make the wondrous fascination of the foreign West comprehensible to the people of China.
This is where Chinese President Xi Jinping (習近平), General Secretary of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) since 2012 and president for life since 2013, picked up with his great project — a “new Silk Road,” or the Belt and Road Initiative, stretching from Beijing across Central Asia to the West and spanning the seas.
“I hear the camel bells ringing and see the smoke of the oasis fires rising,” Xi said when he presented Beijing’s idea in Kazakhstan in 2013 to spend a lot of money to build roads and railways to better link the countries of the world.
Unlike in the era of the Journey to the West, China is no longer curiously seeking out the wonders of the distant world and the wisdom of foreign lands. Instead, it is building railway lines as far away as Duisburg, Germany; Porto, Portugal; and London, dredging ports in Sri Lanka, Djibouti and Piraeus, Greece, and paving roads in Montenegro, Tanzania and Pakistan. The purpose of the projects is to sell Chinese goods everywhere, while sending Chinese workers to Southeast Asia, South America or Southwest Africa to earn wages and bread.
Once shipped around the world, they then use Chinese capital and know-how to build infrastructure projects of gigantic proportions. For such “gigantomania,” the often small and mostly poor recipient countries fall into debt with Beijing for decades, having to submit to Chinese jurisdiction; and so Beijing sets the tone worldwide.
This is no longer the genial tone of an ancient friendly lighthearted narrative. It is the language of a new world power. China is the second-largest economy on Earth, dominating large parts of the international supply and trade chains, hundreds of millions of Chinese have worked their way up from a state of absolute poverty to study, travel and work abroad.
Many in the world also benefit from the success of China’s newly acquired power. The price of smartphones would probably be unaffordable if they had not been assembled in China. It is better not to calculate the turnover of European companies had they no Chinese buyers for their goods. Reason enough to be glad that the interconnectedness of the globalized and digitalized world has been enriched by such a profitable player as China.
However, we should know exactly who we are dealing with when we encounter this China and its communist party.
The CCP likes to talk about history, and Xi is also fond of doing so. China is old, the story goes, but for 100 years it was humiliated by Western imperialists and Japanese aggressors. Now, thanks to the CCP, the time of China’s “rejuvenation” has come. The country will regain its rightful place in the world.
In the bestseller The China Dream by Liu Mingfu (劉明福) from 2010, it is said that China’s “destiny” is to lead the world. “The Chinese Dream” was Xi’s catchphrase when he seized power in in 2012.
Nations, as described by the social scientist Benedict Anderson, are “imagined communities.” People imagine a common “nation” when they feel threatened by a rapidly changing environment and seek protection in a sense of belonging. This happened with the founding of the US in the 18th century, in Europe and Latin America in the 19th century, and it is still happening today, as seen again and again in the struggle for state sovereignty around the globe.
In China, the CCP uses this human craving to maintain power. In its historiographical narrative, there are no peoples who, over the course of many dynasties (including many non-Chinese ones), gave rise to the particular amalgam that is today understood as “Chinese” culture. In this party-authorized history, there is only one millennia-old, unchanging Chinese “people,” oppressed by the “West,” and finally liberated by the communist party. Thus the CCP has gained the right to rule China, and in a totalitarian way, and perhaps for all eternity.
Totalitarianism means that there are no boundaries between the lives of citizens and the rulers’ all-encompassing claim to rule. The CCP digs far back into history to explain this. Even Confucius (孔子), the proponent of a perfectly governed feudal society, is invoked. Thus, the propaganda now says, he envisaged precisely those “socialist” governance structures that the party has realized today, with the ruler like a father — or perhaps emperor — at the top, the party secretaries who, like the mandarins in the past, implement the will of the ruler, and with a people who love and obey him to the letter.
Of course, this is a thoroughly fake “Confucius.” “Master Kong” has tried to understand the world philosophically with complex lines of thought that are far removed from the simple, black and white world of the communists. Yet it is worth instrumentalizing him, given the respect this great thinker still enjoys, even beyond China. What this amounts to is shown by George Orwell in his novel Nineteen Eighty-Four, in which a party secretary says: “He who controls the present controls the past. He who controls the past controls the future.”
Does the CCP control the future? What this future might mean for China can be seen by again looking into history. From 1368 to 1644, China was ruled by the Ming Dynasty. The Ming Dynasty replaced the Mongols, the founders of the Yuan Dynasty, as rulers of China. They in turn were ousted by the nomadic Manchu people, the founders of the Qing Dynasty. That is why the Ming rulers had good reason to fear foreigners. They built the Great Wall of China, a bulwark to keep out the nomadic peoples of the northern steppe.
Moreover, against the threats that might come across the sea, the Ming enacted laws commanding that no settlement be less than 16km from the coast, and no one should sail the sea except for the purpose of coastal fishing. Even the great imperial voyages of exploration in the Indian Ocean were prohibited during the Ming reign.
Liu Xiaobo (劉曉波), the famous Chinese democracy fighter, political prisoner and 2010 Nobel Peace Prize laureate who died of untreated cancer in a Chinese prison in 2017, once told me: “A strong country does not need a wall.”
The communist party sees it differently. As early as 1991, then-CCP general secretary Jiang Zemin (江澤民) wrote in the party newspaper Renmin Ribao (人民日報) that every Chinese must build a “Great Wall of Steel” in his heart.
This desire to protect oneself against supposed dangers from abroad has under Xi become the obsession of an entire country, now indeed reminiscent of the Ming Dynasty. Non-Chinese titles are censored in Xi’s China, unless they are professionally required. The importation of films, TV shows and music, especially from the West, is severely restricted and tightly controlled. Films without positive Chinese protagonists have no chance of being shown, and Hollywood has long since adjusted its production to reflect this shift.
Last year, the CCP decided to introduce a so-called “dual circulation” economy. This is intended to limit economic and trade exchange with foreign countries to the minimum necessary for China. The companies that are allowed to stay are supposed to employ Chinese staff up to the executive level and, in cooperation with the CCP, to largely adapt their structures to those of state-owned enterprises.
As a consequence, according to last year’s census, only 845,697 foreigners reside in China, and most of them come from neighboring countries such as Myanmar or Vietnam. By comparison, tiny Luxembourg is home to about 300,000 foreigners, more than Beijing and Shanghai combined.
The COVID-19 pandemic has made it easier for the CCP to wall in the country even more effectively. Strict quarantine rules deter those willing to travel to China. The control of its population with electronic measures, the “social credit system,” can easily be extended further for the purpose of supposed pandemic prevention.
Xi still speaks internationally as a representative of globalization and cross-border cooperation, but in reality he is removing the country from its international ties as long as they are not for the benefit of the party.
Anyone who has spent a time in China, who is fascinated by its complex, diverse culture, who has interacted with its people who are open to the surprises of the world, is stunned by these developments. It is depressing to see how all this affects the lives of Chinese.
The surveillance with the help of social media has become ever more total, video cameras flourish and ever stricter laws are promulgated against anything that could be dissent. Actors who do not look “manly” enough are no longer allowed to appear on TV, stars who earn too much are ostracized on the Internet. Successful companies — mainly from the technology sector — have to cede large parts their profits to the state. Schoolchildren rather than learning English must be able to recite “Xi Jinping Thought” by heart. Video games must be politically and historically “correct,” otherwise they will be banned.
The pandemic facilitated the implementation of such measures, because fear of the party was complemented by fear of the disease. Only the CCP — or more precisely, only Xi personally — could provide help. Now there is room for a plausible narrative of how badly democracies have dealt with the danger, and how exquisitely the Chinese have fared, allowing themselves to be locked in their homes for months under massive threats of physical violence. Do they realize how well Taiwan has managed the pandemic?
Two campaigns are being prepared for next year’s 20th National Party Congress. One aims at redefining Chinese history of the past 70 years. What has so far been called a “mistake,” such as the murderous “leap forward” in the 1950s, would be washed white. In addition, society is to be positioned further to the “left.” Only “Xi Thought,” which is already enshrined in the constitution, would count as an ideological guideline.
Most likely, there might also be a continuation of the party’s policy of expanding its reach beyond the country’s borders. It is not just a matter of enforcing Chinese contractual conditions worldwide, as seen with the Belt and Road Initiative. It is not just about China militarily securing sovereignty over sea areas the size of Mexico in Southeast Asia, its soldiers attacking across the border in India, or terrorizing Taiwan on a daily basis with its fighter jets and navy. China’s state-owned China Central Television proudly reported that on China’s National Day, Oct. 1, 38 fighter jets flew near Taiwan as a “military parade in the air.”
There is more: Now Beijing unhesitatingly detains foreign citizens as hostages — remember how when a Chinese national might have been implicated in a criminal case in Canada, Canadians taken as hostages were only released when the Chinese national returned home.
Beijing’s so-called “wolf warrior diplomats” sent the Australian government a list of 14 demands for “better behavior.” The reason: Canberra had publicly demanded that Beijing investigate and disclose the true causes of the pandemic.
Print media publishers worldwide see themselves excluded from doing business in the People’s Republic of China (PRC) if they publish statements on COVID-19’s origin that conflict with Beijing’s version, or maps that do not reflect China’s territorial claims; Taiwan, the South China Sea and disputed areas in the Himalayas must be marked on maps as belonging to China.
The 1984 treaty with Britain on Hong Kong’s political freedoms and constitution has been unilaterally declared null and void by Beijing.
A new security law threatens non-Chinese with punishment if they take positions not in line with the CCP’s politics, wherever such “contraventions” occurred.
All this sounds frightening, at first seems reminiscent of the former Soviet Union. What the The Economist called “China’s new reality” is fundamentally different from the old Cold War. For all their imperial ambitions as a Marxist party, the Russian communists were still philosophically committed to the legacy of the Enlightenment.
This is different in the case of the PRC. With their so-called “socialism with Chinese characteristics,” the CCP offers the world “Chinese solutions” to its problems — in other words, to obey what the party dictates. This is a farewell to the values of Enlightenment universalized in the UN Charter.
It is a farewell to the rules that keep the complicated, globalized and pluralized world going. For example: if Beijing had followed the rules of the WHO at the end of 2019 — by quickly reporting the first cases of COVID-19 and allowing international experts access to the region — how many hundreds of thousands or millions of people would still be alive today? The party, only concerned with its reputation, drives the world into disaster, while critics of its pandemic policy are punished.
Beware. In principle, all this is entirely legitimate. There is no unalterable commitment to the values of the Enlightenment for the states of the world, even if they have signed up to them, like every member of the UN. There is no world government, so anyone can opt out. After all, “Enlightenment,” namely the pursuit of rational judgement, individual freedom and “happiness,” is a story of continuing struggle going back at least to the Greek philosophers, with painful and gruesome setbacks — and Germans in particular know all too much about it, remembering the events of the 20th century. Nevertheless, when dealing with a new world power, we should know exactly who and what challenge we are dealing with.
Naturally, the people in China know this best. Recently, at the International Literature Festival Berlin, seven out of eight panelists were of the opinion that a democratic transition in China was out of the question. The reason: the vast majority of the people had accepted the communist’s offer to enjoy prosperity in exchange for political silence. Only one panelist could imagine the democratization in China — but solely as the result of a coup d’etat.
The most committed minds, people who risk even their lives to change their country, in the end, they leave China. This is not a “brain drain,” an exodus of scientists who seek and find more income elsewhere. China is worse off. The country is suffering an intellectual loss. This is happening to a great and ancient culture that has been an asset to the world. We are missing this culture now, more so amid great global upheavals, an epoch in which we desperately need new ideas and creative thoughts to show new paths.
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe said that free intellectual exchange benefits people as much as free trade of goods. The CCP sees intellectual freedom as a threat to its power. It has examined history and learned from it what suits it best. It wants to create a society that is enclosed like the famous frog trapped in a well who thinks the section of sky it sees above it is the whole world.
Safe behind their new Great Wall, the red mandarins have the power to employ 1.4 billion people at will to maintain their rule. Businesses fearfully follow the dictates of the state and people function as obedient subjects to what the party demands.
Hence, we watch helplessly from abroad as Chinese who can imagine a different, more humane system are punished or even killed, such as Liu Xiaobo. We can but watch how an ancient religion is destroyed in Tibet or how more than 1 million Uighurs are locked up in camps in Xinjiang.
This is precisely why we must try to make sense of what is happening in China, the most populous country on earth and one of two superpowers. We should understand how deeply tragic this development threatens to become. We can learn much about China from courageous people such as Wei Jingsheng (魏京生), Liu Xiaobo, Liao Yiwu (廖亦武) and others. If we imagine a common, a universal future with China, it is in the hope that this China will be a country shaped by people like them.
Volker Stanzel is a former German ambassador to China and Japan who publishes on foreign policy issues and Asia, conducts research at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs, and teaches at the Hertie School in Berlin.
This essay first appeared on Oct. 23 in German under the title “Xi Jinpings China: Wo die Vergangenheit die Zukunft ist” on Der Rikscha-Reporter’s Web site (https://www.juergenkremb.com/xi-jinpings-china-where-the-past-is-the-future-by-volker-stanzel).
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