The Twenty-Four Histories (中國廿四史) is a collection of official Chinese dynastic histories from Records of the Grand Historian (史記) to the History of the Ming Dynasty (明史) that cover the time from the legendary Yellow Emperor (黃帝) to the Chongzhen Emperor (崇禎), the last Ming emperor.
History is written by the victors. These histories are not merely records of the rise and fall of emperors, they also demonstrate the ways in which conquerors embellished their own achievements while deriding those of the conquered.
The history written by the People’s Republic of China (PRC) is no exception. The PRC presents its predecessor — the Republic of China (ROC) — as a corrupt, unfit government that created the conditions of its demise.
In such a historical narrative, the PRC became the ruler that eradicated the corruption of the ROC and its shortcomings, and has a capable government that stands with and is supported by the people.
However, once a government has obtained infinite power, it does not take long before it becomes corrupt, as in the case of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).
Since the establishment of the PRC in 1949, the CCP has unknowingly, but continuously repeated the same mistakes.
The history of the PRC and the CCP corresponds with the Tai Hexagrams (泰卦) of the Yijing (易經, The Book of Changes), which states: “All states of peace are liable to be disturbed.”
“Force and arms bring retribution,” wrote ancient Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu (老子), the founder of Taoism, in the Tao Te Ching (道德經).
According to Chinese dynastic histories, founding emperors of each dynasty, after unifying the split territories, would rest, recuperate and prepare to govern.
Since China is a vast country with abundant resources, people were able to live in comfort, as long as its rulers did not relentlessly seek to expand their power.
However, history shows that, more often than not, the successors failed to appreciate the effort of their predecessors. Instead, they devoted themselves to military activities and boasted about their authority, not knowing when and how to stop.
Under this kind of rule, power reaches a peak and eventually backfires.
For example, the ancient Qin Dynasty benefited from the reforms of the pre-dynastic chancellor Shang Yang (商鞅), which enabled Duke Xiao of Qin (秦孝公) to transform the state of Qin into a prosperous one with military might.
Qin Shi Huang (秦始皇) would later annex the other six states, and become the first emperor of a unified China.
However, he did not govern the people with benevolence, but tried to gain more power. The Qin Dynasty fell shortly after Qin Shi Huang’s death.
The Han Dynasty serves as another example. During the period known as the “rule of Wen and Jing,” Emperor Wen (漢文帝) and his son, Emperor Jing (漢景帝), ruled benevolently and successfully managed the treasury.
However, their successor, Emperor Wu (漢武帝), employed general Chen Tang’s (陳湯) strategy, imposing the death penalty on anyone who dared to oppose the mighty Han, no matter how far away they were.
Emperor Wu engaged in many wars, appropriating the people’s labor and wealth for military use. Before long, the power of the Han Dynasty started to decline.
Similar cases include emperor Xuanzong (唐玄宗) of the Tang Dynasty and the Qianlong Emperor (乾隆帝) of the Qing Dynasty, both of whom strived ambitiously, but unrealistically for power and greatness.
In the end, the Tang Dynasty’s Kaiyuan era and the era of the High Qing mark points at which those in power began to lose control.
As early as the fourth century BC, Lao Tzu warned about this.
“When things grow to maturity, they begin to decay. This is in contrast to the Eternal Way. That which is contrary to the Eternal Way is doomed to die,” he wrote in the Tao Te Ching.
For more than 2,000 years, history has kept repeating itself.
Under the regime of PRC founder Mao Zedong (毛澤東), the CCP had supreme authority over all matters.
A series of policies were put in place against the will of many people.
As a result of the “Three-anti” and “Five-anti” campaigns, the Great Leap Forward and the development of people’s communes, Chinese became impoverished and livelihoods were shattered.
In the late 1970s, then-Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping (鄧小平) tried to turn the tide, adopting a policy of “reform and opening up,” with an aim to separate economics from politics.
Deng’s successors, former Chinese presidents Jiang Zemin (江澤民) and Hu Jintao (胡錦濤), followed his “hide and bide” maxim, and China’s economy thrived for the first time since the establishment of the PRC.
However, as the saying goes: “In a 100-mile journey, the first 90 miles is merely half of it.”
When one is close to finishing their task, they must be extremely cautious.
On May 28, 2020, when China’s annual National People’s Congress closed, former Chinese premier Li Keqiang (李克強) told a news conference that there were more than 600 million people whose monthly income was barely 1,000 yuan (US$145 at the current exchange rate).
Li revealed to the world that, under the surface of China’s prosperity and military might, more than half of its population were still in poverty.
The outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic devastated China, and its economy has been seriously damaged by its “zero COVID” policy.
Foreign corporations withdrew investments in China. Lives became harder for Chinese, who engaged in a series of protests against the government, including the “blank paper” and “gray hair” movements.
If this happened in a free, democratic country, it would have been shocking.
However, for Chinese autocrats, that is just how it is.
On March 5, the Chinese Ministry of Finance released its military budget for this year, allocating 1.56 trillion yuan, an increase of 7.2 percent from last year.
In contrast to the tremendous amount of money allocated to the military, China’s economic growth has been decreasing. It is perplexing to concentrate so much more on military expansion than on people’s livelihoods.
Chinese President Xi Jinping (習近平) demonstrated his ambition at the end of last year, when Hu was evicted from the CCP’s 20th National Congress.
It is more than evident that Xi intends to secure his position as the highest authority, to serve his third term without naming a successor, and to control the CCP, the government and the military.
Today, China’s important institutions, including the National People’s Congress, the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference and the State Council, are controlled by politicians loyal to Xi.
During the meetings of the Chinese National People’s Congress, it was decided that the CCP would control committees spanning security, finance and technology, and the State Council would become nominal.
Under this structure, Deng’s effort to separate the party from the state would have been in vain, and the Chinese government would return to Mao’s era in which the party rules all.
In China, “wolf warrior diplomacy” has been supported by many, heralding the slogan: “Those who violate us Chinese must be attacked, no matter how distant they are,” which Ban Gu (班固) wrote in the Book of Han (漢書).
The claws of the wolf scratch almost everything, jeopardizing world peace and challenging the current international order.
As the saying goes: “One is humiliated by others because one has brought humiliation upon oneself first.”
Similarly, whoever plays with fire gets burned.
The CCP has been severely criticized by democratic countries, including Australia, European nations, Japan and the US, and China has been in an unfavorable situation for some time.
The “great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation” is a mirage, and China is heading toward a cul-de-sac as it did before.
If Lao Tzu knew about this, he would sigh.
Wang Hui-sheng is chief director of the Kisei Ladies’ and Children’s Hospital in Japan.
Translated by Emma Liu
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