Listen to this article
Give us your feedback Thank you for your feedback.
What do you think?
China’s ‘new era of socialism with Chinese characteristics’ — the big new slogan unveiled at the 19th party congress in October — has not resonated much in the west. But Chinese headlines are not about selling newspapers and Chinese speeches are written for a people steeped in their history.
Mr Xi has delivered either a ‘Great Learning’ — in the manner of the ancient sage Confucius — or an apocalptic risk that could sink not only the Communist party but also the People’s Republic.
Either way, Mr Xi’s ‘new era’ is likely to change our world.
The Great Learning was originally a short text with a big idea. It set out, around 450BCE, a hierarchy of steps by which a ruler could return his state to an atavistic golden age of peace and security.
The steps toward this goal begin with a sincere gathering of knowledge known as the ‘investigation of things’. Once such knowledge has been sincerely gathered, self-cultivation becomes possible. Once self-cultivation is achieved, families can be regulated. Once families are regulated, the state can be ordered.
Being so important to the state, both the gathering of knowledge and the cultivation of the self came to be managed through a subtle combination of strict rules and deeply pervasive norms. Designed for the security of a moderately prosperous state, the emphasis on knowledge and self-restraint in the interests of supporting a bigger purpose set from above made it a model for the creation of great wealth.
There is no text on apocalyptic risk, but China’s long history of dynastic rises and falls is attributed to a powerful top-down idea of order that, focused so heavily on delivering a ‘great learning’, ignores the warning signals of risky situations on the ground, thus sowing the seeds of its own inevitable collapse.
An awareness of China’s vulnerability to apocalyptic risks can be traced back to the dawn of Chinese history. Having discovered the means of settlement, the early leaders divided: some insisted that it would henceforth be more efficient for a self-cultivated, single top-down mind to apply the knowledge for everyone’s security. Others insisted that the only thing that had been learned was that the cosmos was a mystery of changes that could only be divined by individuals who cultivated themselves.
China’s quintessential Golden Age — a period of Great Learning that did not dissolve into chaos — was in the early years of the Zhou dynasty, around the beginning of the first millennium BCE and under the rule of a regent, Zhou Gong. Bringing together the ancient knowledge of the shamans with a new ‘investigation of things’, the regent delivered peace, security and prosperity; as evidence of his sincerity, he also returned the state to his nephew, the rightful heir to the throne.
Within a few hundred years, though, the Golden Age had been lost by successors who set aside sincerity and pursued wealth and power. By 450BCE, the Zhou lands had descended into an apocalyptic war among a thousand city-states. The ‘warring states’ period lasted 250 years. The leader who eventually emerged victorious was the ruler of Qin, a state governed by strict laws and brutal punishments.
Within 20 years, however, the Qin fell because when civil punishments are too brutal, the price of a failed rebellion is no higher than the price of conformity. The dynasty that succeeded the Qin was called the Han and it was established on a compromise: a velvet glove of Confucian sincerity, but retaining the iron fist of some brutal Qin laws.
The following millennia in Chinese history are interleaved between times of Great Learning and apocalyptic risk. The periods of Great Learning were typically experienced when new dynasties — led either by purging rebels or opportunistic conquerors — became self-cultivating emperors able to deliver moderate prosperity.
The apocalyptic risk accumulates as time passes and moderate prosperity grows into great wealth. The sincerity of self-cultivation that characterised leaders early on in the dynasty then gives way to a brutal insistence on conformity that blinds rulers to the risks emerging on the ground.
Mr Xi’s new era is grounded in the Great Learning. Many of his painstaking steps to reinvigorate the party and its powers can be traced back to that text. These include a vast ‘investigation of things’ from across the state, the party, its military and its legal system.
It also includes a renewed emphasis on self-cultivation, whether of party members (through the anti-corruption campaign) or of business (through an expanded role for party cells in companies) or of people (the mobilisation of big data and social ratings for perfect planning and conformity).
To these Mr Xi has added, and amplified, two lessons that are typically attributed to Mao Zedong, founder of modern China, but easily seen throughout Chinese history. The two lessons are widely considered to be the triggers of apocalyptic risk: the first being an insistence on Objective Thinking (scientific loyalty to party plans); the second being an insistence on Seeking Truth through Facts (truth as the determined creation of new facts rather than loyalty to past ones).
Remembering that China’s apocalyptic collapses have been triggered by external conquest or influence as much as internal rebellion, Mr Xi has amplified these two lessons by applying them to the wider world.
With the confidence gained from Mao’s resurrection of strong borders and Deng Xiaoping’s resurrection of a powerful economy (and with the clear understanding of risk resulting from the weaker rules of Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao), Mr Xi is now offering to share the Great Learning with any interested others, as long as they understand that it has no room for ideas that challenge either Objective Thinking or Seeking Truth from Facts.
This is Mr Xi’s new global ‘Community of Common Destiny’. It is essential to the success of the new era at home.
Will Mr Xi succeed or fail? Chinese history suggests the collapse of top-down minds is inevitable. But, to be fair, world history seems to say the same of everything. Perhaps a better question is what comes next. And the answer to that question almost certainly lies as much in the outside world as within China.
It would be easy for the West to see Mr Xi’s new era as the opening salvo in a long-awaited clash of civilisations. Given the political disarray of America and Europe, however, such a characterisation could well divide the world, with many countries deciding that Mr Xi’s new era offers less of a risk than the uncertainties of a rudderless west.
Alternatively, the west could begin its own investigation of things, beginning with a new era of political education (of politicians, business leaders, the people at large), while also, sincerely and with a degree of self-cultivation, painstakingly examining its own values and performance.
We may or may not believe in Mr Xi’s sincerity, but his new era is a political proposition delivered to a world exhausted by the pursuit of great economic wealth. The language may be clunky, but looking at the past five years of Mr Xi’s painstaking reorganisation, there should be no mistaking the deliberation with which he intends to pursue his dream.
Whether we believe that Mr Xi is delivering a Great Learning or an apocalyptic risk, managing his new era will require a much more thoughtful west.
Jeanne-Marie Gescher has advised businesses and governments on China since 1989; she is the author of Becoming China, The Story Behind the State (Bloomsbury, November 2017).