A Century After the Qing | China Heritage Quarterly
A Century After the Qing:
Yesterday's Empire and Today's Republics
by Charles Horner and Eric Brown
Charles Horner is a Senior Fellow at Hudson Institute and author of Rising China and Its Postmodern Fate: Memories of Empire in a New Global Context, Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 2009.
Eric Brown is a Research Fellow at Hudson Institute.
Sometime in the late-nineteenth century political and intellectual leaders in China began to flirt with a genuinely radical idea that stood against two millennia of Chinese history—that the country could get along without an emperor and, even more, that the country would probably not survive if it kept its venerable imperial system. In this, China would precede Europe's great empires into a new era of republicanism. Over the decades, other great multi-ethnic empires—the Hapsburg, the Ottoman, Britain's South Asia Raj and, most recently, the Soviet Union—devolved into independent nations. But, after a century, the geopolitical territory of the Manchu empire—that is, the Qing dynasty, China's last, which began in 1644 and ended in 1912—is still largely intact. It may yet dissolve into independent nations but, so far, Outer Mongolia is the only major part of the Qing patrimony that has formally done so. Taiwan, a one-time Qing colony, has emerged as an independent, democratic, self-governing polity, although its independence and sovereignty are not widely recognized. The rest of the Qing realm has, since the early 1950s, been ruled from Beijing, the capital of the People's Republic of China (PRC). Indeed, the PRC is the last consequential regime in the world which has not given up the vision of a polity that is a vast multi-ethnic empire in content, albeit one that is a constitutional republic in form. This relationship between content and form is—to employ some Maoist-era terminology—the primary contradiction of the PRC. Indeed, given what has happened, and what continues to happen, in other parts of the world, even the mere claim that any one non-democratic state should govern the once-vast domains of the former Qing Empire is striking in and of itself. But the People's Republic does more than assert that claim; since l949, it has gone to extraordinary lengths to make the claim stick.
The Manchu Court and the Communist Party
In February 1912, Prince Chun, the regent acting on behalf of his five year-old son, Puyi the famous Last Emperor, Xuantong, executed an instrument of abdication whereby the Qing dynasty came to an end. In power in the imperial city of Beijing since 1644 (the Qing had ruled 'outside the pass' or beyond the Great Wall for some years before that), the dynasty was the creation of the Manchus, a hitherto obscure inner Asian people who, at the end, constituted perhaps two percent of China's 400-plus million population. The Manchu empire, not only in sheer power but also in cultural achievement, was one of the greatest in Chinese and, indeed, world history. At its height at the end of the eighteenth century, it accounted for about thirty percent of the world's gross domestic product. But, most significant for us today, is that the 'China' that the Qing dynasty bequeathed to the new Republic in 1912 was about twice the size of the 'China' it had taken over in the late 1600s. To China Proper, through alliances, warfare and guile they added Mongolia, East Turkistan, Tibet—and Taiwan.
For all this, beginning in the latter part of the nineteenth century and continuing for many decades thereafter, the informed Beijing Consensus of the age was that the Qing had outlived whatever usefulness it had once had, and that it was especially ill-suited for life in the new, globalized, world of the early twentieth century. The relatively peaceful transfer of power achieved in the formal abdication of 1912 was unprecedented in China's history and the civility of it stands in contrast to the many decades of disorder and bloodshed, which included anti-Manchu pogroms, that preceded it. For the Manchu-led Qing did not go without a fight, indeed, many fights, and big ones that claimed millions of lives. And it did not go without a brilliant effort at national renovation, which confronted many old ways of thinking and doing. These were profound changes and, over the past three decades, historians and other observers have noticed that China's post-1979 renovation resembles in many striking ways this 'self-strengthening movement' of the last Manchu decades.
But, today, as it must be, the Qing is well-regarded by the People's Republic of China, because it was the Qing who created the One China, which would be half its current size were it not for the Manchu expansion. Outside the government, there are other commentators who do not work for the People's Republic but who also applaud the last period of Qing rule for its major political and economic reforms, and for its constructive critique of the country's inherited cultural and intellectual traditions. Some of these, heretically, have gone so far as to challenge the very foundational principles of the People's Republic by maintaining that the country was fundamentally on the right track when the republican revolution intervened and ignited the decades of abject misery that are only now coming to a close. Still other observers see parallels between the problems of excessive corruption, growing regionalism, and widespread disorder that overwhelmed the Qing in its last days and the growing internal difficulties that face the People's Republic today.
The great, and still underappreciated, reforms of the late-Qing era certainly did the country a lot of good, but they did not save the dynasty. Though they were strengthening in their way, they were also subversive of the polity and of its ruling caste. They started to change the ways that many things were done and they introduced non-traditional ideas about almost everything. People began to think and live in different ways. New definitions of the good and proper life no longer comported with older ones. Thus, even as the Qing polity succumbed to its many failures, its reformist successes became ironic reminders of its irrelevance. It helped sweep itself into history's dustbin.
The Manchus at the center of this tale of rise and fall were only a tiny part of the Empire's population and the Aisin Gioro, the core imperial clan, was but a small fraction of that. In retrospect, the Aisin Gioro's vision, ruthlessness, tenacity, and adaptability in building and preserving the Qing Empire are extraordinary: relentlessly violent and obsessed with building and maintaining their continental empire; brutal and conciliatory; stubborn, yet flexible in employing new tactics; celebrators of the Sinic tradition, but wholesale adopters of new foreign ways. The story of the Aisin Gioro is a useful primer for any successor regime which would like to replicate their achievements but escape their fate. It is a story that reveals one grand strategy for empire—and its limitations. We do not know in what detail that history has been studied by the Communist Party officials who now hold power in Beijing, but we do know that their challenge today is in its essence not so very different from the Aisin Gioro in whose palaces they now live.
One Empire, Two Republics
Since 1912, two Republics—the Nationalist Republic of China in power from 1912 to l949 and the Communist Party's People's Republic of China in power since—struggled to hold the Manchu empire together. The first republic needed to fill itself with substance and meaning. No such thing ever had existed in China before. Its founders had argued that there was a fundamental conflict of interest between the Manchus and the Han Chinese they ruled. But what to make of the Manchus' empire that they now claimed? Would the new Chinese rulers have comparable conflicts of interest? How would such a diversity of people, once ruled by Manchus but now by Han Chinese, react to the change? How could the change be justified and managed? Interestingly enough, we know relatively little about how the new Republic, almost immediately, decided to lay claim to all Manchu imperial domains as part of the new republican dispensation. But, ever since, it has required considerable conceptual legerdemain—and the repeated use of force—to recast the One Manchu Empire into the One Republic of China.
The struggle about what 'Republicanism with Chinese Characteristics' should mean and how it should work in practice turned out to be long, complicated, and very violent, an indication of the depths of feeling on all sides. The first two decades after the Qing abdication were known as the 'Warlord Era', a symptom of the incoherent republic's growing pains. A new National Government emerged after sustained military campaigns, but its writ was narrow. There was then open war between China and Japan—July l937 until August l945—an underappreciated theater of World War II, but a ferocious one, comparable only to the German-Soviet front in Europe. Tens of millions of Chinese lives were lost.
When that war ended, the on-again, off-again civil war between the Nationalists and the Communists resumed. Millions fought on both sides and millions died. In l950, the new People's Republic of China laid claim to the Qing/Republican inheritance and sent its forces into Tibet. In the lands of East Turkistan, which came to be known to Chinese through the Manchu conquests as 'Xinjiang', or the 'New Territory', Turkic peoples also offered sporadic resistance against Chinese rule and they, like rebellious Tibetans in the late 1950s, were bloodily repressed. The new government then turned against the Chinese people themselves. First there were the mass purges and executions of the early 1950s, followed by a series of campaigns and the murderous Great Leap Forward of the late l950s, which produced horrific destruction comparable to Stalin's in the Soviet Union; tens of millions of lives were lost in what has become known as the Great Leap Famine. In the mid 1960s Mao Zedong and his supporters then launched the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution, claiming yet more lives and causing still more devastation. Obviously, Mao and the Communist Party believed that only violence, or rather 'class struggle,' on a grand scale could secure the Qing's domains and then rule the hundreds of millions who lived within its borders.
Today, China is in the midst of another unanticipated upheaval, one that has been far less violent and which may have far more staying power. Over thirty years ago, the Chinese Communist Party which had once been determined to be the most radical socialist ruling parties in the world, put the country on a new course, one inspired both by history as well as by the economic prowess of kindred societies like the ones in Japan and South Korea. Even more, it was inspired—grudgingly, but also proudly—influenced by the successes of the Chinese societies in Taiwan, Singapore and Hong Kong. At one level, these last three survivors in the century-long battle to define Chinese Republicanism seem woefully mismatched vis-à-vis Beijing, but the existence of conspicuous alternatives to the PRC's way of doing things was and remains consequential. On the island of Taiwan especially, there is another republic—the Republic of China (RoC)—that is more advanced than the People's Republic of China on the Asian mainland. The RoC is better at manufacturing, more sophisticated in banking and finance, more productive in research and development, and better integrated into the world economy. The PRC now relies heavily on the RoC for capital investments, managerial expertise, and technical know-how, even as it fears the constitutional and democratic governance at which the RoC also outperforms its mainland sibling and which also accounts for its other successes.
The quiet departure of the Qing and the decades of political anomie and violence that followed in its wake provide a rich background for understanding the next round of change that will come to China and how that change will be realized. After Mao Zedong died in l976, the implementation of new economic and social policies caught most observers by surprise. The opening up of the People's Republic to the global economy and to contemporary ideas and practices has since created new geo-economic and socio-cultural centrifugal forces within China that have already dramatically altered the character of the Chinese polity. The last thirty years have witnessed the greatest continuous economic boom in the history of the world, and the strains show. China's urbanization rate is the fastest in the history of the world and yet there are perhaps 800,000,000 more Chinese in rural areas still to migrate. The effects on every facet of China's social, intellectual, and cultural life have been profound. Not least, in response to the changes in China's 'substructure', the doctrine of the ruling Communist Party has become so contorted as to have become what would seem to be a parody of itself. There have been officially sanctioned reports that acknowledge tens of thousands of rural disturbances of various sizes. Thus, one may justifiably ask: Is yet another abrupt shift in China's political economy in the offing?
These socio-political indicators and the social pathologies associated with them are not in and of themselves the best way to highlight the many challenges that face the Communist Party of China, the organization which set up the PRC in l949 and which has run it ever since. Rather, the challenges are better understood as systemic, as inherent in the modus vivendi the ruling party has struck between itself, the country, and the world. It is an arrangement, so the Party has concluded, which is the best way of doing what its Leninist charter requires it to do—gain power, and then hold it. Early on, the Soviet Model seemed the only way to accomplish this but that model, in the end, proved unavailing. Indeed, well before the end of its fraternal party's rule in the USSR, the Communist Party of China set out to reinvent the system it had created and to connect itself to the world market economy. But to accept the 'market' is to cede much power to a potent, impersonal, and unpredictable force. No political figure enjoys the fact that his power can be undone at the whim of the bond market, or of the foreign exchange market, or of short-selling in some faraway commodities market. For a Leninist party that is also the inheritor of an emperor-centered, mandarin-run, system the tensions and ambiguities inherent in today's arrangements will always be unsettling, and often nerve-wracking.
Everything the leaders of Communist Party of China had once been taught to think about their country's nature and traditions tells them that the system they have put in place should not be able to work—but it is working nonetheless. It continues to make the country richer and more powerful by the day, and yet the decisive controlling forces, forces to which it must respond because it cannot control, now reside outside the country, in no one place in particular, and not subject to the say of any one person or group. The system is fundamentally mysterious, but it favors democratic regimes: economies expand and then they collapse; prices fall and then they rise; peoples pour into the streets, and it is tyrannies that fall.
The worries of today's Party leadership were unknown to their fathers. The Party survived the Asian financial crisis of l997, and may also survive the world financial crisis of 2008 and its aftermath, which is ultimately drawing in the financial system of the entire world. But what is next? When faced with repeated domestic failures, the People's Republic's founders stressed an agrarian ethos of 'hard struggle and plain living', and also made systematic use of foreign quarrels to whip-up the populace and shore-up their rule. Their sons, dubbed by many as 'the Princelings' and who are increasingly coming in to power, are aware that such machinations can be enormously costly: They know that a huge share of China's economy, and their own personal wealth, rest on foreign trade, most of it seaborne and thus reducible to a trickle in the event of war in the South China Sea or the Taiwan Strait.
But there is no need to speculate archly about the catastrophic or even the dramatic; the pedestrian and the mundane serve us well enough. The relentless changes underway within Chinese society as it becomes more modern are producing a People's Republic that will inevitably be much different from the regime that rules today. Such ongoing change need not lead to a Soviet-style, sudden collapse for it to produce deep-seated internal and international effects. Rather, structural, societal, and attitudinal changes—inherent in the processes of modernization and globalization—are remaking PRC, no matter the intentions of those who initiated them thirty years ago and of those who are carrying them forward today. The transformational changes inside the country cannot but bedevil the PRC domestically and affect its ambitions and performance as an international actor.
The geographic, economic, and cultural territory that is commonly understood as 'China' is not the same thing as 'PRC', which is a regime, a system, a way of managing the affairs of a huge number people spread across a vast territory. As we have noted, PRC, the regime, was the self-conscious creation of the Communist Party of China, itself a highly self-conscious group of men who think constantly about what they doing. And, as we have also noted, the Communist Party of China, though it certainly has 'Chinese characteristics', it also has Leninist ones; it says so in its constitution. In creating a political and economic system as well as in propounding social and cultural norms it does what Lenin directs it to do—seize power and then keep it. The Party's sense of how to do this has changed considerably over time. Today's PRC is much different from what it was at the time of its founding in l949, but both the old PRC and the new PRC are creations of the ruling Communist Party. PRC was what it was then and it is what it is now because, in the Communist Party's considered judgment, each embodies what the Party needs to do to maintain itself in power. This is called 'tactical flexibility'; it is not the historical determinism that fueled the Communist zeal of the last century, but quite its opposite.
The Burdens of Empire
Before the Qing Dynasty could reach its apex it had first to go about the business of empire-building. The Aisin Gioro were violent and self-centered, and deeply engaged with the outside world as they believed themselves to be the leaders of a universal empire. In the nineteenth century, threats to the empire from the outside world, and expanding internal ones, led to reforms that further opened up the realm to a host of new intellectual and political forces. The Qing concluded that it had run out of options, for without serious renovation—'self-strengthening'—the dynasty was certainly doomed, whereas reform just might save it. The great post-Mao reforms—'reform and opening up'—were born of comparable desperation. Reconstituting the empire while, at the same time, attempting to implement Mao's monomaniacal and demonic social vision had brought the PRC to a tipping point, a tipping point not so very different from the one USSR would reach at the time of Gorbachev's ascendancy. Deng Xiaoping himself understood that his program was a roll of the dice— like jumping into the sea, like crossing the river by carefully feeling for the stones beneath.
But beyond the question of PRC's external boundaries there's another kind of geo-political indeterminism affecting the inside of the country. The leadership's program of major social and economic renovation has had large structural effects on the internal balance of power. The economy now rests on a half-dozen or so macro-economic regions, each one centered on what the Chinese call a Special Municipality, that is, an urban center afforded the status of a province in its own right: Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou, Wuhan and Chongqing. The regions centered on Guangzhou and Shanghai are the richer ones, and the disparities in wealth between these and the other regions are widening (as at least one theory of developmental economics would have predicted). The government worries about the regional disparities and has directed major investments in a politically-directed, rather than market-directed way—that is, to parts of the country which, in the natural course of development, would not attract large amounts of capital. The national government also collects taxes from the richer regions and sends the money to the poorer ones. These two undertakings constitute a fundamental conflict of interest between a central, self-conscious, political regime and regional, impersonal, economic forces. The result has been to replicate in lagging areas the political economy as it exists in the more advanced ones. Infusion of new money into Xinjiang or Tibet has served only to exacerbate local grievances because the new local economies under construction merely mimic the larger economy elsewhere in the PRC. The new wealth is severely mal-distributed; the corruption its creation entails is more widespread—and hence, more visible.
Beyond that, at the same time, far older kinds of Chinese 'regionalism' and 'localism' have acquired a new strategic meaning and they have entered into the international relations of the PRC in new ways. The reappearance of geographically centered loyalties, even beyond the macro-economic regionalism, now is manifesting itself in unexpected ways and is complicating both the internal workings and the foreign ties of the PRC. For one example, there is now within China a huge deracinated population of workers in cities, who appear to be clustering by 'native place' affiliations. They are creating urban ghettos, defining themselves by common occupations, organizing 'native place associations', and other shared interests and concerns. This is a 'localism' of a neo-traditional kind, that is, a potentially explosive source of resistance to central authority.
A new form of localism is the effort by regions and major cities to connect themselves directly to the world without going through the national capital. Such places are becoming increasingly internationally-minded. Indeed, there is substantial precedent for the phenomenon going back to that other period of 'opening up and reform' in the late nineteenth century as new trans-border ties are being created in every direction. Economic geographers call this 'the internationalization of Chinese localism' and call the result of it 'Chinese-driven transnational regionalism'. One famous manifestation is 'Greater China', that is, the expanding ties among Chinese peoples living in the PRC, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Singapore, and beyond. Some of these connections may augment the PRC's power, but others circumvent Beijing's control altogether. There is additionally a Northeast Asia Regional Economy under construction which encompasses Northeast China, Korea, the Russian Far East and Japan. There is also a developing Greater Mekong Economy, which conjoins Southwest China to the eastern portion of the Indochina peninsula, as well as a Southwest Silk Road Economy that connects southwest China to Burma and reaches into parts of India. We can also add East Turkistan to this list and imagine the emergence, albeit further in the future, of a Greater Turkic Central Asia Economy.
In one way, of course, this is the outline of a grand imperial project that does the Qing dynasty one better. Yet even as PRC-driven trans-national regionalism is an assertion of Chinese national power, it also serves to dilute the PRC's central authority at one and the same time. Trans-national regional relations—between the regions of the PRC and the areas beyond the control of the PRC regime to which they are attached—are headed toward becoming at least as important as relations among the PRC's own exclusively Han regions. And, as such, this trend is necessarily and inevitably a contributor to the decomposition of the PRC as it is operating today because these vast undertakings are every day at odds with a 'Beijing-centric' system.
The Dao of Modernity
There is more to the transformational change in today's China than the impersonal and mechanistic processes of modern political economy and geo-strategy. The PRC's opening up of the country to the modern world has also set in motion a variety of sociological and cultural forces that both derive from, but also accelerate, economic and geo-strategic change. To be sure, both dimensions of deconstructive change—the economic and the socio-cultural—are intimately intertwined. Economic modernization, as today's PRC shows us, generates greater degrees of social variegation that, in turn, produce new centers of political power and forms of cultural expression. These then create new and expanding levels of centrifugal pull on the PRC's central authority. But if the PRC is searching for centripetal countertrends that can pull together the many centrifugal trends—economic regionalism, localism, ethnic separatism—into a revived 'national will', it has its work cut out for it. For many socio-cultural developments in the New PRC are making 'politics-in-command' projects of the sort that defined the Old PRC seem like a thing of the past.
There is first of all the family, the essential institution upon which all regimes are based. For generations, the traditional Chinese family—large, and organized around complex codes of filial conduct and obligation between sometimes quite distant relatives, all of whom were subservient to a dominant family patriarch—shaped the norms that sustained the predominantly agricultural economy and internal political balance of imperial China. But late-Qing reformist efforts to dismantle the Confucian system and its ideals placed the family as an institution under attack—a process further deepened during the Maoist era, when traditional values were subject to a frontal assault and when sexual egalitarianism and anti-family collectivism were formalised. But it was not until the late 1970s, with the implementation of PRC population control policies, that all of these deconstructive trends were institutionalized. Today, demographers track the consequences of these policies—a society that will grow old before it gets rich; a male-female sex imbalance; the connected rise of a class of millions of unmarried male migrant laborers which will raise the likelihood of crime and social, and political, unrest; epidemics of the diseases of modernity—hypertension, diabetes, depression, HIV-AIDS.
Outside the family this turn also expresses itself in contemporary Chinese art, literature, film, social activism and sexuality. This does not necessarily prefigure the emergence of a nation of middle-class liberals ; a good deal of it, in fact, demonstrates the same cynicism, irony, disenfranchisement, pathology, and self-absorption that we see in the contemporary West. But it does suggest that the PRC's future is, and will likely remain, defined increasingly by the desires, anxieties, ambitions, and fickleness of individuals, rather than by the social engineering of PRC technocrats. What this cultural celebration of identity and autonomy might mean for the PRC's political life—or, for that matter, how the basic geographical structure of the country inherited from the Qing dynasty will fare in this new atmosphere—remain open questions.
History vs. the Han
Traditionally, each new dynasty compiled a massive history of its predecessor, and PRC began a massive project—tens of millions of dollars committed, scholars from around the world engaged—to write the history of the Qing dynasty. The work is scheduled to appear in 2012 to mark the centennial of the Manchu abdication. Among other things, it is supposed to address why the Qing failed and why Modern China—in its best and last form, the PRC—came to be. Implicitly, then, the Qing Dynastic History is supposed to explain why the PRC is better than the political order it replaced, and why, in turn, it should continue, presumably forever. But, as with other grand historical reflections on why societies rise and fall, this one has proved politically contentious, and it is widely bruited that internal disputes and unresolved arguments may delay the appearance of the great work.
Meanwhile, even as the PRC spends millions to produce proper national history, unofficial, guerrilla, histories multiply. They began to emerge in the 1980s, at first with the tacit approval of the authorities, since they helped legitimize the post-Mao reforms. But guerrilla history has since moved well beyond that. In 2008, for example, a former Xinhua reporter, Yang Jisheng, published Tombstone [Mubei 墓碑], a devastating Solzhenitsyn-esque account of the mass starvation of the l950s—the Great Leap Famine. This book will, in time, become known around the world but, for now, it is but one example of a new reckoning with the PRC's past, a reminder that revolution and re-education, no matter how violent, cannot overcome history's legacies.
The decentralization and diffusion of writings about history have other important implications. New ethnic and cultural histories—including some written in the West and and absorbed into the intra-Chinese discussion—have begun to undermine the very idea of a single, identifiable identity, 'Han China.' There is also renewed interest in pre-modern identities in their own right, not as mere embellishments to a mainstream 'Han historiography'.
Such ideas, should they acquire greater currency and force, will corrode overarching Han nationalist and imperialist claims, and will abet the centrifugal forces as the interior of the country is more exposed to the ideas of the wider world. Indeed, in this new era, not only are Tibetan, Uighur, and Mongolian nationalisms placing their own claims and designs on the country's future, but there has also been a re-emergence and flourishing of other 'Han' local nationalisms—Cantonese, Fujianese, Sichuanese, others—that are making it more and more difficult for the PRC to speak on behalf of Han interests as such.
The Withering Away of the PRC
While all these critical and expressly modern factors will shape the PRC's future, much will depend on thoughts that are not modern at all. Modern China has not been a happy experience, and Old Thinking is asserting itself in many ways, not least in the revival of traditional religion. There are hundreds of millions of Chinese believers. Some are Christians, who sometimes understand their faith in terms consistent with the imperatives of Chinese modernization, but who never understand it in ways accepting of PRC's arbitrary rule. Some are Muslims, and some of them hold to religious principles which reject not merely PRC rule but also modern life as such. Many millions more are Buddhists of one sort or another. Some of them live in Tibet and, there, Buddhism has not yet been tamed by repeated PRC invocations of patriotism. Tibet is also part of a politically active Buddhist International that includes communities in counties as different as Mongolia, Burma, and Thailand. Buddhism, usually described as the archetypical religion of peace, in fact encompasses a great warrior and warring tradition; across the centuries, it has been receptive to violent millenarian ideologies and visions. Indeed, this strain of Buddhist thought has repeatedly fueled peasant uprisings in China, some of which became major challenges to the central government.
The revival of religion in China expresses a larger disenchantment with politics and with modern life; it works at cross-purposes with the PRC's ambitions for the country's emergence in the twenty-first century. In the 1990s, many intellectuals routinely blamed the horrors of the Maoist era on one of two fundamental lapses—either that Maoism broke too radically with China's Confucian past, or that it broke too radically with Western thought, especially with modern Euro-American thought. This helped the country recover its equilibrium after decades of Maoist madness and also helped to legitimize ideas that facilitated the PRC's rejoining the world. The revival of interest in the past also helped restore sobriety to Chinese life while, at the same time it has given rise to a renewed interest in classical Chinese social thought. But today, it is not yet clear whether this movement will prove itself friend or foe of Western thought, whether it will accept modernity and seek to accommodate itself to it, or whether it will seek to confront the modern world outright.
These are open questions and they can provoke great debate over whether the relentless transformation of China will make the country more modern or less, stronger or weaker. However, no matter which, the transformation unleashed by China's rise is transforming the very nature of the PRC regime itself. Indeed, the changes already have produced major structural consequences and, because they are real and visible, they are also expanding the imagination of thoughtful people throughout the Chinese-speaking world. After all, it took a while for the notion to gain hold that China's honored, respected, and revered dynastic system, had become an obstacle to the country's advancement in the modern world. Why then should we not believe that the same conclusion about the PRC will spread and gather force—especially since the PRC does not enjoy, and never will enjoy, the honor, respect, and reverence once given to the great dynasties of China's past.
It is thus wrong to assume that merely building a state powerful enough to 'save China' as the republican revolutionaries of 1912 desperately wanted will, in and of itself, produce the solidarity and cohesion that will make the state even more powerful and effective. Today, no one disputes that the PRC is the most powerful and efficacious Chinese state of the past two centuries. However, it is also indisputable that the process of creating the efflorescence of its power is corroding the very 'unity and order' which were its original inspiration. The regime in Beijing may continue to insist that there is an unbreakable union among Nation, State, People, Party and Culture, but the more it persists in its own program, the more it generates creative destruction that is dissolving its governing myth of unbreakable union that the One Party needs to ensure its rule.
Indeed, the PRC developed the idea of 'one country, two systems' to accommodate the reincorporation of Hong Kong in 1997. Now many Chinese have gone on to imagine 'one country, many systems', for the PRC is but one possible regime within 'Greater China', and it is certainly not the best. We know that the China mega-economy is creating intra-national regions that seek their own independent relations with the outer world. Scholars of urban change predict that the great cities on the China coast are forming, de facto, a league of their own with other great cities on the world's seacoasts. The unceasing energy and dazzling creativity in contemporary cultural creation among Chinese around the world can certainly come together in support of something like the 2008 Beijing games. But, for all that, day in and day out, in their disparate geographical bases and in their complexity of their inspiration, they work against the PRC's ongoing national project. In these and other ways, the very idea of 'Chinese-ness', and of the 'Chinese nationalism' it is supposed to produce, are becoming elusive, not merely to outside observers but to Chinese themselves.
Going Quietly Into the Night?
In the late-nineteenth century, the Qing Empire began to accelerate its own subversion, mostly out of an instinct for its own survival, and also for the survival and comfort of the people who ran it. Yet, perhaps, it was not exclusively for these reasons. Certainly, the Aisin Gioro might have hung on; the imperial clan might have rallied millions of adherents put off by the heresy of Republicanism; it might have gained and held large swaths of territory and taunted its enemies to come after it. That, after all, is what all its doomed predecessors over the centuries had done in the venerable Chinese way. But the new Republic of China, for all its many problems, did not have to overcome a rearguard resistance in the name of the Last Emperor.
The rulers of China today could, if they wanted to, describe the manner of the Qing departure as 'objectively patriotic'—that is, as an act that put the greater interests of the country first, and before those of the ruling clan. But patriotism of this kind is now a threat to the current order centered in Beijing. Patriotic Chinese are increasingly coming to realize that the Communist Party of China, also a self-conscious clan, needs to take leave of the scene. And yet, unlike the Aisin Gioro, the party need not disappear. It could, for one example, learn from the experience of its erstwhile rival, the Kuomintang, Taiwan's ruling party, which once held a monopoly on power on the island but surrendered it in l989, trusting to a democratic political system for its future. The KMT has survived well enough and, sometimes, it also wins elections. Former ruling Communist parties have also survived in some places and have also won elections. China's transformation is pushing the PRC toward such a decision and a party that prides itself on its study of History is going to have an opportunity to place itself in front of it. That is a new idea, one that comports with the way the world is today.
But there are also old ideas about the world as it once was, or as it was once imagined to have been, before China began its modern re-emergence and transformation. Even within that self-purportedly most advanced of political organizations, the Communist Party of China, some theoreticians say that China's future political arrangements should be built on avowedly more imperial and more 'authentically Chinese' foundations. They also seek to resurrect pre-Republican ideas about tianxia—'All-Under-Heaven'—as a model for a larger world order. Indeed, the Communist Party of China could soon be in full retreat from Republicanism altogether, abandoning even the pretensions behind which it now operates. Against this stand the examples of the Qing abdication and Taiwan's program of democratic liberalization, each of which in its own way derived from a realization that the string had run out. Of course, there are other examples before China's Communist Party—those ruling houses which resisted to the end and, increasingly fearful of the future, plunged themselves into futile rearguard actions. Yes, the Party's own Marxist doctrines instruct it that it cannot win this kind of war of resistance and, therefore, that it should not wage one. But there is also the incorrigible perversity of some men who, unwilling to follow the gods, are dragged by them instead.