195 – China’s desire for “stability”

Posted on November 28, 2012 by

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As the new Standing Committee of the Chinese Communist Party is inaugurated in Beijing, terms like “harmony” and “stability” are buzz-words describing the vision of the China Communist Country for the country. The West tends to scoff at these terms, and tends to put them down as slogans. Multi-party democracy is best when achieving sustainable “stability”, it is argued.

In theory this may be right. As Yogi Berra famously said, “In theory there is no difference between theory and practice. In practice there is.” So moving from China’s history to a fully functioning democratic system may look awkward to Chinese authorities.

To understand this point, let’s look at the history of T’an-ch’eng County over a 50 year period in the XVIIth century[1]. This county lies in Shantung Province, close to the Yellow River. It did not have much in the way of anything – few resources, middling to poor agricultural land.

In 1620 the county had about 200’000 souls, which tended 3.75 million acres of land. By 1670 the number had dwindled to 60’000, cultivating as best they could 1.75 million acres.

Here a few calamities that befell this county: 1622: White Lotus uprising; 1630: banditry; 1640 locust plague; 1641: devastation by bandits; 1643: Manchu raid; 1644: Manchu take-over and pillaging; 1648: banditry; 1649: flooding by the River I; 1650: banditry; 1651: flooding and bandits; 1652: flooding; 1659: flooding; 1665: famine; 1668: severe earthquake.

What strikes in this litany of disasters is the recurrence of banditry. We are not talking here of highway robbers[2]: these outlaws pillaged towns and villages and laid siege to the capital in 1841. They were repulsed in the end, but the wasting of the county must have been horrendous. One of China’s beloved classics is about bandits of the marshes[3].

Chinese history is replete with rebellions mostly of popular origin. Several dynasties have their roots in such revolts: the Ming e.g. emerged from the White Lotus Buddhist sect as well as the Red Turban Manichaeism. The Taiping Rebellion[4] too had foreign – “Christian” – ideological roots.

Traditionally China was a centralized bureaucratic autocracy. The center’s hold on the vast countryside of 250 million, however, was thin. “The 1400 men serving as magistrates at any one time in the counties in XVIIth century China were in a difficult position, for though they had enormous power over their jurisdiction, (…), they were also the junior members of a complex chain of command that reached above them to the prefects, past the prefects to the provincial governors, and through them to the ministries in Peking and the emperor himself. Furthermore, a finely codified body of administrative law dictated their daily behavior, attempting to systematize all known kinds of criminal or deviant acts among the population.” (pg. xiii) Add to this a fast system of rotation – lest the mandarins “go native”. The system was poorly equipped to deal with the diversity on the ground. Local gentry and money-lenders had long experience in abusing it. Oppressive and unresponsive, this system survived on threat of collective punishment, reciprocal informing, and capillary violence. Taxes and compulsory labor-service fell disproportionately on the weakest parts of society. No wonder banditry was endemic.

Past history remains in our minds as “ghost stories”. They mayno longer have relevance, yet they linger and sway our thoughts. The West’s nightmare is religious strife, going back to the Wars of Religion, hence our uneasiness with religion in the public sphere. China’s is probably insurrection. Just as I don’t condone current oppression, though, I have some understanding for the CCP’s caution in spearheading political and economics reforms. It took the West 150 years to evolve into full-fledged democracies – and ours were smaller and more compact cultures. Against our own measure China’s progress is quite remarkable. So far.


[1]          I’m quoting from Jonathan D. SPENCE (1978): The death of woman Wang. Penguin, London.

[2]          In the XIXth century citizens travelling from Volterra to 100 km distant Florence would still settle their world affairs – safe return was far from certain, and hold-ups of stagecoaches far from unusual.

[3]          Water Margin (known in Chinese as Shuihu Zhuan, sometimes abbreviated to Shuihu), also known as Outlaws of the Marsh, Tale of the Marshes, All Men Are Brothers, Men of the Marshes, or The Marshes of Mount Liang, is a 14th century novel and one of the four great classical novels of Chinese literature. The story, set in the Song Dynasty, tells of how a group of 108 outlaws gathered at Mount Liang (or the surrounding Liangshan Marsh) to form a sizable army before they are eventually granted amnesty by the government in 1221 and sent on campaigns to resist foreign invaders and suppress rebel forces. Clearly, the central government had to come to terms with these bandits, rather than destroy them.

[4]          Jonathan D. SPENCE (1996): God’s Chinese son. The Taping heavenly kingdom of Hong Xiuquan. Harper Collins, New York. Twenty million died in this rebellion (population of the country at the time 450 million). In WWII Germany lost 8-10% of its population. Given the regional character of the revolt, the Taiping Rebellion wrought comparatively more destruction where it played out. Hong Xiuquan proclaimed himself “son of the Christian God”: evidence of the growing influence of the West in China.