China's newly educated middle class is the biggest threat yet to party rule

Sooner or later, the Chinese will come to realise that communist autocracy has reached the end of the road

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The Chinese never tire of telling anyone willing to listen that they have been around for 5,000 years. It’s a gambit that has always thrown Westerners into confusion, ever since 1793 when Lord Macartney humiliatingly failed to establish trade relations with Beijing, despite Britain being the imperial superpower.

It’s a game of one-upmanship the Chinese can hardly lose. The Mother of Parliaments is a babe in arms compared with the Chinese state. But while there is no reason to doubt that China, as a huge and comparatively homogeneous nation, will continue to bestride Asia, is its ruling Communist Party equally sure of survival?

China’s self-confidence is the product of a political culture of extraordinary, shape-shifting flexibility: time and again it has emerged from traumatic periods of civil war with its sense of national self intact, reincarnated in a fresh dynasty. Its Communist Party, on the other hand, has the crippling rigidity of communist parties everywhere. The genius of Deng Xiaoping gave it a new lease of life when its sister parties around the world were collapsing, but at the cost of its remaining coherence. Today it is a wondrous conundrum, the dictatorship of the kleptocrats masquerading as the dictatorship of the proletariat.

These thoughts are prompted by the emergence of President Xi Jinping, on the eve of next week’s important fourth plenary meeting of the Party, as China’s aspirant philosopher king. With 5,000 years of history staring down at you, this is a challenge that a Chinese president can hardly avoid. Mr Xi, the most formidable Chinese boss since Mao, is offering himself in this respect as an anti-Mao.

Mao Xedong was passionately anti-Confucian. The philosophy of Confucius emphasised hierarchy, balance, moderation, virtue, compassion and the respect of youth for the old, with its goal the achievement of da tong, “Great Harmony”. Mao espoused exactly the opposite, a continual revolution which set contradictory forces against each other in perpetual struggle. “After a victory,” he wrote, “we must at once put forward a new task. In this way, cadres and the masses will forever be filled with revolutionary fervour.” The goal was permanent disequilibrium. Mao’s role model was Emperor Qin Shihuang of the third century BC, whose achievements included a great bonfire of books and burying 460 Confucian scholars alive.


Xi Jinping, by contrast, has brought Confucius back in from the cold. Speaking on the philosopher’s birthday last month (he would have turned 2,564), he said that ancient tradition “can offer beneficial insights for governance and wise rule”. On another occasion he said, quoting the old man: “He who rules by virtue is like the North Star. It maintains its place, and the multitude of stars pay homage.”

That was a cunning way to recruit the authority of the sage to the task of reinforcing the Communist Party in its position of monopolistic power. For Mao, a true revolutionary, stirring up trouble was his main diversion; but for a party as rooted in power and privilege as that of China today, stability is the great imperative. This, after all, is a country where local revolts against the authorities number more than 100,000 a year. Those revolts, like the Occupy protests of Hong Kong, must be fiercely put down, just as the corrupt must be ruthlessly pursued: that’s what Mr Xi believes. “When those who uphold the law are strong, the state is strong,” he said recently, quoting Han Fei, the 2,293-year-old theorist of Chinese autocracy. “When they are weak, the state is weak.”

But with the Hong Kong protests refusing to go away, the paradox of a state that is weak and prone to rebellion and insurrection despite being unprecedentedly wealthy must be much on Mr Xi’s mind. Because the awkward fact is that the autocratic rule on which communist power depends is finding it very difficult to survive the emergence – unheard of in all those 5,000 years – of an educated, enquiring and restless middle class.

That’s why the rule of Beijing is so abhorrent to Hongkongers. It represents a giant step into the past. British rule brought only a small dose of democracy to Hong Kong, right at the end of the 100-year lease. But long before that it brought solid and independent legal, educational and bureaucratic systems, which in turn gave the increasingly affluent residents dignity, self-esteem and a firm conception of public morality – concepts which would have been perfectly acceptable to Confucius.

Sooner or later, the Chinese will come to realise that communist autocracy has reached the end of the road, that Deng’s cunning rebranding of “Socialism with Chinese characteristics” has outlived its usefulness, and that a different, Western model beckons.

President Ma Ying-jeou of Taiwan spelled it out the other day. “Now is the most appropriate time for mainland China to move towards constitutional democracy,” he said. “Now that the 1.3 billion people on the mainland have become moderately wealthy, they will of course wish to enjoy democracy and rule of law. Such a desire has never been the monopoly of the West, but is the right of all humankind.”

Mr Ma is clearly correct: the right way for Hong Kong and the mainland to integrate would be for the latter to take on the healthy attributes of the former. Whether President Xi is sagacious enough for that task remains to be seen.