Last week the Chinese Communist Party announced it was ending term limits, allowing president XI Jinping to hold the office as long as he wanted to. The day after the announcement I caught a BBC program discussing the move with three experts on China, all representatives from Academia including one from a Chinese institute in Hong Kong. None of the panel criticized the move. I didn’t expect the expert from Hong Kong to criticize the move for the same reason I don’t expect Russian academics to criticize Putin: such actions tend to be bad for one’s career (and in Putin’s case, health). And I wasn’t surprised by the support of the other panelists: the Left’s authoritarian impulse has only strengthened over the years since the deaths of Mao and Stalin. But what surprised me is the BBC panel leader’s failure to ask the single most important question: So what if Xi’s a great guy. What happens to China after Xi?
There are very few absolutes in history, but one that has stood the test of time from Babylon through the civilizations of Egypt, Greece, Rome and China itself is this: Absolute power corrupts. In ancient Rome after seizing power and leading Rome into what would be viewed as its golden age, in 27BC Octavian was granted the title of Augustus and granted absolute power. During his reign Rome flourished in all ways. It was a time of (relative) peace and prosperity, the era later known as Pax Romana. But after the death of Augustus in 14AD his stepson Tiberius became emperor, and the empire slipped in a slow 82 year decline that ended with the murder of the tyrant Domitian. At that time the glory and prosperity of Rome had been replaced with a police state where everyone was under suspicion and could be pulled out of bed in the middle of the night and be beheaded in front of their families for treason. Rome would enjoy peace and prosperity again under a few later emperors, but the empire was on a slow, unstoppable descent – the seeds of its destruction having been sown even before its greatness had been achieved.
In his Interpreter column in the New York Times Max Fisher ends his piece on Xi’s move with a tweet by Cornell political scientist Thomas Pepinsky: “I’m no China expert, but centralizing power in the hands of one leader sounds like the most typical thing that a decaying authoritarian state would do.”
That’s a rather gentle way of putting it. The fact remains that no nation, no state or empire has made such a move and benefited from it – even in the long run.
I’ve recently returned from a holiday in Spain. It was my first trip to that country and I know more about it’s ancient history thanks to my continuing studies of the Roman and Carthaginian empires than I do of its modern history. To me Francisco Franco was a punch line in Saturday Night Live skit, where Chevy Chase acting as a news anchor would interrupt programming with the breaking news that “Generalissimo Francisco Franco is still dead.” But in the eyes of the Spaniards I met, even more than 40 years past his death, Franco was no joke. Franco’s authoritarian legacy underpins many of Spain’s problems today. The regionalism that is ripping the country apart today was kept at bay by Franco’s brutal rule. Even 30 years in the EU where Spain has received billions of more euros from Brussels (or to put it more accurately, taxpayers in Germany and the UK) the economy is still weak and sensitive to market changes. Would Spain be better off today had the Republicans defeated him in the Spanish Civil War? It’s easy to argue that yes, Franco’s authoritarianism damaged the country and set it back at least a century. A similar argument could also be made for Italy after Mussolini.
China’s leap into the modern era began under Deng Xiaoping in the 1980s. It ended last week. China under Xi has joined a long list of autocrats and their nations and empires, and like them History will judge Xi and China as failures.
Photo by Abode of Chaos