Turn, Turn, Turn — The Tyranny of Chinese History

Xi Jinping’s Empire of Tedium

Chapter Three, Part I

Just as the record of the past was an essential guide to how to deal with the problems of today, so the records of one’s own time yet to be compiled, and their distribution of praise and blame, were something so worrying that they might even influence present actions. History thus plays a role comparable to that of religious texts in other cultures. It is also the Last Judgment. The religion of the Chinese ruling classes is the Chinese state, and it is through history that the object of devotion is to be understood. The rulers of dynastic China, like their present-day successors, did not have to bother about what they would look like on television news or in the next day’s paper; but many of them cared what history would say about them, just as European monarchs have worried about whether their souls were heading for heaven or hell after death. History thus held, and still holds, the present in its pincers. One jaw is the record of the past; the other is the future record of the present.

W.J.F. Jenner, The Tyranny of History, 1992


The third chapter in Xi Jinping’s Empire of Tedium is divided into two parts:

Although The Tyranny of History and New Ghosts, Old Dreams can be read online via Internet Archive, we encourage readers to seek out print versions of both books.




Over three decades ago, W.J.F. Jenner (1940-) observed that:

It now looks as though the problem of what should succeed the Qing dynasty has yet to be solved. The transitional period that began in the decade before 1911 is still continuing. The Communist Party is capable only of offering a return to its own past and to China’s earlier autocratic traditions.

Over the intervening years, we have had ample opportunity to comment on this phenomenon. Since Xi Jinping’s investiture as chairman for life in March 2018, China Heritage has covered this topic at length by translating the work of Xu Zhangrun, Lee Yee in Hong Kong Apostasy, and other Chinese writers and thinkers. It featured in our series on Homo Xinensis and was also the theme of Translatio Imperii SiniciChina Heritage Annual 2019. Moreover, since the early 1990s, Beijing’s robust autocracy has increasingly felt the historical and existential threat of democracy on Taiwan.


As we noted earlier, the third chapter in Xi Jinping’s Empire of Tedium is divided into two parts:

Both of those books were written in part as a response to recent events in China — the Protest Movement of April-June 1989 and its bloody denouement, the June Fourth Beijing Massacre. Both works were written in Canberra, Australia, and both were published in 1992. Both, however, were also readily dismissed amidst the exuberance following the dramatic relaunching of China’s economic reforms by Deng Xiaoping and in the heady mood of optimism in the West in the decade after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 and the end of the Cold War.

Generally speaking, our social scientist colleagues were dismissive — Didn’t our drear views smack of essentialism? Weren’t we overly fixated on the legacies of culture and history? And, were we not blinded by past experience (Bill Jenner first lived in China prior to the Cultural Revolution; I studied there during its denouement)?

What mattered was economics and the universal historical trends of progress. Chatter in academia, business, the media and government about a nascent Chinese civil society, the potential of a burgeoning middle class and even the possibility of political reform would continue to drown out our sombre and unpopular message. Until the advent of Xi Jinping, that is. But, by then, who remembered the Counter-Reform era of 1989-1992 or, for that matter, those who had questioned the comfortable consensus that followed?

As Simon Leys observed: ‘to be right too soon is the worst way of being wrong.’

In some ways, our efforts in the early 1990s adumbrated the New Sinology that we advocated from 2005, over a decade later.


China’s extraordinary achievements during the 1990s and 2000s are undeniable. Throughout those decades, it seemed as though The Other China also beckoned as a seductive possibility. However, more sober students of the Chinese world felt that it was just as foolhardy to deny the ‘tyranny of history’ as it was to ignore the dark intimations of writers like the poet Sun Jingxuan 孫靜軒 who, as early as 1980, had warned about the ‘spectre prowling the land’. Despite his 1992 Tour of the South and the explosion of economic and structural reform that it sparked, Deng Xiaoping and his council of aged comrades were Chinese autocrats. As we have argued in Prelude to a Restoration, their role in the events of 1989 and their legacy have made substantive and systemic change to the party-state all but impossible. His successors, begrudging reformers at best, were also stymied by their inheritance. They operated within an environment that, as it is argued below, remained weighed down by the inertia of history itself.

Today, as the Chinese Communist Party along with many commentators both in- and outside China leans in to various shades of historical essentialism, the blandishments of historical determinism may just as easily forestall the future. Then again, that depends on whether the reign of Xi Jinping can rightly be regarded as an aberration, a tear in the fabric of time, or as an inevitability.


In December 2016, I launched China Heritage in Melbourne, Australia. The title of my remarks on that occasion was Living with Xi Dada’s China — Making Choices and Cutting Deals and I concluded by noting that I was named after Jeremiah, the ‘Weeping Prophet’ who according to legend was called to prophetic ministry in the year 626BCE. The year 2016 marked, therefore, an anniversary year for the Jeremiahs of the world and, as such, it seemed only fitting to end what was essentially a Jeremiad (that is, a ‘cautionary harangue’) on ‘Cutting a Deal with Xi Dada’s China’, by quoting from the Old Testament. It was half a century since I first heard Pete Seeger’s song ‘Turn Turn Turn’ as sung by Judy Collins. The lyrics of that song were taken nearly word-for-word from the Book of Ecclesiastes:

To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven:
A time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, a time to reap that which is planted;
A time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to break down, and a time to build up;
A time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance;
A time to cast away stones, and a time to gather stones together;
A time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing;
A time to get, and a time to lose; a time to keep, and a time to cast away;
A time to rend, and a time to sew; a time to keep silence, and a time to speak;
A time to love, and a time to hate; a time of war, and a time of peace.

— Ecclesiastes 3:1-8

‘Turn, Turn, Turn’, the title of this, the third chapter, in Xi Jinping’s Empire to Tedium, is a reference to that song.


In the Xi Jinping era, such topics as Chinese autocracy, the cyclical nature of history, the prison of dynastic culture and so on, are popular once more. They feature in the writings of academics and journalists anxious to promote their new-found insights into the People’s Republic and Chinese history. The digital marketplace is crowded with their works and their contending assertions.

Some of the newly enlightened pundits belong to an amorphous group that I have long referred to as ‘The Disappointed’.

The Disappointed may be thought of as those ‘China Hands’ nostalgic for beliefs and hopes that were predicated on a range of economic, political and cultural assumptions, along with a kind of condescension that smacked of neo-colonial hauteur. That is to say, because of their obsessive focus on neo-liberal economic goals and their unquestioned ideological presumptions about globalisation they — politicians, analysts, business people, academics, journalists or a host of others, including Chinese factional players — repeatedly ignored or underestimated what the Party and its theoreticians (along with fellow-travelling academic New Marxists) were saying, thinking and actually doing. This encouraged a purblind belief in the workings of immutable historical and economic forces that predetermined China’s path forward. Such near-burlesque confidence — one which, in many respects, mirrored the dogmatic historical determinism of the Communists — has been challenged by significant changes in official Chinese policy and rhetoric for well over a decade. The Disappointed bewail how the Leader, Xi Jinping, has reasserted Party power and encouraged in the People’s Republic a more muscular regional and global stance.

The Disappointed have been confronted, and affronted, by what is now thought of as China’s ‘authoritarian turn’. To turn a well-known expression on its head, one gets the feeling that ‘The Chinese People’ have hurt their feelings!


In ‘Turn, Turn, Turn’ we re-introduce readers to work that went against the grain over three decades ago and question both the assumptions and the pompous prognosticators who so blithely dismissed it.

But, first we hear from Wang Lixiong 王力雄, novelist, traveller, commentator. In 1991, Wang’s samizdat novel Yellow Peril, a fantasy about the collapse of the People’s Republic of China, was a sensation. In an interview with journalist and podcaster Li Yuan 袁莉 recorded in late February 2024, Wang reconsidered that early work and offered a meditation on the cycles of Chinese history. Below, we offer a short excerpt from their conversation as an entry point for W.J.F. Jenner’s discussion of the tyranny of Chinese history.

I am, as ever, grateful to Reader #1 for reviewing and commenting on a draft of this material.

— Geremie R. Barmé
Editor, China Heritage
10 March 2024

Sixty-fifth Anniversary of the Tibetan Uprising


Further Reading:

Xi Jinping’s Empire of Tedium:

huí, ‘to circle, return, encircle’. Source: 趙之謙《篆書鐃歌》冊


Wang Lixiong Comes Around

Li Yuan & Wang Lixiong

February 2024

Translated by Geremie R. Barmé


In 1991, when Yellow Peril, Wang Lixiong’s first novel, was published in Hong Kong it was an immediate sensation. It was particularly popular with Chinese people who felt lost following the events of 1989.

Yellow Peril depicted a China that, following the June Fourth Beijing Massacre, was in a state of political, economic and demographic crisis. Eventually, the Chinese state itself collapses leading to a mass migration of Chinese people throughout the world, the ‘yellow peril’ of the title.

Three decades later, Wang published [R]Evolution, an alternative to Yellow Peril that imagines a China that, following the death of the incumbent party-state chairman, embarks on the path to democracy with the support of political leaders, the military brass, political opportunists, revolutionaries, terrorists, scientists, as well as from everyday people to online influencers. …

In this interview among other things I ask just how probably such a transition might be in China and whether there is any real force in Communist Party that would support such a transformation. In his remaining years, will Wang himself witness such a change?


from Li Yuan’s introduction to Wang Lixiong on How China Can Avoid Collapse?, 24 February 2024


  • In Chinese: Listen to Wang Lixiong’s novel Yellow Peril read by Pu Zhiqiang, YouTube, August 2023;《黃禍》,王力雄 著 浦志強 朗讀. For an English translation of Wang’s work, see China Tidal Wave: A Novel, translated by Anton Platero, Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 2008.


Cover of Yellow Peril, vol. I, published in Taiwan, 2017


Li Yuan: Three decades have passed between the publication of your novel Yellow Peril in 1991 and [R]Evolution, the work you produced in 2020. [R]Evolution is far more upbeat that the tragic message of Yellow Peril: political reform has been successful and China has instituted a form of ‘stratified political deliberation’. People have even cast aside Zhongnanhai as the centre of power. In fact the old imperial Lake Palaces [and former seat of power of the PRC’s party-state] have become a tourist site [as they were intermittently between 1912 and 1949].

Why is there such a vast chasm between the ending of these two stories? Or, I should ask, how’s your perspective changed?

袁莉: 力雄你好!《轉世》出版於2020年,《黃禍》出版於1991年,相距差不多30年。和《黃禍》的悲劇相比,《轉世》是一個積極的結果:政治改革成功,中國推行「層議制」,人們拋棄了中南海,甚至中南海變成了旅遊景點。為什麼這兩本小說結局有這麼大的不同?你寫作這兩本書的時候,心態有什麼不一樣的呢?

Wang Lixiong: My mindset is fundamentally the same. Although three decades separate the two books they are in fact a pair. In the case of the earlier book, I availed myself of a preexisting term — ‘yellow peril’ — one with a particular history behind it, as I title, although I used it to encapsulate the comprehensive collapse of Chinese society.

When I wrote Yellow Peril in the time around 1989 [that is, the Tiananmen protests and the Beijing Massacre] you’ll appreciate that, like so many others, I was profoundly concerned about the fate of China. My focus was not on the drama of history as such, after all history has always been a rushing torrent of affairs, rather I was interested in the rapids and shoals that we encountered along the way. In my fictional world, although a few places were able to maintain a semblance of order, the looming disaster would be systemic collapse.

Yellow Peril was my attempt to imagine what things would be like if that happened; how bad would it get? Of course, there are those who dismiss ‘collapsism’ as alarmist and criticise such ideas for contributing to public unrest. But I was interested in questions like: what is a real collapse? How exactly would it come about? Why would society as a whole collapse just because the government falls? Why shouldn’t political collapse result in the people actually taking charge? … …

王力雄: 對我來講,心態應該是一致的。實際上《轉世》雖然是事隔30年寫出來,但它是《黃禍》的姊妹篇。那麼「黃禍」這個詞呢,是借用一個既有的名詞,歷史上曾經存在過的一種形容;但實際上它描寫的就是一個社會的總體性的崩潰。
所以我在寫《黃禍》的時候,就是力圖去想象,如果這種情況發生的話,它會達到一種什麼樣的狀況。對於「崩潰論」吧,有的人就是不以為意,認為那就是一種恐嚇,或者起到了一種恐嚇的作用。那麼到底什麼是「崩潰」?怎麼個崩潰?為什麼說這個政權崩潰,社會也就會崩潰?那麼為什麼不是政權崩潰了,人民就當家做主了呢?… …

Later, things took quite a different turn. When books like Gordon Chang’s The Coming Collapse of China appeared [in 2001], and there was a wave of that kind of speculation in China, it was quickly discredited. ‘Collapsism’ was widely denounced because for all intents and purposes China was obviously moving in the opposite direction [of order and stability].

In recent years, however, there’s been something of a recurrence of the kind of anxiety expressed in Yellow Peril. You’ve asked me what the greatest change has been, I’d have to say it’s finding ourselves in this vicious cycle, a historical recurrence, a regression even. I personally have that sense as well.

Although, obviously enough, Yellow Peril depicted a world that did not come about at the time, people experienced an entirely different world. I was delighted how things had gone, because I hoped that things would turn out that way; I hoped my predictions would be proved wrong. Over the years, I’ve felt that we had enjoyed a relatively good and peaceful environment, one that allowed us the leisure to think, study and reflect… and just to enjoy life.

…. Now, however… it seems as though we have come full circle. It’s as though our present trajectory is starting to coalesce with the past. Sometimes history gives you the feeling that, for a time at least, you are traveling forward when, in fact, you are merely on a tangent or experiencing a digression. In the long flow of history, it is nothing more than the blinking of an eye. It may well end up joining an earlier trajectory. That’s what I feel we are facing at present.


Li Yuan: In other words, you feel that the rapid progress that China experienced over the last three decades was more of a deviation and now things are ‘back in the rut of the past’. Is that what you mean?

Wang Lixiong: We were always moving in a certain direction then, for thirty years, there was this digression. It was three decades in which things seemed to be an entirely opposite state of affairs. Now, however, we’re back moving along that original trajectory; it’s as though we’ve gone in a circle. Although you could say we’ve been traveling in a circle that’s seemingly represented a vast change, in reality we’ve actually rejoined a certain kind of inevitability.

袁莉: 也就是说,您觉得过去30年是中国在原来激进的道路上走了个岔路,现在又回来了,是这意思吗?

王力雄: 就是我们一直在朝着一个方向走,这中间岔出去了30年的时间。而这30年的时间显示出好像是个完全相反的状态。可是现在呢,我们又回到那条路上,就是整个转了一圈。虽然说转出去的一圈,是一个大变化,可是它又回到这个必然上面来了。




Cover of Wang Lixiong’s novel [R]Evolution, published in Taiwan, 2020


… what matters about a nation is not the truth or falsehood of its claims about the past but rather the collective desire and choice to believe those propositions—and the consequences that follow.

Tony Judt, Thinking the Twentieth Century, 2012, p.291

On The Tyranny of History


The defenders of today’s imperial dream — a rich, prosperous, socialist and unified China under the effective control of a party centre that can keep at bay all the influences of the outside world as other communist dictatorships crumble and fall, nationalist passions rage and the economically viable parts of China have discovered the temptations of capitalism — need to hold the peoples of China in the grip of their stale vision of history. Although there is no longer any chance that China’s present rulers will be able to rebuild the myth of their own historical inevitability, the grip of a much older tyranny of history will take a lot more loosening.

W.J.F. Jenner, The Tyranny of History: The Roots of China’s Crisis, 1992, p.17


Author’s Note to the Reader

This book deals briefly with vast issues too urgent to be left till they can be viewed with the wisdom of hindsight. China’s general crisis affects not only the Chinese fifth of humanity but everyone else as well, and it needs to be thought about if the developments of the next ten or twenty years are not to take us completely by surprise.

In it I offer my views, the subjective opinions of a fifty-year-old middle-class Englishman, as nothing more than speculative generalizations in the hope of enlivening the discussion. Footnotes, with their implied claim that this is a book written within the conventions of the academic game, would have given a misleading impression and have generally been omitted.

It is virtually impossible to think a thought about what we call China that has not been expressed before, when talking either about China or about somewhere else, and I make no claims for originality in what follows. There is no way in which the mental debts of a lifetime can be acknowledged, and I have not tried. …

Although I have been much involved with China and Chinese matters all my adult life, I cannot but have an outsider’s view. If I make comparisons with Europe, it is because I am a European, and I have always found comparisons between the two ends of Eurasia a means of seeing both more clearly. It is not because I take Europe as the norm by which to judge China.

In writing a book that takes a bleak view of the present roles of the high cultural values and political traditions of China’s tyrannical past I am aware of the risk that my position may be misrepresented as ‘anti-Chinese’. This is not a book about what is right with China.

In these pages I have not written about all that is attractive and good about people and life in China or attempted to explain the country’s irresistible appeal, or paraded my admiration and affection. All these are topics on which I could have written, but they are not relevant to this book’s arguments and are therefore omitted. It is because I care about the future of the country and its peoples that I raise uncomfortable issues that have to be considered. It may well be that some of my generalizations are too sweeping, that some of my judgements are one-sided and that I dwell too much on the problems and not enough on encouraging aspects of contemporary China. I certainly do not write from a position of superiority, and, were it relevant, I could say plenty about the shortcomings of my native England or the Australia where I now live.

Nor do I wish to create the impression that the end of ancient tyrannies would be the end of the many living elements in Chinese cultures. While a certain conception of ‘China’ may well come to an end in the next few decades, the post-imperial Chinese world could, with luck, be an improvement on the present dictatorship.

A crisis is a point at which choices have to be made and from which things can get better as well as worse.

Once upon a time, when the United States led the West in armed hostility to China, it seemed right to defend a country that was misrepresented and demonized. In recent years such a position has felt uncomfortable, even condescending. My present opinion is that it is much better to express something of the despair I feel about present predicaments and my hopes about escape from them than it would be to observe a tactful silence. If time proves my pessimism to be unjustified, so much the better.
A warning to readers, a caveat lector, is that none of my arguments should be accepted unless it rings true when tested against your experience of China at first or second hand. Even if an argument does seem plausible, it should be treated only as a suggestion, as a possible way of looking at things.

What follows grew from a talk at the University of Adelaide early in 1989 and from the four Sir Douglas Robb Lectures that the University of Auckland invited me to give later that year. Other parts were first aired at my old department in the University of Leeds and for my present employer, the Australian National University. Here Pam Wesley-Smith has typed and retyped with endless patience, while Geremie Barmé has lent essential encouragement and insights and my wife Kaining has provided the support without which it would never have been completed. My editor, Ravi Mirchandani, has removed many infelicities of expression.

None of them should be held in any way responsible for the views that follow.

June 1991


The Prison of History

Selections from The Tyranny of History

The following material is selected from the first three chapters of W.J.F. Jenner’s The Tyranny of History: The Roots of China’s Crisis. For the skein and context of the author’s argument, we recommend the full text of the book, which can be read online via Internet Archive.

Notes, pull-out quotations and Chinese characters have been added by China Heritage



The state, people and culture known in English as China are in a profound general crisis that goes much deeper than the problems of a moribund communist dictatorship. It is a general one to which everything from the remorseless increase of population to the influence of an archaic writing system contributes. The very future of China as a unitary state is in question as the only other great nineteenth-century empire, the Russian one, crumbles. The tradition of Chinese high culture that once led the world has long been in terminal decline. What ties all aspects of the crisis together is the past: what has happened in the past and the past as perceived.

Today’s objective problems, like the subjective ones that make their solution even more difficult than they would be otherwise, were created under two thousand years of bureaucratic absolutism. The history of tyranny is matched by a tyranny of history: perceptions and thought patterns from the past bind living minds.

The siege and massacre of Peking in 1989 and the whole range of policies that have followed them, policies evidently aimed at undoing many of the apparent changes of the last decade, raise more insistently than ever the dreary possibility that China is caught in a prison from which there is no obvious escape, a prison continually improved over thousands of years, a prison of history — a prison of history both as a literary creation and as the accumulated consequences of the past. The essence of this prison is that there is no easy escape from pasts and the ways they are perceived, which restrict the present to a greater extent than most other cultures of the world are restricted by their pasts.

The prison effect is caused by the very triumphs of earlier Chinese cultures, by the richness and magnificence of China’s pasts and by the extraordinary achievements of the peoples living in what is now China. China’s present and future problems illustrate a phenomenon that can quite often be observed in human society: the more successful, complete and self-sufficient any social or cultural system is at one stage of its development, the harder it is to escape from that system. It is central to the thesis of these pages that it is precisely the achievements of the Chinese past that have created the present difficulties. The prison could just as well be described as a palace, a palace as vast and magnificent as any in human history. But palaces can also be prisons, especially if they are surrounded by high, windowless walls with very few gates in them.

The history of tyranny is matched by a tyranny of history: perceptions and thought patterns from the past bind living minds.

Like any other state, China is a figment of the imagination, of many imaginations. There is no inherent necessity determining the borders of the present Chinese state. Those borders are more the product of the relative strengths of empires, Manchu and European, in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries than of anything else. What we mean when we say China and Chinese, or the equivalent words in other languages, is rarely closely defined, even when referring to the present. When talking about thousands of years the need to be more precise than we usually are becomes even greater. Is the history of China the history of all and only the people who since the last glaciation have lived in the territories now ruled or claimed by Peking? Such an approach has an obvious appeal to officials who want their multinational empire, which holds most of the territory of the Qing empire in its final form, to be seen as having by inheritance the right to rule all peoples within its frontiers.

Or is it the history of the peoples and states that have seen themselves as belonging to a culturally defined set of traditions that can be called Chinese? This set of traditions links culture and politics, characterizing them through a system of writing. The distinction between these two ways of defining the scope of Chinese history is one that is often fudged. Those who claim to take the former approach often in reality adopt the latter one.

It is almost impossible for a Han Chinese historian to treat of Chinese sources of the full diversity, ethnic and other, of the ‘China’ of any period than it is for a European country, even though the European country will be smaller and, I would guess, less heterogeneous.

This unified history has also been a powerful force for a kind of ethnic assertion. For most of the last 1,700 years of the dynastic period much or all of the Han Chinese lands were under the rule of non-Chinese regimes ruling as tiny minorities over the conquered Hans. For the Han Chinese this was a humiliation right up to the fall of the Manchu dynasty. The Manchus had constantly reminded the Han Chinese of their ethnic subjection by forcing them to wear Manchu instead of Chinese clothes and making men shave the front of their heads as a mark of their slavery. The accumulated shame and resentment of many centuries gave the revolution of 1911 a violently racist aspect, with massacres in the Manchu quarters of some cities. Yet, even while hating the Manchus, the revolutionaries wanted to be their heirs, and not just in the Chinese parts of the empire. The attempts of other subject peoples of the Manchus, such as Mongols and Tibetans, throughout the twentieth century to assert their independence have been as far as possible ignored by official history and, when not ignored, abused.

Conquerors such as the Mongols of the thirteenth century and the Manchus of the seventeenth have been turned by historical labelling into Chinese dynasties, so that their empires become Chinese empires and their territories sacred and inviolable. Thus history as cultural invention has helped to keep today’s Han Chinese in the trap of imperialism, the imperialism of the mind that finds self-affirmation in the subjection of others.

Nowhere has the homogenizing effect been more successful than in creating the impression that the Han Chinese themselves are a single ethnic group, despite the mutual incomprehensibility of many of their mother tongues and the ancient hostility between such Han Chinese nationalities as the Cantonese and the Hakkas. While the occupation of Tibet and East Turkestan has failed to persuade most Tibetans and Uighurs that they are Chinese, so that they can be kept in the empire only by force, historical myth-making has so far been remarkably effective not just in inventing a single Han Chinese ethnicity but also — and this is a far bigger triumph — in winning acceptance for it.

The ethnic issue is only one example of the extremely effective homogenizing effect of history as it has long been written in China.

History as cultural invention has helped to keep today’s Han Chinese in the trap of imperialism, the imperialism of the mind that finds self-affirmation in the subjection of others.

Chinese high culture generally, and the Chinese written language in particular, have had an amazing power to standardize or to play down quirkiness, unorthodoxy and difference. The culture is not disposed to accept the existence of rival, incompatible views of the world, society and politics; it is much more strongly inclined to judge and classify by a single set of values that is the only possible one.

The main historiographical tradition has been one of impersonally written history compiled by officials through processes that were essentially bureaucratic. The most influential histories were those compiled by central governments, generally dealing with a dynasty or dynasties immediately preceding them, in order to give both the present and the future a standardized, a ‘correct’, view of the rise and fall of past regimes. These histories would be written not from the unprocessed primary documents of the past regime in question but from the second- and even third-hand compilations, extracts and summaries of original documents compiled daily, and then at longer intervals, by the officials of the earlier regime. These primary compilers and editors were moved by conflicting bureaucratic interests. They wanted to keep an accurate and reliable record for future reference while at the same time minimizing the damage that could be done in future if too much dangerous raw information were left to be found by later investigators.

Chinese governments have, for at least 2,000 years, taken history much too seriously to allow the future to make its own unguided judgements about them. Thus it is that we have a remarkably well-organized published record, covering systematically the last two millennia, that rarely tells an outright lie but passes on the views of earlier bureaucrats as modified by later bureaucrats and deals mainly with matters of concern to the monarchy and to officialdom. Officials naturally find themselves, their rankings and their organizational structures interesting and important. They know the value of keeping reliable records of how problems facing central government have been handled or mishandled in the past. Things that are not seen as relevant to the state are more or less excluded, as is excessive detail about organizational matters, which would be appropriate for the specialists in a particular department of government but not for the generalists advising on the big policy decisions. History became the accumulation of administrative experience, and as the precedents were piled up they amounted to a formidable and effective resource.

So it was that an eighteenth-century official handling, say, Inner Asia could very easily draw on the essential aspects of policies from one or two thousand years earlier; and a late-nineteenth-century provincial governor faced with the capriciousness of the Yellow River would see it as natural and sensible to consult records of how the river had been handled as far back as the Tang dynasty.

Now, it is obvious enough that there could be enormous advantages to the state in having available such well-organized information about the best part of two thousand years on paper (and for a thousand in print), so that officials and potential officials were extremely well indoctrinated in the concerns of government and could get very quick access to that information. It is so easy for a Chinese or foreign historian today to get to officially processed, pre-digested information, reliable as far as it goes, that one is often tempted to go no further, especially when looking at issues or events earlier than recent centuries, for which other evidence can often be found only with efforts that are rarely worth making unless the question at issue is central to what one is investigating.

This accessibility has its price. Non-Chinese historians today who can view traditional historiography from outside the culture and from the mental world of the end of the twentieth century have to make a deliberate effort to avoid being seduced into accepting its judgements with only minor modifications and its choice of what the issues are. If we outsiders are so easily drawn into this admirably well-invented and restricted past, imagine how hard it must have been for any educated Chinese before the late nineteenth century to break out of this mental world. … …

Non-Chinese historians today who can view traditional historiography from outside the culture and from the mental world of the end of the twentieth century have to make a deliberate effort to avoid being seduced into accepting its judgements with only minor modifications and its choice of what the issues are.

The obstacles to thoroughgoing reforms were normally extremely effective except when a new regime was being put together after a period of destruction that made some new approaches essential. One of the most daunting disincentives was the overwhelmingly hostile treatment in bureaucratic histories of attempted innovation in the past. This meant that there were few respectable precedents for drastic change and little guidance in the historical record about how to carry out fundamental reforms with success. The consequence was that when an emperor was persuaded to undertake big changes he and his unorthodox advisers did not know how to go about it, which led to such failures as those of Wang Anshi in the eleventh century and of the 1898 reformers.

Even the once revolutionary Communist Party has become the prisoner of its own history and finds it hard to undo some of the wilder measures of its early years in power.

Official history, be it Confucian or communist, naturally tends to perpetuate orthodox views, such as the notions that there can only be one legitimate government in the Chinese world at any one time and that moral judgements are central to historiography, which cannot properly be neutral on essential questions. Whoever controls the compiling of a history wins the right to decide who are the goodies and who the baddies. The legitimacy of governments is always worrying, particularly as almost every dynasty won power by methods that were, by strict Confucian standards, shady: hence the extreme sensitivity to anything that may show the founders of one’s own dynasty as gangsters.

China’s high culture has been for most of the last two and a half thousand years essentially this-worldly and has not usually had much official concern for notions about immortal souls or reincarnation — when Buddhism was powerful these were matters for the common people in which gentlemen educated in the Confucian texts could publicly admit only a mild interest. The historical record that would be written in the future was the only real hope of immortality for the powerful of the day. To leave a name that would be ‘handed down through ten thousand antiquities’ yet to come was a clichéd expression of the wish to be shown in a good light in future histories.

Even the once revolutionary Communist Party has become the prisoner of its own history and finds it hard to undo some of the wilder measures of its early years in power.

Just as the record of the past was an essential guide to how to deal with the problems of today, so the records of one’s own time yet to be compiled, and their distribution of praise and blame, were something so worrying that they might even influence present actions. History thus plays a role comparable to that of religious texts in other cultures. It is also the Last Judgment. The religion of the Chinese ruling classes is the Chinese state, and it is through history that the object of devotion is to be understood. The rulers of dynastic China, like their present-day successors, did not have to bother about what they would look like on television news or in the next day’s paper; but many of them cared what history would say about them, just as European monarchs have worried about whether their souls were heading for heaven or hell after death. History thus held, and still holds, the present in its pincers. One jaw is the record of the past; the other is the future record of the present.

from ‘Tyrannies of History’, chapter 1 of The Tyranny of History, pp.1-17

Histories of Tyranny

Whatever happened to the Chinese state? It certainly has not softly and suddenly vanished away. In our time it has been conspicuously present, doubly so if we count the Communist Party apparatus as an extra state machine. The written history of twentieth-century China appears to be overwhelmingly the history of states falling, rising, contending for power and legitimacy, changing or failing to change. And in recent years we have been reminded over and over again of the power of the state, especially the repressive power that grows from the barrel of a gun.

However far back we go, the written records tell us mainly about regimes, rulers and officials. There can be no civilization on earth that has so long and full a record of state structures and official posts; there can be no other civilization to which the state itself has for so long been so central, not just as a practical necessity but as an institution worth any amount of attention in its own right, an institution that is almost sacred in its unquestionableness. Even at its most radical the Maoist critique of Chinese history never really broke the conventional notion of a succession of legitimate regimes going back some four thousand years to the Xia.

We take the Chinese state, past and present, so much for granted that we have to be deliberately naive to ask how it got from its remote and obscure origins to the condition it is in now. What have been its essential characteristics over the millennia, and why did it develop in the way that it did? To answer these questions properly on the basis of thorough research would be the task of many lifetimes. For the time being some working hypotheses may perhaps be useful, as long as they are taken as being no more than speculation.

I know of no adequate existing theoretical model. The notion of the ‘Asiatic mode of production’, Marx’s own acknowledgement that his interpretation of history was not universally valid, is of interest only to students of European thought: it tells us nothing about China. Neither does Wittfogel’s development of it, the concept of an ‘Oriental despotism’ founded on the state’s control of water: most of the essential characteristics of archaic and dynastic Chinese states were developed in north China, where the agriculture is nearly all unirrigated. There is in the historical literature from China’s past and its modern successors a daunting amount of detailed discussion of the particular characteristics of the official apparatus of particular states or of the evolution of a particular organ of government under a succession of dynasties. But it is hard to find an adequate summary of what the state essentially was, how it related to society and how it changed over time.

[Editor’s Note: See, however, recent works such as Ge Zhaoguang, What Is China? Territory, Ethnicity, Culture, and History, trans. Michael Gibbs Hill, Harvard, 2018.]

On the origins of the state in China the evidence is too thin to permit anything more solid than guesswork. There is a fragmentary written tradition about the earliest dynasties and (though it was invented later) about pre-dynastic rulers; there is also archaeological evidence, from wide areas of what are now north and east China, of widening differences in the quality and amount of burial goods during the later Neolithic in the fourth and third millennia BC, to the extent that some sumptuously buried skeletons can be taken to be those of tribal chiefs. On this structure develops the state, becoming fully formed by the thirteenth century BC, when with their mastery of writing, bronze and the weapons system carried by the war chariot the later Shang kings could control most of north China that was not too hilly or too marshy for warfare on wheels. But whether the Shang state was as much like later Chinese regimes as later accounts suggest remains to be established.

What does seem to be probable is that by the time the Shang was replaced by the Zhou at some time around 1050 BC one of the characteristics of ‘Chinese’ states — whether the central one or its many local feudatories — was the elimination of whatever might have remained of tribal assemblies. Perhaps too one of the characteristics of the ‘barbarians’ was that power was less centralized and absolute among them. One of the essential features of being ‘Chinese’, in the sense of belonging to the bundle of traditions later celebrated by Confucius and other pundits of the ru [儒] school of orthodox traditional learning, was to be much less free than one’s ‘barbarian’ neighbours. There are signs that the ‘Chinese’ actually took pride in their rigid and autocratic political structures. There is certainly an unbroken continuity linking the states of contemporary China with the Shang one of over three thousand years ago.

It has been argued, notably by H.G. Creel, that the bureaucratic state generally thought to have developed between the fifth and third centuries BC was essentially in place long before. Whether or not this early development happened, those centuries saw a huge growth in central power in the rival sovereign states that were struggling for survival. The old order based on hereditary feudal relationships — land or office held in return for service to a liege lord with one’s own vassals in time of war — gave way to a world of absolute insecurity, in which any state might be attacked by a combination of any of the others. Faced with absolute threats, states had to be able to mobilize all their human and material resources for total war. The six or seven leading contenders were so well balanced that the struggle for domination lasted for centuries, allowing time for a new kind of state power to gain a degree of direct control over the whole population that is hard to parallel in any major state elsewhere in the world before the eighteenth century. …

A state that could keep the detailed local and central records implied by such regulations must have had the administrative machinery needed to maintain huge armies in being while at the same time moving populations around and mounting vast construction projects. The historical records look a lot more credible since the find of the Shuihudi documents. It is now much easier to believe that the bureaucracy reached into every village, conscripting men for forced labour and military service, running a Gulag economy of permanent and temporary state slave labourers, enforcing ideological and administrative unity on the conquered territories, imposing draconian discipline on the officials themselves as well as the general population and doing things with the sort of methodical efficiency that we do not associate with later imperial China. This was all different in kind from anything in western Eurasia before the eighteenth, if not the nineteenth, century

It is hard to measure the power of a state over its subjects, especially when the evidence as to how far intentions were realized is so sparse, but it does look as though Qin’s drive for total control, permitting its subjects to get ahead only through farming and war, came very near its goal. One rough but useful indication of state power is the proportion of each subject’s time that is controlled by the state, directly or indirectly, through forced labour, taxation and other means. How much of its subjects’ time did the Qin state control? Here we can only guess, but, taking the different kinds of tax, forced labour and military service together, it could be that the Qin government exercised control over somewhere between a sixth and a quarter of the adult males’ working time — not so very different from the proportion of working time taken through taxes by modern states. But in our world high taxation is spent mainly on education and welfare, neither of which was of much concern to Qin.

Until the nineteenth century the pressure of the northern frontier continued to make the political unification of north China under a strong state imperative if any stability were to be created.

Such a state developed under the pressure of total insecurity and the endemic threat of destruction by its rivals. To some extent Qin harshness was blunted under the Han regime that followed, but most of the essentials remained. Although central power was never again as absolute as under the Qin, a powerful factor ensured that the state remained strong: the frontier. The Han empire’s northern frontier had poor natural defences against neighbours with the mobile striking power of the pastoral Xiongnu, who, when united and inclined to attack, could strike at targets deep in the Han heartlands with mounted armies tens of thousands strong. Such major raids could not be stopped at the frontier. They could be prevented only by diplomacy, bribery and intimidation. The best defence was to bring about divisions among the Xiongnu and their later successors and to back this measure with the certainty of massive retaliation from a Han state with the will and the means to launch co-ordinated attacks across the Gobi barriers to the grasslands in what is now the Mongolian People’s Republic, destroying Xiongnu herds and people. Such a defence policy involved immense costs. Standing armies had to be maintained far from crop-growing areas with strong strategic reserves able to cover attacks from anywhere along the thousands of kilometres of frontier and to launch massive retaliation.

To maintain such a defence policy required a strong state machine. It had to be able to force peasants into service under frightful conditions on the frontier even if their families were left to go hungry; to keep its own bureaucrats under control; to resist the temptation to use resources in more agreeable ways; and to win the endless struggle with local magnates for the control of those peasants.

This was an uphill, even Sisyphean, struggle, but it was essential if any state were to hold north China and thus survive. There might be periods when the threat from the steppe seemed to recede, as under the Eastern Han, but it would always re-emerge, as when other nations, originally from across the frontier, took a terrible revenge early in the fourth century AD for the way they had been treated before then, destroying ethnic Han central power in the north so thoroughly that it was not to be restored for nearly 300 years.

Until the nineteenth century the pressure of the northern frontier continued to make the political unification of north China under a strong state imperative if any stability were to be created. This pressure applied just as much to non-Han as to Han Chinese regimes: the Northern Wei, a Xianbei regime, had to guard their conquests in north China against Rouran pressure from the north in the sixth century, and the Jin barbarians who had driven Song power out of north China in the twelfth century found themselves faced with, and then overwhelmed by, the Mongol menace in the following one.

The power of the early imperial Chinese state cannot all be put down to the dangers threatening from across the frontier, even though those dangers were so much greater than the external threats to the Roman empire before the Huns, Vandals, Goths and the rest of them made life difficult from the late fourth century onwards. There were also internal factors, not the least being the absence of forces and institutions strong and independent enough to challenge the autocratic state’s claims to absolute control.

From the ancient world to our own times nearly all autocratic regimes in Europe have had to share their power, at least in appearance, with other institutions. The Roman Empire preserved some of the forms of republican oligarchy. Medieval and early modern states had to contend with Churches, with chartered burghers or with some form or other of assembly or parliament, however limited in its representation. Besides, it was much harder in western Eurasia to assume that any government was the only government in the civilized world. There were always neighbours with comparable civilizations.

In China, however, the Qin had inherited a very old notion — that there could and should be only one legitimate central government — and taken it a lot further. This view has survived to the present day. The Qin also inherited and passed on the assumption that the subject had no areas of privacy that could be defended against the state if the state chose to intervene. China had no concept of citizenship. There were some very important concepts that were intended to, and often did, inhibit arbitrary state power, concepts to do with what was right and proper. With absolute power went the obligation to ensure that the empire was properly run, even to the extent of holding an emperor or a local ruler personally responsible for natural calamities. Bad regimes could, in the last resort, be overthrown in ways that were accepted as legitimate by the standards of the high culture and of popular cultures too. Officials were seen as having a duty to defend the system’s values by protesting at wrong actions by their superiors, up to the emperor himself, even at the risk of their lives. But these safeguards were all aimed at abuses of absolute power, not at the power itself. Neither individuals nor groups could tell the state to mind its own business, though officials could and did warn of the dangers to the state itself of interfering too much in areas not conventionally thought to be the state’s business. Property was insecure, though the force of custom strengthened de facto property rights in the second millennium of imperial rule.

Many other factors made for the peculiarly high degree of control over society at which the early imperial state aimed, often with success. There was nothing in the political traditions handed down from Shang times by ru [儒] scholars, and modified by the totalitarian political thinkers of the Warring States and succeeding Han periods, to challenge the legitimacy of the absolute state. After Qin had unified the Chinese cultural world politically no later dynasty would settle for anything less in theory, though most had to in practice.

Once the machinery had been created it was very hard to dismantle it. There were long periods when the power of the central government went into relative decline, as when the Eastern Han dynasty lost control of more and more of the peasants to local magnates in the second century AD. The Chinese world could be divided for centuries on end between rival regimes refusing to acknowledge each other’s legitimacy. But through all this the institutions and the political values perpetuated themselves that were ready to restore a stronger state and unified rule over the whole Chinese world as soon as circumstances permitted. The political values that supported unification were based on the assumption that diversity was inherently wrong. Some of those patterns were very ancient, going back to the second millennium BC. The main differences of opinion were about what form of compulsory unification of ideas would work best. In the second half of the first millennium BC Confucians, Legalists, Mohists and others had all sought to impose their own, and in the Western Han period a hybrid of these and other traditions could be put together without too much difficulty. Other concerns of political thinkers were with the best techniques for strengthening the monarchy, with how bureaucrats could best manipulate their rulers and with how rulers could best keep everyone else in their place. The politics of bureaucratic control were to be among the most powerful and poisonous legacies of the period. We saw in 1989 some Warring States political thought in action: the monarch lying low, forcing his subordinates to reveal their own positions, then intervening with ruthlessly applied force to impose his will on a system that seemed to be escaping his control.

Bad regimes could, in the last resort, be overthrown in ways that were accepted as legitimate by the standards of the high culture and of popular cultures too. Officials were seen as having a duty to defend the system’s values by protesting at wrong actions by their superiors, up to the emperor himself, even at the risk of their lives. But these safeguards were all aimed at abuses of absolute power, not at the power itself.

Another way of assessing just how powerful the early imperial state was is to look at a much later successor: Qing China in the nineteenth century. It is obvious at first glance that despite a population perhaps seven times as great as the nearly 60,000,000 the Han had on its books, and despite all sorts of technical and other changes; the Qing state was far weaker than the Qin, Han, Cao Wei, Northern Wei, Sui and early Tang regimes. When faced with British drug-runners on the south coast, the Qing government could not get together the couple of hundred thousand troops and sailors who, under an effective unified command, would have been able to push the intruders back into the sea with the military technology available to them. Even if we allow that part of the cause of the Qing’s hopeless incompetence in the Opium Wars was their inability to see the nature of the foreign threat, the difficulty they had in coping with internal risings during the third quarter of the nineteenth century points to a very weak state machine. The Qing armies were committed in penny packets, under divided commands, to deal with rebellion after rebellion until the threat to the survival of the state became so serious that exceptional measures were taken that broke all sorts of rules, and large emergency forces were raised on a new basis. And when foreign military and other pressures became heavy again towards the end of the nineteenth century the Qing could not cope. Had they been able to put half of 1 per cent of the population into the armed forces and their logistical support services, and to make or buy rifles and artillery for them, the Manchu empire could have shown its many invaders the door. They could not and did not, and the Qing state fell. But while the Qing was hard put to mobilize one or two in a thousand, the Qin and early Han states could mobilize perhaps ten times as high a proportion of their unfortunate subjects.

This is only one indicator of how the state had weakened. It had more or less lost the ability to conscript people for military or labour service. Taxes, even with all the extra levies to support the corrupt, were a minor burden compared with rent levels of up to half the crop paid by tenant farmers and interest payments for survival loans running at several percentage points each month. Below the level of the county, with its population of several hundred thousand, the state’s direct involvement in social and economic life was kept to a minimum, whereas the Qin and Western Han states had tried to run village life, appointing officials right down to the millet-roots level.

This long-term decline in effective state power was not a bad thing from many points of view, and it certainly made a difference. One of the most basic types of control that was virtually abandoned was the ability to conscript unpaid labour that could be used for public works and defence. Another was the allocation of arable land, generation by generation, to every farm family, something that governments tried to do for over a thousand years before the system broke down finally around the end of the Tang dynasty. …

We are often told that the monarchies from Song times onwards were increasingly autocratic, and it is clear that even in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries the Qing government was able to conquer a bigger area of inner Asia than any previous regime ruling China apart from the Mongols. So was the state getting weaker and losing control or gaining in strength?

The dynasties of the second millennium may have given up the effort to maintain some of the controls that those of the first millennium imposed, and the amount of a farmer’s time of which the state disposed may have fallen to 5 per cent or less by the nineteenth century, but these dynasties lasted much longer. There was only one change of dynasty in the last 540 years of imperial China, and with all their faults the Ming and Qing achieved remarkable stability apart from two bad periods in the middle of the seventeenth and in the nineteenth centuries.

The state’s abandoning of its right to allocate land did not lead to a corresponding growth in great landed magnates. The regimes of the second millennium did not face the challenges from local magnates that had crippled and then destroyed the Eastern Han regime and whose support had been essential to any dynasty that hoped to last in the succeeding centuries. The earlier dynasties’ systems of land allocation seem to have been only partly effective in preventing very big landholdings by hereditary aristocrats and others. They had allocated land for dependants and — under some dynasties — even for draft animals. Perhaps the land regulations had been intended mainly to make taxable large holdings that the state was unable to eliminate. In the last thousand years of imperial China the state was actually better at preventing the development of such threats to its power. It disappeared great magnates. It knew how to survive.

In the last thousand years of imperial China the state was actually better at preventing the development of … threats to its power. It disappeared great magnates. It knew how to survive.

It also learned how to prevent things from happening, thanks in part to its use of recorded history. The ability to learn from the mistakes of the past went a long way back. No dynastic regime after the Qin overworked and over-punished its people so harshly. After Wang Mang [王莽], an imperial in-law, took the throne from the Western Han regime from AD 9 to 23 the families of empresses were kept under better control. Never again were royal princes allowed the excessive power that at the end of the third century AD had led to the terrible civil wars that brought down the Western Jin dynasty and led to nearly three centuries of instability. After the Tang a powerful Buddhist Church never re-emerged in China, unlike Tibet and Mongolia. The dominance of the military that had shaped China from the fourth to the tenth century was ended by the Song dynasty. The Mongols taught the Manchus how not to run an alien conquest dynasty. From the Ming the Qing learned how to cut the gentry down to size, reducing its privileges and sweeping away nearly all the institutions of manorial serfdom. For all the supposed autocracy of the Ming and Qing dynasties, the state became better able to cope with weak, lazy or stupid emperors: the system learned how to run itself.

Once the public service was staffed mainly by career officials recruited not for entrepreneurial skills but for the ability to pass difficult but increasingly trivial exams, as happened from Song times onwards, the bureaucratic instinct to avoid repeating previous, well-documented, mistakes had plenty to work on. The secret of preventing things from happening was fragmentation, and this was something at which the state got better and better, reaching a culmination under the Qing. We will look later at the fragmentation of activity that enabled a huge economy, or set of economies, to be run by an infinitely large number of tiny units and at the fragmentation of the mind that Ming and Qing education brought about. They were both essential to the regime’s survival for nearly three centuries.

The state system itself was fragmented and divided against itself so thoroughly that nobody had enough authority to do anything unusual. Qing political institutions added ethnic divisions to all the other checks and balances in the political structure they had inherited, so that the Han Chinese, about a hundred times more numerous than the Manchu-Mongol ruling coalition, were used extensively in the system of government without being able to take it over. A tiny, regular élite bureaucracy — a few tens of thousands — was divided against itself in every possible way and kept distinct from the army of clerks, runners and the like who did the actual work of keeping the government machine working. Military power was divided up particularly carefully and separated from civil power, with the consequent inefficiencies in putting down rebellion we have noted, but the system also ensured that no commander or coalition of commanders would have the capacity to repeat the rebellion of Wu Sangui [吳三桂], the very powerful general who, with his allies, caused the Manchus a deal of trouble in the south and the west in the 1670s. Fiscal power was also kept deliberately divided so that no part of the bureaucracy could hold the court to ransom. The palace itself was prevented from playing too large a part in political life by much tighter control of the numbers of the court eunuchs, who after Ming times did not become an alternative security apparatus able to dominate the government machine.

It was because China was politically, in Sun Yatsen’s words, a dish of loose sand [一盤散沙] that the imperial system lasted as long as it did. But for it to work it had to be certain. There could be no prospect that things were going to be different in future. The obsession with history and with legitimation from the past helped.

All this made innovation difficult and dangerous, though not impossible. The earlier Manchu emperors brought about some drastic reforms; and the temporary emergency measures to deal with the internal threats of the 1850s to 1870s threw a lot of the principles of fragmentation out of the window, concentrating hitherto unthinkable powers in the hands of commanders who were allowed to raise their own armies in their own home provinces and given the authority to levy the taxes to support them. These changed institutions were hard either to abolish completely or to reintegrate into the system, so they were to contribute to the destabilizing and overthrow of the dynasty at the end of the last century and the beginning of this one. At the same time the fragmentation principle made it difficult to the point of impossibility to change the whole political structure from one aimed at preventing things from happening to one intended to make things happen without thereby destroying it.

It was not for lack of trying. When, after the Boxer movement and the eight-power invasion of 1900, the Manchu ruling house finally accepted that profound changes were essential to cope with international and internal pressures that threatened to destroy its empire, it undermined everything that had kept its system going till then. The reforms of the dynasty’s last ten years broke down many barriers. Scholars cramming the classics for the official exams in isolation were turned into volatile, politicized students in modern-style schools in China and abroad, exposed to the spiritual pollution of foreign ideas. New-style armies had enormously increased firepower as well as officers and sergeants educated in modern ways. The old bans that prevented the gentry within a province from getting together for political purposes gave way to provincial assemblies. The fragmented and fairly harmless late traditional guilds were replaced by pushy chambers of commerce.

It was because China was politically, in Sun Yatsen’s words, a dish of loose sand [一盤散沙] that the imperial system lasted as long as it did. But for it to work it had to be certain. There could be no prospect that things were going to be different in future. The obsession with history and with legitimation from the past helped.

The Qing attempt to break out of the prison of the past was a brave one. It failed, but could the transition to a constitutional monarchy based on new institutions adapted from abroad have worked? If the Empress Dowager had lived another few years instead of dying in 1908, might she have maintained her resolve and pushed ahead when the changes were beginning to hurt powerful Manchu vested interests in 1909 and 1910? After all, as the slaughter of Manchus during the revolution of 1911 in Xi’an and other cities showed, the Manchus had a lot to be frightened of. Perhaps a Qing court with an iron nerve and clear vision could have succeeded in giving up enough of their power to keep some, and in changing the very nature of the state. Or perhaps the system was inherently unreformable. The contemporary parallels seem alarmingly relevant, whether we look at the fall of the Qing from the point of view of the Manchu ruling house or from that of their subjects. The collapse of the Qing state in a matter of weeks late in 1911 ended much more than a dynasty. The whole traditional state fell to pieces, and despite the hopeless inadequacy of the Republic that replaced it the restoration of the dynastic system, as it had developed over the previous two thousand years, was impossible. The outward forms of that tradition of the state were finished. In the eighty years since then no adequate replacement has been found. The military regimes of the early Republic gave way to the military regime of the Guomindang, which was in turn replaced by a new regime that came to power through armed force.

The early Republic had only the form of a Western-style state. It failed the basic test of preserving sovereignty from external threats and was unable to enforce its will in provinces other than those occupied by troops personally loyal to the ruler of the day. Incapable of raising enough taxes to support its minimal existence, it could neither do things nor prevent things from happening. It could only sell out to foreigners.

The Nationalist Republic was rather more effective and able to impose its will in the more modern, Western, industrial and commercial parts of China. It fought off strong challenges from military rivals and had the tenacity not to fold completely in the face of the massive defeats at the hands of the Japanese that continued from 1937 till within months of the Japanese surrender in 1945. But the machinery that enabled it to extract conscripts and taxes was founded on nothing much deeper than its military force. In particular, its rural roots were shallow.

It took the communists to create a state that worked, first in some rural areas, then throughout China. Within a few years of the founding of their People’s Republic they had extended their control to every village and had set about reorganizing village life. Every life was touched directly by the state and the Party. They were strong enough to march hundreds of millions of peasants up the hill of collectivism and then down again, and for a quarter of a century virtually all economic activity not confined to the family was under their control.

They reasserted Chinese sovereignty over most of the territories of the Qing empire and stood up to the pressures of the United States, especially on the battlefields of Korea, and the Soviet Union. The Party was able to make its values the national ideology, and for a generation it appeared that the new regime had won control of Chinese minds. It could control and mobilize human resources to transform nature and, by being a government that made things happen, looked as though it would end China’s poverty and backwardness and set the People’s Republic on the road to wealth and power.

Forty years on things do not seem as positive as the first years of the new order might have led one to expect. The party-state turned out to be so keen on making things happen that it created such catastrophes as the Great Leap Forward famine and the Cultural Revolution. Much of the agricultural growth was eaten up by an increased population, and the spectacular rate of industrial growth proved to be a mixed blessing. By now the problems of the political system are hideously apparent, as the bright young regime that was going to overturn the old world and build a brave new China looks old, shabby, oppressive and irrelevant to China’s needs. Like the Qing dynasty in its final years, it seems to be ultimately unreformable: it will allow you a little freedom, but if you try to go further, it shoots you. Indeed, it is apparent that it is in many ways a reinvention of the bureaucratic monarchy.

It now looks as though the problem of what should succeed the Qing dynasty has yet to be solved. The transitional period that began in the decade before 1911 is still continuing. The Communist Party is capable only of offering a return to its own past and to China’s earlier autocratic traditions.

The founders of the Communist Party were products of Qing China, educated in its schools and culture and soaked in its values. To them it was only natural that the state should be absolute and that a bureaucratic monarchy was the normal form it should take.

When they got beyond the ad hoc arrangements of the war decades to build a regular state nobody needed to force them to copy the institutions of Stalin’s Russia, which were not hard to adapt to China. What appeared to be an innovatory, revolutionary regime, out to change China and perhaps the world, and for its first twenty years was clearly committed to making things happen, has become a conservative force, willing to make only such changes as are essential to its survival. Once in place, the system became un-reformable and unable to adapt.

Like the Qing dynasty in its final years, it seems to be ultimately unreformable: it will allow you a little freedom, but if you try to go further, it shoots you. Indeed, it is apparent that it is in many ways a reinvention of the bureaucratic monarchy.

It now looks as though the problem of what should succeed the Qing dynasty has yet to be solved. The transitional period that began in the decade before 1911 is still continuing. The Communist Party is capable only of offering a return to its own past and to China’s earlier autocratic traditions.

Attitudes to state power remain heavily influenced by traditional values. The state’s power remains absolute and sacrosanct. Though it can often be got round, it cannot be challenged. Politics at the top is played by the rules of palace struggles, which owe more to the political pundit of the third century BC Han Fei than to Marx. [Editor’s Note: See Jianying Zha 查建英 & Geremie R. Barmé, The Spectre of Prince Han Fei in Xi Jinping’s China, China Heritage, 6 May 2021.] All rights are only licences held at the state’s pleasure and revocable without notice. The system needs an autocrat at the top, and the autocrat will often maintain control by keeping his underlings so divided against each other that none will dare organize resistance. Conflict within the system cannot be legitimate; neither can any social, political, religious or economic organizations that demand real autonomy from the state be permitted to exist. The state imposes its uniform culture, with only very limited recognition of different cultural identities. It claims to control not only the present but the past and the future as well. Like both the interventionist state of the earlier imperial dynasties and the minimalist one of later dynasties, it needs to keep society weak.

The trouble is that the party-state system, the modern version of the bureaucratic monarchy, no longer works. Mass mobilization, whether for socially divisive struggles or for attempts to remake the natural environment, has been tried too often. The party-state cannot go back to the 1950s and the first flush of enthusiasm. It cannot become even more traditional now that the Pandora’s box of dangerous ideas has been opened, but neither can it permit more freedom of discussion without risking being talked out of existence. Continued repression may keep the lid on the cauldron for a while longer, but sooner or later the seething hostility will boil over again.

The state imposes its uniform culture, with only very limited recognition of different cultural identities. It claims to control not only the present but the past and the future as well. Like both the interventionist state of the earlier imperial dynasties and the minimalist one of later dynasties, it needs to keep society weak.

It almost makes one feel sorry for China’s rulers, caught as they are between a played-out past and impossible futures. It is very hard to see the present rulers managing the transition to some political arrangement that can accommodate the conflicting interest groups in China and permit a real political life to develop. Before June 1989 it still was just possible, if one was being extremely optimistic, to see some way of muddling through to a structure in which the Party gradually allowed the people more say in their lives, extended the areas of freedom and somewhat reduced its own role. We know now that this was never on. A government that will besiege and invade its own capital with hundreds of thousands of troops, then do what it did in front of the world’s press and broadcasters, is one that sees itself as threatened with imminent collapse.

The bureaucratic monarchy that underlies the Marxist rhetoric is evidently a form of state organization that is very hard to shift. Having looked at its vigorous early phases, we may do well to turn to the role of the emperor in more recent times.

from ‘Histories of Tyranny’, chapter 2 of  The Tyranny of History, pp.18-37

Of Emperors & Cadres


Although some emperors took to the field with their armies, or made progresses through the country with enormous entourages at vast cost to the local communities that had to provide suitable temporary palaces in which to receive them, they had few chances to observe the ordinary lives of their subjects or even to experience the problems with which their officials had to deal. Yet all power in the state was ultimately in their hands. In reality officials could obstruct the imperial will very effectively through standard bureaucratic manoeuvres or by invoking the authority of the past. Only an exceptional emperor could control his officials. And yet in over two thousand years the imperial state did not see the emergence of autonomous government institutions that limited or shared, as of right, the monarch’s powers. Although the machinery of state could continue to function under a weak-minded, lazy or incompetent emperor, this was achieved essentially by following precedent and by preventing new things from happening, as far as that was possible.

When new policy decisions were needed the imperial state was often unable to cope. The accumulation of the recorded experience of government, through history written by officials for officials, made anything other than absolutism unthinkable. For the system to work there had to be an autocrat and a bureaucracy. But the autocrat could not possibly have enough understanding or knowledge of the vast and populous Chinese empire to make informed decisions on most matters.

Emperors who, with the support of only part of the bureaucracy, tried to bring about fundamental changes were nearly always frustrated, either at once or a little later. …

The principal exception to the rule of autocratic weakness was the self-made emperor. He founded a dynasty after a period of chaos in which previously existing bureaucracies were weakened and so could to some extent set the rules himself. His ability to control large organizations was proved by the fact that he, rather than his countless rivals, triumphed. Even such emperors could end up as prisoners of their own officials and courtiers. Mao, once one of the most dynamic rulers in Chinese history, and one who so resented officialdom that he kept trying to pull the rug out from under it, most spectacularly in the Cultural Revolution, lived long enough to become a prisoner of the palace and the past.

Mao in his dotage was very obviously incapable of running even his own life, let alone those of his countless subjects. As China moves further into the 1990s gerontocracy rules again. Is China doomed to autocracy, losing a Mao only to succumb to the palsied grip of another autocrat who boasted several years ago that he works for only a quarter of an hour a day? It would be comfortable but unrealistic to regard the Mao and Deng dictatorships as temporary aberrations from normal political life in China. After all, the Qing dynasty fell in 1912, and the rhetoric of democracy has been much heard throughout this century. The Communist Party, like its Guomindang predecessor, is an organizational structure that, while not democratic in any Western sense, does appear to put power into the hands not of an individual but of a ruling group, the Political Bureau with its dozen or two members or the five or six of them on its Standing Committee. The Communist Party machine seems to be an oligarchy rather than a one-man dictatorship.

Events point the other way. Once the communists had established reasonably permanent control of enough territory to run an effective state in north-west China during the Japanese war, they acted like a rebel dynasty in earlier centuries. They had to have their own Son of Heaven, who would hold the system together by imposing his will on its component parts. Mao had remarkable qualities of intellect and personality that equipped him to play the part, and as he was far better acquainted with Chinese than with foreign history and literature, he thought like the founder of a dynasty.

In one of his most revealing poems [‘Snow’ 雪 — ed.] he compares favourably the personalities of his age — by implication, himself — with the great emperors of the past: Qin Shi Huang, Han Wu Di, the founders of the Tang and Song dynasties and Genghis Khan. The final message of the piece is that none of them combined martial prowess with culture and sheer style in the way he did. This poem was written in 1936, when the Communists controlled only a small and backward corner of China, far from the centres of wealth and power. Yet already he was thinking like an emperor.

[Editor’s Note: See Ruling The Rivers & Mountains, China Heritage, 8 August 2018.]

To someone as soaked in the history of the Chinese state and in the culture of court politics as Mao there was no conceptual difficulty in adopting the secretive and ruthless techniques by which powerful monarchs kept their ministers under control. Mao was very good at that game, as Deng has been since Mao’s death. But that does not explain why Mao and Deng have been allowed to play it. If the monarchical leanings had been Mao’s and Deng’s alone, the Party might have developed otherwise. But the deeply rooted nature of the culture required an emperor. Whether the example of Stalin’s Soviet Union also encouraged that tendency or whether the USSR was taken as a model for many aspects of the structure of the People’s Republic precisely because it fitted in with Chinese needs for bureaucratic autocracy, Lenin and the First Qin Emperor both gave their blessing to the Chinese communist dictatorship.

That the Chinese high culture needs an autocrat seems to be well demonstrated by its historical inability to cope without one except during disordered times of transition towards a new autocracy. One of the signs of the weakening of Communist Party power since the late 1980s, especially in the countryside, has been the emergence of a host of rustic emperors, each recruiting his band of followers in villages and promising to establish a new order. True dragon Sons of Heaven are a flourishing breed in the medieval world of the contemporary Chinese countryside. According to figures reported by a Chinese university specialist in the world of secret societies, in one prefecture of Hebei province alone the public security dealt in 1987-8 with eighty-one cases of would-be emperors organizing attempts to win the throne. We shall return later to the fiery river of chiliastic beliefs that has, for the best part of two thousand years, flowed deep beneath the normally placid surface of the Chinese countryside and that in times of trouble has erupted in killing and destruction. This tradition is also a monarchical one. The longer-lasting rebellions always set up their divinely appointed kings or emperors with courts and bureaucracies. Once the Chinese Communist Party had become a primarily peasant organization, from the late 1920s onwards, it could not help inheriting those attitudes. The adapted Shaanxi folksong that became one of its anthems, ‘The East is Red’, speaks of Mao as a saviour star and compares him with the rising sun of dawn.

[Editor’s Note: See ‘Transformation of a Love Song’ in The East is Red section of the website for the documentary film Morning Sun.]

The peasant preference for saviours and emperors fitted well with the intellectuals’ wish to find a place at court or in the national or local bureaucracies of a new emperor. Rebel emperors who managed to set up some kind of state structure of their own were always able to recruit as advisers, ministers and officials men of education who had been trained for the civil service exams.

That the Chinese high culture needs an autocrat seems to be well demonstrated by its historical inability to cope without one except during disordered times of transition towards a new autocracy.

For the educated the normal measure of success was always a career in the imperial service, to which all other ways of living were second best. Teaching was only for failures, and there were no great independent secular or religious educational institutions where a scholar could pursue a career independent of the state. Religion offered no acceptable alternative either. For nearly all of the history of Buddhism in China — as opposed to Tibet and Mongolia — Buddhist clerics have had only a marginal position at the higher levels of society and have been kept under the control of the secular bureaucracy. Daoism as an organized religion was never a match for Buddhism. While emperors and officials could believe in these and other religions, notably Islam, the religious life could not lead to the worldly eminence of a bishop in medieval Europe, let alone that of a pope. Emigration was no solution for the literate. Even in periods when rival states contested the dominance of the Chinese world they did not offer fundamentally different career patterns for the ambitious educated, and to leave the Chinese world was to cut oneself off from civilization.

No respectable independent profession was open to the educated that could remotely compare with an official career. Doctors could win a certain distinction, but the best would hope for a civil service post in the Imperial Academy of Medicine. Trade was not a way of life for gentlemen, even when they were discreetly dependent on it for their wealth. In any event, state-sponsored enterprises had great advantages over private businesses, which tended to be very small and precarious. Although some writers, painters and calligraphers could earn a living through their brushes, this nearly always required official connections or patronage or, at the very least, the support of leaders of the local gentry, many of whom would have had links with the official world.

[Editor’s Note: For a compendium of mostly establishment and pro-Party/ patria intellectuals, see Reading the China Dream.]

The remarkable disappearance of great hereditary aristocratic families by the tenth century AD was so nearly complete as to remove another potential source of support and patronage for thinkers and writers: great country houses or castles supported by large estates. An aristocracy might have acted as a limit to absolutism and dared to regard a monarch as, at best, one of themselves. The aristocrats of the fourth to the sixth century AD had — in private at least — taken such an attitude to the succession of short-lived dynasties founded by generals that ruled south China for two or three generations before the next warlord took the throne. A thousand years later the Ming dynasty permitted princes of the blood — who were hardly likely to question the regime’s right to rule — to live in great magnificence but kept them away from real power.

Their Qing successors allowed the princelings of the Manchu royal house much less licence and came down very hard on any questioning of the legitimacy of their rule by the Han Chinese who made up the vast majority of their subjects. While some former officials of the Ming who gave up active opposition were allowed to retire with dignity, for by the strict Confucian standards that the Manchus also upheld an official could not honourably serve two regimes, very few of the educated dared thereafter to challenge the Qing monarchy until its last years, when it was obviously destroying itself. Indeed, by the time the dynasty fell many educated Han men were unhappy at having to give up what had been forced on their ancestors as a mark of subservience to the alien Manchu conquerors: the shaven front of the head and the remaining hair kept in a long plait.

The chaotic Republic did not last long enough to replace traditional attitudes to authority or to enable alternative institutions to put down roots deep enough to resist the tendency to revert to autocracy. Talk about the development of civil society in contrast to the autocratic state in nineteenth- and twentieth-century urban China has been fashionable among some intellectuals China and in the little world of Chinese studies in the West in recent years, but it is hard to make a convincing case for anything more than the emergence of elements that might, with time and in circumstances other than those of any China that has yet existed, have developed into the sorts of institution that have replaced communist dictatorships in some central European countries.

The tyranny of Chinese history and the history of Chinese tyranny are monsters that have long fed on each other. Before going any further with this exploration it might be appropriate to turn first to where these millennia of autocracy have led: the political structures of contemporary China that support and require a personal dictatorship. It is also necessary to consider the imperial bureaucracies from which they are descended.

Today’s China has many of the trappings of a modern state run by a vast, impersonal officialdom. That is an image that fits in with China’s claim, which is stronger than that of any other culture, to have invented and developed the bureaucratic state. China’s high culture is so profoundly bureaucratic that to those who hold its values any other kind of polity seems inferior, if not barbaric, by comparison.

The tyranny of Chinese history and the history of Chinese tyranny are monsters that have long fed on each other.

What was special about the bureaucracies developed in rival warring states during the fourth and the third century BC was that their members were selected not because of their aristocratic pedigrees but only for their ability to serve the monarch. The theories of statecraft that flourished in these centuries taught a ruler the techniques by which to keep his officials under the most effective control, ensuring, through strict punishments and generous rewards, that they served his interests by carrying out all and only the precise duties assigned to each of them. Officials had no job security. Rulers were taught to be constantly on their guard against their ministers and to use secrecy as a weapon against them. Officials at all levels were controlled by strict administrative regulations that left them with as little autonomy as possible. An infinite quantity of reports and other documents flowed endlessly around the system, even when, before the invention of paper, they were written on cumbersome bundles of wooden or bamboo slips.

The master of using bureaucracy and terror to keep his subjects under control, the First Qin Emperor, lived in the shadows, not letting his ministers know much of the time in which of his hundreds of palaces he was at any moment and not revealing his views on policy questions until his officials had made their views clear. He also spent much of his reclusive life reading documents, giving himself a set weight to get through each day. Although the bulk of the reports was reduced when paper replaced wood and bamboo, reading remained the main way in which an emperor could get to know his country, his officials and his subjects. The notes he scribbled on a document in red were the means by which most of his decisions were made known to his officials. The emperor was the servant as well as the master of his bureaucracy and was able to stay in control of his paper world only through endless drudgery. An emperor who tried to spare himself the effort left the machine to run itself. It was hard even for a diligent one to avoid manipulation by court officials. Even such scourges of bureaucrats as Mao and Deng became, in their dotage, further and further removed from what was going on outside their palaces.

If the bureaucracy were to be kept under control, it had to be divided against itself. The memory of how over-powerful officials from aristocratic families had deposed the ruling houses of the states of Jin and Qi in the fifth and fourth centuries BC was one that later monarchs were not allowed to forget, especially after Wang Mang changed himself from imperial in-law and senior office-holder into emperor in AD 8. From then on civil officials were nearly always kept in their place, and the powers of offices were carefully defined and divided. Strife between alliances and cliques of officials in different parts of the state structure was made difficult. Although factionalism was inevitable, and at times very serious, it was regarded not as healthy but as wicked and punishable. In the Qin model the power structures were designed to keep the controls in the monarch’s hands alone. From the Han dynasty onwards there was some weakening of the principle that officials had to be totally and unconditionally obedient to the emperor. Confucius’s interpretation of what an official owed his monarch became part of the schooling of the sons of families eligible for office. …

For a monarch bureaucrats were much better agents of control. They had played that role well in the fourth and the third century BC. Over the next two thousand years and more they were the central and indispensable parts of all state machines. Unlike feudal vassals, they could be promoted, dismissed or transferred at will. They took their duties seriously for the most part. The education for the exams by which the great majority of officials won their place in the bureaucratic élite was an indoctrination that worked. Officials rarely rebelled, and they were not all venal.

The culture is imbued with bureaucratic values to an extent that goes far beyond anything in the American or even the British tradition, which does not give officials much prestige in society and in which hardly anybody outside the bureaucracy knows or cares about civil service structures and rankings. Civil servants are figures to be feared or laughed at, not respected or liked. A career in the public service — with the exception of the foreign service — is not what doting parents dream of for their children.

In China it is, and long has been, different. Although individual officials are often shown in a bad light in stories and plays — they can be portrayed as weak, stupid, cruel, corrupt and other unpleasant things — the bureaucracy as such has rarely come under attack. Good officials are shown as lofty and admirable. To be an official is seen as highly desirable. For many centuries the main purpose of education beyond basic literacy has been to get into the civil service.

China gave the world not only civil service exams but also the system of numerical gradings for civil service posts. Awareness of bureaucratic rank is widespread; bureaucratic titles are very often used. ‘Deputy Section Head Zhao’ [趙副科長] does not sound like a comical form of address in Chinese. Political upheavals can lead to great changes in bureaucratic structures, or to wholesale dismissals and promotions, but the essence of bureaucracy continues unabated. Today’s bright young high-flying official is in all sorts of ways the reincarnation of one of the lucky few who made it through to success in the palace exams and a plum job in the imperial civil service.

Because the regular degree-holding bureaucracy was small in relation to the population as a whole — a few tens of thousands out of hundreds of millions in recent centuries — a diligent emperor could hope to control it by meeting and talking with enough senior officials to have a personal impression of each of them and to be able to assess their judgements of their subordinates. An experienced emperor such as Qianlong in the eighteenth century could thus watch over any of his regular officials at one or two removes and observe his top bureaucrats directly, getting their opinions on each other. The technique continues in our own times. Transcripts of interviews between Mao, Zhou Enlai and other top Party bosses and local officials during the upheavals of the Cultural Revolution are remarkably similar to the recorded conversations between Qianlong and his ministers: in both cases much of the discussion is about individual office-holders and their reliability.

Political upheavals can lead to great changes in bureaucratic structures, or to wholesale dismissals and promotions, but the essence of bureaucracy continues unabated. Today’s bright young high-flying official is in all sorts of ways the reincarnation of one of the lucky few who made it through to success in the palace exams and a plum job in the imperial civil service.

Such inquiries have for many centuries been confirmed or supplemented by more devious techniques, such as using intelligence agencies to spy on officials and report direct to the sovereign. This makes it possible to move swiftly against disaffected bureaucrats before they have time to become organized and dangerous.

The bureaucratic monarchy of the 1980s and 1990s has preserved traditions of both recent centuries and much more distant ones, reversing the secular trend towards a less interventionist state machine content to have nothing happen and returning to the strong state of 2,100 years ago. The Communist Party has given China a much bigger bureaucracy than it has ever had before and has used officialdom to impose great changes on society. But, just as the imperial bureaucracy could be controlled by only one person — the monarch or his regent — so this enormous new state and party machine can be held together only by centralizing ultimate power in one man’s hands.

The structures of contemporary Chinese society and state are much more conducive to dictatorship than to democracy. The state structure can be envisaged as a number of pyramids. Some are based on local power, going up from villages through counties and districts to provinces and regions. Within these pyramids party and state officials are under the orders of the higher levels and responsible for enforcing their superiors’ wishes on their underlings. Other pyramids are those of specialist systems (xitong [系統]) based on function, which are under local control only to a certain extent at lower levels. Among them are the pyramids of the military regions and the specialist branches of the armed forces, the industrial pyramids that are controlled by central ministries, the open and the secret security apparatuses, the railway system with its millions of employees, the centrally run university system that comes directly under the State Educational Commission and a number of other systems that are all more or less autonomous structures, partly or wholly controlling their own activities. Only the autocrat can maintain a balance between the systems, and that is best achieved by doing as little as possible.
Within each of these pyramids or systems is a large number of component units that accept control from above within their own system but do not necessarily co-operate horizontally with other units, even those within the same system. It adds up to an overall structure that is profoundly conservative, as all units strive to maintain their own positions within their systems and each system defends its interests against other systems. There is widespread awareness of the dangers of trying to extend the scope of one’s unit or system because any participant who attempts such adventures will threaten so many other interest groups that coalitions of forces may exert pressure on higher authority to force the miscreant back into line. Competition is thus a conservative influence.

The Communist Party has given China a much bigger bureaucracy than it has ever had before and has used officialdom to impose great changes on society. But, just as the imperial bureaucracy could be controlled by only one person — the monarch or his regent — so this enormous new state and party machine can be held together only by centralizing ultimate power in one man’s hands.

China now has a feudal structure reminiscent of medieval Europe, in which vassals, the system bosses, hold their fiefs from a lord in return for duties and obligations and control their sub-vassals on a similar basis. The feudalism is more collective than individual, and individuals are virtually locked into the system and the unit to which they belong. It is hard enough for an individual to switch between units and very hard indeed to change systems. It is also extremely difficult for a unit to be transferred from one system to another. Peasants remain legally tied to the land, in the sense that it is almost impossible for them to acquire the right to permanent residence in a city. Even though collective agriculture has been abolished and many tens of millions of peasants now move around China in search of work, the rural population remains ultimately subservient to the local lord of the manor — the township head — and his (rarely her) feudal superiors. Peasants are not free, but since the dissolution of the people’s communes the dependency of urban dwellers on the work unit is much greater than theirs, and the unit has powerful sanctions that can be used against its members, including sending them off for years of ‘labour re-education’ by administrative decision without even the formality of a trial.

The feudalization of China by a revolutionary political party in the second half of the twentieth century was not a continuation of tendencies in late dynastic China but a reversion to a much earlier model. …

The changes of the second half of the twentieth century appear more as somersaults within traditional categories than as a smashing of the walls inherited from the past. As I attempt to show elsewhere, the communists’ creation of a strong state trying to run the whole economy was a reversion to patterns of the first millennium of dynastic history, patterns that to Mao were closer, more familiar and more acceptable than the Russian models on which many institutions of the People’s Republic were formally based. Only a very strong and very cunning autocrat could bend the state to its will, and the political culture was very receptive to autocracy. Yet in the early 1990s, as in the 1970s, the fate of China could lie in the weak hands of a very old man. China cannot manage without an emperor, and it cannot join the modern world with one. In this, as in so many other respects, present tyranny is also the tyranny of a past that has not only created the conditions for today’s ills but has also made their alleviation difficult within the usually accepted conventions about a unitary China.

from ‘Emperors & Bureaucrats’, chapter 3 of The Tyranny of History, pp.38-63