In traditional Chinese philosophy the concept of dualism is encoded in the symbols “yin and yang,” apparently opposite or contrary forces which may actually prove to be be complementary, interconnected and interdependent.
Over the more than 70 years of rule by the Chinese Communist Party, “yin and yang” have been expressed in alternating periods of political repression and years of relative openness, fang and shou in Chinese.
If you saw it laid out as a 70 year graph, you’d see huge spikes of repressive political control bookending decades of shallower peaks and valleys in between. The first spike of tyranny was spread across 27 years of domination by Mao Zedong, from the 1949 declaration of the Chinese Peoples Republic to his death in 1976.
Over the next 36 years, Communist Party rule over an authoritarian Chinese state continued, but with looser controls over daily life. Leaders like Deng Xiaoping, Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao deconstructed much of Mao’s China by encouraging less concentrated political authority, more intellectual and entrepreneurial autonomy, and more interactions with people and ideas from outside the limits of party, state and country.
The good news, writ large, was — in Deng Xiaoping’s famous concept — the cat caught mice, China got richer and smarter and more powerful in world affairs. The bad news was inequality, and the worse news was corruption, too many of the rich got richer through crony connections or political payoffs. Too many of the poor just got left behind. But the worst news of all, to Xi Jinping, who took state power in 2012 was that inequality and corruption were producing cynicism and disconnection … cynicism about how ordinary people became successful; disconnection of the people from the Communist Party.
Xi’s prescription: a re-empowering of the Chinese state and the Communist Party and of its maximum leader. Many compare Xi’s concentration of personal and political power and authority with Mao’s.
But there is this difference: Mao ruled a China of incredible poverty. A population largely illiterate and unskilled, infrastructure antiquated or absent, and and limited capital resources to build bridges or brains. Xi Jinping’s China is the richest in history and getting richer all the time, and its global reach and influence are also on the rise. Most important, Xi Jinping’s government runs systems of personal surveillance and intellectual manipulation that Mao could only envy.
What this “yin and yang” of authoritarianism has meant to China, and what Xi’s new version of Maoist domination might mean for the world are implicit subjects of our guest David Shambaugh’s recent book, whose explicit subjects are in its title: China’s Leaders: From Mao to Now.
David Shambaugh is the author of the new book China’s Leaders: From Mao to Now. He is the Gaston Sigur Professor of Asian Studies, Political Science & International Affairs, and director of the China Policy Program at the Elliott School of International Affairs, George Washington University, Washington DC. He is also a non-resident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.