In the West, China’s cries for “socialism with Chinese characteristics for a new era” have mostly been met with confusion.
Socialism, Western pro-liberty thinkers know, is a tragic-comic failure, rearing its head in failed states like Venezuela to remind us to never revisit that history. China, many Western thinkers argue, isn’t “really” communist, and its booming economy will soon lead to a booming marketplace of ideas.
Qin Shihuang, Mosher argues, “accomplished the ‘Grand Unification’ of China, ending the fearful ‘chaos and disorder’ of the Warring States period and ushering in ‘peace under Heaven'” in the eyes of modern Chinese leaders. “Grand Unification” and “Great Uniformity” are positive, not creepy, terms to the leadership of the Communist Party of China (CPC), the latter Mosher defining as “a literal uniformity of thought and action that does not arise from below but is instead imposed from above.”
Qin did this in 247 B.C., and Chinese authoritarians have been emulating him since.
The oppression of Tibet, crackdowns in Hong Kong, and China’s illegal invasion of the South China Sea all stem from a desire to unify the planet under Chinese rule as Qin thought he had done in his time, Mosher contends.
For lovers of ancient history who, like me, have bored of the antics of Nero and Caracalla, Bully of Asia offers a similarly colorful profile of the men who made Chinese history (and, yes, they are by and large men). From Qin to the King of Zhou and later, Mao Zedong, Jiang Zemin, and Xi Jinping himself, the book’s characters spring out of the pages with colorful and often comical anecdotes. Larger-than-life figures like Tamerlane and Henry Kissinger make cameos, often as straight-men characters to the outrageous doings of the Chinese leaders.
As fun as the book is to read for its narrative qualities, however, it also imparts an important warning about China: it has had millennia to perfect totalitarianism, and its leaders do not want to stop now. The legalists of China’s last millennium B.C. established government systems that forced spouses to report each other for “crimes,” commanded the burning of inconvenient books, and rewrote the teachings of Confucius to their benefit.
Mosher argues that, instead of imposing foreign Marxism on China, Mao reinstated the ancient legalist ways of running the country.
There are two major points of Mosher’s with which I contend: the relative lack of influence that he believes Marxism has on the behavior of the Chinese government and the reasons he is so quick to dismiss Russia as a threat to America.
On the latter point, Mosher is absolutely correct to highlight that Russia’s meager economy and thuggish plutocrats do not offer the world an ideology with the coherence and strength to challenge American values. No country in the world wants to be Russia; they didn’t before the fall of the USSR and they certainly don’t now.
Yet Mosher goes so far as to argue that President Vladimir Putin does not really care to conquer the world, instead seeking “a retreat into Russia’s Tsarist past.”
“There is no reason to believe Tsar Vladimir Putin dreams that his own power will one day eclipse America’s,” he claims.
This theory leaves much of Putin’s behavior outside of the post-Soviet world – in Iran and Syria, in Cuba and Venezuela, in Morocco and Egypt – unexplained. I would venture to guess that, based on Putin’s insistence that Russia have a stake in the future of these disparate regions, a Russia with China’s economic means would just as much want to take over the world as the CPC itself.
On the former point, it is hard to disagree with Mosher that Xi’s China looks a lot more like Qin Shihuang’s empire than Kim Il-sung’s. Yet his dismissal of communism as a tool to impose Chinese-style legalism with little weight beyond that within the CPC, I believe, takes too lightly the viral power of Marxist thought. Marxism has served to erase parts of the ethnic supremacist doctrine of legalism and impose an expectation that China will be a multi-class society, both new and dangerous concepts that make China’s ideology more alluring to foreigners.
Mosher clearly states that what China seeks is to create an “ethnic-based empire and tout the racial superiority of their race over all others.” China’s crackdowns on the Uighurs, Tibetans, and other minorities clearly corroborate this argument. Yet no neighboring states, never mind Western states, would buy into Chinese legalist ideology if all it offered was submission to the Han people. Being a loyal Marxist is more important to Xi’s cabal than being loyal to the Han ethnicity, allowing for greater marketability of this ideology.
Nor was legalism ever about class struggle – it is, as Mosher argues, about achieving a total uniformity in society of thought and action. It is clear from the structure of Xi’s regime, as well as from his own elite education and that of his daughter, that Xi does want a society with classes: the elite class that he and his friends belongs to, and everybody else. This is the classic Marxist societal structure, where all wealth lands in the hands of the oligarchy while the masses starve.
This is not to say that the legalist emperors did not live lavishly while many people starved, but the wellbeing of each individual was directly tied to the emperor’s whim, not part of any organized system. The language of creating a “moderately prosperous China” Xi used during the CPC Congress this year could not be possible without Marxism, and wooing Western authoritarians in 2017 is impossible without a preoccupation with class.
Mosher clearly concludes that a clash of civilizations between America and China is inevitable. “There is no room in either country’s conception of the future global order for the other,” he writes.
Yet as dire as this seems, time and again Mosher offers hope by highlighting the Chinese people’s own resistance to authoritarianism. The Chinese – like everyone else – reject being stripped of their humanity. They ultimately felled the Qin dynasty, established the Republic of China in rejection of communism, have embraced Christianity by the tens of millions, and continue to struggle against the regime through human rights lawsuits and global advocacy. From Tiananmen to Tibet to the Uighurs of Xinjiang and the Hong Kong millennials fighting against “One Country, Two Systems,” the fact that the odds are against them have not subdued Chinese individualists.
This is a problem that the United States does not share. Americans, with the exception of a tiny minority of Marxist “intellectuals,” accept the superiority of limited government individualism and use their freedom to make the most of themselves. There are no organized uprisings against America’s constitution, even as protests against politicians occur daily. Americans embrace American values whether they hold public office or not.
Millions of Chinese people reject what Xi is selling as “Chinese values.” Even in the implicit dire warning Mosher offers that Chinese authoritarianism is almost as old as humanity itself, the resilience of opposition to that authoritarianism is a beacon of hope.