As a general rule, I try not to get into arguments with people, older, smarter and more credentialed than myself. The outcome is surely my own embarrassment. However, a recent post at China File by some of the doyens of the Chinese history profession—much of which I actually agree with— compels me to make a few comments because it addresses one of the most slippery and uncertain of all historical activities: reasoning and making comparison by analogy. Of course, historians don’t have a monopoly on this habit of thought, as the debate about current action in Syria makes clear. Politicians, journalists and any one else with an opinion toss around the words Iraq, Afghanistan, Kosovo, Vietnam and Verdun to buttress or critique an opinion.
The series of posts at China File make the more obscure comparison between China today and the last decades of the Qing Dynasty, mainly the 1890s and 1910s, with Orville Shell, head of the Asia Society, arguing that “current questions about endless political and economic tension where questions of how far the leadership is willing (able?) to go in making reforms does make one think back to the end of the Qing, China’s last dynasty, during its waning years at the end of the 19th century.” The central dilemma, as Schell sees it, is simple: “Fail to reform rapidly enough and risk stasis. Reform too rapidly and risk instability and even upheaval.” Schell ends the piece by discussing the terminology of Qing Dynasty’s final years dynasty’s final years, known as qingmo 清末 and he wonders if “reforms again fail, might we some day find ourselves speaking of this interim as ‘the end of the People’s Republic,’ Rénmín Gònghéguó mò 人民共和国末?”
Now that is a provocative statement and it is one that many of the respondents avoided, perhaps purposefully, to make a series of insightful comments about the similarities and differences between China today and one hundred years ago: the nature of the ruling elite, new forms of media and control, or lack thereof, over the army. These are all important observations, and, it must be pointed out, foreign scholars are not the only ones making these comparisons. Ma Yong, a researcher at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences has a number of books and articles about the the late Qing reform efforts with a clear eye towards today (see 大变革时代） and, like Schell, has a new book out in “Unperturbed” (坦然面对历史的伤） about the the need to create a new narrative for modern Chinese history that goes beyond the nationalists rhetoric of “The Century of Shame and National Humiliation, or guochi （国耻).
My issue with Schell’s piece, seemingly minor but actually significant, relates to the intellectual assumptions behind: the possible fall of the Communist Party. This is an easy thing to predict and people have been doing it for years. However, I think the article, in trying to be purposefully provocative, actually reflects a larger tendency in China-watching that veers toward two camps: China is about to take over the world or it is about to collapse. James Mann, author in Residence at SAIS-Hopkins Center, makes this argument in well-known but criticized volume, The China Fantasy.
My next problem relates to the larger issue of using the dynastic terminology to discuss the CCP and, to me at least, the incompleteness of the analogy. Just before Schell talks about the end 人民共和国末 he mentions the term zhōngxìng 中兴 or mid-dynastic revival and links this concept to the rhetoric of “rejuvenation,” fùxīng 复兴 used by Xi Jinping since taking office. So, it seems that Schell raises, but ultimately discards, the possibility that the current state of affairs in China merits the title 中兴, favoring the 人民共和国末 moniker. But what, then, would be the zhōngxìng 中兴 of the Communist Party Rule? My initial impulse would be to name the Reform and Opening under Deng Xiaoping but that is only a first thought. In my mind, if Schell wants to make a more convincing argument about the similarities between China today and the end of the Qing he needs to use the dynastic terminology more precisely and outline what he might identify as the move from the CCP’s zhōngxìng 中兴 to where it is now.