Tea Leaf Reading in 1904 and 2014

A Chinese official recently returned from abroad  “has shown himself favorable, or apparently so, to the introduction of western methods, is friendly towards foreigners, and entertains them frequently.” He is easily the most  “vigorous and capable minister in the Foreign Office” and due to his familiarity with economic issues he has recently been made a member of a working group to “consider needed financial reform.”

Another official, perhaps because he got too close to an American envoy and pushed economic reforms too hard, “has not been able to accomplish anything since.” A spent force within the Beijing bureaucracy, he recently got shipped to a post in the northeast. His replacement, a native of Hunan, “has a reputation for scholarship and conservatism but can hardly be expected to do much in the way of financial reforms.”*

Even though these judgments on the quality, character and power of various Chinese officials sound as though they come straight from Wikileaks or the front page of The New York Times, they don’t describe economic reform in China today. Instead, these remarks come from U.S. diplomatic dispatches just over one hundred years ago when financial reform was just as important as political reform in the last decade of the Qing dynasty. Translations from the Peking Gazette, the daily register of happenings within the Qing government, fill correspondence between the U.S. legation in Beijing and the State Department in Washington. What officials are moving up or down and why? What do they believe? Who is in their network? Are they reformers or conservatives?

With judgments about the beliefs and capabilities of Chinese officials nearly the same today—reformers vs. conservatives—as they were one hundred years ago, it is easy to slip into a reasoned pessimism about the state of China Watching, Pekingology and Tea Leaf reading, the obscure and difficult art of trying to figure out what exactly is going on in the Chinese leadership.

It is actually common now to talk about echoes between the late Qing dynasty and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) today. The main similarity is a simple but profound question: Can an authoritarian regime reform in order to strengthen its respective rule without reforming itself out of power? The Qing did’t pull it off. Can the CCP? Orville Schell and other Chinese studies luminaries tossed around the idea at China File.  In Chinese-language publications, it is hard not to read the recent work of Ma Yong, a researcher at the Chinese Academy of Social Science without noticing similarities in the predicaments of Empress Dowager Cixi and Xi Jinping.

The problem with this discussion is not necessarily the content itself but the derivative themes and analysis it creates. Framing discussion around the pace and possibility of reform and using an analogy between the challenges at the end of the Qing dynasty and today establishes familiar categories: the reformer and the conservative. These sharp distinctions can’t hold.

Look, for example, at the evolution of coverage on Xi Jinping since the 18th  party congress. As Robert Lawrence Kuhn summarized in The Christian Science Monitor, “For the past year, ever since Xi Jinping was confirmed as general secretary of the Chinese Communist Party, the big question has been: Is Mr. Xi a reformer?” That question has always been unanswerable because it forces a complex person into a simple, standardized narrative. Xi, in charge of a country of 1.3 billion people, and the head of a political party of more than 82 million members, has the ability to appeal to different people in different ways. He is, after all, a politician. The only honest answer to the question, as Kuhn rightly concludes, is both yes and no.

The tendency to think, write and speak about Chinese political figures in the rhetorical straightjacket of “reformer” and “conservative” is perhaps another example of what James Mann describes in his still important work from 2008, The China Fantasy. He thinks Americans, especially, academics, businessmen and some politicians, adhere to a vision of a China gradually changing for the better. The idea that, as The New Yorker correspondent Evan Osnos, eloquently put it, “many of us have fashioned an image of a country that is moving—in its own shambling pattern of fits and starts—toward something better for itself and the world. Sure, it thrashes around a lot along the way, but on many days it seems to end up a fraction of an inch closer to a better, healthier, more humane way of life.”

The other, equally common view, Mann thinks, is that China is about to collapse. The classic example is, of course, The Coming Collapse of China by Gordon Chang and more recent versions of a similar thesis by investor Jim Chanos. Provincial debt, endemic corruption, atrocious pollution, any of these, or a combination of them, will finish off the Chinese Communist Party. The end is near. But it is always just around the corner.

The archetype of reformer and conservative fit neatly into these narratives of gradual change and coming collapse. Things in China are getting better, slowly; things are getting worse and doomed to implode because no one is willing to acknowledge the need for change, let alone carry it out.

Mann, though, challenges us to think about a future of China  that does not give support to either of these views. Instead of reform leading to political liberalization or a collapse leading to some imponderable and unknowable future, the CCP will muddle its way through. Under this view labeling anyone as a reformer or a conservative does not hold up very well.

So how else can we think about elite Chinese politics to get away from this narrative? Perhaps math might do the trick. The challenge here is how to use math in order to explain political networks, how they rise, evolve, change, and consolidate their power. A piece by Victor Shih, professor at Northwestern, in last year’s American Political Science Review offers a preview of possible ways to think about the careers and maybe even attitudes of Chinese politicians. Relying on the an examination of leadership databases as well as some fancy statistics,  he shows that “factional ties with various top leaders, as well as princeling status, boosted the chance of climbing higher in the CCP upper echelons through much of the reform period.”

These mathematical studies move away from traditional categories of reformer and conservative but they are bureaucratically bloodless, papering over the rise of fall of Chinese officials with the latest statistical methods. Many people interested in Chinese politics, raised on the gossipy nature of China-watching, will find these types of studies a little unsatisfying.

The more important point, though, is that gossip, betrayals and backstabbing matter and they are hard to capture through statistics.  Even though these studies reveal who worked and studied together, they can’t reveal if these people actually get along and support each other. After all, there are plenty of reasons to dislike a coworker or classmate. Perhaps two people in the Qinghua Clique fought over a girl back in sophomore year and have gotten over it, or two politicians associated with the Communist Youth League had a falling out after too much baijiu and tensions still simmer.

It is not time to discard the tea leaves of Pekingology. In fact, it is time to add more, but ones that say something besides reformer or conservative.


*These quotations come from Record Group 59 of the National Archives, Dispatches from the U.S. Legation in Beijing.

See this interesting document from the CIA’s intelligence school on what it means to be a China watcher.


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