No Exit in China

By Thomas Vien for Stratfor

In the 18th century after a passing breeze caused him to lose his place in a book, a Chinese scholar named Xu Jun wrote this short poem: "The clear breeze is illiterate, so why does it insist on rummaging through the pages of a book?" Though this couplet was seemingly harmless, the Manchu-ruled Qing Dynasty (1645-1911) executed Xu in 1730 for seditious thought. The Qing, invaders from the Manchurian steppe whose dynastic name meant "clear" or "pure," were acutely sensitive to the insinuation that they were illiterate barbarians despite adopting the trappings of Chinese civilization. Countless other poets shared Xu's fate during the dynasty's infamous literary inquisitions. While this paranoia appears excessive, it was a reflection of a very real problem for the Manchus.

The Qing, like all other Chinese central governments, struggled to contain dissent across a continent-sized empire. This proved doubly difficult because a small number of ethnic Manchus ruled over a far larger population of resentful Han Chinese. Han rebellion, which often coalesced around the purported superiority of Han culture, was a constant threat, shaking the foundations of the empire from the mid-19th century. Eventually, Han-led revolution swept away the Qing — and the entire imperial Chinese system — in 1911, leading to the formation of the Republic of China. This, in turn, quickly split along factional lines into warlord cliques. Truly effective central rule did not return until the Communists seized power in 1949.

Paranoia appears to be on the upswing in China once again as President Xi Jinping attempts to force painful structural reforms past resentful provincial and local governments, the bitter medicine for years of distortions imposed by China's wave of economic stimulus. Outwardly, he seems well poised to do this. Observers often call him the most powerful Chinese leader since Mao Zedong. On the outside, it appears to be true. Xi is in the midst of an epochal housecleaning with his anti-corruption campaign, which has disrupted countless power networks and, in the process, created numerous enemies.

Since 2012, the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection (CCDI), the Communist Party's top anti-graft agency, has investigated and punished hundreds of thousands of officials. The campaign is set to continue, with all arms of the government completed before the 19th Party Congress in 2017. By doing this, Xi has eliminated political rivals, and seemingly, the system of consensus-based politics that had prevailed in China since 1978 — a system intended to be a hold on the emergence of individualistic dictatorship and the policy ills that flowed from it. It is a system now seen by Xi as unsuitable for handling China's entangled economic problems, such as overcapacity in heavy industry and ballooning corporate debt. But China's ruling authorities are behaving as if they are anything but secure — since February, Chinese censors have responded harshly to seemingly innocent slips in the press. Beijing's harsh response suggests that political struggle is more intense in China than it has been in decades.

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