Jan 21, 2019Liked by Bill Bishop

John Garnaut’s speech ‘Engineers of the Soul’ published recently on Bill Bishop's Sinocism deserves the greatest attention. It addresses the core problem faced by all serious China watchers; how to ‘map the Communist Party genome’ through reading its ‘ideological DNA.’ 

His speech comes against a backdrop of almost universal hostility towards China in the Western press and academia. The Financial Times, for example, wrote recently that China ‘looks more and more like a dictatorship,’ and that China’s ‘race-based ideas of national rejuvenation and manifest destiny have deep and uncomfortable echoes in 20-century history.’ This passage was seized by Deepak Lal, James Coleman Professor of International Development at UCLA, to justify an article headed, ‘As China’s leaders morph from Stalin to Hitler, the US and other democracies must confront it.’ Mr Garnaut is not alone in fearing that China is ‘totalitarian.’

This commentary cuts directly to the core question that we all wrestle with; what is China’s true intent? The answer matters not only to ourselves – who wants to be on the wrong side of history – but also to progressive Chinese, because uncritical Western commentary undermines their hopes for a more liberal ‘Westernised’ society. So when someone with as much experience in China as Mr Garnaut shares his thoughts, we should listen very carefully.

Mr Garnaut’s speech was based on three tenets:

1.       Communism in China was grafted onto the existing ideological system of the Chinese dynastic system,

2.       China had an unusual veneration for the written word, and,

3.       Communist founding ideology in China was interpreted by a crucial intermediary – Joseph Stalin – and Xi Jinping is going back to that ideology.

The truth of the first idea can be seen from an exhibit at the tomb of the third Han emperor near Xi'an, which explains the government in the second century BCE by comparing it closely to the functional departments of the State Council today. Chinese leaders pepper their speeches with literary and historical idioms, so there is little doubt that Mr Garnaut is right about the connection to the imperial system. His second point reinforces the first; written characters do not change across the centuries and provide a direct link to the thoughts and actions of China’s earliest governors. Compare Huang Tingjian’s eleventh century calligraphy, still readily legible today, with the Doomsday Book, which was written about the same time in England but is only accessible to scholars. Finally, there is little doubt that Mao was immensely influenced by Stalin as, after Khruschev’s famous denunciation, he complained “I think that out of Stalin’s ten finger’s, only three were rotten.”  

So whilst there will be a broad consensus supporting Mr Garnaut’s three tenets, there is room for debate about their relative importance.

In 1300 CE, the principality of Moscow covered an area about the size of present day Israel. For 1,500 years, China had already been a unified state with roughly similar territory and governed by a sophisticated, literate bureaucracy. Before the reign of Peter the Great at the end of the seventeenth century, Russia had few schools and its landlord ruling class was overwhelmingly illiterate with only ‘a nodding acquaintance with the alphabet.’ This lack of ideological hinterland was a critical factor in the collapse of Soviet communism. Sure, the USSR did not deliver economic growth over the long term; it could not innovate; it coerced different ethnic groups into false alliances that had not been glued together over the centuries. But its basic problem was that it had no civilizational bedrock; and thus it had to perish.

In China, for more that two thousand years, the state has marshalled huge resources into infrastructure and sought a pragmatic balance between the invisible hand of the market and the more visible hand of regulation. The Han dynasty nationalised the salt and iron industries in 187 BCE. More than a thousand years later, the Song Chancellor Wang Anshi wrote, “The State should take the entire management of commerce, industry and agriculture into its own hands with a view to succouring the working classes and preventing them from being ground into the dust by the rich.” These are the thoughts and deeds of politicians worried about inequality caused by unregulated capitalism. The immense state sponsored infrastructure projects of today are underpinned by the same thinking behind the Great Wall, the Grand Canal and the Dujiangyan water system, built around 256 BCE, that still provides irrigation over a huge area of the Sichuan basin and makes it the most productive farmland in China.

The officials who administered this sophisticated state were able to draw on a vast body of philosophical writings and policy precedent. Thought, even in those times, was unified by the imperial exam system that ran in an almost unbroken chain from the first century CE until 1905. The core ideal of traditional Chinese governance is ‘benevolence’ – the requirement to put the interests of ordinary people above all else. "Be the first to bear the world's hardship, and the last to enjoy its comfort,” wrote Fan Zhongyan in the early eleventh century. Huang Liuhong noted six hundred years later that Mencius believed, “All men have a mind which cannot bear to see the suffering of others. The ancient kings had this commiserating mind, and, likewise, as a matter of course, they had a commiserating government.” I can’t help thinking that as Mao lay in his bed, he spent more time reading the Song classic 资治通鉴, the ‘General Mirror in Aid of Governance’ published in 1084 CE, than he did reading Stalin. The modern incarnation of this ideal of benevolence is reflected in 'tian xia wei gong' and 'wei renmin fuwu' and this too infuses Party ideology and Xi’s speeches. How else could the Chinese leadership have achieved so much for their people over the past forty years, especially those trapped in poverty?

Due to the lack of a comparable foundational ideology, Stalin had to rely almost exclusively on the instruments of violence to create the terror needed to unify thought. Compare this with China where, last week, a television documentary revealed that officials in Shaanxi had repeatedly ignored Xi’s personal instructions to tear down some villas built in a nature park. Would the governor of a Russian region have dared to defy serial written instructions from Stalin over a period of six years? I doubt it. Where Stalin would have sent in the NKVD, Xi had to rely on a couple of slots on primetime television.

The Chinese don't need to spread terror through society because of the unifying nature of their collective historical experience and its relevance in solving problems of today; 古为今用. Early in the Warring States, philosophical discourse about the purpose of the state had broadly coalesced around 定于一 or ‘stability through unity’; the remaining debate was just about how to achieve it. Mencius proposed ruling by moral example, whilst Shang Yang thought that was hopelessly naïve and advocated ‘doing what the enemy would be ashamed to do.’ But the objective was the same. This yearning for peace and stability was intensified by China’s dynastic cycles, which oscillated between periods of unity and times of complete system collapse characterised by war, famine, mass migration and disease. Nowhere is this desire for unity more on display than in Shaanxi at the newly restored mausoleum of the legendary Yellow Emperor, founding ancestor of the Chinese nation. Four impressive stone steles line the entrance, each carved with calligraphy. From the left, we have Deng, just four characters in his stubby writing, 炎黄子孙; next is Mao with his wild, fluid characters. A surprise awaits with the two steles facing those of Mao and Deng; they bear the calligraphy of Chiang Kai-shek and Sun Yat-sen. The message is clear; ‘Mao and Chiang may have spent their whole lives trying to kill each other, but in the end they were both Chinese.’

It is perhaps most problematic to equate Xi’s and Stalin’s basic intent. Stalin craved nothing but total domination. Xi must know that following a Stalinist Marxist path, a path that was such a colossal failure in the 20th century, will certainly fail in a global world of the 21st century. He wants China to succeed. Sun Yat-sen observed that China is but a sheet of loose sand;一盘散沙. If Xi’s true intent is to try bind it together more tightly to preserve the hard won achievements of the past forty years and avoid another episode of comprehensive system collapse, he might deserve a little more sympathy.

Anyone who really cares about China’s future and what it might have to offer the world struggles with these imponderables. I do every day, but I still come back to the same shaky conclusions. There seems to be too much historical evidence against any convincing parallel between Xi Jinping and Stalin, but only time will tell.

Tim Clissold


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Many good allusions and thoughts in this answer. The one small thing I would take issue with is that "Stalin had to rely almost exclusively on the instruments of violence to create the terror needed to unify thought." Stalin had a choice about how to govern and he and his sycophants (let's never forget the sycophants, cf Chen Quanguo), chose an evil course. I don't think anyone ever *has* to become a totalitarian dictator like Stalin or Mao. I assume Mr. Clissold's point was focused much more narrowly on "unifying thought," but it's all too easy for readers to miss the forest for the trees. Of course Mr. Garnaut's entire speech, framed as a "Communist Party genome," suffers from this fault: undervaluing individual agency.

China has for many years chosen to engage in malign activities in spite of promises and obligations. The rest of the world has failed to call them out sufficiently, so I think it's good that that is beginning to happen. But sadly, the most severe issue today is that the PRC is dabbling in crimes against humanity. If we allow it to continue placing large swathes of its population in concentration camps without a response, it will greatly dishonor us now and could give Xi the green light to do whatever he will, much to our sorrow.

That's why I endorse two tracks: simple punishment for rule breaking, but thorough isolation unless and until its crimes against humanity cease.

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Am going to put my two cents in a separate answer. But i d Like to highlight the mindless unquestioned assumptions people bring to the China/Chicom debate. E.g. crimes against humanity. Can u be more specific and give context? Because looking at dry statistics this is what Chicom has achieved: copied from another forum Post:


1949: US population=150mil, Life Exp=mid 60s

China population=400 mil, Life Exp=mid 30s

Now: China pop=1300 mil, Life Exp=mid 70s, with longer healthy span than US (WHO report)

they could have been North Korea on a gigantic scale but they are not."

There were self-inflicted deliberate and accidental, avoidable and unavoidable policy mistakes and monumental human tragedies during this period. But show a me Chinese government in history, or indeed, any government during comparable stage of development (with far smaller problems), that managed to avoid serious errors and societal upheavals and tragedies?

So as the crimes agianst humanity cliches go, while murdering hundreds of millions (the number gets bigger the longer the debate goes on) of Chinese, tibetans, mongolians, Christians Muslims, monks, etc. Admist mass killings for organ harvesting, mass forced abortions and Baby girl killings etc. , Chicom somehow has managed to achieve those results, with 100 Million plus per year Chinese (many of whom verfied to be female) travelling and annoying the world to boot , all of this in their spare time bwtween their blood thirsty monstrous normal day jobs? Where is common sense? Clearly reality, as well as Chicom's China , IS more complex than what cliches and labels and emotive self-agrandising narratives would habe us believe.

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1M+ in forced labor camps, kept incommunicado, without hope of release, based on their religion and Beijing's paranoia. China has admitted that much (after lying first), leaving us to surmise the extent is much greater and more severe. If that doesn't smell like a crime against humanity, I don't know what does. There's no comfort in complexity on this one, nor is it (or any other mass murder) anything to be glib about.

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Ah i see the famous smell test. Chiocom has been smelling bad for 90 plus years. Yet...looking at their record, Hard data, i see more lives and better lives over that land mass, so my central question still stands. What s going wrong with our unrelenting nose-driven analysis of Chicom's china?

As to this specific issue...r u calling for international isolation and punishment fo those responsible for the 10s of millions of refugees, human tragedies in a grand scale, from the war zones and failed states constituting MENA for the last 15 years as a result of multiple governments' freedom-human-rights loving policies? It is funny that when one destorys human rights, no matter how severely through 'legal' policies backed by war machines and pretty slogans, in foreign lands, one is morally superior.

The Xijiang issue is live and Chicom IS forced to disclose more and i reserve judgment based on what we know as filtered by one-sided channels. The only thing i differ here from most is i so not immediately jump up and reach for my trusted slogans and buzz words: religious persecution, ethnic cleansing, and the ever so clever "cultural genocide", as if the crime of genocide can be applied anywhere just because one so wants something to be genocide...

So why not offer up some old, better studied examples of Chicom's crimes against humanity, but backed by data and sober analysis. Then we can habe some proper debate.

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I think your moral equivalents are invalid:

"smelling bad for 90 plus years"? Brother, if you can't tell the difference between Mao, Deng, and Xi, you should look into it.

"looking at their record"? The whole point of morals is that some things are wrong and you don't do them, no matter how many other people it might benefit.

Say what you will about U.S. Mideast policies, only the conspiracy theorists suggest we intended them to do most of the harm they did. On the contrary, the intent was to support the international order.

As for China's crimes today, there is a large store of credible information on its ethnic cleansing, fully backed up by Beijing's obfuscations. What do you think will cause Beijing to desist from its crimes if not international pressure? Should we sit in our ivory towers wringing our hands asking "Please, Beijing, will you tell us about the bad thing you're doing so we can have some hard facts so we can be sure before we start to put mild pressure on you?" We tried that at Munich. It didn't work. It just makes them want more.

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Ben, moralising in a vacuum and arguing based on supposed intentions without regard to facts in the real world and effects on real people is what every ideological murderous regimes do and IS how all sorts of genocidal wars and crimes against humanity are justified. And indeed IS how Chicom has operated when at its most clueless and remoreless. The road to hell is paved with good intentions.

Plesse read my two posts properly, i asked questions about apparent incongruities and asked for consistency in casting judgements and condemnations. Did i suggest giving Chicom free-pass and not applying pressure? My whole point is that doing this badly and in ideological dogmatic ways that mirror exactly the mentality of the worst Kind of Russian/Chinese communists would not work. It didnt work for them. It wouldnt work for us. And it has not.

Let s talk abut something specific and discuss the ins and outs of a particular crime against humanity. And See if i can Iillustrate my original point, which is there IS a Lot of unquestioned rocksolid Stuff about Chicom/China that, when u peel the cliches away and try to get AT the substance, u find very little. I am not saying this for the hell of it. Am saying this after repeated experience of being surprised and disappointed after looking into the details behind what are common knowledge and 'irrefutable' stereotypical impressions/stories about Chicom/China. And people wonder why China policy has failed so badly? Isnt it obvious?

And no let's not go down the 'munich and nazis' route. Surely sinocism readers can go beyond that.

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What would be the explanation for hundreds of testimnonies of unrelated people? Or is it a Uyghur conspiracy? What is more probable, that all these people are lying or that the official version is false (as if that never happens) : https://edition.cnn.com/2019/01/18/asia/uyghur-china-detention-center-intl/index.html

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Like i said i m reserving judgement as more information from different channels come through. As in all such situations, where there are ethnic, Nationalist, religious, self-determination movements, and geopolitics all converging, it is extremely important to habe all the facts from all sides. Otherwise, depending on which latest victims one happens to have seen/heard, one can End up supporting all kinds of problematic causes. Doesnt the history and MENA in the last 20 years provide enough examples? Your enemy's enemy IS almost never a friend. There IS no shortage of movements and victims that deserve sympathy and support over there. The Problem ist though a lot of these involve one Set of victims wanting to elimimate another Set of victims. Take your pick. And please dont do it in an all mouth and no trousers Way. And please dont abandon anyone leaving them high and dry and worse off and facing slaughter.

Half hearted, slogan driven, picture/Video/testimony based emotionally manipulated, geopolitically motivated but confused policies towards those regions have dome no one, including the all the mutually vvictimising victims any good whatsoever. No! good Intention ist no excuse!!!!!!

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Without getting too portentous, I'd use this to mark the full announcement of a new Cold War. Sinocism has been at it for some time now, but of course it is not alone. The US has been leaning on Australia (where I am) for a year or so and it is paying off in the media. Lots of journalists are now 'woke' to the threat of the totalitarian power up north. John Garnaut's speech distills a lot of this, channelling Hegel in 1828 through the spirit of senator Joe McCarthy. Utterly without any self-knowledge, as Western Liberal Democracy's fatal bargain with Capitalism is unravelling, taking us all down with it, he thinks it is time to revive our war with Communism in order to protect it. Protect it from itself I think might be the first step. China might not help in this, but I can say that there are certain aspect of China - not tied to Xi - that might point the way. At the very least some sense that there are other 'civilisations' or cultures or trajectories on this planet other than those of liberal capitalism. Any slight hint that there are problems here, or possibilities there? Nope. Black. White.

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Well, liberal capitalism had/has its problems, which was manifested 90 years ago as the Great Depression. But should the world embrace the Nazi or USSR ideology as a solution to problems of liberal capitalism? I think for people who has never REALLY lived in such a society (a 6 month sabbatical does not suffice), it is easy to fantasize about a utopia solution that can solve the ills of liberal capitalism/democracy. But for those who truly experienced it, it's a fantasy that flourishes a while before leading to hell.

The perception and understanding of "other civilisations or cultures" is exactly what the CCP want to prevent, and has done rather successfully through all the brain-washing education and media censoring. Without any exaggeration, open discussion of "other trajectories" such as liberal democracy in a chinese university today can cost the professor's livelihood if not personal freedom. It's amusing to see that those with the liberty to discuss "any trajectory" often fail to sense what might happen to them if the society they live in followed the other trajectory they admire.

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Well, before we even get to China, the idea that the only alternative to liberal capitalism is fascism or totalitarian communism is simply not correct. As in the 1930s (which produced the New Deal, European Socialism and Social Democracy, the Welfare state in the UK etc.) there are many people trying to think beyond a capitalism that is killing us. There is no liberty on a dead planet. A similar dead end is represented by the choice accept the reality of liberal capitalism or indulge in utopian fantasy. I simply reject both of these either/ ors. As to China, it is a socialist system. Perhaps in name only, though I think more than that. It made a Faustian pact with 'the market' and the Devil is now coming to ask for payment. The market maybe two thousand years old (Tim Clissold in comments above, though more likely 500 years) but Capitalism is only 200 years old. They are not the same thing. Everyone in the West saw the introduction of market reforms in 1978 as leading to some form of western democracy. This has not been the case, and yet China is going from strength to strength (yes, economic problems abound). The US above all (see Sinocism) sees socialism as 'cheating', the State Owned Enterprises as somehow using the state to distort the market, and of course, to keep US capital out of the 'commanding heights'. So what we are seeing is a concerted attempt to break China's economic and political system (let's leave aside whether this is a good or bad system for the time) as a direct threat to US global hegemony. The US has not problem with authoritarian states, as long as they allow US capital in. China is the wrong sort of authoritarian - it is determined to keep out US capital from key areas of its social and economic system, and sees the state as somehow a benevolent force (Tim Clissold's Iron and Salt) representing a collective force that overrules capital. This is anathema to the US. China is under assault now by a US that has no interest in democracy and human rights except as where it follows their direct interest (Iraq/ Saudi Arabia/ Brazil etc.). Whilst this light on the hill could gain wide assent from 1945 to even the mid-1980s, it has gone. The US now represents naked force and people have to bow down to it, but they no longer acknowledge its legitimacy. Does all this mean China is a socialist (or whatever) utopian? No of course not. There are aspects of China that should be celebrated. I find it amusing that the "40 million people out of poverty" line is claimed for capitalism, but all the rest, the bad bits, are left as legacies of socialism. The reforms and the poverty alleviated (plus all the social dislocations that went with it) were delivered by the Chinese communist party in collaboration with its people. Very very broad brush, and workers still throw themselves of buildings, but it is, in the main true. Would we really want China to become capitalist? Where an oligarchy takes control and it given free reign over 1 billion people in the name of Enrichez-vous? It would be an utter disaster for the globe. So other trajectories. See the possibility of these is simply to look to new systems and new solutions. Is China that solution? No. Can and should it contribute to that solution, might its history and its system represent something that could provide some knowledge and insight into how we might move forward? Yes. Does the demonisation of China, at a moment of deep crisis for capitalism and democracy, help us see through to something new. No, it is fear, and war, and the Big Other at work.

Garnaut's characterisations are banal. The veneration for the written word? Well maybe, but the Revolution is not a dinner party. Oh hang on, that's Mao. This (as I said before) is Hegel, the essentialising of Chinese history. And what, might I ask, is the problem with the written word? Are we saying that this is the book not scientific or practical reality? That Euro-America modernity is practical and scientific rather than weighed down by centuries of useless learning? If so spell this out. The Chinese state solved a problem that Rome Byzantium did not - how to create an empire at scale. The written word was part of this. But this does not mean the written word is imperial (Dream of Red Mansion????) nor that the Empire was only about the written word. Garnaut has introduced what, here in Australia, we call a Furphy. It means nothing, or much more that he intends. Stalin - now, read the historical evidence, Mao explicitly rejected soviet style communist as well as re-inventing the Leninist party with the Mass Line. And communism was grafted onto chinese history - wow, what an insight. This is Cold War 2.0

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I find Garnaut's speech Chicomesque (probably because of his famous close connections to the princelings?). A mao era 'anaylsis' of the capitslist chief demon USA would almost exactly parallel the wording, tone and line of logic of that speech. That kind of analysis didnt work for them (in terms of defeating USA).and i doubt it d work for Australia and its friends.

Instead of repeating detailed arguments that no one has time for. Let s Look AT it this Way:

Take all the ernest, heart-wrenching, hair-raising, indignant, impassioned accusations and characterisations of Chicom/China as sincerely believed truth, then what are we doing negotiating on this and that with them, taking cues from Wallstreet, fretting over a few percent and a few hundreds Billions?

Shouldnt there already be a crusading army and amada assembled? War declared? Safehavens/protected status/passage instated, for all those persecuted reglious Chinese, ethnic Chinese, Marxist Chinese students, hongkongers, taiwanese etc.? Or short of violent actions, which are ampfully justified given the scale of their crimes and ambitions, at least cut off economic relationships to start with?

As a parting food for thought, i d like to point out that the various wars in the 19th century, starting with the Opium, were conducted under solid legal basis and justified by totally unreasnable and illegal actions taken by the Chinese government and Chinese themselves. If u read the details, u d be throughly forgiven to think that the Chinese thoroughly deserved what they d got mid-1800s to early-1900s. As did the natives of australia and America and Africa. OK cheap shots. All am trying to say here is be careful getting carried away with legalistic moralistic narratives and one-sided '"look at these devious bastards! They did this?!". All of those can seem watertight from one vantage point. And yet looking back, and looking at the outcome, wiht the advantage of hindsight and fuller information....

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John Garnaut’s speech seems accurate and frightening. Tim Clissold adds background to a complex story. Both certainly have more understanding of Stalin that I can claim. Andrew Batson has some comments on Xi v Stalin at Andrew Batson's Blog. But it feels to me that Stalin not only craved domination, but was able to act from a position of strength to the end.

Mr. Xi is in a very different position, both within China and in the world. Mr. Xi is in a tough spot. He inherited an economic system, and conditions, that were beginning to run on empty. The run-up in debt post 2008 has slowed, but new financing continues to outpace GDP growth. More and more, the new debt will come to resemble pushing on a string. There remains uncertainty about the real size of local government debt via local government financing vehicles, and pretensions to clarity about local finances, sufficient to induce foreigners to buy bonds, are not adequate. The anti-corruption crackdown has allowed Mr. Xi to put loyalists into nearly all provincial level jobs; but for every loyalist in, there is at least one disgruntled official denied. My government friends in Hangzhou should be pretty sanguine about Mr. Xi, since he was Party boss in Zhejiang for a few years, and no cronies of his have suffered in the anti-corruption campaign. But they have been (privately) dismayed or upset about the campaign. What was standard operating procedure a couple of years ago is now subject to discipline. It is not always possible to know which high level official or powerful backer is behind which deal. When guanxi and informal agreements count for more than law or regulation, how is one to know what to do and not do? Approve and not approve? No government official, no academic that I know of in China is happy with the situation now.

These are Mr. Xi’s base conditions. To those, he has added a wealth of unforced errors home and abroad. In 2012, the world was wishing China well as it grew and matured. There were problems – IP theft and mercurial business practices among them – but China was riding an international wave of good will.

Mr. Xi has squandered that completely. It took him a couple more years than it took our own dear leader, but the China actions have tended to confirm international worst suspicions, rather than degrade a power with some long term good will, at least with allies.

Run down the list – the diaoyudao/sekaku dispute, fanned as needs be for patriotic support; the South China Sea; debt peonage for OBOR countries; major investments in foreign countries without concern for environmental, community, or local fiscal concerns; threats to foreign academic researchers in foreign countries who have displeased CCP; monitoring of Chinese business people abroad; monitoring and harassment of Chinese students in the US; threats to families of Chinese in China or abroad for free expression by Chinese abroad; further squeezing of free expression in Hong Kong via kidnappings of booksellers and changes in the law; and the now-infamous concentration camps for Uighurs, and threats to their families abroad. Quite a list of accomplishments in six years.

With the tariffs and inevitable slowdown from more and more new debt, inability to pay off old debt, stock market doldrums, citizens unhappy about information crackdowns, student unable to get jobs for which they thought they were suited, and uncertainty about the future in every respect, Mr. Xi has just about a perfect storm with which to deal. Greater authoritarianism, perhaps totalitarianism, is the only available response. He has exposed his hand too often, beginning probably with the infamous Document No. 9 and continuing into Made in China 2025, a dog whistle if ever there was one.

Isaiah Berlin told us that there are two ways to deal with change in complex situations – be a fox, who knows many things and can adapt; or be a hedgehog, and do more of what worked in the past. CCP has been a fox for a long time, since Deng. Mr. Xi is a new species of leadership for CCP. A greater role for ideology is the reversion to the mean.

I don’t think conditions for Stalin were ever quite so complex. Mr. Xi certainly does live in more interesting times.

Bill Markle


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Well, I tell you what - I don’t care what anyone says, but I’m glad I got a subscription for this site. Great discussion going on. I’ve spent all day Friday reading it; had a quick dash out to buy a bottle of single malt, now going to annoy my partner by raving on to her about it!

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