Asia, recent, World Affairs

Why Taiping 2.0 Isn’t in the Cards: A Reply to ‘China’s Looming Class Struggle’

In the immediate aftermath of the Tiananmen Massacre in 1989, some Western pundits suggested that army factions might rebel against China’s central government. Living in Taiwan, where emotions were at a pitch, I felt this outcome to be plausible, perhaps even desirable.

Over the decades since, I’ve watched commentators, many on my own conservative side of the spectrum, offer cheery dreams of the imminent collapse of communist power, or at least hopes that the facade would drop off a few storefronts of the Potemkin village. While I was living in South-Central China a few years back, a friend cited one such source from North America, and informed me that the “peasants” in inland China were desperate and half-starving. I replied that I’d walked past a “peasant” home that very afternoon, and found the family out washing the car and having a water fight. Over time, I have grown jaded in the face of flamboyantly expressed doubts that China can survive in its current political form.

Joel Kotkin’s recent Quillette essay, China’s Looming Class Struggle, may not appear quite so flamboyant as others. He offers much that is true about modern China, including his recognition of the country’s enormous progress, and the irony of sharply re-emerging class divides in a country led by an allegedly “communist” party. I share Kotkin’s skepticism about the present regime and many of its heavy-handed, self-serving and often worrisome stances. But China does not face an imminent peasant-proletarian revolution, or anything like it. Certain facts must be faced if one wishes to formulate realistic policy, because the rise of China does offer a serious and ineluctable challenge to the present international order.

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Kotkin claims to foresee a “real existential threat” to the present Chinese regime among the “very classes that gave [it] birth.” That would primarily be the peasant class, which Mao Zedong, Marxist heretic that he was, relied on in lieu of an almost non-existent industrial proletariat to overthrow the Nationalist government. Kotkin warns that Beijing must reform or risk some sort of cataclysm involving this peasant class acting in vague alliance with poor migrant workers, perhaps even stirring up violent rebellion. He cites the analogy of the 19th-Century Taiping Rebellion to explain what the present regime might face: Chinese history “consists largely of an interplay between hierarchical regimes and occasionally rebellious peasants.” The more complicated mix that constitutes the modern underclass, Kotkin warns, forms a “volcano” whose molten fury the new ruling class is struggling to keep bottled underground with a mix of high-tech surveillance and promises of economic development.

But there are problems with Kotkin’s thesis, involving his description of those opposing classes, the nature of revolution, and, most of all, conditions in modern China.

Kotkin claims that about half a billion Chinese citizens are still peasants. Counting farmers in China these days is indeed tricky business. Should we include my landlords, who still grow a few beans on the hillside behind the massive apartment complex that occupies their former village, from which they likely derive most of their livelihood? My taxi driver, who when he’s not driving customers to work and griping about corruption, tends to a peanut patch or two? Or former neighbors in central China, who rent fields to outsiders to grow lotus and vegetables—and before whose nice new homes, rising next to the dilapidated mud structures their parents once lived in, two or three cars are sometimes drawn up?

True, most Chinese farmers are still quite poor by western standards, or those of their city-mouse kin. But one cannot compare the peasant masses of the 19th Century to anything found in modern China. For the first time in thousands of years, most Chinese are not farmers and do not live off the land (as Kotkin admits). Furthermore, the farming minority that remains is disproportionately elderly and scattered in the most mountainous and distant reaches of China. A one-child policy remained in effect until recently, and that one child often is in the city making earrings, like the lady I met on the subway yesterday, who spoke of her peasant-family past as of a distant dark age. Or they are delivering packages on scooters, manning coffee bars, or, yes, pounding away at the new high-rises that sprout in every major (and many minor) cities, as well as the subway and bullet-train lines that connect them.

In the mountains of Yunnan, private cars are still rare: You’re more likely to see a young member of the Lahu and Kachin minorities on a motorcycle, often with a tribal girl with one arm around him and the other holding her mobile screen, racing down mountain roads. (When the millennial apocalypse dawns in China, will teenagers look up from their screens long enough to notice?) Ethnic minorities typically were allowed more than one child, so the demography in such regions tends to skew younger. But even if most peasants were of an age for rebellion (which they are not) and inclined to rebel (which doesn’t appear to be the case), the logistics of gathering such scattered, increasingly elderly forces from thousands of valleys would render success problematic. Moreover, despite relative poverty, “rural people on average have higher levels of life satisfaction than do migrant or urban residents” according to a 2018 article in China Economic Review. That bodes well for China’s stability, but not for Kotkin’s thesis.

Will the semi-urbanized class of migrant workers and “feudalized” factory workers lead Kotkin’s revolution? How about the million underpaid, mistreated employees of Foxxcon, which makes many of our phones? The hundreds of millions of migrant workers who toil in Chinese cities without a hukou, or residence permit, and earn (Kotkin reports) a mere $63 for a 60-hour work-week, or about ¥ 2,000 (a princely sum when the two of us first visited China, but no longer)?

That would seem like a recipe for a restive population. But Kotkin’s figures are not typical, and his understanding of the hukou system does not seem universally applicable. Wages have almost doubled in the five years since I returned to China. In my city, a young man without a residence permit can make ¥ 2,000 per week making deliveries on a moped. Or if he’s less ambitious, he can earn that same sum in two weeks as a guard. An experienced construction worker can make ¥ 9,000 a month, or about $300 per week. This may not sound like much to readers in the West, but it helps explain the traffic that now jams Chinese cities.

Foxconn set up a factory in the city of Hengyang in southern Hunan precisely because the place is a bit of a backwater. It often hires young people with few skills, and pays them less than half of Hengyang’s average wage. When I first arrived in Asia, that formula perfectly fit the working poor in Taiwan and even Hong Kong, now one of the wealthiest cities in the world. But farmers now produce better fruit, and carpenters work with better tools, and economic horizons appear to many to be broadening, not constricting. The muscles that move Adam Smith’s “invisible hand” have been flexing visibly since Deng Xiaoping opened the door to business with the outside world.

Kotkin’s notion of traditional Chinese revolution also is problematic. China was, he says, periodically convulsed by peasant revolutions, among which that of the Taiping Heavenly Kingdom in the 19th Century was the “most serious” in history, inspiring in turn both the Nationalists and the Communists. One might think that the rebellions that founded the Song and Ming dynasties, which lasted for centuries, were pretty serious. But putting that aside, the old Marxist idealization of spontaneous outbursts of peasant outrage—on which Kotkin possibly bases his prediction of coming foment—always was simplistic. Both in China and elsewhere, revolutionary movements generally have been led by highly educated ideologues. Sun Yat-Sen, who founded the Nationalist revolution, was a doctor, and many of his leading followers belonged to China’s tiny (at the time) Christian minority. Mao was the son of a prosperous farmer, but became educated, urbanized and radicalized into the anti-theology of Marxism after his move to Changsha. Even the West’s own Occupy Wall Street movement drew heavily from academic ranks, with one study showing that more than a fifth of responding protesters worked in education (mostly in higher education), and that the majority were fairly wealthy.

As with Cambodia’s Khmer Rouge and Peru’s Sendero Luminoso, the Taiping Rebellion was led by a teacher. Taiping founder Hong Xiuquan studied the Confucian classics as an ambitious would-be mandarin; then, having failed in that goal, his fevered subconscious cooked up an esoteric blend of neo-Confucianism, folk theism focused on a Zeus-like Jade Emperor figure, and garbled reformist Protestant teachings, focused heavily on the Old Testament. Hong saw his God-given mission as killing “demons” whom he identified with China’s Manchu overlords.

As described by Jonathan Spence, Vincent Shih, and other historians, early 19th-Century Qing China was a socio-political pot at full boil. The Manchus were an imperialist power, China a twice-colonized nation under its control, and experiencing heavy pressure from Europeans. Many of China’s most educated citizens were addicted to opium. The Heaven and Earth and other secret societies periodically sponsored mass violence, adapting Confucian morality and the Mandate of Heaven to justify what might seem the anti-Confucian act of revolution. Bandits fortified little cities in the mountains.

Modern China is nothing like that. The elite may be obnoxious, but they are members of the mainland’s 90%-plus Han Chinese majority, for the most part. The central government controls pretty much every square inch of the country. China is winning gold medals at the Olympics and building infrastructure in Africa. Walk into the hills around my city, where pine and locust trees are vulnerable to fire in the dry winter, and you will see automatic sensors monitoring any movements. A modern-day Taiping recruiter would be hard-pressed to find bandit cities in those mountains.

Today’s China still faces deep problems, some of which Kotkin describes. But it also offers more liberal nations a challenge that cannot be daydreamed away, and that is only likely to grow. Given China’s present stability, its well-educated, ambitious and hard-working population, and the continuing international diffusion of technology, the West simply does not have enough fingers to plug the dike and prevent the socioeconomic waters on opposing sides of the civilizational gap from finding a rough level. America’s 330-million people cannot permanently out-produce and out-earn China’s 1.4-billion. And seldom has the world seen a great power that strictly minded its own business, especially when that power was in its ascendancy.

What matters to Chinese of all classes is national pride. Ordinary Chinese will not endure being disrespected again by outside powers, as by the British, then the Japanese (or Manchus, going back further). But it’s also important to remember that China has contributed much to world civilization in the past, and has not usually been particularly militaristic. If the communists did not have the record they do, and if Xi Jinping did not seem to take Nineteen Eighty-Four as his instruction manual (oddly, it’s available in book stores here), perhaps the world community would feel more at ease at the changing of the geopolitical guard. It is worrisome to see a newly emerging hegemon bulldozing churches, locking up Muslims, making friends of the world’s nastiest regimes, and worrying its neighbors with fortified artificial islands and aggressive troop exercises.

Speaking of the deceptive power of water, which over time bends rivers and wears down mountains, ancient Chinese philosopher Laozi advised rulers to “show no force, and thus rule all.” Today, this might be called a mantra of “soft power.” The soft power of freedom, like water, still attracts China’s citizenry, especially the middle class. Their leaders may have already found that geopolitical bullying will push China’s neighbors toward the West. China should be most concerned about the effect that its self-assertions may have on India, a nation whose population is due to surpass China’s own, and whose economy is also following an upward (if somewhat lagging) trajectory.

Kotkin claims that “an all-powerful state, authoritarian ideology, a dependent middle class, and an exploited, marginalized, controlled lower order have been features throughout China’s history.” My read of Chinese history is more complex. If we wish to build a constructive alliance with the Chinese people of all classes, there is much to appeal to within Chinese tradition that can provide patriotic justification for limited government and even pluralism. Laozi, the founder of philosophical Taoism, has been marginalized by the regime, perhaps for his nascent libertarianism. But even Confucius, whom the government tells school children formed the “mainstream” of traditional Chinese culture, showed some laissez-faire instincts

Maybe this represents wishful thinking on my part. But I think quiet, patient strength, along with the forging of alliances both within and outside of China, will be more effective than the confrontational rhetoric of some fellow conservatives, and more realistic than neo-Marxist notions of a peasant revolt sparked by octogenarians allied with their delivery-boy grandchildren.

 

D. Marshall, PhD, is author of nine books, most recently Jesus is No Myth: The Fingerprints of God on the Gospels

Featured image: Wu Youru’s ‘A scene of the Taiping Rebellion, 1850-1864’

 

Comments

  1. Given China’s present stability, its well-educated, ambitious and hard-working population, and the continuing international diffusion of technology, the West simply does not have enough fingers to plug the dike and prevent the socioeconomic waters on opposing sides of the civilizational gap from finding a rough level. America’s 330-million people cannot permanently out-produce and out-earn China’s 1.4-billion.

    This whole section is based on a fundamental economic misunderstanding: that America’s 330-million people has to out-produce the Chinese.

    The Americans do not have to do anything of the sort: they simply have to produce as much as they want to consume. If, for whatever reason, Americans want to consume less that the Chinese per capita at some future point, they’ll be able to do so & still have a high standard of living.

    The rising tide lifts all boats.

  2. I hope this author is right. Though I question his reference to Chinese “Communist power”. Whatever China is now it is not Communist. In fact it’s more Fascist than Communist. In many respects it now resembles the old authoritarian Taiwan writ large, raising the question of just who won the Chinese Civil War in the long term, Mao or Chiang Kai-Shek? If Chiang had won, would China be much different today?

  3. This is the most sensible piece I’ve read on the wishful fantasy of the demise of China. As Mark Twain said: " The reports of my death are greatly exaggerated." It is difficult to accept but Chinese power and influence are here now, expanding and not going away anytime soon. the author is correct when he states that chinese nationalism, is keeping the system flowing. It is not a pretty picture and there is nothing good about it for us in the liberal democracies, except to buy cheaply made crap. The TPP was an effort to build an anti China trading block. It might have accomplished something, but we won’t know because POTUS decided he could go it alone. Now he is making back room deals with China, so his farmer base won’t abandon him. I’ve been to Tibet, I saw what they did, I do not want the CCP to spread their toxicity further afield.

  4. S, All (most) of the candidates for President opposed the TPP. Bernie opposed it. Hillary opposed it (at least she said she did). Trump opposed it. Trump actually won and killed it. The TPP was never a trade deal. It was an outsourcing scheme intended to further destroy the U.S. economy (which explains its popularity in some circles). The TPP would have accelerated the further decline of the US and rise of China. The notion that the TPP would have created an anti-China trading block is absurd. The other countries specifically said that it would not, and it (the TPP) had no provisions to exclude China. Quote from Dani Rodrik about the TPP

    “Nonetheless, economists can be counted on to parrot the wonders of comparative advantage and free trade whenever trade agreements come up. They have consistently minimized distributional concerns, even though it is now clear that the distributional impact of, say, the North American Free Trade Agreement or China’s entry into the World Trade Organization were significant for the most directly affected communities in the United States. They have overstated the magnitude of aggregate gains from trade deals, though such gains have been relatively small since at least the 1990s. They have endorsed the propaganda portraying today’s trade deals as “free trade agreements,” even though Adam Smith and David Ricardo would turn over in their graves if they read the Trans-Pacific Partnership.”

  5. Dani Rodrik is full of soot. The exact problem with the TPP, NAFTA, whatever trade agreements is that these are managed trade agreements, not free trade agreements. The latter are of a single sentence: the contracting High Parties shall not restrain the freedom of trade between their peoples.

  6. “It is worrisome to see a newly emerging hegemon bulldozing churches, locking up Muslims, making friends of the world’s nastiest regimes, and worrying its neighbors with fortified artificial islands and aggressive troop exercises.”

    Why yes, that is ‘worrisome’…rollseyes

    Inho, the author is missing some significant signs…

    Maybe its me but, having spent no insignificant time in Europe during the 80’s 90’s, on trips to and through the East Block inc. Moscow/Leningrad etc…my take was the USSR collapsed because just about everyone but the top 10% stop giving a hoot…collectively and almost at the same time.

    The Soviet citizen had and saw nothing of value or to gain in their hardships and being controlled and were no longer inspired by their ‘Fatherland’.

    I speak with and confab with citizens of China of college age, old,and in between in my present work every day, no one of means doesn’t have a way of getting out of the Renminbi ( to Gold for example) ,or getting their money off shore, very very few of them have any faith in their ‘party’ etc.They tow the line and smile because…fill in the Orwellian blank ( and yes there are always that 10-15% that are Uber Party/Nationalists and another 10% that are useful idiots)

    They dont trust their own government really has their best interests at heart and resent the overwatch of their lives via phone/camera/bank accounts=social scores and almost across the board they note Xi’s naming himself President for life as counterproductive, undercutting any legitimacy of the gov. in that, the Chinese ‘people’ , like the average Soviet citizen, wont truly ‘believe’ in ( or fall out of love with) but Behave in a system that their own leadership has disdain for…and there in lies the path to revolution via collapse or violence.

  7. The whole post seems based on a series of false premises and speculative assumptions. I could go on at length, but the main problem seems to be with the proposal that China’s future will be unlike its past, and that America’s future will ALSO be unlike its past. Best indicator of future performance is past performance. An argument could be made that China is permanently breaking with its past in a good way and that the US is permanently breaking with its past in a bad way, but I don’t see that, here. What I also don’t see presented is evidence that it is in America’s national interests to continue empowering China. Are Americans supposed to feel some sort of moral obligation to do so? Or perhaps we are expected to fall in behind China because they are alleged to be assuming the dominant global position? If the latter, that would seem to indicate some degree of ignorance about the historic mentality of Americans. We don’t play that way. Or at least, we didn’t… in the past. Why should we now? We rose when we were nobodies on the wrong side of the Atlantic during the age of empires. We will fall now, because why?

  8. Because the adage when goods don’t cross borders, armies do.

  9. America’s 330-million people cannot permanently out-produce and out-earn China’s 1.4-billion.

    That bit by the author caught my eye. The EU’s population is about 513 million, about 190 million more than the US, yet the nominal GDP of the US is about $2 trillion more than the EU’s - GDP in PPP the EU is about $2 trillion more than America’s. But we may look at it from another perspective. Though the US dwarfs both Liechtenstein and Luxembourg in both population and national GDP, the GDP per capita of both minnows is $168k and $102k, respectively, significantly more than America’s $60k. Keep in mind GDP per capita is not a measure of personal income.

    Though GDP and its growth are the ones frequently mentioned in the news, using that to compare the US and China or the US and Andorra is a fool’s errand. For example, you can easily find countries that experienced positive overall GDP growth whilst the per capita income decreased. Why? Population growth. A country’s aggregate economic growth is not as important to you and me, the average person. What matters more is whether the people living in a country are getting wealthier. A good measure for this is median household income (after tax), but this is difficult to capture accurately because it involves household surveys. Some countries do this often, but many countries do this rarely, if ever.

    The polling agency Gallup conducted such a survey from 2006 to 2012.

    Inarguably the data is stale, but such a survey may better capture the economic life of the people rather than the economic life of the nation, which GDP captures. (Note: sample size relative to population, their location(s), and how the info was collected matter. For example, interviewing 2000 people over land-line telephones in a small population nation with high telephonic penetration, say Luxembourg, will likely capture more accurate data than 2000 people in large population Brazil, where land lines are less common. Then you have the issue of mobile telephones, their penetration, and whether they are used to replace land lines affect telephonic interviews.)

    The OECD reports:

    A good measure for comparing the quality of economic life between nations is GDP per capita measured in purchase power parity (PPP) because it addresses the differences in currency value - some currencies are under valued and others are over valued because very few currencies are actually set by the market. It tries to equalise the purchasing power of different currencies by eliminating the differences in price levels between countries. The basket of goods and services priced is a sample of all those that are part of final expenditures. Here’s the CIA’s assessment.

    China’s GDP in PPP at $25 trillion tells us one story, and China’s GDP per capita in PPP at about $17k tells us another story. China’s median household income of about $7k presently tells a third.

  10. It remains to be tested how indestructible fascist governments can are when the German and Italian versions self-destructed via war and not from internal strife.

    That is an interesting question, one that I would be interested in your answer. By my reasoning it would be hard to say things would be the same when one path included murdering 50 million of its own people and the other hypothetical path likely would not have done so.

  11. And now neoteny claims the US was at fault for causing World War II? Tell us more about why we should care about your opinions in regards to China? lol

    That would make as much sense as Americans interpreting the fact gravity sucks as a threat.

    Yeah, well if somebody is suggesting that you might get thrown off a building if you don’t do as you are told, and then offers up an adage about the consequences of gravity, that actually would make a lot of sense. Don’t you think? I don’t know about anyone else, but I’m getting a little tired of this prefab discussion that doesn’t allow for any good options other than the ones a certain lobby has decided upon.

  12. Yup.

    Dude, you’re wasting everyone’s time with this.

    I have 800+ upvotes (likes); you’ve got 23.

    anyone who tries to engage with you

    Your original comment to me was useless as far as I was concerned. So I picked out a particularly egregious statement of yours & critiqued it. Then you galloped off on some macho-nationalistic angle I don’t care about. Which you took as a personal challenge – but it wasn’t. I’m simply not interested in your present low-quality thoughts (back in August, I’ve given you two upvotes in succession on two of your comments, so you can’t claim that I’m biased against you). And I’m definitely not interested in you playing a cover of the movie Mean Girls.

  13. Missed that, it happens when I skip over other posts that are unnecessarily hostile.

  14. How is @neoteny placing the US at fault for the Pacific war? I think it’s generally accepted that US (and others) economic sanctions against Japan to counter its aggression in mainland Asia were a primary driver of Japan’s decision to launch the war. Japan could have stood down to have the sanctions lifted, but they chose war instead.

  15. Yes, you did so twice.

    You appear to replying to something I didn’t say. I didn’t dispute your “hard numbers”, I mentioned that you and the other fella appear to be using two different measures of GDP and because of this you were talking past each other. When someone says “GDP” this is taken to be nominal GDP. PPP theory emerged later, so when it’s used as a measure you’ll see that those using it state “GDP at PPP rates” and similar words to indicate PPP is being used - see my screen shot of OECD data in my first comment.

    If you take a look at my first comment I covered all these issues and included the data. It’s kind of humorous because you’re telling me things I know and covered. Thanks, though.

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