Author Kerry Brown has an essay up at OpenDemocracy looking at China’s tumultuous 2008 and the cycles and contingencies of history. Brown reminds us that despite China’s rise, the unity of the modern PRC nation-state is something which can’t be taken for granted, as China’s leaders are all too well aware: the PRC, as heir to the territorial conquests of the Manchus, is not immune to the problems of the post-colonial age.
The modern China that came into existence in 1949 is overshadowed by a host of previous “Chinas”, which together are radically different to the current one in size, ethnic mixture and stability. These Chinas have left profound memory-traces. Tibet is only the most prominent; Xinjiang, inner Mongolia, even Yunnan – as well as other more profoundly Sinified provinces – also contain echoes of that diverse and disunited history. The events in Tibetan-populated areas are a sharp reminder that many people – inside and outside China – take the modern country’s unity too lightly at their peril. Chinese dynastic history over the last two millennia has been a cycle of fragmentation and disunity followed by centralisation and strength. This history may grow silent, but it never goes away; the latest generation of Beijing leaders, in their reaction to the problems in Tibet, showed that negotiating in ways that compromise Chinese unity is not on its agenda.
Brown stretches a bit looking at the connection between the PRC’s reaction to political dissent and the ideas of the 11th-century official Ouyang Xiu (欧阳修 1007-1072).
“John Keay, in his narrative China: A History, writes of the attempt in the late Song period (11th century) to create political associations that reformed and opened up the Chinese political elite from one-man absolutism. A scholar of the period, Quyen Xiu, attempted to convince the reigning emperor of the need for tolerance of political factions and organised interest groups. This idea was rejected. A contemporary scholar of Chinese imperial history bitterly noted: “China still struggles with the heritage of this 11th-century political failure.”
Ouyang Xiu did in fact advocate the grouping of like-minded ‘gentlemen’ together for the purposes of pursuing noteworthy or noble causes, but I would hesitate quite a bit before making any jumps to an early-Song advocacy of modern notions such as political parties or civil society. (Though my copy of de Bary does translate Ouyang’s essay as “On Parties,” which may say as much about Professor de Bary’s ideas on the subject as it does Ouyang Xiu’s.) Nevertheless, while there was a culture of Confucian dissent and criticism throughout the imperial period, what we are seeing in today’s PRC is less about any essentialist aspect of Chinese culture and more the legacy of the modern Leninist party-state and its insistence on maintaining a ‘harmonious’ information and educational environment.