“Is China Ripe for a Revolution?”

Historian Stephen Platt on the likelihood of a violent revolution today:

The Qing Dynasty, founded in 1644 by Manchu tribesmen who conquered China from the north, was brought down by a highly organized revolutionary movement with overseas arms and financing and a coherent governing ideology based on republican nationalism. The Communist Party today faces nothing like that.

What it does face, however, is enormous, inchoate rural unrest. The dark side of China’s economic rise has been a shocking widening of the gulf between the prosperous coast and the poverty-stricken interior, a flourishing of corruption among local officials and, by such data as we can gather, widespread anger and discontent. The government has acknowledged tens of thousands of yearly “mass incidents,” which can range anywhere from a handful of elderly widows protesting a corrupt real estate grab to communities in open revolt (like the southern village of Wukan) to murderous ethnic rioting, as occurred in the last few years in western Xinjiang Province and in Inner Mongolia.

In that sense, it is instead the Taiping Rebellion, which nearly toppled the Qing Dynasty 50 years earlier, that bears the strongest warnings for the current government.

What was so remarkable, and so troubling, about the Taiping Rebellion was that it spread with such swiftness and spontaneity. It did not depend on years of preliminary “revolutionary” groundwork (as did the revolution that toppled the monarchy in 1912 or the 1949 revolution that brought the Communists to power). And while Hong’s religious followers formed its core, once the sect broke out of its imperial cordon and marched north, it swept up hundreds of thousands of other peasants along the way — multitudes who had their own separate miseries and grievances and saw nothing to lose by joining the revolt.

Beijing has learned its lessons from the past. We see this in the swift and ruthless suppression of Falun Gong and other religious sects that resemble the Taiping before they became militarized. We can see it in the numbers of today’s “mass incidents.” One estimate, 180,000 in 2010, sounds ominous indeed, but in fact the sheer number shows that the dissent is not organized and has not (yet) coalesced into something that can threaten the state. The Chinese Communist Party would far rather be faced with tens or even hundreds of thousands of separate small-scale incidents than one unified and momentum-gathering insurgency. The greatest fear of the government is not that violent dissent should exist; the fear is that it should coalesce.

He also describes the end of the Taiping Rebellion, where the British ultimately stepped in to preserve the Qing dynasty. Given the scale of economic links, he asks, would global powers like America end up doing the same to preserve Communist Party rule? It’s a good question, although I think China’s rise and ongoing American fears of China pushing America out of east Asia entirely might radically change the equation this time.

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