September 20th, 2012

The preordained successor to Hu Jintao at the top of the government of China, Vice-President Xi Jinping, disappeared for two weeks in early September, cancelling a meeting with Hillary Clinton. He’s back in circulation but no official explanation has been offered. A mid-level insider, the former leader of Hong Kong, has offered that Mr. Xi hurt this back engaging in some sport or other. Possible; but so are the conspiracy theories that it was a last-minute power struggle.

Why else should the date of the Party congress – in October! – to ratify the handover not been fixed? The guy responsible for the logistics of assembling 2270 delegates must be tearing his hair out and wishing he’d never pushed for the job. The sabre-rattling and demonstrations against Japan over the Senkaku or Diaoyu islets have probably been orchestrated by somebody, though they may rebound on the whole leadership.

The visible confusion and sense of dangerous undercurrents made me think of this work by the Chinese artist Shao Fan from 2005, in the Victoria and Albert museum in London”.

“King chair” by Shao Fan, V&A, London

Photo JW

The label says: “This piece is based on a traditional round chair of a kind historically associated with high status”. It fails to make the obvious interpretation that the double throne is a subtle and penetrating comment on the problem of political authority in China today. The Communist Party has inserted its power into the traditional Confucian structure, but the new and old ideological bases of legitimacy are inconsistent, and it shows.

Shao Fan did not IMHO get it quite right. The solid part is the old one: the State as a patriarchal household writ large, ruled by the old and wise within a patriotic ethic of filial duty and noblesse oblige. What is rotten is the modern insert. The Chinese CP as the vanguard of the workers and peasants, legitimised by its unique mastery of dialectical materialism, the one and only science of history, and its victory a half-century ago over the Japanese and the Kuomintang? I doubt if you could find a single Marxist true believer or Maoist warrior among those 2270 delegates. So the CP’s authority is based on a modest social contract very like the one that General Motors offers its employees: you work exactly as we tell you in exchange for a living wage. If the wage isn’t paid, or the work becomes too onerous or dangerous, GM’s workers are off the next day. Chinese citizens can’t opt out the same way, but they can go on strike or take to the streets. A recession in a democracy typically leads to a change in government; in China, it could mean the fall of the rĂ©gime.

The colourless chemical engineer Xi Jinping will I suppose take over as planned from the equally dull hydraulic engineer Hu Jintao in spite of the hiccups. Next time it will be more difficult. Narrow oligarchies can survive a long time in the right circumstances; think of the Teutonic Knights or the Venetian Republic. Somehow I doubt if these models are really helpful. Meanwhile the termites of Runnymede and the Enlightenment are eating away at the throne, and the peasants are stirring on their blogs and Twitters.

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