Officially the Chinese Empire ended in 1912 with the abdication of Pu Yi. He went on to head the puppet state of Manchukuo under Japanese occupation during World War II and died as an apparently loyal citizen of the People’s Republic of China in 1967.
Although Pu Yi was long referred to as the Last Emperor of China, that title really belongs to the so-called Red Emperor, Mao Zedong. Mao is credited with creation of the PRC, but his selfish, unbalanced, and xenophobic rule led to the deaths of tens of millions of people. He launched the Cultural Revolution, which unleashed veritable civil war throughout China. Relief at his death was widespread, since it allowed the PRC to evolve into something approaching a normal nation — and to subsequently undertake reforms that turned the PRC into a global economic powerhouse.
Most people believed imperial China was gone forever. Mao’s successors were willing to use extreme brutality to maintain power, witness the carnage in Tiananmen Square in June 1989. However, they attempted to prevent the return of personal dictatorship, ultimately setting a two-term limit on the president, which was respected by Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao. Neither of them enjoyed the untrammeled authority of Mao or Deng Xiaoping. The system wasn’t exactly collective rule, but politics no longer was uniquely scary.
But that is changing. Xi Jinping appears set to become China’s next de facto emperor. He’s not exactly “red” — after all, among his political victims was Bo Xilai, a representative of the “New Left.” As provincial chief Bo promoted the “red culture” movement and used Maoist imagery to advance his career. In 2012 Bo was stripped of his position and put on trial, more for his outsize ambition than retrograde philosophy. Nevertheless, few of the PRC’s leaders wanted to return to Maoism.
After serving only one term, however, Xi is positioning himself to rule for life. Not from behind the scenes, like Deng, who set China on its reform course. But in front, as president, apparently the modern Chinese term for emperor.
Xi quickly established his authority, launching a carefully targeted — meaning mostly against his political opponents and their support networks — anti-corruption campaign. He upset the unwritten rule of not prosecuting “Tigers,” top leaders who had preceded him. He quickly gained authority over the military and asserted control over economic policy, traditionally left to the premier. At last fall’s party congress he failed to nominate a successor, a clear signal that term limits were kaput. Now the Chinese Communist Party has announced plans to amend the constitution to formally drop the restriction. After which Xi will not need even the pretense of reelection.
The announcement generated substantial disquiet, even among some Chinese who like Xi, whose rule has made nationalists proud. Censors quickly banned “I disagree” on social media, as well as a number of other words and phrases identified with Xi and his dictatorial plans. (Even Winnie the Pooh got the boot, since he is thought to resemble Xi and became a stand-in on social media.) Some intellectuals took the dangerous step of publishing open letters in opposition.
One suspects that many of those closest to him also are uneasy. No doubt, a number of them would like a chance to ascend the political summit. Many likely remember the madness of Mao. The younger Mao was an effective leader. The elder Mao was an unpredictable tyrant. No matter how measured Xi may seem to be, he may not resist the temptations and transformations of ultimate power.
There’s little the U.S. can do to stop Xi’s coming dictatorship. Not that Washington wouldn’t try if it could. Despite the complaints directed at Russian interference with the 2016 presidential contest, the U.S. has intervened in more than 80 elections abroad, with only limited success. It is even harder to influence an authoritarian political process like that in the PRC. As for Xi, the only thing likely to stop him is a desperate act of violence from someone around him. And that certainly won’t be ordered by Washington.
But there is a larger question of U.S. policy. Xi is not just determined to establish a personal rather than party dictatorship. He also is a ruthless Chinese nationalist determined to limit if not extirpate Western influence in the PRC. His government has expanded censorship, intensified internet controls, restricted cooperation with Western institutions, persecuted dissidents and their lawyers, tightened rule over Hong Kong, and otherwise sought to reinforce authoritarian controls.
At the same time, the Xi government has increasingly used its economic clout to promote political ends. Taiwan is a particular target of such activities. For instance, Marriott listed Hong Kong, Macau, Taiwan, and Tibet as “countries” in a public survey. Beijing’s Cyberspace Administration declared that the hotelier had violated the law and “hurt the feelings of the Chinese people” and took down Marriott’s China website for a week. The company groveled its apology — of course it did not support “separatist movements.”
Other multinationals immediately began scrubbing their websites to avoid the PRC’s ire. Delta Airlines acknowledged making a “grave mistake” in listing Taiwan and Tibet as independent states. Shanghai’s internet regulator ordered Medtronic and Zara, purveyors of medical equipment and fashion, respectively, to update their websites, which listed Taiwan as a nation. Both naturally rushed to comply.
U.S. officials privately complain that China continues cyberespionage, vacuuming up data. American companies feel increasingly unwelcome in the PRC, being targeted by regulation and law. What once seemed to be simple commercial relationships has taken on the characteristics of economic warfare.
It’s still important not to overstate the threat. Outside of its major cities China remains poor. Extraordinary income inequality generates political instability. The nation’s demography remains dramatically unbalanced: despite having relaxed the one-child policy, the PRC may become old before it grows rich. Many economic pitfalls remain, including highly indebted, inefficient state enterprises, banks listing with bad debt, and a property bubble highlighted by entire “ghost cities.”
Militarily the U.S. remains far ahead, starting with its nuclear arsenal. And Beijing’s military ambitions remain limited to its neighborhood, something Washington sought to safeguard almost two centuries ago with the Monroe Doctrine. Moreover, the PRC is surrounded by potential adversaries, many of which it has battled in the past: India, Japan, Korea, Russia, and Vietnam. Just as Beijing hopes to deter American intervention, China’s potential adversaries can use deterrence to constrain and channel its behavior.
And Xi’s reach for supreme power may very well trigger more widespread opposition internally. The prospect of renewed empire might unify disparate factions against him.
Nevertheless, U.S. policymakers must consider the challenge facing America. A tough, strong leader, relatively unconstrained at home, is determined to assert the PRC’s increasing influence internationally. And to use the traditionally mutually beneficial activities of investment and trade to achieve ideological and nationalist ends, hostile to American interests and values.
Avoiding military confrontation should remain paramount: a series of wars (and it almost certainly would be more than one, since neither side would accept defeat) would be disastrous, whatever the formal outcome. Yet cheerful acquiescence to potentially threatening Chinese advances also isn’t an enticing option.
If Xi Jinping has his way, Americans will have to learn how to deal with a revived Chinese Empire. It is a prospect that even many of his fellow citizens likely fear. Americans still operate from a position of strength. But the challenge will force Washington to think more seriously about a China that is shifting from friend to foe.