Op-Ed

To understand China's President Xi Jinping, don't look to Mao Tse-tung, look to Chiang Kai-shek

China’s leader, its strongest in years, runs the government, commands the army, and directs a tightly disciplined party that takes a dim view of opposition. His security forces and censors work to minimize public expressions of dissent, while the party’s official media dismiss protests as the work of nefarious foreign powers. One central challenge he faces is widespread belief that officials in his party are corrupt. He works hard to show how seriously he takes this problem, but this effort is undermined by a high-profile publication referring to the great and possibly illicit wealth his brother-in-law has accumulated.

We could be talking about Xi Jinping in 2016, the year the Panama Papers revealed that his sister’s husband sequestered funds offshore. We could just as easily, though, be talking about Chiang Kai-shek in 1946 — the year that Theodore White and Annalee Jacoby published “Thunder Out of China,” an influential bestseller that presented the Nationalist Party as riddled with corruption and struggling to maintain control of the country. If we had Chiang rather than Xi in mind, however, we would have referred to “brothers-in-law” — plural — because the Nationalist Party strongman had two, H.H. Kung and T.V. Soong, who many saw as lining their pockets.

When commentators liken Xi to a past leader, they tend to pick Mao Tse-tung, the man whose Communist Party forces drove Chiang into exile in 1949. We find it at least as useful, though, to place Xi beside Chiang. Xi’s party may still include the word “Communist” in its name, but the country is far more consumerist than it was in Mao’s day.  To think clearly about China’s future, we need to think of Xi as facing challenges, such as disgust with ill-gotten riches, that only Chiang confronted.

In 1946, Chiang’s Republic of China was one of the “Big Five” Allies that had just defeated the Axis powers, and had secured one of the five permanent seats on the newly formed United Nations Security Council. Bankrolled by the United States and free, after more than a decade, of Japanese invaders, China seemed poised to take its place near the top of the global order.

Seventy years later, many point to China as the next superpower. Xi’s party is not, like Chiang’s, one that can boast of recently helping to defeat a military foe, but it can — and does — point to other significant accomplishments. Official rhetoric presents former leader Deng Xiaoping and his successors as changing a country that, upon Mao’s death 40 years ago, was reeling from the devastation of the Cultural Revolution. It is, according to Xi, ready to put past humiliations at foreign hands and periods of domestic chaos behind it.

Corruption, however, could stand between China and great-power status — as it did 70 years ago.

Here’s a statement from a 1946 issue of the China Weekly Review that reads as though it came from a recent edition of the Economist: “[T]ales of corruption in public office have recently become so frequent and commonplace that they are no longer ‘news.’” When Chiang launched an anti-corruption drive that year, commentators questioned his sincerity as they do Xi’s today. Was Chiang trying get the situation under control or dispel criticism? Is Xi trying to solidify his power, reform the system or both?  

The parallels don’t stop there. Chiang insisted that modernizing China and valuing millennia-old Confucian ideas could go together. Now, after a period when the Communist Party blamed Confucianism for keeping China weak, Xi quotes Confucius as a great thinker. The Confucius Institutes that the Communist Party now funds around the world would have appalled Mao in 1966, but Chiang would have thought them a great idea had someone suggested it to him in 1946.

When Americans read “Thunder Out of China,” many were surprised to learn that Mao’s Communists represented a viable threat to Chiang. Reviewing the book in the New York Times, Harvard University professor John King Fairbank explained that “Communism has gained in China and will continue to do so in proportion as there is bad government.”

The party Xi heads derives its legitimacy not from ideology — the idea that China is a worker’s paradise is laughable in light of the growing chasm between rich and poor — but from performance. As economic growth slows and environmental degradation mounts, the benefits of single-party rule may be sliding out of focus for many. Party cadres, with bloated bellies and bank accounts, make just as attractive targets for frustration as they were in 1946.

This does not mean that we predict that Xi’s party is heading toward the kind of fall that Chiang’s experienced. The troubled state of the world may actually benefit leaders such as Xi, who work hard to present themselves as strong figures capable of guaranteeing stability in perilous times. 

Will there be more “thunder out of China” in the next year or next decade?  Neither we nor anyone else knows, but the fissures White and Jacoby identified in the old China of 1946 can be found in the new China of 2016.

James Carter is a professor of history at Saint Joseph’s University in Philadelphia. Jeffrey Wasserstrom is a professor of history at UC Irvine and editor of the “Oxford Illustrated History of Modern China,” to which Carter contributed one of the chapters on the Nationalist era.

MORE FROM OPINION

Could we see a four-way race for president?

The secret to the Warriors' success

Don't mistake Edward Nero's acquittal in the Freddie Gray case for vindication of the Baltimore police

Follow the Opinion section on Twitter @latimesopinion and Facebook

Copyright © 2017, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World