Has the Bell Begun to Toll for China?

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“Why did the Soviet Union disintegrate? Why did the Soviet Communist Party collapse? An important reason was that their ideals and convictions wavered,” China’s new leader, Xi Jinping, told a closed meeting of party elite in Guangdong province.

“Finally all it took was one quiet word from Gorbachev to declare the dissolution of the Soviet Communist Party, and a great party was gone,” said Xi, according to notes obtained by The New York Times.

“Everyone is talking about reform, but in fact everyone has a fear of reform,” said Chinese historian Ma Jong. “The question is: Can society be kept under control while you go forward? That is the test.” That is indeed the test.

What is it that gives a party its legitimacy, its right to rule? What holds a nation together when its cradle faith, its founding ideology, has been abandoned by both elites and the people? That is China’s coming crisis.

With victory in the civil war with the Nationalists in 1949, Mao claimed to have liberated China from both Japanese imperialists and Western colonialists, and restored her dignity. “China has stood up!” he said.

His party’s claim to absolute power was rooted in what it had done, and also what it must do. Only a party with total power could lead a world revolution. Only an all-powerful party could abolish inequality in a way that made the French Revolution look like a rebellion at Berkeley.

Xi Jinping’s problem? The Cold War is over. China is herself in the capitalist camp, a member of the G-8, and inequality in the People’s Republic resembles that of America in the Gilded Age.

How does the Chinese Communist Party justify control of all of China’s institutions today — economic, political, military and cultural?

If Marxism is mocked behind closed doors by a new economic elite and tens of millions of Chinese young, what can cause the nation to continue to respect and obey a Communist Party and its leaders, besides the gun?

The answer of Europe in the 1930s is China’s answer today.

Nationalism, tribalism, patriotic war if necessary, will bring the masses back. If the Chinese nation is being insulted, if ancestral lands are occupied by foreigners as in olden times, the people will rally around a regime that stands up for China. Nationalism will keep Chinese society “under control while you go forward.”

Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe traces the aggressiveness of Beijing in the Senkaku Islands dispute to a “deeply ingrained” need to appeal to Chinese nationalism in the form of anti-Japanese sentiment dating to the Sino-Japanese War of 1937-1945.

Chinese nationalism, says Abe, is also behind China’s quarrels with Vietnam and other nations over islands of the South China Sea.

If Beijing is unable to deliver economic growth, “it will not be able to control the 1.3 billion people … under the one-party rule,” Abe told The Washington Post. He is now denying those quotes.

But China is not alone in stoking the flames of nationalism to maintain legitimacy.

Abe has himself taken a firm stand against China in the Senkakus and is moving rightward on patriotism, security and a defense of Japan’s history in the 20th century, and he is rising in the polls. The apologetic and pacifist Japan of yesterday is no more.

In Russia, a nation that saw its Orthodox faith ripped up by the roots by Josef Stalin, then saw its Marxist-Leninist ideology and a Communist Party that was its Vatican collapse, is searching to locate the ancient sources of Russian patriotism and nationhood. Vladimir Putin seeks to knit back together the empire of the Romanovs and revive the old church.

In the Muslim world, the secularism of Gamal Abdel Nasser and Saddam Hussein and Bashar Assad are yielding to forces that look all the way back to Muhammad and the Quran as infallible guides to politics, law and national greatness. The Sunni-Shia split recalls our Catholic-Protestant split in the time of Luther, Calvin, Henry VIII, the Council of Trent and the Thirty Years War.

Nor should America be smug about this search for legitimacy.

Our British-Protestant then European-Christian identity has gone the way of the Cheshire Cat. In the age of Obama, Jefferson’s Declaration and Madison’s Constitution are invoked to justify societal mandates that would have had the Founding Fathers loading muskets.

What is our guiding light now that the philosophical, cultural, religious and political roots of the old republic are being systematically severed?

What gives legitimacy to the American government? Elections, majority rule through universal suffrage of a people, ever-larger shares of whom are ignorant of the faith, culture and civilization whence we came?

If our economy should sink like Southern Europe’s, if the great god Progress no longer smiles upon us, what do we fall back on?

One day, Americans will begin to ask themselves such questions, if they have not already begun to do so.

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