Platt Perspective on Business and Technology

Donald Trump, Xi Jinping, and the contrasts of leadership in the 21st century 17: some thoughts concerning how Xi and Trump approach and seek to create lasting legacies to themselves 5

Posted in macroeconomics, social networking and business by Timothy Platt on May 14, 2019

This is my 17th installment in a progression of comparative postings about Donald Trump’s and Xi Jinping’s approaches to leadership per se. And it is my 11th installment in that on Trump and his rise to power in the United States, and on Xi and his in China, as they have both turned to authoritarian approaches and tools in their efforts to succeed there.

I focused on Xi Jinping and his story in Part 16 of this series progression, and on the first of two historically based narratives that I would argue fundamentally shape Xi’s image of the possible and the necessary for China, as he seeks to build his own personal legacy there as an historically significant leader in his own right.

That first narrative thread can be found in the history and the myth of the last hereditary dynasty to have ruled China: the Qing dynasty, and certainly as it held sway during its now recognized Golden Age as the Great Qing. This was a period of expansive reach and authority, when China as a whole reached one of its apex points of power, size and influence. And the other equally impactful narrative thread that I would cite here is one that in a fundamental sense came to a head during the reign of Mao Zedong as the founding leader of Chinese Communism and of the Peoples Republic of China as a nation.

The golden age of Qing greatness, and certainly as presented in its idealized form as outlined in Part 16, can be seen as representing a pattern that any modern leader of China with global ambitions would seek to emulate, and even hope to exceed. I briefly and I admit, very selectively outlined some of the defining-ideal features of this Great Qing myth (and something of its actual reality as well) there, as representing one half of the dynamic that drives Xi as he seeks to reach beyond his current self to become the center point of China’s next Golden Age mythos.

I also at least briefly began setting the stage for outlining what in many respects can be considered a model of dystopian possibilities there too, and of how China has both suffered from challenges faced, and risen above them. And that historically grounded narrative is one that I would argue has held at least as powerful an influence over Xi Jinping and his thoughts and actions as this positive image of Golden Age Qing greatness has.

My primary goal for this posting is to at least begin to outline and discuss this second side to the influence creating dynamic that I write of here. And as I noted at the end of Part 16, I will begin that at a turning point in history that arose during the same Qing dynasty that I have just written of in its Golden Age context. But for purposes of this narrative thread I begin in the 1830’s when the power and authority of that dynasty had already very significantly begun to wane. Some of the details that I will make explicit note of in what follows here, have direct counterparts in the China of more recent years, as have taken place under Chinese Communist rule, and I will at least briefly acknowledge that in order to highlight their relevance and as more than just details of academic historical note.

I wrote in Part 16 of the Kangxi Emperor, his son the Yongzheng Emperor, and his son the Qianlong Emperor, and of their collective reign as it lasted from 1661 through 1799 (counting five years at the end of that period when the Qianlong Emperor remained de facto ruler of China from when he formally stepped down from the Dragon Throne until his death. The China of 35 and 40 years after his death was very different than that of his lifetime, or that of his two immediate predecessors in power.

• The China of the Qing Golden Age was, as noted in Part 16, a nation of law and not just of men with most all legal and other matters adjudicated according to the Great Qing Legal Code. But the emperors who ruled over that China were directly involved, and they ruled through clearly defined lines of authority as validated from above, and ultimately from the Dragon Throne on down to local governmental levels. This system began to significantly break down in the years immediately following the death of the Qianlong Emperor and there were significant disconnects in what had been a more solidly dynastically, centrally controlled system of governance by the 1830’s and certainly by the end of that decade – just 41 years after the Qianlong’s death.
• This represented an at least damaging blow to the power and the longer-term prospects of the dynasty as a whole, and particularly given the way that local self-interest and the local accumulation of power outside of the Forbidden City (故宫) and throughout China at large, continued to expand and at the cost of the emperor losing both power and authority, and real understanding of the true state of his nation. The people who came to hold more significantly regional and local autonomy at the expense of the emperor, did not in general keep him or anyone directly reporting to him informed on what they were doing or how or why. And they did not share information regarding challenges faced and throughout China, as will prove important later in this posting.
• But this only represents one piece to a larger toxic puzzle. And I add a second piece to that here, noting that while it might sound unrelated to the first, these now-two puzzle pieces strongly interacted, and with a very damaging synergy. The overall population of China was dropping. The how and why of that are important, but I would set that narrative aside here, however interesting it is in its own right. Importantly for this narrative, that led to significant drops in the taxable revenue that government officials could collect as this population drop expanded out demographically to include Chinese citizens of working and peak working ages. This would have adversely affected the then sitting Qing emperors in place if tax revenues were following their expected, centrally mandated routes. But an increasingly locally autonomous, fissiparous bureaucracy with its increasing number of increasingly more and more independent local power centers, all took larger and larger amounts of what monies where going into government coffers for themselves, further bleeding and weakening the center.

I noted above, that I would draw points of comparison between the China of that era and the China of Mao’s time and of post-Mao China as well. And I will begin doing so with those two challenges. I have in fact been writing of local control and autonomy in China, as masked by proclaimed loyalty to and adherence to centrally controlled Party rule, for as long as I have been writing about China at all in this blog. See for example my 2010-2012 series: The China Conundrum and its Implications for International Cyber-Security (as can be found at Ubiquitous Computing and Communications – everywhere all the time, as postings 69 and loosely following there) for its discussion of China’s open “white” market, its “black” market and its vast “gray” market, each effectively supported by its own entire economy. Even a cursory study of rare earth minerals mining in China as discussed there, should suffice to justify my assertions as to the power disconnects that China still faces, where the vast majority of that globally impacting industrial effort has been black market and black economy in nature.

I have written of Mao’s Cultural Revolution and of his Great Leap Forward. And both of those ultimately self-destructive initiatives, and more of what he started and led as well, can in fact be seen as attempts on his part to assert centralized authority over a vast system that was if anything more disruptively disconnected from central control than could be found in the Qing dynasty and even at its ultimate weakest. And it was self-interest, plus fear on the part of more local rule that held China together under Mao’s rule, and certainly under the rule of his Party chairman successors.

That only notes one area of similarity between one fundamental problem that wracked the late Qing dynasty, and a more recent iteration of it that is fundamentally built into the current Peoples Republic of China of Mao’s days and of today as well. The Mao era and its more recent counterpart to my second, demographic implosion puzzle piece as drawn above from the late Qing era, is the stuff of nightmares for today’s China leadership. And it stems from their disastrously failed one-child policy, as I have written about in detail in earlier series here.

But those two puzzle pieces to understanding the late Qing and its downfall, only begin to address a larger set of issues that collectively made that dynasty’s failure essentially inevitable. I continue this narrative by citing one more out of many possible puzzle piece entries here that added to the toxic synergies that I noted above: climate change and environmental degradation.

• China can be roughly divided into two large regions as far as climate is concerned: its vast northern plateau and plains that tend to get too little rain even as they are a major source of food supplies for the national as a whole, and their vast southern reaches that tend, if anything to get way too much rain and certainly in their agricultural areas. Their North is always challenged with the possibilities of devastating droughts, and their South with floods from the overflowing of their many rivers. Good years, and even challenging years can yield good harvests – at least if those challenges are limited enough in scope so that irrigation in the North and flood control in the South can be made to work. But the decades of the late Qing were marked by climate challenges that could not be so controlled. And at least as importantly, very challenging problems began to emerge that could not be ignored or glossed over, coming from inefficient and even directly environmentally damaging farming practices in place, that in good climate years had reliably put food on China’s table, but with growing, accumulating damage consequences. And these agricultural practices as handed down from generation to generation from when China was more sparsely populated, began to more overtly fail as climate shifts continued and good farming years became rarer.
• I mentioned drops in both population and taxable revenue sources that might go towards government funding. Those changes in China’s circumstance and this are related. And modern China’s counterpart to that, and certainly where damage to it environment is concerned, is more extreme than anything faced by the Qing dynasty or any of its predecessors in power. The possibility of climate change and a sudden succession of years with significantly reduced agricultural crop yields is another nightmare for China’s current leadership as that, like the climate shifts of the late Qing, could push their country over the edge into unrest and societal instability. And with global warming as a general global issue facing every nation on every continent, this is a prospect that today’s China has to address, if it is to avoid the type and degree of decline that led from the end of its Qing Golden Age and to the end of the Qing dynasty itself.

I have only considered three pieces to a larger and more comprehensive puzzle here, and all of them have been China-sourced, arising for the most part from within the nation itself. That perspective, I would argue, largely applies to my climate change puzzle piece as offered here too. The fragility and instability built into China’s essential agricultural base and related critical infrastructure systems, leading up to and continuing during the years of the Qing dynasty, were all China-sourced; climate change per se that the late Qing faced was not endemically Chinese but their failure to in any way prepare for it or deal with it with any real overall national response was.

I am going to look outward past China’s borders in my next installment to this series where I will discuss challenges and resulting breakdowns in China and its rule, as coming from their contacts with the outside world. And after discussing how this played out in the late Qing, I will at least briefly outline some of the relevant history leading from the abdication of the last Qing emperor: Puyi in 1912, up through Mao’s rule as China’s first communist god incarnate. And I will reconsider both of these influence-defining historical patterns for how they shape modern China and its leadership and for both the positive aspirational possibilities they bring and for the cautionary notes they bring too.

Then I will more directly discuss Xi Jinping and his legacy aspirations. In anticipation of that, and with the issues arising from my here-noted historical puzzle pieces in mind, I will among other details discuss three recent developments in China as they enter into Xi’s own emerging puzzle:

• Xi’s campaign against crime, and particularly against crime that has a significant politically challenging element to it at that,
• Xi’s Little Yellow Book and his collected thoughts: his counterpart to Mao’s Little Red Book, and
• China’s new cult building and reinforcing, indoctrination as online game app: Study the Great Nation.

I will also, of course discuss his inwardly facing China rebuilding ambitions and his foreign policy-oriented Belt and Road Initiative too.

Meanwhile, you can find my Trump-related postings at Social Networking and Business 2. And you can find my China writings as appear in this blog at Macroeconomics and Business and its Page 2 continuation, and at Ubiquitous Computing and Communications – everywhere all the time and Social Networking and Business 2.

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