The Chinese system of government looks orderly and rational: The leaders are elected meritocratically so that the best qualified get selected. They cannot be too old and cannot be in office beyond a limited time. They govern collectively.

But is that the reality? I’m reading Tom Holland’s DYNASTY, about Rome after Caesar. I see many similarities between Rome then and Beijing now.

Rome was ruled, indeed owned, by a tiny aristocracy of sons of notables. China is ruled, indeed owned, by a tiny aristocracy of princelings. In both systems, the members of the aristocracy enrich themselves on the back of the state. In both systems, it is made to look as if the leaders are elected by their fellow aristocrats, while in reality they emerge through ruthless power games in which some pretenders perish and others float to the top.

If Mao was Caesar, Xi is Augustus. Like Augustus, he has brought order to the empire. Augustus was the master showman, a ruthless dictator who disguised himself as the benevolent father of the nation. As now in China, he purchased legitimacy by distributing rewards to followers and the populous. He pretended that Rome was still a republic and that he was only the first among citizens, and he played what he called “the game of life” so well that he was believed.

And Xi? He pretends to have been elected, while in reality it was his alliance with the military that clinched it for him. He pretends to be the first among equals in a collective leadership, while in reality he has gathered all the reins of power in his own hands. He pretends to be a humble man while having a person-cult whipped up around himself.

Under Augustus’s leadership, the world, and the Romans, thought Rome had found the secret of orderly rule. Now, much of the world thinks the same about China under Xi.

To which the reply must be: learn for history and be sceptical.

In Rome, Augustus’s order disintegrated catastrophically with his followers, including Caligula and Nero. Where China is heading we cannot know, but we should at least know that we do not know. Perhaps they have found the secret, at least for a while, but history tells us to be sceptical.

The party-state is a dictatorship in which, as in all dictatorships, the battle over and for power is constant, endemic and never-ending. The anti-corruption campaign is in part a war against enemies inside the regime. There are ever stronger rumors of plots against the clique that happens to hold power. It’s Rome all over again. As in any dictatorship, the ugly reality can burst through the pretty pretense at any time.


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