Mr. Science, Meet Mr. Stability

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Today is a grand anniversary for the Communist Party of China. You will read many things about its meaning and significance. In the eyes of Party members themselves, I suspect one particular fact will stand out: this is the year the Communist Party of China outlasts the Communist Party of the Soviet Union.

In the current Communist quest for survival there is a tension between competing priorities that did not exist (or rather, were not acknowledged) in the Maoist era. Understanding this tension is fundamental to interpreting why China’s leadership does what it does.

In 1949 the leaders of the Party made a strategic choice to seal their country off from the world. This was not quite how the Party leadership conceptualized what they were doing; expelling all foreign influence was but one of several radical restructurings of old China. It was done piece-meal, one life-rending decision at a time, with little reference to any over-arching plan. In the early days some places, newly flooded with Soviet advisors, actually had increased contact with the outer globe. But the Soviets were soon kicked out themselves, and by the late 1960s all the Chinese masses learned of the broader world was mediated by the Party’s propaganda machine.[1]

If the goal was ideological purity and internal control, this worked well enough. But the Chinese have always had grander ambitions than that. The Party’s quest for revolutionary purity derailed China’s quest for national glory. This would change. Thirst for glory was soon paired with fear of falling behind. A recent twitter thread by Zhang Chenchen describes how the second problem has been reduced to a school room catechism:

Thinking about how history is taught in China. We learn the destruction of Yuanming Yuan (old summer palace) by British and French forces, the occupation of Beijing by the Eight-Nation Alliance, concessions and territorial loss, massacres. Then what is repeatedly taught is “the backwards will be beaten” (落后就要挨打), taken as one of the important historical lessons. Because that’s what the ‘century of humiliation’ showed us, it’s framed as an inescapable logic: “就要”, the backwards will surely be beaten.

But we were not told that it was wrong.[2]

They are not taught it was wrong because most Chinese do not believe powerful countries picking on small countries is wrong. It just is. Talk with Chinese intellectuals today and be transported to the Europe of the 1890s! Current attitudes in Beijing (to say nothing of Chongqing) towards the volk, the underclasses, democracy, technology, progress, national honor and the purpose of military power would not be out of place in Wilhelmine Germany. There are exceptions and dissenters, of course, but that was true of pre-war Europe as well.[3] 

In Party circles the fear of being left behind took special valence in the late 1970s. Historians have focused on Deng Xiaoping’s 1975 trip to France as a crucial step here. Deng had lived in France in the 1920s; he was stunned by how much France had changed in the meantime. This tour—and a few others made by other leading officials in the late ’70s and early ’80s shocked Beijing out of complacency. Distracted by internal conflict and buoyed by successful resistance to the American and Soviet super-powers, Communist leadership had no idea just far China had fallen behind. [4]

You know the story that comes next: it has been told many times, and by scholars more talented than myself. What I want to draw out from this history is the conviction—in this case one shared by most of Chinese society—that China must secure itself on the bleeding edge of science or see the country perish. Technology is the sole and only shining path towards national safety and security.

This is not a new idea. In the 19th century, Chinese military leaders shifted blame for their defeats onto the gap between Western and Chinese military technology. The early 20th century reformers famously called for Chinese to turn their back on “Mr. Confucius” and find national salvation in “Mr. Science” and “Mr. Democracy.” Current leaders of the CPC are less enamored with Mr. Democracy than its founders were, but remain a fan of Mr. Science.[5] One might say their regime sees national power as resting on the shoulders of Mr. Science and Mr. Stability.

But the prerogatives of Mr. Science and Mr. Stability differ. There is a dangerous tension between the two. Science, high technology, and economic growth mean exposure to the world and its contagions. It means sending millions of Chinese abroad every year. It means allowing millions of foreigners to live inside China itself. It means the exchange of ideas and information unmediated by the Party.

All of that is dangerous.

But then again, so is falling behind.

There are different ways to try and resolve this tension. Around 2008 or so the Party recognized that the scale between openness and control had tipped too far towards the former. Many of their policies since then have been a repeat of old 1950s tactics of division and control, just with more selective targeting.[4] Here Mr. Science has played his part: 21st century technology has allowed the Communists to selectively terrorize and censor without provoking national hysteria or instability.

But that is only half the problem. In the Mao days the Communists could defend against ideological contagion through a policy of strict quarantine. The Great Firewall, re-education camps, and the like are more targeted version of the same strategy.  But this is insufficient in world where millions of Chinese leave the borders of the PRC every year. That flow cannot be cut off. Those millions must leave, or China risks falling behind. Complete quarantine means dangerous stagnation.

The Party’s solution has been to deal with these ideological threats at the source. They cannot keep Chinese out of the world, so they will use violence, surveillance, blackmail, and bribery to shape the world these Chinese travel to. Thus the concerns we hear over “influence,” “interference,” and “united front” activities.

For these reasons I doubt a long-lasting accommodation between Washington and Beijing is feasible. You will occasionally hear calls to divvy the Pacific up between the two new super-powers, each with their own special sphere of influence. If the problems between the two powers were geopolitical, that might work. But what if they are not? What if the Party is just as concerned with ideological security as it is with geopolitical heft?

Propping up Beijing’s sense of ideological security might be possible. But until there is an honest statement of the costs involved with that course, talk of “grand bargains” and “spheres of influence” is wasted breath.

If you found this reflection on Chinese history and politics worth reading, you might also find the posts “Two Case Studies in Communist Insecurity,” and “Reflections on China’s Stalinist Heritage, Parts I and II” of interest. To get updates on new posts published at the Scholar’s Stage, you can join the Scholar’s Stage mailing list, follow my twitter feed, or support my writing through Patreon. Your support makes this blog possible.

[1] John Garver, China’s Quest: The History of the Foreign Relations of the People’s Republic of China (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016), 29-59; Frank Dikotter, The Tragedy of Liberation (London: Bloomsbury Press, 2013), 103-128.

[2] Zhang Chenchen, twitter thread, 28 September, accessed here: 

[3] The other analogy worth pondering, more offensive to Chinese ears but useful nonetheless, is post Meiji Japan. Considering the two cases quickly pops the Economist‘s view of the world: Japanese aggression in the ’30s was seen by Japanese leaders as essentially defensive in nature, designed to safeguard industrial resources Japan would need if it had any hope of surviving a show-down with the Soviet Union.

[4] For a summary of the entire period, see John Garver, China’s Quest, 349-383.

[5] The Communists have not repudiated democracy. They have simply reinterpreted it to mean something very different from the earlier understanding. See my discussion in “Where is the Communism in the Chinese Communist Party,Scholar’s Stage (29 December 2018).

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I think that whatever the Party does, trying to turn the Western countries where most Chinese go and study or live into the sort of place where you won't hear things the party doesn't like is unfeasible. They can't control the media in the West, and much of what it says about them won't be positive. Even they must see that.

On the other hand, the power of the mixture of propaganda, pride, resentment and "us vs. them" mentality towards the West that most Chinese grow up with is such that most of them won't change their mindsets just because they have lived abroad for a few years. A few of them will, but that cannot be helped. In general though, loyalties don't shift. It isn't a perfect arrangement from the Party's perspective, but for now it works.

As for the "millions" of foreigners living in China, where do you see them? There isn't even a million throughout the country, and they are decreasing too! I think this is one area where ideological control and stability come before economic considerations. In any case having foreigners live in the country isn't exactly essential for its development, although it would help.

Why do you imply that China is backward in its thinking when it comes to great power geopolitics by comparing it to Wilhelmine Germany and 1890s Europe? The West may think it has learned lessons in the last one hundred years, that it has 'progressed' since then but perhaps the Chinese know better, they have a more realistic assessment of Western Civilization and know from hard experience The Barbarians never learn? the Chinese are a bit more skeptical and realistic when it comes to these matters surely, learning from its own experience with The West and having looked at the recent experience of the Afghans, the Iraqis, the Libyans, the Hondurans and the Panamanians (and now the Iranians, Russians and North Koreans) and see the geopolitical games Uncle Sam has played in the name of 'freedom' and 'democracy' and not like it one bit? Therefore preparation is called for, i.e. 富国強兵, building a rich China with a strong army … that the world, but let's face it, mainly the USA, is constantly whining and complaining about.

Why should there be an accommodation between Washington and Beijing? The West, like all Barbarian nations starting with Chiyou 蚩尤 vs The Yellow Emperor and onwards with Huns, Xianbei, Turks, Khitans, Jurchen, Mongols, Japanese, Manchus, etc, etc … have always vexed China, have always attacked China, have always robbed China, have always burned its cities and palaces, have always massacred its people and have always wished to contain China with the latest development being Obama's Pivot to Asia and the failed TPP Treaty and now Trump's Trade War.

There's nothing new under the sun when it comes to Han Chinese and Barbarian relations. It's as if Barbarians exist for the sole reason to test China and to challenge Chinese Civilization. China has survived, endured and will continue to do so when The West collapses and is consigned to the dustbin of history, like Chiyou, Huns, Turks, etc, etc.


"富国強兵" was also the slogan that inspired Japan into its own imperial trajectory. See my footnote above.

I did not judge the Chinese as worse or better for having a late 19th century world view. I only note that they do have those views–and on many different fronts. Some conservatives wish more Americans thought in 19th century terms. But then again, some conservatives now wish Americans thought in 12th century terms. It would be interesting to imagine a 21st century China whose leaders think like Ming or Tang leaders did.

Tangentially, it is funny to see a narrative that casts "China" as a 3,000 year victim. No responsibility for its wars, no aggression there! Please. It was not barbarian attack that led to death of the men and women of 大宛.

@Ji Xiang– Last I checked, 20 million tourists visit China every year:

" Even they must see that."

–They don't need to control all media. Just the Chinese language stuff. Chinese self segregate abroad. They already control Wechat, the main news portal for most Chinese. After that it is just a matter of becoming aware of other venues for speech and assembly and slowly pressuring them out of existence. Much easier than it seems.

I hate to sound like I'm knit picking, but you did talk about foreigners "living in China" in your post. In any case, the number of foreign tourists who visit China is also surprisingly small for a country so vast. Turkey gets a lot more foreign visitors than China in a year. I wrote a blog post about this topic if you're interested:

The reason for the lack of foreign visitors is basically that the Chinese authorities are doing nothing to make it easier for them to come. Tourist visas are more and more trouble to obtain, about half of hotels don't take foreigners, everything is paid for through WeChat and Alipay, which usually only take Chinese bank accounts etc…. It's almost like they don't want foreign tourists in China, or think that controlling them and monitoring them is more important than making them feel welcome.

大宛 is a rather minor and obscure conflict man, but nice try with scrapping the bottom of the barrel there!

And how can most Chinese not think in 19th century terms when the West is determined to initiate a neo-Cold War against China? And do you blame China for being weary when it comes to The West, what with a history of non-stop aggression against China starting with Jesuit infiltration and subversion during the late Ming, the Opium Wars, Unequal Treaties and Boxer Wars during the Qing? The Chinese would be exceedingly foolish to let their guard down when it comes to The West now wouldn't it?

And frankly I think the Chinese leadership of the 21st century does have the mentality of the Ming and Tang, … China is the sun and those around it orbit China's shadow. How can they not? these nations and countries are not China's equal and never have been, with the likes of Japan and Korea and Vietnam having cultures derivative of Chinese civilization, Mongolia, the Uighurs, Tibet would be under Russian and India domination without China's protection, and South East Asia / South China Sea / Australia / Pacific are clearly within China's sphere of influence just like Latin America and Caribean are within Uncle Sam's 'jurisdiction'.

China's Tributary System ensured centuries of peace before this current Westphalian System wouldn't you agree ??


"China's Tributary System ensured centuries of peace "

it didn't. China was constantly fighting wars with its neighbors..

"frankly I think the Chinese leadership of the 21st century does have the mentality of the Ming and Tang"

There are many things about modern China that would not make sense to Tang Gaozu. Words like "zhonghua minzu." 19th century Germans would understand this term very well. No one in the Tang would get it.

"And how can most Chinese not think in 19th century terms when the West is determined to initiate a neo-Cold War against China?"

Ah, but see the contradiction there. The cold war was a 20th century, not 19th century thing.

"Jesuit infiltration and subversion "

I originally thought this was a joke. Alas, on second read I realize you are serious.

"大宛 is a rather minor and obscure"

It was one battle in a century long war–a war that Han Wudi started and did not need to be waged. The first of many such wars in Chinese history.

Please don't bother leaving any more replies. I try to keep comment quality high here, and yours are barely distinguishable from the satire version of the fenqing. The world is bigger than the victim narrative you are wedded to–bigger and more interesting.

Ji Xiang-

An interesting post!


"The reason for the lack of foreign visitors is basically that the Chinese authorities are doing nothing to make it easier for them to come. Tourist visas are more and more trouble to obtain, about half of hotels don't take foreigners, everything is paid for through WeChat and Alipay, which usually only take Chinese bank accounts etc…. It's almost like they don't want foreign tourists in China, or think that controlling them and monitoring them is more important than making them feel welcome."

is largely right, IMHO, but a newer development. There is a sliding scale of openness, and I think the Party has clearly decided that China has been too open for its own good.

"This is the year the Communist Party of China outlasts the Communist Party of the Soviet Union"

Communist Party of China was founded 23 July 1921 (98 years ago)
Communist Party of the Soviet Union was founded January 1912 (107 years ago)