Chaos is the fear lurking in every Chinese ruler’s heart, shaping every policy. Every half a century or so, the world’s greatest, oldest united civilisation falls into revolution and dissolution. In Peking they eye the calendar nervously.
China astounds us: an empire and civilisation which have stood since the days of Alexander’s successors. Even before the First Emperor drew the warring states together, China had unity of concept and a desire to bring together all-under-heaven, and to end the constant bloodshed. which remains a theme of Chinese stories.
Rome rose and fell just in the space of the Chinese Empire’s adolescence. The West cannot conceive of the space of time: Alexander’s civilisation fell, Rome fell, and Byzantium; and the empires of the Arabs and Turks; feudal Europe grew to magnificence then passed away; kingdoms and caliphates came and went in Europe and Asia, and in the modern era two British Empires took western civilisation to an unequalled peak spreading across the world, but it passed away. In all this time China stood and still stands.
Even when all China was overwhelmed by the Mongols, the civilisation remained undimmed and Kubilai Khan ruled as a Chinese Emperor, crowned as Son of Heaven, of the Yuan Dynasty.
The millennia have not passed quietly. The First Emperor created order by ruthlessness. The moment his hand was lifted, there was civil war, and this lesson has been lost on none of his successors. Emperors lost their thrones, whole dynasties collapsed is succession, and with a history so long, it is a long succession. It should be no surprise: China is practically a continent of itself, impossible to rule well and a prize for any ambitious adventurer.
In between, there is chaos whenever warlords from the provinces grow strong and bridle against their subjection to a distant throne.
The shadow over the Chinese Communist Party is the Warlord Era which consumed the first half of the twentieth century after the enfeebled Empire had been overthrown. The land was swallowed in chaos and blood for decades, and allowed the Japanese to occupy much of the country. It only truly ended with the victory of the last, most brutal warlord: Mao. Mao then drenched the country in blood again, but he is not condemned, for his was orderly massacre, and disorder is the enemy.
In this context the behaviour of Peking is comprehensible – brutal, but comprehensible. Dissent in the provinces must never arise, because the result is civil war. The unity of Chinese civilisation has been an unwavering principle since the First Emperor, so that the idea of independence for Taiwan or Hong Kong is not just unwelcome but impossible.
If there is any memory of communism left in the Chinese Communist Party, they may think of Marx’s idea of ‘historical inevitability’, and Chinese history leads in cycles of chaos. The next one is overdue by past standards, and rebellion against the current tyranny may burst forth at any moment, if it is not suppressed. In this context it is possible to see why the Chinese government does not hesitate to unleash genocide against a race of its own people, the Turks of Sinkiang – the Uighurs as outsiders have labelled them- and genocide it certainly is. Do not expect Xi to be apologetic about it. He might even think it a minor matter compared with the Cultural Revolution. The need to hold back the dark will justify in his eyes all acts.
The calendar pages turn. The wisest in the West know there is no such thing as historical inevitability, but the superstition remains, and the Chinese are very superstitious.