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What Xi can learn from Tsar Nicholas


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China's stability is just an illusion
Michael Auslin

May 302023


For the next 30 years, until his death in 1855, Nicholas created the prototype of the modern police state. The infamous Third Section, the forerunner of secret police throughout the modern world, penetrated all levels of society. Nearly a quarter-century after the Decembrist revolt, Nicholas’s police crushed the reformist Petrashevsky Circle, comprised of lower officials and small landowners, including Fyodor Dostoevsky, cruelly waiting until the very last minute to commute the decreed death sentences to Siberian exile.

On the surface, Nicholas’s domination of Russian society seemed complete. Yet his iron grip had two fatal results. First, in the words of Ulam, “the stability and the power of the regime were bought at the price of neglecting the needed reforms and of leaving the Russian Empire incomparably farther behind Western Europe” at Nicholas’s death in 1825. As tragically demonstrated in the 1854-56 Crimean War, and then more devastatingly in the Great War that erupted in 1914, Russia could no longer match the national power of the Western capitalist-industrialist nations.

Second, Ulam concludes that Nicholas’s complete control over Russian society taught its intellectuals and elites the “dangerous lesson that everything in the last resort is dependent on politics”. Unwittingly, the autocracy itself prepared the ground for professional revolutionary parties and the socialism that ultimately overthrew the Romanovs.

Much like Russia nearly two centuries ago, the People’s Republic of China today seems impervious to reform or liberalism, riding waves of global upheaval such as the 2008 financial crisis and even Covid with little long-term threat to the ruling Chinese Communist Party. Indeed, over the past decade, hesitant reforms have been reversed and political oppression has increased, thanks to the increasingly personalised rule of Xi Jinping.


So, there is at least the chance that a post-Xi, post-Party China would not become more repressive and totalitarian, but less so. Democracy has been having a hard run of it lately around the globe and is far from attracting new acolytes, but in the condition of complete political and even social breakdown, the pull of self-determination would be a powerful one. By attempting to crush all heterodox thought, Xi Jinping may in fact help to ensure its survival. At least, we in the West can so hope.

Another possibility is an internal political oscillation from repression to comparative moderation, as happened when Khrushchev succeeded Stalin and Deng Xiaoping followed Mao. Xi could be succeeded by someone who relaxes some of his restrictions without in any way loosening the CCP’s grip. But there are risks in such an approach as well. In Russia, the autocrat Nicholas I was succeeded by the “Tsar Liberator” Alexander II, who freed the serfs only to fall victim to the terrorists of the “People’s Will” socialist revolutionary group. This in turn led to the reassertion of autocratic control under Alexander III and Nicholas II, and the final confrontation with revolutionary movements.

However, for now, there seems little threat to the CCP. Despite its corruption and inefficiencies, the Party continues to rule largely unopposed — watchful and often vengeful, but not fearing for its immediate future. Such was the tsarist system of Nicholas I. His success in staving off change helped ensure cataclysmic transformation just over a half-century after his death. The lessons for Xi Jinping could not be clearer.


Top Comment

I came across this quote by Borges the other day – “dictatorships breed idiocy”:
“One of the most vocal critics of Peronism was the Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges. After Perón ascended to the presidency in 1946, Borges spoke before the Argentine Society of Writers (SADE) by saying:
  Dictatorships breed oppression, dictatorships breed servility, dictatorships breed cruelty; more loathsome still is the fact that they breed idiocy. Bellboys babbling orders, portraits of caudillos, prearranged cheers or insults, walls covered with names, unanimous ceremonies, mere discipline usurping the place of clear thinking […] Fighting these sad monotonies is one of the duties of a writer. Need I remind readers of Martín Fierro or Don Segundo that individualism is an old Argentine virtue.”
They all self-destruct in the end. Simply a question of how long it takes. Xi Jinping will be no different.

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