As some of the figures profiled in The Chinese Communist Party show, China does have a long historical tradition of humanism and reform, which the party has now silenced. As Xi recently warned, “All the work by the party’s media must reflect the party’s will, safeguard the party’s authority, and safeguard the party’s unity. They must love the party, protect the party, and closely align themselves with the party leadership in thought, politics and action.”
Although Shambaugh observes that “Xi Jinping has unleashed a sustained reign of repression and comprehensive controls on China not seen since the Maoist era,” Dickson urges observers not to let Beijing’s repression cloud the ways in which the party has been responsive. “There is no question that the CCP uses repression against its perceived enemies,” he admits. But, he notes, “it also uses other tools to create popular support: rising prosperity, national pride, even responsiveness to public opinion to varying degrees.” The editors of The Chinese Communist Party, for their part, counsel that because “the Party is dangerous to provoke,” others must do “everything possible to keep China from becoming an implacable enemy.” That may be true, but unless such efforts are reciprocal, they have little prospect of success.
These scholarly books leave the reader with respect for China’s material progress but also a deep sense of alarm over the confrontational authoritarian gear into which Xi has now shifted his country. His imperial reign raises a question that hovers over each of these works: Can China continue to cohere and progress without a humanistic moral core? Lacking that crucial ingredient, China has become a giant social science experiment. Perhaps the CCP has managed to perfect an entirely new model of development that does not require such quaint values as freedom, justice, and liberty. But modern history suggests that the absence of these elements can imperil a country. Think of fascist Italy and Germany, imperial Japan, Francoist Spain, theocratic Iran, and the Soviet Union.