What it does face, however, is enormous, inchoate rural unrest. The dark side of China’s economic rise has been a shocking widening of the gulf between the prosperous coast and the poverty-stricken interior, a flourishing of corruption among local officials and, by such data as we can gather, widespread anger and discontent. The government has acknowledged tens of thousands of yearly “mass incidents,” which can range anywhere from a handful of elderly widows protesting a corrupt real estate grab to communities in open revolt (like the southern village of Wukan) to murderous ethnic rioting, as occurred in the last few years in western Xinjiang Province and in Inner Mongolia.
In that sense, it is instead the Taiping Rebellion, which nearly toppled the Qing Dynasty 50 years earlier, that bears the strongest warnings for the current government. The revolt, which claimed at least 20 million lives before it was quelled, making it the bloodiest civil war in history, suggests caution for those who hope for a popular uprising — a Chinese Spring — today.
The Taiping Rebellion exploded out of southern China during the early 1850s in a period marked, as now, by economic dislocation, corruption and a moral vacuum. Rural poverty abounded; local officials were wildly corrupt; the Beijing government was so distant as to barely seem to exist. The uprising was triggered by bloody ethnic feuds between Cantonese-speaking Chinese and the minority Hakkas, a sub-ethnic Chinese group, over land rights. Many Hakkas had joined a growing religious cult built around a visionary named Hong Xiuquan, who believed himself to be the younger brother of Jesus Christ. When local Qing officials took the side of the Chinese farmers, they provoked the Hakkas — and their religious sect — to take up arms and turn against the government.