The philosopher David Hume wrote that: “Nothing appears more surprising to those, who consider human affairs with a philosophical eye, than the easiness with which the many are governed by the few; and the implicit submission, with which men resign their own sentiments and passions to those of their rulers. When we enquire by what means this wonder is effected, we shall find, that, as Force is always on the side of the governed, the governors have nothing to support them but opinion. It is therefore, on opinion only that government is founded; and this maxim extends to the most despotic and most military governments, as well as to the most free and most popular.” Said otherwise, even despotic dictators rule because the majority of the governed let them.
To generate that positive, or at least tolerant, opinion of the dictator - king - emperor, in order that is to control their populations, dictators throughout history have cloaked themselves in a blanket of legitimacy, both by establishing ornate rituals and processes, and in particular, by wrapping themselves in various founding myths of the people they rule. This is as true for Britains and Germans as it is for Celts, Hindus, Chinese, or Hutus.
As Joseph Campbell noted, one of the four functions of myth is to provide legitimacy to the current society and system. Dictators throughout history have known this, and have used it to hold on to power.
What does all that have to do with US relations with China and “Emperor” Xi?
This past week President Xi Jinping was given a new title: the “People’s Leader,” a title that, as the Wall Street Journal noted, brings up visions of Chairman Mao. Xi is now - in addition to having changed the Chinese constitution so that he is President for life - also the General Secretary of the Communist Party of China, Chairman of the Central Military Committee, and the “People’s Leader.”
For thousands of years kings around the world clothed themselves with the favors of the gods. Whether it was Amon Ra, Zeus, Ahura Mazda, or God the Father, kings for thousands of years have been quick to claim that they had been chosen by the gods, or the God; that they had the favor of heaven. Whatever they might call it, kings and emperors for 6 millennia have used this claim to justify all sorts of behavior (consider Henry VIII). So it is with the People’s Leader.
Meanwhile, in the last few weeks several editorials in the Chinese press have asserted that recent claims by various Western news organizations of Chinese concentration camps have been made without any evidence, and that indeed there can be no evidence as the camps don’t exist.
Which would be a great point to make, if it were true.
Unfortunately, for the thousands of Uighurs in those camps, the reports are true. The BBC, not exactly a bastion of hard-line anti-Communist China reporters, published a quite complete story on the camps just a year ago, complete with satellite imagery of the empty spot (as of 2015) in the desert near Dabancheng, in north-west China, that by 2018 was the site of large prison camp, what the guards called a “re-education camp.” The facility at Dabancheng is just one a number of large camps throughout western China. Analysis of commercially available imagery has revealed 44 such sites in Western China, each capable of holding thousands of people.
To give an appreciation of the number of people that might be held, one estimate of Dabanchang suggested it alone contained more than 100,000 people, and that many of the others were capable of holding more than 10,000 people each.
Uighurs who’ve fled China have been interviewed and their stories are all essentially the same: confinement, forced re-education (renunciation of their religion), physical abuse, families forcibly separated, etc.
How many total are being held in these camps is unknown, but estimates based the sizes of the camps and the interviews with Uighurs and others who’ve seen and in some cases been in the camps, suggest that the number may well exceed 1 million.
Meanwhile, the Chinese government continues to implicitly support North Korea, continue to oppress North Koreans who have fled into China, continues to suppress the Falun Gong, continues to squeeze the citizens of Hong Kong, continues its occupation of Tibet, continues to steal intellectual property from all around the globe, continues to manufacture and ship fentanyl to the Western World, continues to flout international law and international convention on the high seas, continues to threaten any and all who believe in the rule of law on those high seas, continues to engage in predatory business practices that are anything but free trade, and on and on.
US interests suggest that we maintain careful relations with China, much as we did with other dictators and oppressive regimes in the past - the Soviet Union for 74 years, and Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy, and Japan prior to World War II.
But as we do so, we should begin by cleansing ourselves of our delusions: Communist China is an exceptionally repressive regime.
Which brings us to Livy; Roman historian Titus Livy, who recorded many of the great founding myths of Rome, observed that: “[he] may not have believed the myths of Rome, but he believed in them.”
As long as the Chinese public opinion supports the rule of the Communist Party and Xi Jinping, and as long as, to use the phrase, he and the party retain the mandate of heaven, China will continue to be ruled by a repressive regime. Myth - and public opinion inside China - remain on Xi’s side. And Emperor Xi continues to exploit that fact.