A History of the Future, part 4

The People’s Republic of China

China did not overtake America in the 21st century; nor did it abandon Maoism, at least in name. The liberalising, Westernising tendencies of the early decades ended with the New Depression of the 2020s, after which popular pressure forced the regime to adopt more socialist policies. This change in emphasis was explained as a third stage of socialism – where Mao had fought off imperialism, and Deng had combated stagnation, the new rulers, taking their lead from Hu Jintao’s ‘Scientific Development Concept’, realised they had to bring about social harmony. This meant dealing with inequalities of wealth, and, integrally, with corruption both private and public.

The Maoist route to harmony was based on the principle ‘rivalry within, unity without’ – a strong, authoritarian and unified state that not only permitted but sponsored many forms of competition within itself, so long as that competition never threatened the State as a whole. This principle could be seen in commerce, finance, media, and politics. In commerce, free competition was encouraged – but only under the strict directional control of the State, expressed through total control of capital. In finance, the banks that lent money to businesses were all state-owned, but there was a great plurality of them, from local to national levels, all encouraged to compete among each other subject to policy guidance. The analogy was to a ship: the captain sets the destination, the helmsman steers the course. The responsible behaviour of private business was further enforced by demanding that the majority of wages for high officials be in the form of conditional pension payments: if a company collapsed after a CEO left, the CEO would be left with hardly any pension. As a result, CEOs were forced to act sustainably, and to hand-pick appropriate successors. In the media, meanwhile, steps were taken to ‘mobilise the eyes of the people’ in popular journalism, in which criticism of officials was encouraged but criticism of policy was forbidden – the intention being to root out corruption, from the sexual misdemeanours of a local party boss to the embezzlement of millions by regional leaders. Journalists who succeeded in proving corruption were handsomely rewarded as famous heroes of the state. In politics, although ideology was enforced, democracy was increasingly allowed within the party to provide oversight and scrutiny, legal structures became more independent, and considerable power was devolved to the regions. The system was generally popular, and described to the outside world as a constitutional monarchy, except that the ‘monarch’ was selected on merit rather than by birth.

As a result, China did not grow particularly quickly during the century, but it did grow steadily, and with lessening inequality. The political trends were accentuated in response to the Long Winter. To inure themselves from criticism, the leadership increasingly avoided direct responsibility for policy, preferring to blame regional and local officials. Around this time, ideology changed focus to a new, ‘fourth stage’ of Maoism: after the removal of imperial feudalism, the promotion of economic growth, and the establishment of social harmony, what was need now was cultural unity. Only then could the revolution be safeguarded in perpetuity. Increasingly, the hierarchy focused itself upon ideological and cultural matters, setting the tools of Western consumerism toward the goal of Maoist-Confucian virtue: perfect faces still beamed down from giant billboards, only now they were faces of reformers, journalists, sportsmen, artists, all of whom typified in their public and private lives (if indeed the two could be distinguished at all) the virtues the State approved of – in theory, the ‘Eight Honours and Disgraces’ of Hu Jintao, but in practice a broader platform of ‘corrected Confucianism’. Morality would now be imposed by the state: forced re-education camps and internal exile awaited dissidents and corrupting influences. Yet the State was not naive about the extent of its powers: it preferred symbolic, educational gestures and a light touch, rather than attempting to bring about utopia. For instance, crimes like pre-marital sex and public intoxication were not punished directly – but so-called ethical crimes would have to be listed in job applications, and questions would be asked of those who did not employ the most virtuous candidate.

In consequence, China in the early 22nd century had much in common with medieval Europe, with the Paramount Leader as the Chinese Pope, superior to, yet aloof from, a gaggle of regional political leaders. The Leader issued proclamations of a generally moral and ideological character, and enforced orthodoxy through what was essentially a ‘Maoist Inquisition’, but let mundane matters fall to the Prefectural rulers, among whom he would adjudicate when disputes arose.

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