24 October 2017

The Tacitus Trap

Western news media are reporting the decision by the Chinese Communist Party congress to incorporate "Xi Jinping Thought" into the country's constitution as akin to declaring a personality cult. According to the state news agency, however, it is almost routine to canonize a paramount leader's guiding principles into the fundamental law. It's not the sort of thing we'd do in the U.S., but it doesn't mean that Xi is another Mao, either. The thing I actually found interesting about the congress and the attendant hoopla was that, for all that Xi and his colleagues are committed to the "sinicization" of socialism, or molding Marx and Lenin's ideas to the contours of Chinese culture, their thinkers seem to be significantly influenced by at least one western thinker. Since the Chinese famously take the long view of things, they've looked back to the work of Publius Cornelius Tacitus, the historian of first-century CE Rome.

From Tacitus Chinese political scientists derive the concept of the "Tacitus Trap," against which Xi is trying to immunize the Communist Party.  The Tacitus Trap is a kind of tipping point, past which a government or its leaders, through corruption, dishonesty, lack of transparency etc., loses credibility so irretrievably that people won't believe them when they're actually telling the truth or doing the right thing. This preoccupation with Tacitus probably derives from China's long struggle with corruption since Deng Xiaoping liberalized the economy. Western observers, I suspect, don't take China's anti-corruption efforts too seriously. Since Leninist regimes in general fell into the Tacitus Trap long ago, westerners tend to assume that if a Communist party leader is accused of corruption, it's most likely only because he or she is a political opponent of a ruling clique that is most likely just as corrupt. While that explanation probably can't be ruled out, we probably shouldn't underestimate the seriousness with which the Chinese Communists take the corruption issue as part of their effort to present their style of government as a practical alternative to a western liberal democratic model that has fallen into a Tacitus Trap of its own, sprung by partisanship.

That the Chinese now actively promote their system as an alternative model suggests that they believe, as do many western liberal democrats, that certain types of government will be inherently hostile toward them, or inherently unstable on the geopolitical stage. The Chinese most likely would rather deal with authoritarian regimes on the assumption that they'll have consistent, predictable foreign policies, presumably based more on realist notions of national interest than on ideological agendas. The western contention, of course, is that authoritarian regimes are inherently unstable because they provide no check on a leader's ambitions while inevitably generating resistance tending toward civil war by suppressing dissent. Reality occupies a middle ground between these positions. China's concern with the Tacitus Trap indicates that the Communist Party does worry about losing the confidence of its people. The question for the future of China is whether they maintain (or regain) that confidence through a greater emphasis on transparency and honest government, or through the more typical Leninist method of conditioning people to trust the Party no matter what.

1 comment:

Bill Fry the Googly Eyed Guy said...

Dude, that's so gay - it made my balls retreat so far inside me they're up in my throat - you know how that feels, to have balls in your throat, right? That's a rhetorical question. But yeah, I don't like balls in MY throat though.