America and China have contrasting systems, but understanding the history of the Asian giant is a prerequisite to dealing effectively with the People’s Republic

When Mao Zedong seized state power in October 1949, the Chinese were looking forward to liberation in more ways than one. The Chinese Communist Party was the embodiment of ethnic Han Chinese aspirations, and the Han was neither going to tolerate domination by any other nationality nor any secessionist tendencies among them. Aisin Gioro Pu Yi, China’s last emperor and a Manchu, was found guilty of agreeing to be head of Manchukuo, the Japanese puppet state set up in his native Manchuria during the Second World War. So Manchuria was a trouble-spot. It was split into three provinces as punishment. When Tibet emerged as another trouble-spot, it was also split into separate provinces.

This was over and above the official policy of settling the Han in provinces populated by suspect and recalcitrant nationalities in order to ensure Han preponderance in the country. Interestingly, though China prides itself as a federation of nationalities and not of territories, seldom has a non-Han risen to a position of eminence in the ruling Communist Party and, by extension, in the state.

Before Beijing fell to Mao, China was governed by warlords. After 1949, the warlord system continued, but in the form of powerful communist district and state secretaries. Only that this time it was more dangerous: the Chinese were now in the iron-grip of CPC bodies like the Politburo and the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC). It was a two-way relationship between the Communist Party bosses and the party rank and file: the state and district secretaries received legitimacy from Beijing, and the bosses depended on the muscle and money these lower-level party functionaries provided. A perfect arrangement created by Mao and Premier Zhou Enlai that went by the name of party-state. Their successors in the party kept the system going, only the incumbents changed.

China has never been democratic: its journey from empire to warlord state to “people’s democratic dictatorship” was not only turbulent but was based on a firm rejection of western ideals and political philosophies. Sadly, despite repudiation of Mao and Maoism by his successors in the party and the state, Chinese society continue to be governed in a totalitarian fashion. Ranging from state interference in conjugal decisions to forcible acquisition of agricultural land for industry, the government in Beijing had always tried to control the lives of ordinary citizens in ways that even the emperors never did.

Persecution of traditional religious authorities is usual under communist regimes but not like what happened in the People’s Republic of China. Claiming that Roman Catholics in the country were loyal to a foreign potentate (the Pope) and not to the government, the Communist Party of China made an audacious and unprecedented move in 1957: it engineered a split in the Roman Catholic Church and launched the Patriotic Catholic Church (also known as the Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association) to ensure that Catholics in China thenceforth professed allegiance to Beijing and not to the Vatican. In a bizarre system within the so-called Patriotic Catholic Church, all its priests are still ordained by the Communist Party of China. Needless to add, the Vatican does not recognize this church and its clerics.

This happened almost at the same time that the Chinese government was hounding Tibetan Buddhist monks, forcing the Dalai Lama to flee to India. Much to the consternation of the Tibetan religio-political establishment headquartered in India at present, the Chinese government has already declared its intention to meddle in the selection of the future Dalai Lama. “Re-education” of Uyghur Muslims is a continuation of this despicable Chinese tradition.

Across the seas in America, it is a different story altogether. Though American culture grew from English customs and values as modified in the New World, it was never forced on anyone; in fact, Americanization was a spontaneous process that happened over generations and helped assimilate immigrants.

American party bosses are indeed powerful individuals who run their party machines at the state and local levels, but they owe their power to neither their religion nor their ethnicity but to their capacity to strike deals and form workable electoral coalitions between various groups within their jurisdictions. They are also very much subject to civil society interventions in the form of the church (for Republicans) and labour unions (for Democrats).

In America, industry was never meant to supplement agriculture; in fact, agriculture is itself an industry in the United States. As for religion, though America’s Christian ethos is undeniable, governments in the United States have never tried to determine the modes of worship of their citizens.

American political parties are perfectly democratic institutions. Primaries and caucuses are held not only to nominate candidates for President and Vice-President of the United States, but for every public office that goes for election; in America, democracy means democracy “from below”. The state and national nominating conventions are huge democratic exercises to elicit the opinions of party functionaries in each of the fifty states; there is no centralized authority within either of the two major parties to impose its will on the party rank-and-file.

More importantly, the governmental system is such that there is a possibility of the President’s party ending up as a minority in Congress. If the House Speaker belongs to the “other party”, he/she can paralyze the government in the event of a confrontation with the President, something even a Leader of the Opposition in a parliamentary system cannot do. Arthur M. Schlesinger may have talked about an “imperial presidency”, but no American President has ever become emperor.

All said and done, it is of utmost importance that Americans remember modern and contemporary Chinese history while they deal with the People’s Republic. China is a unique country which has had no democratic tradition, nor has it ever tried to be democratic. Socialist market economy has neither made Chinese society liberal nor ushered in multi-party democracy. In fact, to the dismay of western liberal democracies, China has shown the world that a free market can be sustained by a totalitarian state, an abomination of sorts. Both Mao Zedong Thought and Deng Xiaoping Theory have confounded the West. Present-day China has manufactured a virus that has confounded the world, killing millions; the United States being among the countries with the highest number of casualties. The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 was meant to prevent the spread of Chinese labourers in America. It remains to be seen what the United States under President Joe Biden does to prevent the spread of the Chinese virus in America and Chinese influence in the world.