As Walter Russell Mead points out in his blog, December 17th, 2011 was the 234th anniversary of French recognition of the United States of America. Louis XVI had been convinced by the American victory at Saratoga in 1777 that the American Revolution could be won, making this tiny battle of under 10,000 combatants hugely consequential for world history. France would later intervene and tip the balance of the war against the British, especially with its navy, thus engendering the gratitude of the American people in a way perhaps not dissimilar to Kuwaiti attitudes toward the U.S. after the Gulf War — a feeling at once tribal, a touch irrational, yet deeply resonant. Living in China, it is easy for us to be overawed by the rise of China and lose sight of a wider historical perspective from which we clearly apprehend the far more spectacular rise of the United States, from a population less than that of most second-tier Chinese cities to the dominant power of the last century, enjoying since 1776 what has easily been a 3600-fold increase in GDP. What does this other revolution mean in the context of China and its revolution?
We may first ask about the success of each of these revolutions. I would argue that the American Revolution has been immensely successful, not just in terms of its international repercussions for the spread of democratic values (along with the French Revolution, to be sure, but also, we must remember, as inspiration for the French Revolution and the revolutions of 1848, which is to say nothing of the 20th century), but more crucially in terms of what the revolution set out to accomplish for the U.S. The founders of 1776 would perhaps be astounded to know that their regime has continued, uninterrupted, since 1788 (something no other major power can boast of besides the U.K.). Perhaps less obviously, the social revolution that resulted eventually from 1776, of which they were only dimly aware, has spread around the world and continued, uninterrupted in the U.S. to this very day. Its spirit has led most of us to believe that no one, whether they be of the landed aristocracy, the politically connected, or (since the 1960s) the dominant ethnicity, is any better than the average, ordinary person. The American Revolution continues to this day, as could be seen in the mass, celebratory spirit of Obama’s inauguration. Mao would no doubt have wanted the spirit of his revolution to enjoy similar continuity in China, but the consequences of the Chinese Revolution are much more equivocal. The Chinese Revolution most emphatically does not continue to this day, if we mean by its spirit the outrage of the peasants toward the landlords and the ardor for social leveling so skillfully exploited by CCP ideology. Though peasant anger toward property developers and local officials is certainly a problem for China today, this is nothing of the scale of the Chinese Revolution, and far from being wrapped in socialist ideology actually appears to appeal more to capitalist notions of property rights, opposing government confiscation precisely in the spirit of 1776. If, on the other hand, we mean by its spirit the dream of a “strong China” able to stand up to Western imperialism and regain its rightful place of respect in the word, then Mao’s Revolution appears much more successful.
We may also inquire into the natures of the American and Chinese Revolutions. While the American Revolution certainly contained the germs of the democratic social revolution whose flowering Tocqueville wrote about in 1835, there is scholarly debate about whether it was truly an all-encompassing social revolution (class against class, society turned upside down), such as the French and Russian Revolutions. There can be no doubt, however, that the Chinese Revolution utterly remade Chinese society from top to bottom by 1960, and continued to turn class against class up through the Cultural Revolution. The American and Chinese Revolutions also differed in the extent of their anti-colonialism. Despite being seen in retrospect as a “war of national liberation” by most Americans today, the rebellion against the British motherland was really a dispute among one people, the greatest proof of which being that the founders considered themselves British until their political actions made them Americans. China’s struggle against imperialism, on the other hand, was seen as one of a single people (even if Chinese didn’t all see it that way until the 20th century) against foreign encroachments, and would likely never have occurred had the Chinese not had a sense of racial grievance. Both of these differences have had important implications for how the U.S. has dealt with revolutionary situations in other countries. Despite the spirit of 1776, Americans have had a checkered history of sympathizing with national liberation movements in other countries, sometimes in support (Latin America in the 19th Century), often in opposition (China, Vietnam), yet sometimes in support yet again (abetting the breakup of the British and French empires). This schizophrenia arises from the fact that 1776 was fought to restore the status quo enjoyment of the rights of British citizens as much as it was fought to throw off colonialism. In its own tortuous way, American ambivalence about revolution has done much to make the contemporary world, from Wilson’s principles of national self-determination (leading indirectly to the May Fourth Movement), to opposition to the Soviet Union in the Cold War, to being on the “reactionary” side in competition for the “hearts and minds” of Third World countries, whose independence the U.S. had itself directly encouraged through its opposition to European colonialism.
If the form of these revolutions differed in various ways, the content of their ideological aims most certainly did as well, with vast consequences for how the U.S. and China have understood one another. While the Americans fought to protect their “inalienable” rights to their property (which Locke said they had once they worked the virgin land), the Chinese fought to alienate from the landlords and the “bureaucratic capitalists” that property unjustly obtained in cahoots with the foreign imperialists and “feudal remnants” going back centuries in Chinese society. While the Americans fought to establish a weak government, based on principles their British forefathers had once themselves advocated, the Chinese fought to establish a strong government, making use of a foreign ideology meant to throw off the yoke of foreign domination (not unlike jujitsu). With such opposite starting points, it’s no wonder that the U.S. and China have consistently misunderstood one another. Chinese have little feeling for the depth of American anti-communism in the Cold War, and remain incredulous that Americans could have taken Mao’s threats of world revolution seriously, or that American motives in Vietnam or against the USSR could have had any sincere ideological purpose (other than pure power politics). They don’t understand the depth of feeling that ordinary Americans have for their own founding principles of absolute respect for the sanctity of private property and a government limited in its ability to violate that sanctity, or realize that as a revolutionary nation the Americans could hardly feel otherwise for their regime to continue. Americans, on the other hand, have little feeling for the depth of Chinese helplessness before 1949 or the shame and humiliation that would lead them to remake society and establish a strong state at the cost of those very rights that Americans make part of their founding myth. Blessed with freedom and abundance from the very start, they cannot conceive of how a lack of the latter would lead the Chinese, and almost every other nation besides the United States, to see the former in balance with other, no less important ideals, among which include not just material prosperity, but national respect and freedom from the domination of other nations.
Despite all the differences listed above, what the United States and China certainly do share is having their starting points in revolution, and thus being among the only major powers today whose legitimacy rests on their founding, revolutionary myths. This leads them to keep covenant with their founders. Just as the U.S. Supreme Court splits hairs over the intent of the U.S. Constitution, the CCP Central Party School takes pains to ensure that the thought of Deng, Jiang, or Hu is fundamentally continuous with that of Mao. The thought that the United States would remain the United States without its “sacred” Constitution is just as inconceivable as the thought that China could remain strong and integral without its “heroic” CCP. The revolutions of these two countries constitute what they are and set limits on what they could be, and they will continue to do so in a way that non-revolutionary countries cannot know. Non-revolutionary countries cannot know the burden of this covenant we keep with our founders. To imagine an America today at which Jefferson and Adams would feel aghast is to fear that this covenant has been broken — their ideals betrayed and their sacrifices in vain. Since they worked so hard (the thinking goes) to create something of enduring value for the sake of future generations including our own, we who owe them our nationhood (as we do in revolutionary countries) ought not let them down. The same goes for China, the CCP, and Mao Zedong. The Chinese Revolution could not have been in vain, nor the millions dead at the hands of the Japanese, in the Civil War, or in the post-1949 “birth pangs” of what has finally turned out to be an improving life for most Chinese. To think that so much could have been mistaken is to bring into doubt the wisdom of the founders, denigrate their sacrifices, and let them down. Perhaps if Americans had greater cognizance of the revolutionary heritage and psychological aversions and blind spots common to both the U.S. and China, they would better understand why the CCP has endured, and why talk of bringing down the regime most often brings about a paroxysm of opposition among the Chinese.