A certain kind of commenter has real problems with videos like this one. It compares the trajectory of current Chinese leader Xi Jinping to a mid 19th century French dictator. Some see the idea of historical comparisons as ineffective, or even racist. To those who say it’s ineffective, I am forced to agree. It’s not like what happened to Napoleon III will predict exactly the path that Xi Jinping’s rule will take. But I never claimed it would. This video only talks about the surprising parallels, it makes no claims for the future. History is a treasure trove of events, processes, and situations. None of it will predict exactly what happens, but aspects are often similar. There’s no harm, and certainly no prophecy in drawing out parallels the way that this video does. Some other commenters, both Chinese and Western, claim that it’s ridiculous to compare China to European history. Both of them hold on to the idea that there’s something intrinsically different about the Chinese, and I’m either being racist, or not racist enough by assuming easy parallels with Europeans. I think that’s just balderdash. Chinese people are people too, and despite the scale and age of their country, it moves in similar ways.
Vague similarity to past situations is all I’m claiming here. I’m not claiming to know how Xi Jinping’s rule will end. But I am trying to make the case that Xi Jinping’s assumption of dictatorial power is something that we’ve seen before in modern history. Many in the US are reacting with panic to the idea of a great power backsliding in this way. They are acting as if it’s somehow unprecedented. It’s not. That’s all this video is saying.
Video Transcript after the jump…
Ladies and gentlemen, Chinese leader Xi Jinping is Napoleon. But not the cool one. No, Xi is strikingly similar to Louis Napoleon also known as Napoleon III, the very embarrassing last Emperor of the French. This guy is a very different figure from the Napoleon you have probably heard of. The first Napoleon was the epic world-historical figure who battled all of Europe to a standstill for two decades before losing it all through the hubris of invading Russia. Louis Napoleon was a clownish mid 19th century dictator whose international meddling led to his capture by a foreign army and the creation of the modern German state that did so much damage to France and the world.
Now Xi Jinping could end up having a much better legacy than Napoleon III. We won’t know for decades, but I am not optimistic. Back in 2018 Xi turned himself into China’s all powerful ruler, which means he gets the blame if anything goes wrong. We will see I guess, but it’s not anything in Xi’s current short record that makes me think of the shitty Napoleon, it’s why he came to power, and what it says about where China is today, and where France was back then.
In 1815 France had come to the end of an epic struggle. Napoleon had finally been dethroned, and France had to deal with the fact that despite their genius leader, and their massive wealth and manpower, they had lost that epic struggle to the British. For the next three decades or so, through another revolution, and multiple kings, the French aggressively tried to copy the British, and set up some kind of successful mercantile and industrial constitutional monarchy.
I see this whole arc as obviously completely different, but still strikingly similar to the past half century in China. Napoleon was an epic historical figure, and so was Chairman Mao. Oh and to anticipate a thousand comments, yes Chairman Mao was a horrible mass murderer. But the cool Napoleon was a mass murderer too. And unlike the much more happily remembered Napoleon, Chairman Mao actually brought about a successful result for his people.
Chairman Mao’ s rise to power and rule was super rough on the Chinese, but he managed to establish what a century’s worth of emperors and more US friendly rulers had not, actual Chinese independence. After he died, leaders like Deng Xiaopeng realized that Revolutionary upheaval may have been effective but getting rich might be nicer. Like the French between the Napoleons imitating the British, the Chinese imitated the capitalist and industrial rich. The Chinese didn’t go fully Democratic, but they set up a boring consensus-driven system, with regular switches of power.
Both the French in the 1800s and the Chinese today found a lot of success with their imitation of other systems. Both models created a lot of rich people, but they also left a lot of people behind. This kind of inequality creates a ton of anger, especially in places like 19th century France and modern China with such recent histories of revolution. The left behind want the old revolutionary vigor back, and the winners want to be protected from the left behind. The thing about a strongman is that he can do both of those things. Or at least pretend to.
Different but oddly similar events brought both Napoleon III and Xi Jinping to power. Europe wide famine and financial crisis brought the revolutions of 1848. China’s response to the worldwide 2008 financial crisis has finally led to economic slowdown in that country as well. Both figures rose to power through the established systems, Xi as China’s next leader for a decade, and Louis Napoleon was actually elected French President. Xi has discarded his term limits, and Napoleon made himself Emperor after a coup.
Both of these figures reconcile the tensions between the haves and have nots in ways that democracy can’t. Napoleon was initially elected by more left leaning supporters, yet is largely seen by historians as governing in the interests of businessmen. Xi Jinping is a representative of the enormously wealthy princeling class that rules the country, yet he portrays himself as the new Mao and he is bringing back Communist propaganda.
Napoleon was lucky enough to launch his second French Empire at the start of a world wide economic boom. It took two decades for him to fall. The economic headwinds Xi Jinping will face will be much stronger. On the other hand, Xi Jinping doesn’t have an obvious German colussus waiting in the wings to squash him. India is much poorer than China, and the United States is currently losing its mind.
Regardless, I think it’s worth emphasizing that the Xi Jinping era in China isn’t some permanent repudiation of normal economic development and democracy. It’s actually a phase… very similar to something we have seen before. After Napoleon III’s fall France experienced the 3rd Republic, the most stable and long lasting period of representative government it has ever had. If anybody in Washington DC knew any history, I think there would be a lot less panic over Xi Jinping.
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