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Empire of Emperors: What Is China, and Why You Should Worry About It

An excerpt from David Goldman’s new book: ‘You Will Be Assimilated: China’s Plan to Sino-Form the World’

David P. Goldman
October 21, 2020
Original photo: Ludovic Marin/AFP via Getty Images
Original photo: Ludovic Marin/AFP via Getty Images
Original photo: Ludovic Marin/AFP via Getty Images
Original photo: Ludovic Marin/AFP via Getty Images

An Empire of Emperors: What Is China, and Why You Should Worry About It

Lyndon Johnson apocryphally told Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir that it was hard to be president of three hundred million Americans. She replied, “It’s harder to be prime minister of three million prime ministers.” Xi Jinping might add that it is even harder to be the emperor of 1.4 billion emperors. We tend to think of the West as individualistic and China as collectivist. In some ways that’s true, but the notion can also be misleading. As individuals, the Chinese are the most ambitious people in the world. Ambition is the sinew that holds together the sprawling, multi-ethnic, polylingual empire that China has been since its founding. For 5,000 years, China’s ambition has been constrained by the limits of nature. The great flood plains of the Yellow and Yangtze Rivers supported a larger population at higher living standards than any other part of the pre-modern world. But China’s riparian civilization was also fragile, subject to periodic drought, famine, and flood, leading to civil unrest, barbarian invasion, and prolonged periods of chaos.

All this compelled China to turn inward. Its forays into the broader world were brief and abortive. No more; China can feed itself and control natural disasters. It has turned outward to the world and is seeking its place in the sun. This is a grand turning point in world history. For most of the past five thousand years, China has been the world’s most populous and wealthiest civilization in the world, but largely indifferent to events outside its borders. Now its ambitions are turned outward. Its 2,500-year-old system of elite formation now embraces the ten million students who take the annual college entrance exam. It has absorbed tens of thousands of the best Western scientists and engineers into its project for technological dominance, above all through Huawei, its bridgehead in the world market. And it proposes to extend its imperial principle of assimilation through infrastructure to the whole of the Eurasian continent, through the Belt and Road Initiative.

Western observers often attempt to draw a bright line between the good Chinese people and the nasty Chinese government. That is an unsubtle form of condescension, and wholly misguided. The character of China’s state is shaped by the ambitions of the Chinese people. Sadly, the distinction between “good people” and “bad state” is a misjudgment on which America’s China hawks and China doves agree. Since the late Chinese premier Deng Xiaoping introduced market reforms in 1979, the liberal foreign policy establishment has argued that economic liberalization inevitably would lead to political liberalization. That didn’t happen. The China hawks argue that the Chinese people will rise up and overthrow their Communist overlords if the United States applies sufficient pressure, by placing tariffs on Chinese imports to the United States. That won’t happen, either.

The Liberal Illusion That Prosperity Promotes Political Reform

China doves promised that China’s economic success inevitably would lead to political reforms. Prominent among them is former Goldman Sachs President John L. Thornton, now a professor at Tsinghua University in Beijing and chairman of the board of trustees at the Brookings Institution, Washington’s oldest and best-funded think tank. In 2009, Thornton told the Congressional-Executive Commission on China that China was making progress towards democracy:

Premier Wen Jiabao consistently advocates for the universal values of democracy. He has defined democracy in largely the same way as many in the West would. “When we talk about democracy,” Premier Wen said, “We usually refer to the three most important components: elections, judicial independence, and supervision based on checks and balances.”

Premier Wen’s emphasis on universal values of democracy reflects new thinking in the liberal wing of the Chinese political establishment. He likely represents a minority view in the Chinese leadership, but like many other ideas in China during the past three decades, what begins as a minority view may gradually and eventually be accepted by the majority.

Now let me move to the second issue: New and far-reaching economic and socio-political forces in present-day China. Let me briefly mention three such forces, the first is the new and ever-growing middle class, the second is the commercialization and increasing diversity of the media, and the third is the rise of civil society groups and lawyers. These new players are better equipped to seek political participation than the Chinese citizens of 30 years ago …

Political participation through institutional means remains very limited. Yet, the ongoing political and intellectual discourse about democracy in the country, the existence of a middle class, commercialization of the media, the rise of civil society groups, the development of the legal profession, and checks and balances within the leadership are all important, contributing factors for democratic change in any society. In all these aspects, China is making significant progress.

China remains quite as authoritarian as ever it was, and technology has vastly increased the ability of its government to monitor and control the details of everyday life. The government of China knows where every smartphone is at all times, and can verify that it is carried by its registered owner through a vast network of facial recognition cameras. Soon it will require Chinese citizens to log on to the internet through facial recognition to police the online activity of the whole of society.

American hawks have argued that the Chinese political system is fragile and that the Communist Party can be toppled by outside pressure. Prominent among them is Gordon Chang, whose book The Coming Collapse of China appeared in its first edition in 2001. “The People’s Republic is a paper dragon,” Chang argued. “Peer beneath the veneer of modernization since Mao’s death, and the symptoms of decay are everywhere: Deflation grips the economy, state-owned enterprises are failing, banks are hopelessly insolvent, foreign investment continues to decline, and Communist party corruption eats away at the fabric of society.” That was 18 years ago. In the meantime China’s per capita GDP has quintupled. Chang continues to provide newspaper and television commentary predicting the imminent collapse of the Chinese system.

Hawks and doves are both wrong because they share the same false premise: For a society to succeed, they both believe, it must look and act like the United States of America. The doves thought that China would evolve into something like a Western democracy and succeed, while the hawks thought China would remain authoritarian and collapse. In fact, China remained authoritarian and deepened its economic success. Hawks and doves suffer from a sort of narcissism. They cannot conceive that a society so radically different from ours can flourish.

China Is in a Golden Age

But China has flourished. As Francesco Sisci observes, China is in a Golden Age, the first time in history that no one need fear going hungry. Since 1986, household consumption in China has risen seventeen-fold—that is, 1,700%. That isn’t a fabrication of Communist Party statisticians. Chinese now in their thirties, spent their early childhood in homes with dirt floors and outhouses. They now live in newly built apartments with central heating, air conditioning, and indoor plumbing. In 1986, just 3% of Chinese had access to universities or professional schools. That proportion grew to 50% by 2017. One-third of new labor force entrants have university degrees, and one-third of those are engineers. The Chinese buy 400 million smartphones a year and 25 million automobiles. Chinese commute to work in Shanghai on high-speed trains that reduce the distance from Wilmington to New York City to a 45-minute interval. We will take a closer look at China’s economy in another chapter.

China is utterly unlike the United States, and it is difficult to make sense of the difference without knowing the country and its history.

We have to stop viewing China through a half-silvered mirror that reflects our own image back at us, and understand China on its own terms. It isn’t a pleasant picture, but we need to take a hard look at it.

China’s Emperor as Capo di Tutti Capi

China has had thousands of years to develop a unique and distinct culture, and a unique and distinct political system. Over the long centuries, Chinese culture and Chinese governance have shaped each other. It is a delusion to believe that the “good Chinese people” will rise up and overthrow the “wicked Communist Party.” For millennia, China has been ruled by an imperial caste of administrators selected by standardized exams. The Communist Party is simply another incarnation of the Mandarin caste. The character of China’s government corresponds to the character of its people. The emperor is not a revered demigod on the Japanese model, or an anointed sovereign claiming divine right, but simply the emperor whose job it is to prevent all the other emperors from killing each other. He is Lucky Luciano, the capo di capi, whose function is to keep the peace among the predators who fear him more than they fear each other. The Chinese don’t love him any more than rank-and-file Mafia soldiers love the capo. They say cheerfully, “Without an emperor, we’d kill each other.” And that is just what they have done in the tragic periods when imperial dynasties collapsed. Civil war, foreign invasion, famine and plague often reduced China’s population by one-tenth to one-fifth, until a new dynasty sorted itself out.

America isn’t competing with the government of China or China’s Communist Party, but rather with 1.4 billion Chinese. To compare China to the Mafia trivializes the question; there is a world of difference between building the world’s longest-enduring civilization and hauling trash in Brooklyn. But one strains for comparisons within the Western experience for an identity that is so radically different from anything we encounter in the West. If you want to understand China, put down this book and get on a plane and see for yourself. If that isn’t convenient, please bear with me as I explain.

The emperor who unified China and gave it his name was Qin Shi Huang, who famously entombed himself with thousands of terracotta soldiers to serve him in the afterlife. He built the Great Wall and stupendous water management systems still in use today, but at terrible cost. When he began the Great Wall around 200 B.C.E., perhaps four hundred thousand conscript workers died. The records of the 6th century C.E. Sui dynasty claim that a further 500,000 people died in its construction. The stupendous structure earned its designation as the largest cemetery on earth. Qin Shi Huang’s history has passed into legend mainly because the Qin emperor burned the records of the kingdoms he conquered and killed hundreds of scholars who embodied the living memory of the past. Terrified of death, he searched for magic elixirs and sorcerers who would enable him to live forever, but had to settle for interment with soldiers of baked clay.

Qin Shi Huang appears in modern popular culture as a shape-shifting monster that rises from the tomb in the 2008 horror film Tomb of the Dragon Emperor. It’s not a flattering portrait of China’s founding ruler. The Hollywood incarnation of Qin Shi Huang, played by Kung Fu star Jet Li, rules with magical powers and buries masses of his enemies in the Great Wall. He is tricked by a sorceress who turns him and his soldiers into clay. Western archaeologists—The Mummy crew—inadvertently wake the immolated emperor, who then sets out to conquer the world. After a lot of computer-generated special effects, he is killed by a magic dagger. The plot is silly, although it adopts some elements of Chinese legend.

One might have expected hostility on the part of the government of the People’s Republic of China to this portrayal of China’s founding emperor. On the contrary, China not only allowed director Rob Cohen to film on location, but also dispatched cultural advisers to help the filmmakers reconstruct the language and court ceremony of the Qin dynasty. The film became a modest box-office hit on the Chinese mainland. reported: “On the first day of release, the film grossed more than $2.05 million (RMB14m), similar to the opening gross of The Forbidden Kingdom, with $2.33 million (RMB16m), and of last year’s local blockbuster Assembly, with $2.19 million (RMB15m).” Living memory still evokes the image of emperor as monster: The first Communist emperor, Mao Zedong, starved to death more than 50 million Chinese during the “Great Leap Forward” of 1958-1962, a horrendously failed experiment in state economic management. The founder of the new China was a monster, like the founder of the old China.

Cruelty Is the Norm in Chinese Governance

“Overall, Chinese historiography for two thousand years has consistently looked back at Qin with fear and loathing. The greatest villain is the First Emperor himself,” reports historian Steven Sage.

All of China’s governments have been cruel in a way that boggles the Western imagination. Chiang Kai-Shek’s Kuomintang founded the democratic government of Taiwan under American tutelage after the Communist Revolution of 1949, but in war it displayed a ruthlessness unmatched in Western history. In June 1938, as the Japanese Army approached the city of Wuhan in Henan Province, Chiang ordered his generals to blow up the dikes containing the Yellow River near Huayuankou, hoping to slow the Japanese advance. Chiang knew that the resulting deluge would flood a region inhabited by 12 million of his own citizens. Nearly 900,000 Chinese drowned. This was “the largest act of environmental warfare in history” and the most wanton in disregard for human life. The flood disrupted Henan province’s irrigation network, and a further two to three million Chinese died in the consequent Henan famine of 1942-1943. Western governments have shown unspeakable cruelty to enemy civilians, but there is no comparable incident in Western history in which a government deliberately sacrificed the lives of millions of its own citizens to gain a temporary military advantage. By the standards of Chinese leaders, Chiang Kai-Shek was not particularly cruel. On the contrary, Chiang’s subsequent regime in Taiwan was one of the most benevolent that any part of China has enjoyed. But under duress, he displayed more traits in common with Mao Zedong or the Dragon Emperor than with any Western leader.

At a closed-door conference in Beijing with senior government advisers not long ago, I asked the Chinese group if they felt nostalgic about any of their past rulers. After all, the Jews pray thrice daily for the return of King David’s dynasty. Medieval British romances call Arthur “the once and future king.” Similar tales are told about the German emperor Frederick Barbarossa, Charlemagne, and others. Folklorists call this motif the “king asleep in the mountain,” and it is encountered from Portugal to Japan—but not in China. None of the Chinese officials in attendance could name a government they would like to see return. On the contrary, the Chinese are happy to see the back of every one of their dynasties. They tolerated them when they were useful and turned on them when they became corrupt or weak, which takes a couple centuries in the best cases, and a couple of decades in the worst. The present Communist regime is also a dynasty, although it is founded on a self-perpetuating elite rather than a biological family. A Foreign Ministry official praising present regime told me with enthusiasm, “This dynasty will last three hundred years!” That would set the longevity record for a Chinese dynasty, and sounds like high praise. But if you told an Englishman that his monarchy would last 300 years—the British crown celebrated its thousandth anniversary in 1973—he would be insulted. If you told an American that his Constitution would endure for 300 years—that is, until 2087—he would be aghast. Chinese civilization is eternal in the understanding of the Chinese. Governments are passing arrangements.

China is a country that remembers its founding emperor as a monster, but for millennia worshipped the emperor’s chief civil engineer as a god. I will return to the apotheosized engineer below. This dichotomy holds the key to China’s political character.

China Is a Polyglot Empire, Not a Nation

China is utterly unlike the United States, and it is difficult to make sense of the difference without knowing the country and its history. Try to imagine that all the immigrants to the United States had never learned English, but spoke German, Italian, Spanish, Dutch, Gaelic, Yiddish, Swedish, Finnish, and so on. Of course, it is impossible to imagine America without assimilation into American culture. That’s what makes people Americans. Because America successfully assimilates people from so many cultures, Americans assume that everyone really is like them. People who abandon their cultures and decide to become Americans really are like other Americans. Those who stayed home and embraced their own culture aren’t necessarily like Americans at all. There are 3.8 million Chinese-Americans, whose values and outlook are as American as those of any other immigrant group. Among China’s 1.4 billion people, there are tens of millions who might like to become Americans, and who would assimilate into American culture as easily as other immigrants have. These are the exceptions. In the main, the Chinese really are different.

Not until the present generation has a majority of Chinese understood even the rudiments of a common spoken language. Even today, few Chinese can converse in the official dialect. The Chinese government estimated in 2014 that only 70% of its people speak basic Mandarin, but that only one out of 10 Chinese citizens speak it fluently. Six major languages and 280 minor ones still are spoken. Variations among China’s languages aren’t minor. A Mandarin speaker from Beijing and a Cantonese speaker from Guangzhou won’t understand a word the other is saying. The two languages are as different as French and Finnish. 60 million people speak Cantonese, about as many as speak Italian. Neither of them will understand much Sichuanese, spoken by 120 million people in China’s southwest. Sichuanese is a gentler, less guttural language than Mandarin, with more muted intonation. Another 80 million people speak Hakka, although Hakka migration to other parts of China is eroding the number of Hakka speakers. That’s more than the number of Europeans who speak German or French. Hakka sounds a bit like Cantonese, with its singing intonation, but the vocabulary is so different that the two languages are mutually unintelligible.

No Chinese mother has ever sung her baby to sleep in “Chinese.” Mandarin is the Beijing court dialect, a Kanzleisprache, not a national language. The Chinese language is not spoken but drawn in characters that derive from pictograms. When Chinese meet who speak mutually unintelligible languages, they communicate in writing. In the West, cultural identity is inseparable from sound. The deep roots of culture begin with oral tradition, with songs and stories that were memorized and chanted, from the epics of Homer in Greece and the Norse sagas to the Hindu Vedas. Nationality in the West is inseparable from language. Dante’s Tuscan language became Italy’s national language, and Luther’s Bible translation created standard German, just as the King James Bible promulgated English. The first nation-state was the kingdom that united the 12 tribes of Israel at the start of the first millennium B.C.E., on the premise that all Hebrew speakers should belong to the same polity. At the time, that was an innovation. 600 years later, Aristotle still argued that the ideal size of a city-state was 1,000 or so households. No Greek thinker until Polybius in the 2nd century B.C.E. proposed that all Greeks should belong to the same polity. Israel became the model for the Western monarchies, which appropriated the idea of kingship by divine right as a foundation for legitimacy.

Children born into Western nation-states absorb their national identity with nursery rhymes. Chinese children learn the characters, the ideograms that unite China into a single culture, in a marathon of acculturation that is unlike anything Western children undertake, with the possible exception of traditional Jewish religious education. After two years of primary education, they will be able to write about 800 characters, and about 2,500 after four years. At the end of six years of primary school, they will know 3,500 characters, enough to read a newspaper and most books. The standard Chinese dictionary has 50,000 characters, but knowledge of 3,500 qualifies for basic literacy. Even fewer are required to read the Chinese classics; the Analects of Confucius has only 1,400.

To learn to read and write, Chinese children begin school at 7:30 a.m. and leave at 4:00 or 5:00 p.m., and then practice for hours at home with brush and inkpot. The discipline and effort required for Chinese children to become Chinese is hard for Westerners to imagine. The inherent difficulty of the characters also explains why the smartphone has transformed China. Ideograms are based on roots, or “radicals,” overlaid with additional brushstrokes. Smartphone apps ask the user to draw the first one or two brush strokes, to bring up a menu of the characters that derive from them. Smartphones make it easier and faster for the Chinese to communicate.

The system of characters is an artifact of empire. Its origins go back at least to 1,200 B.C.E., when the first surviving ideograms were written on bronze vessels and oracle bones. The present system of characters, though, was not standardized until the Tang Dynasty in the 8th century C.E. The Tang dynasty brought to its present frontiers, defined by the deserts to the north and west and the Himalayas to the south—except for the later conquest of Tibet and the whole of Xinjiang. China began as a set of small kingdoms in the Yellow River Valley and extended its reach by a unique process of cultural extension. Neighboring peoples were conquered and invited to become Chinese—to learn the characters, to adopt Chinese dress, and absorb Chinese customs—while preserving their local languages. It took the unification of China under a single dynasty to make the characters standard across China.

Between the Tang, Zhou, and Song dynasties, China entered a golden age. It invented gunpowder, clocks, mechanical gear systems, paper, moveable type, and printing. It raised literacy levels and expanded the civil service examinations to draw on a larger pool of candidates. Civil service examinations in China began in 165 B.C.E., but the Tang dynasty standardized the system that still selects China’s governing caste. The grandsons of the Mongol conqueror Genghis Khan defeated the Song Empire in 1279.

China is not a nation-state, but rather an imperial structure composed of highly diverse peoples and tongues, always subject to centrifugal pressures which in time of crisis have led to the division of the empire at frightful human cost.

Along with infrastructure, imperial meritocracy holds China together. Not until 212 C.E. when the Roman Empire had long been in demographic decline, did the Emperor Caracalla issue the Antonine Constitution that gave Roman citizenship to all free men in the empire. China, by contrast, built its empire by creating citizens as it expanded. Even more, it created a caste of leaders by offering the most ambitious among its new citizens a path to power and wealth through the imperial examination system. The Taoist and Confucian classic texts comprised the whole of the curriculum for the imperial examinations. This established a unified imperial culture that resisted the centrifugal forces of the ethnically and linguistically disparate provinces. Confucius according to the texts and commentaries that have come down to us taught a sort of virtue ethics that some Chinese scholars have compared to Aristotle. Aristotle was no more successful in teaching moderation to his pupil Alexander the Great than the Confucian texts succeeded in inculcating moderation into Chinese emperors.

Ambition is the glue that holds the polyglot, ethnically mixed Chinese empire. Napoleon invented the modern mass citizen army, saying that each of his soldiers kept a field marshal’s baton in his rucksack. That is, he awoke the ambition of the downtrodden peasants of France and made of them a force that crushed the professional armies of the European monarchs.

The Chinese are more practical than the French. The 14th century Romance of the Three Kingdoms occupies a place in the Chinese canon comparable to Homer, Shakespeare, Machiavelli, and Clausewitz combined. In a superficial Western reading, it might seem like a blend of The Sopranos and Game of Thrones, with its 800,000-word narrative of power struggles and betrayal during the decline of the Han Dynasty during the first two centuries of the Common Era. Above the violent and sometimes sordid events it recounts, its attributed author, Luo Guanzhong, offers a philosophical conclusion about Chinese statecraft: “It is a general truism of this world that anything long divided will surely unite, and anything long united will surely divide.” More specifically, “The empire long united must divide, long divided must unite; this is how it has always been.”

China is not a nation-state, but rather an imperial structure composed of highly diverse peoples and tongues, always subject to centrifugal pressures which in time of crisis have led to the division of the empire at frightful human cost. The object of every dynasty, including the committee of Mandarins that constitutes the Chinese Communist Party, is to forestall the eruption of these centrifugal forces. As I explain in chapter six, Beijing threatens war over the South China Sea to demonstrate, a fortiori, that it will go to war over Taiwan, because one breakaway province may lead to many breakaway provinces and the dissolution of the empire.

The Boundless Ambition of the Chinese

Every Chinese carries, as it were, a copy of The Romance of the Three Kingdoms in his back pocket, or in contemporary terms, a study guide for the Gaokao, China’s formidable university entrance examination taken by 9.7 million Chinese in 2017.

As Francesco Sisci reports, “Right at the end of Tiananmen Square, next to Zhengyangmen (“the Midday gate”) and 200 meters from Mao’s mausoleum, there is a spot where people can take pictures of their children dressed as little Manchu emperors and sitting on a throne. The place is symbolic: The ancient gate once opened on the nei cheng (the inner city) and the buildings of the imperial government. Every day, there is a line of parents, mostly from the countryside, holding their children by the hands and waiting to take the picture as a sign of good luck. Each parent wants his or her only child to be successful—to become, in his or her way, an emperor.

The Chinese don’t like their emperor to begin with, and they certainly do not want to die for him in Japanese fashion. To the extent that the Chinese empire succeeds, it does so because it offers individual Chinese a platform for the achievement of individual ambition. If it fails to do that, the Chinese will ask, what is it good for? When the emperor lost the “mandate of heaven,” that is, the capacity to satisfy the ambitions of its most demanding subjects, Chinese rebels routinely allied with foreign invaders against the imperial throne. We will return to the tragic cycle of dynastic rise and fall, and explain why Chinese history in our generation has taken an entirely new direction.

Israel is the most ancient nation, which united all Hebrew speakers into a single polity with a single ruler and a single cult. It is also the only nation of the ancient world that survives today. China is the most ancient empire, and the only empire that survives today. Although the roots of China’s civilization extend back 5,000 years, Chinese in recognizable form begins with the Zhou Dynasty at the beginning of the first millennium B.C.E., contemporaneously with the kingdom of David. Centuries before the territory of ancient Israel had been divided among 11 of the 12 tribes. The tribe of Levi had no land of its own, but rather was dispersed among the other tribes, dependent on sacrifices brought by the other tribes. The Levites became a national tribe, whose self-interest lay with the nation and the cult, and thus a pillar of national cohesion. Levite status depended exclusively on ancestry, and Levite loyalty was to the national religion. A smaller number of the Levites were priests (Kohanim). The priestly caste balanced the power of the kings. The prophet Nathan confronted King David over his adultery with Bathsheba and his murder of her husband Uriah, and caused David to repent; ancient history knows no comparable story of the humiliation of an oriental monarch. The separation of church and state in ancient Israel instituted the first checks and balances in recorded history, although not the only ones in the ancient world. Paul Rahe has shown how the complex Spartan constitution created such checks and balances a few centuries later.

China’s Mandarins also constituted an imperial caste; selected and promoted by the empire, their interests lay with the emperor, rather than their home province. Unlike the priestly caste of ancient Israel, the imperial bureaucracy did not counterbalance the emperor. On the contrary, the Mandarins are the instruments of the will of the emperor, who was also head of the imperial cult, responsible for conducting the annual sacrifices. Rather than counterweights to the emperor, the Mandarins were emperors in miniature. Francesco Sisci observes:

China for many is an opportunity to make their fortune. But apart from a strong sense of a common culture and the opportunity to build wealth, they have little affection for, or a sense of protection from the Chinese state or its laws. In China there is a perception often that power without impartial laws and without responsibilities is capricious. On the other hand, a population accustomed for centuries to the unrestrained exercise of imperial power will have little sense of responsibility or duty towards the common good of the country represented by the institutions of the state. There is no fabric of civic rights and responsibilities which delimit the action of the state, so that the risk always remains present that the state can run amok with the exercise of naked power.

China is a ruthless meritocracy. Americans say, no child left behind, but the Chinese say, only the exceptional survive. A high school student with a top score on the Gaokao will attend Peking University, Tsinghua University, or another elite institution, with a clear path to a top career in government or business. University admission depends only on examination scores. Top officials and billionaires can buy admission to Harvard for their children, but not to Peking University. Fingerprints are required as proof of identity at examination centers. The occasional paid exam-taker sneaks in with a latex slip-on fingerprint to take a test for a rich but stupid student. Such exceptions are rare. There is plenty of corruption in China, and the relatives of senior government officials get rich with sickening regularity. But the Gaokao, the filter through which China selects its political elite, is the Holy of Holies in Chinese society. That is the decisive event in the lives of ambitious and intelligent young Chinese, their opportunity to turn their ambition into power and money. Whatever other forms of corruption infest Chinese society, the selection of China’s elite remains sacrosanct, because ambition is the currency with which the Chinese state buys the loyalty of its most capable citizens.

Chinese parents borrow money to pay for tutoring and cram schools for their children, starting in elementary school. According to a one study, 93% of Chinese parents have paid for private tutoring (compared to 47% in the U.S.). In 2018, the South China Morning Post reported:

“Tutoring classes have risen [in popularity] against conventional schooling,” Gu Mingyuan, head of the Chinese Society of Education, which is affiliated with the Ministry of Education, told news site

“Parents send their kids to six hours of extra tutoring per week at an average cost of 120,000 yuan per year, and that can rise to 300,000 yuan per year. Parents are also feeling very helpless.”

120,000 yuan a year is roughly what the average white-collar employee in Beijing earned in 2018. When their child comes of age to prepare for the Gaokao, ambitious parents will sacrifice a full year’s income to maximize his or her chances for success. Chinese parents pay for more than exam preparation. There are between 30 and 50 million piano students in China, and more than 10 million violin students. China produced 376,000 pianos in 2013 (and a similar number of digital pianos). That’s about as many as America produced in 1909; by 2009, the total had fallen to just 30,000. Chinese parents believe, with good reason, that the discipline and concentration required in classical music will hone their children’s academic performance. Children under 18, meanwhile, are restricted to two hours a day of video games, a limit enforced by facial recognition programs and other identity checks.

The Chinese Communist Party is simply the old Mandarin bureaucracy in a new guise, with one important difference—rather than relying on a particular family to furnish China with rulers, the Communist Party selects China’s leaders. Like the old Mandarin system, though, the Communist Party rules from the top down. Western society is dense with bottom-up activity—churches, charities, political associations, sports leagues, parent-teacher associations, and other organizations that ask nothing from the government and fund their activities privately. China by contrast runs on strictly vertical hierarchies. The empire selects its Mandarins through a unified system of exams and then assigns them to supervise every social function.

A peculiar consequence of the ferocious competition among Chinese for the top slots and the concentration of power in the bureaucracy is that the Chinese have few friends. The notion of political friendship in Aristotle’s sense among citizen-peers in a Greek city-state simply does not apply. There are no deliberative bodies, no voluntary associations, and no opportunities to form peer relationships to begin with. But the dearth of friendship has deeper roots. “Here in China we don’t have friends. When you’re in elementary school, you size up your classmates and figure out whom you’re going to walk over,” a young Chinese economist explained. He had done the number crunching for a study of Chinese banks that I published in 2014, at Reorient Group, a Chinese-owned investment banking boutique in Hong Kong, and I put his name on the published report.

“Why did you do that?” he asked.

“That’s normal in the business,” I said. “It’s called mentoring.” “No one in China does that,” he said, with incredulity.

Of course, my young colleague exaggerated to make a point: The Chinese have friends. But the winner-take-all competition and prevalence of vertical hierarchies rather than peer relationships makes things different.

Adapted from You Will Be Assimilated: China’s Plan to Sino-Form the World by David P. Goldman. Copyright © 2020 by David P. Goldman and published by Post Hill Press. All rights reserved.

David P. Goldman, Tablet Magazine’s classical music critic, is the Spengler columnist for Asia Times Online, Washington Fellow of the Claremont Institute, and the author of How Civilizations Die (and Why Islam Is Dying, Too) and the new book You Will Be Assimilated: China’s Plan to Sino-Form the World.