In 2007, Professor Pan Zhichang from the School of Journalism and Communication at Nanjing University, China, wrote a book where he grappled with a thought-provoking idea about the Tacitus trap. At the heart of his work was to unpack the logic behind the cyclical and perennial decline of Chinese dynasties throughout history. In the contemporary period, the term attracted attention and grabbed headlines in China when in 2014, China’s paramount leader and Chairman Xi Jinping mentioned it while attending a meeting of the party’s Lankao county committee. He unequivocally observed that if we lose the standpoint of the people and fail to stand with them, the people will lose faith in us, essentially drawing an analogy from what happened in Rome way back in 69 AD when the newly elected emperor Galba failed to read the nerves of the common populace correctly.
Since then, the proposition has become a buzzword in Chinese media and academic circles, so much so that even President Xi is believed to have referred to it in the 18th National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party while outlining the three traps that China might fall into. The other two are the much talked about ideas of Thucydides and the Middle-Income trap.
The Tacitus Trap and the Chinese Resemblance
In his seminal book “Who Robbed Our Aestheticism”, Professor Pan Zhichang attempted to scientifically analyse the causes of historical political anarchy in China between 220-280 AD. This also became the source of inspiration for one of the Chinese literary classics, “Romance Of Three Kingdoms”. The expounding of the concept has its semblance to what Jurgens Habermas, a German philosopher and sociologist of critical marxism, also alluded to while propounding the concept of a legitimation crisis. Tacitus, a roman historian and politician, known for his work “Histories”, gave a vividly moral account of the events that transpired in Rome in 69 AD; when fearing a revolution against him, Nero, the then emperor, fled the country. This led to installing Galba as the emperor by civil and military authorities disconnected from the ground realities. Galba was challenged by Claudius Macer and Fonteius Capito, two loyal generals of Nero who cut off the food supply to Rome. The crisis unfolded when Galba ordered their execution which led Tacitus to comment that indeed when a ruler becomes unpopular, all his deeds be they good or bad, tell against him.
The Chinese landscape between 220-280 AD bears a striking similarity in terms of the events that unfolded there. As described by Professor Pan, the imperial government of China had become totalitarian with limitless power and, therefore, the desire to accumulate unlimited wealth. A vicious cycle almost engulfed China as the government started taxing more, leading to more corruption and, in turn, more taxes and even more corruption, eventually causing a societal collapse due to the hedonistic desires of the ruling class. It was comparable to the regime falling into the Tacitus trap and losing what, in Chinese parlance, could be termed the Mandate Of Heaven.
Some solid and reliable data sources back the proposition from a recently released dataset by Pew Research Centre. Barring a few exceptions, most notably Israel, Greece and Hungary on specific indicators, data from 19 of the most advanced countries shows China and its incumbent leadership in a terrible light. If anything, the negative view of China has grown starker and deeper. A deep-seated grievance against China and its handling of the Covid-19 pandemic, belligerent and aggressive attitude, concealment of Covid related facts, economic coercion through its debt trap diplomacy, grave human rights violations of Uighur Muslims in Xinjiang and Chinese military muscle flexing and territory grabbing tactics among other things have been a critical factor in the shaping of public opinion.
A cursory look at the domestic and international scenario of China helps us to understand not only the soft underbellies of China but also the underlying currents which might ultimately lead to the internal fracturing of Chinese polity and economy, culminating in a more extensive process of societal collapse.
Spate Of Crisis
The first and foremost has been the botched handling of Covid-19 pandemic. The alleged concealment of crucial facts on transmission in its initial stage and then leading astray the global health body the WHO about the pandemic has been one of the critical factors behind negative public opinion against China. China’s domestic handling of the Covid pandemic through a harsh lockdown and draconian policies like the Zero Covid policy and resisting an independent investigation of the virus’ origins made it apparent that China was trying to misuse its global clout to go scot-free.
Compounding this was the perilous economic crisis that unfolded in China, exposing the economic faultlines in China. The Zero Covid policy took a heavy toll on the economy as the property and banking sectors underwent a severe meltdown. This was visible in the case of the Evergrande crisis. Small lenders and millions of individual savers were severely impacted by the fall in the manufacturing base and the debt crisis in the property sector. Banks ran into trouble as the non-performing assets skyrocketed, culminating in mortgage boycotts leading commentators to call it China’s Lehman brothers moment.
Adding to it is China’s blatant human rights violations in Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Regions (XUAR), as pointed out by the recently released report by the Office Of The UN High Commissioner For Human Rights (OHCHR). The report, which comes as an eye opener for China, categorically criticised China for having committed grave human rights violations against the Uighurs and other predominantly Muslim communities. The assessment found that China indulged in flagrant violations of international law and observed that credible patterns of ill-treatment, torture, forced medical treatment to control the Muslim population and deliberate attempts to increase the Han Chinese population were crucial markers of the fact that China was trying to alter the demography in complete disregard for basic human rights principles and committing state-sponsored pogrom against the minorities. The Pew Research data also found that the negative view of China on the issue of human rights violations has dramatically worsened.
China is all set to witness the 20th Party Congress with its supreme leader, Xi Jinping, hoping to secure an unprecedented third term. It will embolden him further to tighten his stranglehold, resulting in more turbulence down the road. To be sure, he has already rankled his party insiders by creating a cult of personality and discarding China’s long tradition of collective rule. A series of policy disasters, meanwhile, has disappointed even his supporters. By undoing all the major political and economic reforms of his predecessors, China under Xi has become a one-person show. Xi, who rose to power through the quasi-democratic system established by Hu Jintao, tried to consolidate power and solve what he characterised as the ideological crisis facing China. Xi used the anti-corruption campaigns as a political purge to silence his dissenters. By undermining the office of the Chinese Premier and severely depriving him of his power, Xi Jinping not only acted as a micromanager and chairman of everything but also took the title of core leader in 2016, got Xi Jinping’s thought enshrined in party’s constitution in 2017 and amended the constitution to do away with presidential term limit in 2018.
However, despite all the above problems, China presents a fascinating case study of its resilience, as evident from its past experiences. Thus, it would be engrossing to see whether China would be able to navigate the current spate of crises more structural in nature or would it break down as it falls into a likely Tacitus trap?
[Image credit: Philip Jägenstedt, is licensed under CC BY 2.0]
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.
Pratik Mall is a Postgraduate student of Politics with a Specialization in International Studies at the School Of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. His articles have appeared in The Diplomatist, The Kootneeti, SIS BLOG, JNU, The Geopolitics, Centre For Security And Startegy Studies and NIICE NEPAL.