The empire, long divided, must unite; long united, must divide.
— Luo Guanzhong,
Romance of the Three Kingdoms
The opening line of that 14th-century epic has influenced generations of Chinese leaders. The country’s mythological founder, the Yellow Emperor, is said to have ended an era of chaos by subduing warring tribes and centralizing rule in the Middle Kingdom. Ever since, princes and party secretaries alike have emulated the archetypal messianic unifier. Consolidating the various ethnicities, languages, and religions around the Yellow River into a single polity has been one of the central challenges of China’s long history.
Mao Zedong, who inaugurated the People’s …
This article appears as “The Thwarted Ambitions of Xi Jinping” in the February 10, 2020, print edition of National Review.