“The Chinese,” wrote Garnet Wolseley, “are the most remarkable race on earth, and I have always thought, and still believe them to be, the coming rulers of the world. They only want a Chinese Peter the Great or Napoleon to make them so.”
Yes, the Chinese are indeed remarkable, and on Friday Tom Holland, the South China Morning Post columnist, argued that Wolseley, a 19th-century British field marshal, was farsighted. Yet Wolseley’s words, from 1903, have been proven wrong. China, as Holland should know, got its fair share of larger-than-life figures in the 20th century. There was, most notably, the willful Chiang Kai-shek and then the charismatic Mao Zedong. Neither was lacking in ambition or strength, and yet both ultimately failed the Chinese people.
Wolseley was correct that the Chinese needed leadership, but they did not need a Chinese Napoleon. What they needed then—as they still do today—is a system that allows them to lead themselves. The Communist Party of China, however, insists it has a historical obligation to rule.