Mao and the Modernizers - China's Modernity, perceived from within, and without

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The Cultural Revolution started in the mid-1960s. Its official goal was the final destruction of the old, "feudal" Chinese culture, less than two decades after Mao had proclaimed the People's Republic of China. The Cultural Revolution, too, was proclaimed by Mao Tse-Tung. He accused his own, leading fellow comrades of letting revolution down, in that they seemed to put more emphasis on modernisation, than on revolution. As Mao saw it, revolution needed to be re-started time and again, to make sure that feudalism or old classes would never come back.
But apparently, from the perspective of Zhou Enlai (then prime minister), Deng Xiaoping, and probably most of China's leading politicians, a permanent revolution would make China's modernisation impossible (although this certainly was no public kind of debate).

Revolution on a Wall, 1999, Hong Kong Some of the goals of revolution had been the liberation of China, and to restore the respectability and power of the Chinese nation. But clearly, it was also a communist revolution, with an immanent communist agenda. So one could argue that the goals of Mao and the modernisers were similar, but that their concepts to get there differed as much as in how they rated the numerous motives of revolution.

After the modernisers (the most renowned and remembered are Zhou Enlai, Deng Xiaoping and then state chairman Liu Shaoqi) got started with modernisation, Mao found himself more and more isolated. It seems that he had been an outstanding war strategist during civil war against Chiang Kaishek's Kuo Min Tang (KMT, Nationalist Party), and in the war against the Japanese, but that these qualities had decreased in value, in times of peace. For ideological or personal reasons, maybe both of them, he wasn't ready to leave much of politics to the modernisers. As he was lacking a power base in Peking, he started "his" Cultural Revolution from Shanghai. "Bomb the headquarters", was his slogan, and the HQ was the Chinese leadership, minus Mao himself.

Today, most Chinese people, and the Communist Party, refer to the Cultural Revolution as disaster. Few questions would be asked about who was responsible, and when insanity came to an end towards the mid-seventies, the surviving victims seemed happy with their "rehabilitation", and took their old seats, along side with those who possibly were to blame for their past hardships. This is one of many motives that critics of Chinese politics or culture would use to denounce either the political system, or the country in general. Practically the entire Cultural Revolution is usually blamed on the members of the "Gang of Four": Jiang Qing (Mao's wife), Zhang Chunqiao, Wang Hongwen, and Yao Wenyuan, just like if this had been a gang of almost invincible ghosts, or monsters.

During Mao's last years, Zhou Enlai and Deng Xiaoping could cautiously return to their agenda of modernisation. Liu Shaoqi had died as a political prisoner. The Gang of Four was arrested only hours after Mao passed away, in 1976, and after a transitional period of two years, Deng Xiaoping seized power on a party congress in autumn, 1978. He never became head of state, or secretary general of the party, but in his late years, he was one of the few surviving civil and anti Japanese war veterans. That mattered much more than official posts. It was then that the "four modernisations", in agriculture, industry, military technology and science, became official goals.

Ever since China had been more or less "over-run" by the West, in the 19th century, practically all Chinese intellectuals seem to have had a desire for some sort of national "rehabilitation", which spells into strength of the Chinese nation. Modernisation has been China's policy for more than twenty years now, and its success story wasn't just good for national self-esteem, but probably simply essential for survival. It is credited to Deng Xiaoping, in the first place. Zhou Enlai and many others had helped to get it started, but it hadn't turned real before 1978. And it is a policy that relies, among others, on foreign investment, and (still) on foreign technology.

photos on Labour Day, May 1, 1998, Jiangsu Province It was inevitable that this open-door policy led to a flow of foreign ideas, too, a flow that, in its dimensions, is certainly unprecedented in Chinese history. Deng seemed to take it easy: "When you open the windows, you have to live with the flies that come in." Not everyone in China's political leadership would agree. Jiang Zemin however, who became the Communist Party's secretary general at Deng's lifetime, stayed on, before and after Deng's death in 1997. It is not likely, anyway, that the people would have accepted an orthodox rollback. All in all, most people have the feeling that reform, and as much of openness as China's foreign and foreign trade policies do allow, have helped them to improve their lives, at least so far. However, the number of people who lose out in the process of modernisation is increasing. Peasants revolts and the "Falun Gong" movement are indicators, and according to Chinese traditional belief, such movements, just like earthquakes, would be the final signals before a political overthrow, and a new "dynasty" rising to power. Then again, there is no such convincing scenario, except possible disintegration of China.

All this might sound like if the clash between the orthodoxy and the reformists was history by now. That's not quite the case, even though there is hardly any old-style leaders left. One of the few that could possibly be considered belonging to the old guard, Li Peng, will resign his post as speaker of the National People's Congress, later this year, and retire, along with most national leaders of his generation. One of the major - ideological - differences between past and presence may be this one:
During the Mao era, people couldn't be "leftist" enough. The only wrong move, officially, could be to be a "rightist". But by now, there are people branded as "leftists", too, and it seems to mean that some revolutionaries want too much of the good purpose, at once, and therefore endanger the goal of communism itself.
That may look like a weird idea, as China's economy is becoming more and more market-oriented, but in theory, modernisation is meant to be a tool to get all steps of human history done as fast as possible, as after successful modernisation and industrialisation, the final Great Revolution should follow. No one would care, these days, but on paper, it is still something that legitimizes the power of the Communist Party. Ordinary citizens would rather buy the additional, "semi-official" explanation: that the West, while giving Cubans or Iraqis a hard time, can't do anything similar to China, as the party guarantees China's unity and power.

To understand many of the evident contradictions in Chinese thinking and behaviour these days isn't always easy. In fact, China seems to have become very much of a "feudal" country again, certainly in many rural areas. Many people that have power, great or small, are corrupt to some extent. Some officials may demand bribes, others may expect "favours" before they'd approve requests. Corruption seems to be the most important reason for many people to be dissatisfied with the political system, or with aspects of it. There is a never ending litany that nothing like this would have happened under Mao Tse-tung, let alone Zhou Enlai. Deng Xiaoping's family is viewed much less favourably, but then, people know what their late paramount leader has done for the country, and most of them look the other way.

Corruption that often spins out of control may be one explanation as to why "some people" (the official use of "some" translates into "many" in real life) would behave "leftist", or be suspected to do so, these days. Arguably, the dissidents never stinged the party harder, than with their demand for free labour unions. Such civil liberties are still unthinkable in China. Instead, consumers are free to buy, what they can pay for. Like goods for everyday use, or fashion, a wide range of music and movies is available in Chinese shops, and not everything there is really un-political, or political in a way China's leaders would like. "Revolutionary pop songs" or "Modern Opera" VCD's or CD's are officially viewed with suspicion. Modern Opera is a rather new version of the traditional Peking Opera, and it is a genre that was created in the 1960s by Mao's wife, Jiang Qing, who herself used to be an actress in her pre-political life. In many ways, it is quite similar to the traditional Peking Opera, but the costumes are flexible in that the actors wear what people would wear in everyday situations, be it farmers, soldiers, or something else.
The old, traditional Peking Opera isn't exactly popular among the young. No foreigner in China should miss it, but you will find that most of the Chinese spectators are old people. The "Modern Opera" again is simpler than the old one, and obviously "political". While there are "good" and "bad" people, heroes and thugs, clowns and walking tragedies in the old opera, the "modern opera" seems to be featuring only two kinds of people: "good" and "bad" ones, "new men" versus "imperialists/feudal society". That's it, basically.

Modernisation losers are the most likely opponents of modernisation. And "Revolution" often looked like an appealing shortcut to a better world. However, in everyday life now, Revolution spells consumption. If you don't like the new ways, you go and buy revolutionary CD's, which is "Leftist". The Communist Party's verdict on Mao Tse-tung is that he was "80% good, 20% bad". China can't afford another God, they say. While Jiang Zemin is head of the party, and the state, "collective leadership" is the order of the day.

televised speech by vice president Hu Jintao after the "Belgrade incident" A real lot of younger Chinese feel that life has become kind of boring, and they would "envy" Europe for Northern Ireland or the Basque country. Until a fateful day in May 1999, when the Chinese embassy in Belgrade was destroyed by Nato air force, and three Chinese nationals killed, they'd envy Europe for Yugoslavia, too. All the previous victims in Yugoslavia didn't seem to matter, in many minds, but the Chinese casualties made all the difference.
In Hong Kong, a mountain that served as a battery during the Japanese war has turned into some kind of pretty modern, unofficial "museum". Would-be Rambos fight paintball games there, in full armour, with bullets that are in fact pellets, filled with read ink. If you start "bleeding", you are dead. And in mainland China's Shenzhen, across the Hong Kong border, you might find war domes. The guns you get to fight your star wars seem almost real, in size, and weight.

Hardly any sane mind would ever start an argument about against or with whom such wars are fought, or if those fighting these virtual wars are "leftists", "rightists", or whatever kind of "-ists". But one can be pretty sure that there are people inside the Communist Party who do. They can't help but judge everything under the skies by political standards. Under these circumstances, ruling China can't be easy business. To find out if these war domes are legal or illegal wouldn't be easy, either. The owners get their licenses from the local authorities, and again, corruption may play a role.

"New Rich City", construction site in Qingdao, October 2000 One could write books about corruption in China. Some people do. And on some occasions, they might put it quite neatly. You could try this one, by Mayfair Mei-hui Yang: "Gifts, Favors & Banquets", Cornell University Press, Ithaca & London. It was published in 1994, and sees it this way: the "gift economy" might help China to become more of a civil society, as it would lead to unpolitical relations between Chinese individuals. This is not quite as hysterical as it might at first sound. With the historical and cultural background that Yang describes, and the careful reservations that she makes, it might actually make sense. If China can afford the economic and social price for this kind of "de-politicisation", and if the ways that Yang suggests to transform the current "gift culture" into more acceptable manners can actually work, remains a different question. Much of what happens in China is explained with culture. However, if you'd believe the memory of older Chinese people, or Edgar Snows reports from communist-controlled regions in China in the 1920s/1930s, and some foreigners' recollections from the 1970s, bribes were simply impossible, back then.

Then again, China during the Cultural Revolution was hardly the country at its most natural, and those in today's China who would long for the good old Sixties may have fallen victim to uncritical nostalgia, just as many visitors from abroad were surely confronted with beautiful window-dressing, and blinded by their own illusions of "revolutionary" China. Shirley McLaine wrote "You can get there from here" (from America to China, that is), in the 1970s. Her book was written around the time of Watergate, and it is sort of a modern, communist-idyllic Utopia, made real by the Chinese, and it contrasts with America at its worst: the rotten, degenerated Nixon system. In a way, McLaine's book is good fun to read - at hindsight. While the cultural revolution was still going on, she had been staying in China, for several weeks, with a delegation of "progressive American women with most different social backgrounds". Consequently, just after arrival, they started quarrelling about their home-grown problems, and felt ashamed, as their Chinese hosts still seemed to be pretty stable and easy-going. The Chinese sure had worries of their own.


External links

独立中文笔会 (Independent Chinese Pen Center),
continuous updates

"The higher you stand, the farther you can look" – CCTV programme, including a morning broadcast of the PRC national anthem, plus pictures of San Qing Mountain, Jiangxi Province
Febr 17, 2007


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