China and its Discontents

Archive for the ‘Mao Zedong’ tag

Ideological Contradictions on Tiananmen Square

leave a comment

"Hold high the great flag of socialism with Chinese characteristics, under the guidance of Deng Xiaoping theory, the important thought of 'Three Represents,' and the Scientific Outlook on Development, and firmly and steadfastly advance on the road to socialism with Chinese characteristics, so as to build an all-around moderately-prosperous society and continue the struggle."

“Hold high the great flag of socialism with Chinese characteristics, under the guidance of Deng Xiaoping theory, the important thought of ‘Three Represents,’ and the Scientific Outlook on Development, and firmly and steadfastly advance on the road to socialism with Chinese characteristics, so as to build an all-around moderately-prosperous society and continue the struggle.”

When Western political commentators speculate on whether Xi Jinping could implement political reform, they are really asking whether or not Xi Jinping can successfully deal with Mao’s legacy and the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) legitimacy in the context of a modern, state-capitalist country. This is tricky because Mao’s legacy and the CCP’s legitimacy are inextricably linked—pull on one thread of the “Mao was 70% right and 30% wrong” formula and the entire apparatus could come crashing down.

The slogan shown, displayed on Tiananmen Square last November after the CCP’s 18th Party Congress (from a picture I took at the time), takes pains to include the ideas of Deng Xiaoping, Jiang Zemin, and Hu Jintao, but makes no mention of what is supposedly the foundation of the CCP: Maoism, Marxism, and Leninism. Marxism and Leninism have always been in the Party Constitution; Maoism was added in 1945, and taken out only briefly after Stalin’s death when some CCP leaders were afraid of replicating Stalin’s personality cult around Mao. Maoism was added back in after those leaders were purged. But now the CCP can’t be bothered to include these three in a propaganda outlet in one of the most visible spots in the country, right in front of Mao’s Mausoleum.

The sign is symbolic of an unsolvable paradox—the CCP is undermined by an ideological platform completely contradicted by its current economic and social systems, but it cannot change its ideology without the party losing its monopoly on power and the cadres losing their wealth and influence. That’s why it’s unlikely the CCP will reform politically until it is inevitably forced to change.

David Brooks’ Specious and Trite Op/Ed on Chinese Education

leave a comment

David Brooks wrote an embarrassingly clueless New York Times op/ed a couple days ago comparing Chinese and American learning styles, making conclusions that wouldn’t line up if you had even spent a minimal amount of time in the Chinese educational system. Brooks seems to think that the Chinese educational system exists as some sort of Confucian utopia:

“Westerners tend to define learning cognitively while Asians tend to define it morally. Westerners tend to see learning as something people do in order to understand and master the external world. Asians tend to see learning as an arduous process they undertake in order to cultivate virtues inside the self.”

But in reality this doesn’t reflect modern Chinese education at all. Education in China today is more free than it used to be but it is still heavily influenced by Mao: education’s purpose is largely defined as fulfilling a set of political goals, not cultivating virtuous individuals. Kids grow up with explicit “values lessons” in elementary school, but instead of cultivating a love of learning and a sense of citizenship, they learn obedience to authority and rote memorization. Then when they get to high school and college they transition to political education emphasizing traditional Marxism-Leninism. I suppose this is one kind of moral outlook, but normatively it certainly isn’t one that I would establish in schools.

The structure of the system itself squelches creativity and independent moral thought: the gaokao (the national standardized college admissions test) is morality-free, largely cognitive/instrumental, and serves as the main admissions standard, thus eliminating more whimsical criteria like admissions essays. Once students get into college, they must choose a major (often in a technical field that they are not interested in) and are never allowed to switch majors. Furthermore, they face academic dishonesty at all levels: among students and among faculty (hardly encouraging of independent thought!). Finally, no actual Chinese student would define their learning goals the way Brooks does. Brooks likes to think Chinese students emulate the Confucian ideal:

The idea is to perfect the learning virtues in order to become, ultimately, a sage, which is equally a moral and intellectual state. These virtues include: sincerity (an authentic commitment to the task) as well as diligence, perseverance, concentration and respect for teachers.

But in fact almost every Chinese student will tell you they work hard in order to a) Satisfy parental expectations, and b) If they’re a male, find a good job so they can buy an apartment and a car, get married, and support a family, or if they’re a female, attract a husband who will support them. This is but one more example of what Wang Hui calls “the de-politicization of politics”: “commercial logic is replacing political reasoning, a developmentalist discourse is replacing political participation, and a restructuring of interest relations of capital is replacing a debate on political values.” Framing education first as a method to drill in obedience and second as a way to create happy capitalist pawns strengthens the power of the CCP twice over.

A friend of mine describes what is most disappointing about this op/ed, however: “In the usual tunnel-vision view of the West as Wall Street and Hollywood, the whole tradition of moral learning going back to Aristotle and Aquinas is overlooked.” One would think that, even though David Brooks is no China expert, he might have a pretty good understanding of pedagogy and the philosophy of education in the West. The inculcation of virtue has been one of the principle pedagogical aims of education in the West all the way up until being deemphasized in the second half of the 20th century. In my view, while Confucianism has historically emphasized virtue, the virtues taught in the West have generally been normatively superior (this is especially true of the concepts of citizenship taught in Western public school systems–systems that are under attack in the U.S. by low funding and voucherization). I agree with Brooks that a moral impulse in education is good and that we should re-imagine what it means to teach citizenship today, and even that Confucianism might have something valuable to teach us in this regard. But he is completely wrong in looking to modern China for inspiration.

Mao: “cryptic, cavalier, and arguably deranged”

leave a comment

I’ve been reading a series of articles over the past week for my Post-1949 Modern Chinese History class, written by my professor himself, focusing on Nanjing’s experiences during the Cultural Revolution, including the January 1967 failed power seizure. The details are more complicated and confusing than I could possibly have ever imagined. I am having trouble making sense of the various actors and plot twists, but that is partially the point. Occasionally sections jump out of the page for being unintentionally hilarious:

 When Mao spoke about Nanjing during this period his utterances were cryptic, cavalier, and arguably deranged. In a meeting with military commanders on July 13 he said,

“Don’t fear chaos, the more chaos there is, and the longer it goes on, the better. The more chaos goes on, there always emerges a hall of fame, and things will clear up. No matter how chaotic, don’t be afraid. The more afraid you are, the more demons will appear. But no matter what, don’t open fire, whenever you open fire its no good. It’s not possible to have nationwide chaos. Wherever there’s a pustule, there are germs, so they’ll always pop. The chaos in the streets of Nanjing is really fierce, the more I see the happier I get. The more chaotic it gets the more there is a third faction that opposes civil war, opposes armed conflict, and that’s great! (Zhang Chunqiao interjects: “Some say the third faction will take a third road”). What third road is there! Everyone should unite, criticize, you should guide them!” (Mao Zedong 1967).

I’ve said this many times, but it’s worth saying once again: if this is the kind of material that is available now, think what will happen when the party collapses and the archives are opened up.

Written by Will

November 7th, 2012 at 11:39 pm

Modernity and the Chinese Experience


This is a piece I wrote that was just published in this month’s SAIS Observer, but it hasn’t been put online yet.

I am one of two international students in my “Modernity and World Social Thought” class at the Hopkins-Nanjing Center; the other twenty or so are all Chinese students. Every week we talk about questions of modernity and modernization: whether a country can become technologically “modernized” without being culturally and psychologically “modern”; whether modernity is a universal value or a particular value for particular people; what part, if any, of the past should persist into the era of the nation-state.

I listen when my Chinese classmates debate the influence of Confucianism in the current Chinese socio-political environment, and whether the modernizing reformers of the Xinhai Revolution of 1911 have been heeded to the present day. Most interesting to me is whether the project of modernity should have a “purpose,” whether modernity is a project or just an aimless process. Some writers, like Patrick Smith in “Somebody Else’s Century,” say none is needed. Other nationalists, like Jawaharlal Nehru, say that purpose lies in each country’s destiny. And many more say modernity’s purpose is derived from individual human fulfillment.

This question bites directly into the seminar and indeed many of my Chinese peers’ experiences. A century ago, China grappled over whether it could preserve its unique cultural ti (fundamental principles) while grafting onto it Western yong (practical application). Yong is the means, ti is the end. China is still dealing with this rift between ti and yong today. This separation is reflected in a number of common questions, like: what makes our state legitimate? What are our national values? Are we permanently stuck in a culture of material consumption, or is there a way forward?

Mao Zedong said at the outset of the People’s Republic, “Our new China is like a blank piece of paper on which we can write the most elegant characters and paint the most beautiful pictures.” In modern China, the question is not so much how to preserve the Confucian ti, but rather how to come up with a new ti after it has been thoroughly scarred from being scooped out and replaced, over and over again.

But then I focus on the reality of class discussion. I realize that, more than anything else, this small seminar, existing in a tiny bubble within China, is through its own way living out the project of modernity.  We are living out modernity through discussion; the classroom dialectic is perhaps the only way to move forward past confusion and post-modernism. Values are not objects for individuals. They are decided in common. And if we can do our small part in tackling such immense problems, especially in a place like China, then I will be happy.

Written by Will

October 31st, 2012 at 8:36 am

What about the Chinese Leadership Scares Me? This.

leave a comment

Dr Zheng believes that the leaders who promote a nationalist discourse are not driven simply by a cynical search for legitimacy. He argues the top Chinese leadership has internalised nationalist views – and the rather paranoid opinion of foreign powers that goes along with them. In a fascinating passage, he quotes extensively from leaked discussions held among the country’s leaders, in the aftermath of the Nato bombing of China’s embassy in Belgrade in 1999. Even in private, none of the leaders accepted America’s explanation that the bombing had been an accident – all saw it as a deliberate challenge to Chinese national honour, and some saw it as a plot to provoke and undermine China.

This from the Financial Times, reviewing Never Forget National Humiliation, by Zheng Wang of the Whitehead School. The existence of the “Century of Humiliation” in the national political discourse is obvious to any observer of China. It is to some extent “true” (however one defines that term–although it of course does not define the modern international system), and it seems a natural reaction by the political elite to the perceived sense that the CCP is losing legitimacy after the evaporation of any cohesive ideology and elimination of the Cult of Mao. What else could credibly replace socialism or rationalize the continuing necessity of CCP rule? It is one tool in the vast array of propaganda and educational materials available to the CCP. I had previously thought, as the article mentions, that of course the CCP elite understands the “Century of Humiliation” merely as a tool to preserve both their institutional political power and personal perquisites.

But if the CCP elite believe it writ large? Then the U.S., and really the world, have some serious problems on their hands. If this is true, there can be no set of arguments in favor of China’s ultimate integration into the current internationalist system that would convince the Chinese. If this is true, what you read in the Global Times and in incendiary PLA publications really do reflect what the Chinese leadership thinks. Of course, there are many examples to the contrary: most famously, Zheng Bijian, and indeed, many official statements coming out of the mouths of Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabao.

I will have to read the book itself to get a more thorough understanding of the argument (and I would like to know how the author got leaked politburo discussions following the Belgrade bombing–maybe the same source as the Tiananmen Papers?). Even taking the point at face value, like any political system, it is impossible to conceive of the CCP in monolithic terms–there are factions of leftist conservatives and liberal reformers, cultural internationalists and nativist reactionaries. But if accurate, this argument might truly represent a profound ideological undercurrent driving US-China conflict, one that, even if not shared by all Chinese leadership, can do significant damage to prospects for peace if propagated through internal CCP training, rectification, “struggle sessions,” and self-criticism.

Mao = Gary Busey?

leave a comment

In the interim we had the Mao years, which, politically speaking, were kind of like being strapped in the passenger seat of a stolen Lexus at 3:00 a.m. with your good friend Gary Busey at the wheel huffing paint and sucking down his third bottle of Goldschläger.

This is an exhortation to please read Jottings from the Granite Studio, the blog of Jeremiah Jenne, who is the academic dean and teaches Chinese history at IES Beijing, the study-abroad program I attended last fall.

Today was a gloriously sunny day in Santa Cruz, California. We took the dogs down to the beach to get a run in and then stopped for ice cream down at Marianne’s. That is also an exhortation to try out the combination of Horchata and Mexican Chocolate ice cream. The two together must be divine inspiration.


Written by Will

May 29th, 2011 at 6:08 pm

Economic Populism Won’t Help Liu Xiaobo

leave a comment

I was going to post this next week when it is in the Trinity Tripod, but it’s relevant right now.

UPDATE: It’s posted on the Trinity Tripod.

This month, the Nobel Committee awarded the Peace Prize to Liu Xiaobo, a Chinese democracy dissident and intellectual famous for negotiating the safe passage of the last few hundred students at Tiananmen Square on June 4th, 1989. He is currently in jail for drafting Charter 08, the most recent major call for democracy in China. The week before that in the U.S., the House of Representatives voted overwhelmingly to impose tariffs on China because the Chinese government is artificially suppressing a rise in the value of the RMB; although the bill is inflammatory, it is unlikely to pass the Senate. And across the country, midterm election advertisements have blamed China as the final link in a chain of economic misery, stealing jobs from hardworking Americans and destroying our way of life. How are these events connected? While we might want Chinese democracy activists to prevail and the Chinese economy to come into balance with the rest of the world, we are actually shooting ourselves in the foot by playing to election-cycle populism.

A common word you hear around foreign policy circles in the Obama administration and the Clinton State Department is engagement. It basically means that the U.S. has a duty to stick to its core values, but that we can advance those values not by lecturing from a bully pulpit, but practically through a combination of defending our interests and appealing to the interests of other countries. This does not mean what political opponents of this administration want you to think it means. It does not mean that we are abandoning our values. It does not mean that we can’t strongly condemn human rights violations. But it does mean that instead of cultivating our national pride and vanity in throwing bombast at China, we’re more interested in results. We should in every circumstance call China out on its politically repressive policies. But its economic policies are different.

We need to stop demonizing Chinese economic policy because it will only lead to more Chinese intransigence. No government wants to be perceived as if it is beholden to the demands of another. This is essentially the application of behavioral psychology to international relations: do we ever want to be perceived as weak and submissive, buckling to the demands of a competitor? No! Political leaders want to project independence, primarily because their constituents want to feel as if they are collectively independent. Government behavior mirrors individual behavior because governments, even non-democratic governments, are at some level accountable to the people. We can better influence Chinese policy by negotiating, and gently manipulating the tug and pull of international diplomacy.

We also need to rid ourselves of some populist notions that say that if only the value of the RMB would rise, a flood of manufacturing jobs would return to American shores and our economic misery would be healed. The artificially low value of the RMB is a problem, but inflating the RMB is not the panacea that election ads make it out to be. It will not directly result in new factories in the Rustbelt – making China wealthier will encourage more Chinese to buy more foreign products generally, not just American products, and there will always be another country to which we can outsource jobs. Even at a doubling of the value of the RMB, the average Chinese factory worker’s salary would be pitifully low, still ripe for outsourcing jobs. Raising the value of the RMB will, however, correct systemic imbalances in the global economy. In order to better understand these imbalances, we need to look at the situation on both sides of the Pacific for the past ten years.

We need to recognize that the U.S. in the last decade has complied with the policy of a cheap Chinese currency – even benefited. Although China’s economic ascent has been rapid, it has not been as rapid as it could have been. In addition to artificially lowering the value of the RMB, the Chinese government has artificially raised the national savings rate. When a Chinese factory produces goods that are shipped to the United States, that factory gets paid in dollars. The proprietors of that factory must then exchange those dollars into RMB at the local bank to pay their costs. If we were looking at the situation in foreign countries, that bank would then invest its dollar reserves in whatever it thought to be most profitable. But under Chinese law, the dollars can’t go to the Chinese bank that exchanged them, but to the central bank, the People’s Bank of China.

Billions of dollars end up in PBOC coffers every day, and every day the PBOC parks the vast majority of its holdings in Treasury bonds, and to a lesser extent, stocks and other investments. This has an affect of improving the American standard of living – our stocks rise in value, bank holdings rise, those banks lend to the average middle-class family using a credit card and sitting on a subprime-mortgaged house, and they purchase more Chinese goods – all in a virtuous circle of consumption. But this policy, which has been tacitly affirmed by both Chinese and American governments, also has a dark side. First, it allows the U.S. government to spend more than it could ever possibly spend without raising taxes; second, it suppresses the living standards of the average Chinese worker.

We already know about the U.S. debt crisis. We’ve spent more and more on wars of folly, unpaid expansions of entitlements (in the form of Medicare Part D), and in addition to a sudden drop in tax revenue, a massive dose of counter-cyclical stimulus in response to the recession. This is compromising our ability to invest in the future and provide a stable platform for future economic growth. What we don’t know is that we’re also stymieing the average Chinese family’s advance in economic prosperity. Every day that the PBOC shuttles a billion dollars back into the U.S. economy is one more day that well-off Americans are borrowing a billion dollars from substantially poorer and worse-off Chinese. The money that has enabled an exploding deficit and a diseased consumer culture is also money that is not being spent in China on schools, infrastructure, and credit extended to Chinese families in the same way it has been extended to us. This is what the “trade imbalance” really means. The end of the imbalance won’t mean an instant economic stimulus in the U.S.; it will however make both countries substantially better off for the future. Why does all this matter for the Chinese democracy movement? China will be much more receptive to political reform when it is integrated into the world economy, not isolated; attuned to movements of global culture, not cut-off; and when individual citizens prosper, not mired in a low standard of living.

Fang Lizhi, a major Chinese democracy activist who fled to the U.S. after Tiananmen, recently wrote a New York Times op-ed claiming that Liu Xiaobo’s Peace Prize should disabuse us of the “dangerous notion” that “the autocratic rulers of China will alter their disregard of human rights just because the country is richer.” This, I believe, is not a fair representation of this view; subscribers to that view don’t believe that the Communist Party will change as a result of economic prosperity, but that individual Chinese will.

A higher standard of living for Chinese citizens will do several things: it will bring more Chinese out of poverty, and into education. This, in turn, will expose them to ideas not sanctioned by the government. Consider this: every major democracy movement in China has been instigated by Chinese students and intellectuals. The 1979 Democracy Wall movement was student-led; the 1989 Tiananmen protests were student-initiated, followed by the support of broad swaths of the Beijing population and people in cities across the country; Charter 08 was written and signed by intellectuals and prominent professionals. This pattern repeats itself over and again.

Rural farmers too, have engaged in protest, not generally for democracy, but against local corruption. When taxes in these rural areas are raised exorbitantly high (nearly wiping out their yearly income), farmers have organized opposition, and in some cases, made minimal reform. But this is not addressing the issue: an unaccountable bureaucracy and an illegitimate authoritarian government. At Tiananmen 21 years ago, the students found support in factory workers, doctors, teachers, and even employees of the Communist Party newspaper, but not rural farmers. Tiananmen was a minimal blip in the minds of most Chinese (if they knew about it at all). The voices for a democratic China must link arm in arm with the poor, rural farmers. Only when more farmers are lifted out of extreme poverty can they truly wipe out corruption. When this happens, the Communist Party will not be able to stop the transition to multi-party democracy.

The Communist Party no longer has a coherent value system upon which policy is based. When capitalism was slowly introduced in the 1980’s, the then party chairman Zhao Ziyang said that China was still in the first stage of socialism, and had to build up its productive forces for 100 years for socialism to be sustained. This was and is a façade. The party currently exists to preserve its own power.

Under Mao, China did have a value system, however violent and repressive. Because the Chinese people are now grasping for something to believe in, they ask – what does it mean to be Chinese? Is it just the pursuit of wealth and the technocratic application of utilitarian economic policy? Millions are turning to religion: Christianity, Buddhism, and traditional Confucian practices. But Chinese democracy activists have for thirty years offered something different. To be sure, the vast majority of Chinese know little of the movement and will have been blocked from hearing about Liu Xiaobo and the Nobel Peace Prize. But it is influential enough that the Communist Party feels threatened. As more and more Chinese rise out of poverty and into the halls of academia and professional life, more and more will desire a real, national set of values. The democracy movement must stand ready to offer that alternative to the newly well-off.

We’ve now come full-circle: we must stop demonizing Chinese economic policy because doing so will not change the situation, which will not solve our debt crisis nor raise the Chinese standard of living; the lack of such an increase in prosperity will ultimately further the repression of political reform in China and inhibit the advance of our interests and human rights globally. We can further our economic desires and the cause of democracy and human rights by taking a reasoned, practical course, and engaging with the Chinese, not cutting them off.

Liu Xiaobo Copied from the Chinese Constitution

leave a comment

Have you heard the joke lately? (from China Geeks)

Hu Jintao: Has Liu Xiaobo confessed yet?

Prosecutors: He’s confessed everything and we’ve corroborated his statements.

Hu Jintao: So [in Charter ‘08] where does he get the phrase “federated republic?”

Prosecutors: This comes from the report of the second congress of the Chinese Communist Party. The original wording was, “establish a free federated republic.” Only, the word “free” is not in the Charter.

Hu Jintao: Then… then, what about the military being made answerable to the national government and not to a political party?

Prosecutors: We’ve looked into it! This comes from The Selected Works of Zhou Enlai. The original wording was, “We must make the military answerable to the national government.” Only, the word “must” is not in the Charter.

Hu Jintao: Then… then … then, where does all that stuff praising Western style democracy come from?

Prosecutors: The Xinhua Daily ran an editorial that read, “America represents a democratic society.” Only, the Charter doesn’t say “America represents.”

Hu Jintao: Then… then… then, what about an end to one party rule?

Prosecutors: This is a slogan from great grandfather Mao when he opposed the Guomindang [the Nationalists]! The original wording of the slogan was, “Topple the one party dictatorship!” [When the Nationalists were vying for power with the Communists, Mao strongly advocated a multi-party government. Failure to create a multi-party state led to civil war.]

Hu Jintao: Then… then… then… then, what about freedom of association, freedom of speech, and a free press?

Prosecutors: These are all part of the Constitution!

Written by Will

October 22nd, 2010 at 3:03 am