Business as Usual at the ‘People’s Daily’

Jasper Becker

  • The Origins of the Cultural Revolution. Vol. III: The Coming of the Cataclysm 1961-66 by Roderick MacFarquhar
    Oxford, 733 pp, £70.00, October 1977, ISBN 0 19 214997 0

What do we know of recent Chinese history and how do we know it? This third, massive volume of Roderick MacFarquhar’s Origins of the Cultural Revolution, the first volume of which appeared in 1974, completes what is perhaps the most ambitious effort yet undertaken to unravel why and how this great and confusing event came about. Yet even after reading the 730 pages of the final volume, I was left wondering whether the thoughts and acts of the Chinese Communist Party’s leaders have become any more knowable.

The issue was very much to the fore when President Jiang Zemin paid a state visit to America in 1997. His itinerary included a speech at Harvard, where Professor MacFarquhar, the rounding editor of the China Quarterly, is now a professor of history, and which has the John Fairbank Center, the pre-eminent centre for Chinese studies in the Western world. Outside the lecture theatre, protesters chanted that Jiang was a brutal tyrant; when he entered, however, many people stood up and applauded him. Earlier, students and faculty had debated whether he should be welcomed at all, since the human rights record of his Government disgusts many in America. The usual arguments were trotted out in the campus press about the merits of engaging in dialogue.

This issue has been often rehearsed, but it is far from stale or irrelevant, especially when it comes to China and to President Jiang. For fifty years, Jiang has been a faithful member of the Chinese Communist Party, during which time that Party has been accused of murdering an estimated seventy or eighty million of its own people, of waging genocide against subject races like the Tibetans, and of attempting to wreck the world’s oldest continuous civilisation. The astonishing thing is that nobody has much of a clue about what Jiang was doing or even where he was for much of that time. He has been China’s leader for ten years now, and before that he ran Shanghai, the country’s most important city. He has visited more than thirty countries in recent years and every week receives visitors from around the world. On the other hand, it is not even possible to be sure whether he ever finished his engineering degree; what he did as an engineer at the Number One Automobile Factory in the Fifties, when many intellectuals were persecuted and when thirty million starved to death in the Great Leap Forward; on which side he was during the Cultural Revolution, when he held nominal posts in various state factories. Most significantly, no one is sure what he was doing in June 1989, when the Party leadership voted to send in the tanks, to crush the student protesters. Was he there at all? Or in favour of force? Did he even play a role in the events in Shanghai, where the Army was not sent in?

All this would be worth knowing, since Jiang controls, with the powers of an absolute dictator (at least on paper), the world’s most powerful totalitarian state, and the last significant surviving Communist Party. After twenty years of the Open Door policy, we still know remarkably little about China’s secretive leadership. Compared to what it was under Mao, China is now a vastly different and more open society, yet it is still well nigh impossible to scrutinise the workings of the Party, and its fifty million-plus members. It remains an organisation, a state within a state, whose leaders are answerable to no one.

It is extraordinary how tightly the Party wields control over its own past. Nearly every book published in China, every film, every television programme, every newspaper is vetted, to ensure it matches the partly fictional version of history that the Party presents to the outside world. This is a country where officials still memorise whole books printed in order to provide them with the answers they must give to foreigners on sensitive questions. It even prints books which instruct officials on how they must write the history of their country, factory or their own lives, spelling out what they can put in and what they must leave out.

Few, even within the Party, are granted access to the archives, even their own personal files. Many people do not understand much of what has happened in their own lifetimes, and they often lie to their children about what they themselves did or saw. Everyone has done things they prefer not to recall. It is true that you can now meet and interview senior Party members, but they are still bound by an omertà-style code of silence, which is itself reinforced by an instinctive, inbred loathing to reveal the truth to ‘barbarians’.

What makes this all the more tantalising is the fact that the Chinese Communist Party runs one of the most massive bureaucracies ever created. If only you could get your hands on them, vast stores of documents exist which could be mined by Western scholars for years to come. Occasionally, historical dossiers are opened but usually only when the Party feels that this will help it to manipulate public opinion or humiliate the losers in some internal power struggle.

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