Some must get rich first

Colin Legum

  • The Heart of the Dragon by Alasdair Clayre
    Harvill, 281 pp, £12.95, January 1984, ISBN 0 00 272115 5
  • The Origins of the Cultural Revolution. Vol. II: The Great Leap Forward 1958-1960 by Roderick MacFarquhar
    Oxford, 470 pp, £22.50, June 1983, ISBN 0 19 214996 2
  • Son of the Revolution by Liang Heng and Judith Shapiro
    Chatto, 301 pp, £9.95, September 1984, ISBN 0 7011 2751 1
  • Shenfan by William Hinton
    Secker, 789 pp, £15.95, November 1983, ISBN 0 436 19630 1
  • The Messiah and the Mandarins by Dennis Bloodworth
    Weidenfeld, 331 pp, £9.95, October 1982, ISBN 0 297 78054 9
  • The Cambridge History of China. Vol. XII: Republican China 1912-1949, Part I edited by John Fairbank
    Cambridge, 1002 pp, £50.00, October 1983, ISBN 0 521 23541 3
  • The Middle Kingdom: Inside China Today by Erwin Wickert
    Harvill, 397 pp, £12.50, August 1983, ISBN 0 00 272113 9

An estimated thirty to thirty-five million Chinese died, and millions more suffered, in the great revolution associated with Mao Tse-tung’s leadership, but at the very least, he laid the foundations on which it became possible to build a modern industrial society. The great revolution has now entered its fifth phase: an era emblazoned in neon lights all over the country as the Four M’s – modernisation of agriculture, industry, national defence, science and technology. What is missing from the Four M’s is Maoism.

Mao’s dynasty – which is what in the end it became – brought about the reunification of China under a system of centralised control; the destruction of the feudal land system, and the introduction of a new production system of agricultural communes; the creation of a unified, professional army; and the elevation of China into a new position of world importance. The Chinese could again see themselves as the proud inheritors of the world’s most ancient continuous civilisation, whose history is popularly retold and wonderfully illustrated in The Heart of the Dragon, the excellent book based on the television series prepared by Alasdair Clayre, who died shortly before it was published. Although the quest for modernisation began a century ago under the Ch’ing Dynasty statesman, Chang Chih-tung (1837-1909), and was pursued with fervour by Mao, his own commitment to egalitarianism and permanent revolution seriously impeded, and at times even reversed, progress towards this objective. Only now, under Mao’s latterday opponents (particularly the shrewd, authoritarian and tough old survivor, Deng Xiaping), has China become fully engaged in a pragmatic policy of rapid industrial modernisation, but on a scale so audacious as to make the final outcome unpredictable.

The first phase of Mao’s revolutionary period – the War of Liberation – saw the defeat of feudal and bourgeois China through an armed class struggle, and brought the promise of a new world revolutionary movement led by a close alliance between Beijing and Moscow. The Long March alone claimed the lives of 82,000 of the 90,000 who had set out on that astonishing venture. The second phase – the land reform movement of the Fifties – saw 20 million of China’s 35 million landlords arraigned before people’s courts; between two and three million were shot. In 1950, when Mao called for the suppression of counter-revolutionaries, 800,000 ‘vicious elements’ were put to death – a figure later increased by Zhou Enlai to two million, and by others to six million. The third phase, which overlapped with the second, witnessed the beginning and end of the honeymoon with Moscow: the injection of foreign technology and its abrupt termination with the expulsion of the Soviets. The Great Leap Forward, which followed, was a demonstration of self-reliance.

The period of the Great Leap is described with authority and a wealth of detail in the middle volume of Roderick MacFarquhar’s formidable Origins of the Cultural Revolution. It was a failure which left the country in a state of near-chaos. The mortality rate, nationwide, had doubled from 1.08 per cent in 1957 to 2.54 per cent in 1960 – a year in which the population actually declined by 4.5 per cent. MacFarquhar cites Chinese authorities for his staggering conclusion that the number who died in that period, above what might be expected in any normal year, was between 16.4 and 29.5 million. Because the whole nation’s effort was concentrated on steel production, the full harvest was not brought in. The number of those who died in this self-induced famine was equal to the total population of Scandinavia. Mao’s calamitous experiment (which was opposed at the time by a number of those who had formerly been his closest colleagues, including Deng Xiaping) was repeated in the fourth phase: the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution of 1966-1975 – Mao’s desperate last attempt to eradicate both the traditional obstacles to further progress and the new bureaucracies that had sprung up under a centralising system of production and control. It ended in a virtual civil war.

The true number of casualties claimed by the Cultural Revolution has not been finally established, and it seems unlikely that it ever will be. A popular estimate I often heard quoted in China was between one and two million deaths, many of them suicides, but the much lower figure of 34,800 killed or driven to suicide was mentioned in the official indictment against the Gang of Four. That indictment also alleged that 729,500 people had been framed and persecuted, including 80,000 soldiers and 300,000 party dignitaries. A further hundred million, mainly professionals, academics, bureaucrats and other ‘privileged’ people, were dismissed from their jobs and sent to work in the countryside. Their offices, institutions and libraries were closed down, and their books and manuscripts destroyed. Families were broken up. Academics in Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou and Xiang still spoke only reluctantly about these nine years. Now, 12 years later, they are still trying to catch up on the lost decade of their intellectual pursuits. For most of the period of the Cultural Revolution, schools remained shut, leaving an entire generation of children without any education, other than what they were taught in the ranks of the vengeful Red Guards.

Son of the Revolution is the biography of Liang Heng, who was a child of four living in Changsa when the Cultural Revolution began. His father, a frightened party newspaperman, was quick to disown his wife, a police functionary, when she was branded as a ‘rightist’ because she had once criticised a superior during the brief period of the Hundred Flowers campaign in 1957. His justification for driving his wife into isolation and penury, and denying her access to her three children, was his wish to protect them from the vengeance of the Red Guards. This questionable act of sacrifice saved neither himself nor his children from persecution and discrimination.

William Hinton’s Shenfan continues his remarkable account of a Chinese village, Long Bow, in Shansi Province, which he began in Fanshen, where he covered the period of the land reform movement. A practical agriculturalist and academic, Hinton had spent five years in the village from 1943 to 1948, teaching the peasants farm mechanisation. He was prevented from returning, first because of American Chinaphobia during the Fifties and Sixties, of which he was a political victim, and subsequently, because of the anti-American hysteria spread by the Cultural Revolution. He was finally able to return in 1977 thanks to the intervention of that great survivor Zhou Enlai. Hinton, who is well-known for his admiration of Mao, claims that the difference between Long Bow in 1948 and Long Bow in 1977 was almost entirely positive: improved education, medical care and housing – yet his overall impression was one of stagnation and stalemate. His explanation for this paradoxical conclusion is that, although Long Bow seemed to have everything necessary for rapid development and a prosperous future, the community lacked unity and political vision. The Great Proletarian Struggle degenerated into factional struggle, feudal clan struggle, class struggle and line struggle (involving personalities). He came to the conclusion that

the road to power lay through the denunciation of the opposition, the political assassination of its leading personalities, defining them at one extreme as class and national enemies, at the other, as common criminals. The tradition, it seemed, was as old as Chinese civilisation ... The appalling thing was the universality of the technique ... They all used Marxist rhetoric – principle contradiction, class struggle, line struggle, revolution, counter-revolution – but the action in each case was in the classical tradition of bureaucrats unable to co-exist with any kind of pluralism, any grass-roots initiative and lower-level dissent. Power that fell short of absolute power turned out to be power that was insecure. And the same held true at all levels above the region as at various levels below it.

One doesn’t have to travel very far in China to be made aware of the deep revulsion and shame inspired by the memory of the Red Guards, and of the fear of a replay – in the shape of a violent backlash against the policies now being pursued. An old Chinese saying is constantly repeated: ‘He who has once been bitten by a snake jumps at a piece of string.’ In 1979 the People’s Daily complained that the peasants still suffered from a ‘morbid fear’ that the pragmatic programme of modernisation would sooner or later provoke a radical anti-rightist witch-hunt. ‘Never be a tall tree in China’ is something people often say. I heard it from a peasant family in a commune near Shanghai when I asked why they kept their newest furniture, their television set and their refrigerator upstairs, while the lower part of their house, like most other peasant homes, was barely furnished.

The argument about how much of the responsibility for the disastrous course taken by the Cultural Revolution belongs to Mao, and how much to the Gang of Four, is still far from over in China. As MacFarquhar says, even those most critical of the Chairman do not want to repeat what has always been seen in Beijing as the mistake Khrushchev made with de-Stalinisation: so many veils were stripped from the dead leader that the party and the cause were both threatened. Besides, factional politics in the party’s upper ranks dictated compromise, first over the mistakes of the Great Leap and then over the Cultural Revolution.

In the trial of the Gang of Four, evidence was produced to show that, as early as 1966, Mao had warned his wife, Jiang Quing, not to become ‘dizzy with success’; in 1967, he had ordered her to undertake self-criticism; in 1974, he is reported to have written her a bitter letter, saying: ‘It is better that I do not see you; you have not carried out my instructions for years past.’ At that time, too, it is now revealed, he had told the Politburo: ‘She does not speak for me; she represents only herself.’ At her trial, Jiang Quing screamed at the prosecutor: ‘I was Mao’s dog. Whoever he told me to bite, I bit.’

Although Mao spent the last five years of his life in virtual isolation, struggling helplessly against Parkinson’s disease, it is hard to believe that, as early as 1966, 13 years before his death, he was unable to control his wife, and that the Politburo was entirely powerless in this matter. Similarly, one may feel some sympathy with him in the last years of his life as he felt his power slip away amid growing signs of the ‘bourgeoisification’ of the new China, but it is difficult to understand why he allowed Jiang Quing to order a large public park in Beijing to be closed so that she and her Gang could use it as a private estate.

Dennis Bloodworth’s truly magisterial biography of Mao concludes that, for all his faults and mistakes, he was a founding emperor comparable to Quin Shi Huangdi or to Liu Bang of the Han Dynasty: ‘He was the right man at the right moment. A flawed giant, the personification of a monumental irony, a ruthless champion of both right and wrong; he leaves us with one dominant image of himself that he would perhaps have wished, above all, for an epitaph – he was a very Chinese hero.’ Roderick MacFarquhar offers the view that it was Mao’s demonic desire for earth-shaking progress that required exaggerated claims of success for the Great Leap. He may have warned against skipping stages of socialism, but his burning ambition to reshape society instantly led to the ‘communist five styles’, and to the ultra-leftism of the early communes. ‘Mao may have paid lip-service to agriculture, but it was his dream of overtaking the Soviet Union and the United States that hurtled China into its massive industrial drive spearheaded by steel, still an international virility symbol in the 1950s.’ ‘Revolution is not a dinner-party,’ Mao told his critics.

Those engaged in the contemporary debate over nuclear weapons and, especially, in the arguments about nuclear proliferation and whether it will increase or diminish the dangers of a nuclear holocaust, should consider what might have happened if China had become a nuclear power in Mao’s lifetime. In the late Fifties he told his Politburo that peaceful co-existence was no more than a tactic to fuddle the imperialist adversary, and that a world war would have ‘no other result than the end of the world capitalist system’. These are the words he used to reassure Pandit Nehru: ‘If the worst came to the worst and half of mankind died, the other half would remain; imperialism would be razed to the ground, and the whole world would become socialist.’ On an earlier occasion, while on a visit to Moscow, he confided to Khrushchev his view of the beneficial consequences of a nuclear holocaust: ‘On a debris of imperialism, the victorious people would very swiftly create a civilisation thousands of times higher than the capitalist system, and a truly beautiful future for themselves.’ It was soon after this conversation that in 1959 the USSR rescinded its agreement on new technology which provided, inter alia, for an experimental nuclear bomb to be delivered to Cuba. If the account of the conversation between Mao and Khrushchev had come only from Russian sources, one would have been entitled to treat it sceptically: the corroboration offered by Nehru gives it greater credibility. Yet the same man who could see advantages in obliterating half of mankind reminded his Politburo that ‘people’s heads are not like leeks: once you cut them off, they do not grow again.’ Mao despised liberals and democrats. Chamberlain, he once said, was worse than Hitler; he dismissed all social democrats as ‘opportunists’, and derided all democratic governments as despotic. His final jibe at his disgraced defence chief, Peng Teh-Luai, was that he adhered to ideas of ‘liberty, equality and fraternity’.

Dennis Bloodworth reminds us that China’s history is not one of debate, reform and gradual emancipation: it is a repetitive tale of long periods of meretricious peace and mounting misery, which ended when the exhausted dynasty was either obliterated in an explosion of popular wrath instigated by a man of destiny, or eclipsed by a foreign invader. With the ending of Mao’s dynasty, China has entered, more or less peacefully, into its new age of modernisation. Although it is being built on the foundations laid in Mao’s time, and therefore retains Mao’s rigidly centralised ‘dictatorship of the workers and peasants’, its planned direction differs substantially from his vision of the future. Mao himself, at the end of his life, had begun to yield on his dogmatic pursuit of egalitarianism, and had accepted, in September 1960, the need to encourage production by allowing peasants in communes a measure of private enterprise: what is now described as ‘the policy of responsibility’ – the responsibility of producing more than the official quota, stimulated by the promise that those who do produce more will retain the profit of their surplus production. What Mao had resolutely opposed was the adoption of a mixed economy which would allow for substantial enclaves of capitalist development, and rely heavily on foreign capital. Deng Xiaping, the principal architect of these policies, was denounced as a ‘renegade revisionist’ and a ‘dangerous capitalist-roader’.

The new slogan – ‘Some must get rich first’ – smacks of Thatcherism. One of the first things I was told on my arrival in Shanghai was that 14 peasants had earned four times more than the highest incomes paid to anybody in Shanghai in the previous year. The secretary of the commune in which some of these rich peasant families live dismissed any idea of a new rural élite growing up under the ‘policy of responsibility’. ‘Our problem,’ he said, ‘is not with people getting rich; we can always look after those who are poor.’ Pure Thatcherism. This is not a view accepted by William Hinton, who claims to have seen evidence that as tens of millions begin to implement the policy of responsibility ‘polarisation sets neighbours on divergent tracks, long dormant class tensions revive and, along with them, the fetishism and fatalism that have always served to obscure and excuse such tensions ... Already some peasants on the rise are hiring labour and lending money at usurious interest rates. As harvest-time approaches, they are also finding it necessary to erect in the field huts made of stalks to provide shelter for family members who must guard the crops night and day against less fortunate tillers.’ Hinton believes that as long as 80 per cent of the Chinese people remain peasants, and as long as they remain tied to the land to farm it with hoes, an extraordinarily appropriate foundation will continue to exist on which to re-erect an authoritarian, élite-dominated superstructure. He argues that while the Chinese revolution of the 20th century destroyed the landlords as a class, it also created a bureaucratic superstructure uncannily reminiscent of those built by past dynasties whose roots lay in landlordism.

The appetite for private profit, encouraged by the policy of responsibility, has spread like an epidemic from the rural communes to urban communes making furniture and cutting clothes. Markets for these goods produced for private sale are to be seen in most towns. Indeed, there is evidence on all sides of the rebirth of a consumer society. Hoardings in Guangchou and Shanghai advertise modern jeans and household appliances produced in factories jointly-owned and controlled by industrial communes and foreign firms. Some of the richer communes have even begun investing in American and Japanese factories abroad. What is unique about the new economic experiment is the decision to nurture islands of capitalist development (the free economic zones) within an authoritarian, centralised socialist-type economy. Already, Kwangchou (Canton) and Shenzen City (separated only by a fence from Hong Kong) have become thriving centres operating outside the constraints of the controlled economy; and when Portuguese Macao and Hong Kong are taken over, these two citadels of capitalism and entrepôt trade will be allowed to continue their way of life within a Communist society. It’s as if a United Europe included the capitalist societies of West Germany, France and Britain as well as the centralised economies of East Germany, Czechoslovakia and Poland.

Despite centuries of foreign influence, acceptance of foreign ways has always been made difficult in China by the persistence of deeply-rooted traditions, a theme imaginatively developed by Professor John Fairbairn in the introductory essay to Volume XII of The Cambridge History of China, covering the period from 1912 to 1949. The book has many distinguished contributors: among them, Professor Jerome Ch’en, writing on the Chinese Communist movement up to 1927; Professor C. Martin Wilbur, who describes the creation of the revolutionary movement and the drive to unify China in the five critical years between 1923 and 1928; and Professor Marie-Claire Bergère, who examines the rise and political failure of the Chinese bourgeoisie between 1911 and 1937.

In the past, the Chinese have succeeded in maintaining their distinctive identity mainly at the cost of delaying the modernisation of their society. Even Karl Marx was given a Chinese face when he was introduced by the Communists. Erwin Wickert, a former West German Ambassador to Beijing, with experience of the country going back to his student days, records in The Middle Kingdom that when Hua Guofeng made a pilgrimage to the Karl Marx House in Trier, he wrote in the visitors’ book: ‘China owes her liberation to the ideas of Karl Marx and Chinese practice.’ The historic break between Beijing and Moscow was brought about largely because the Russians failed to understand that while their technical and financial assistance was welcome, their attempts at influencing the Chinese were unacceptable. The contempt felt for the Russians and their advisers (a contempt one still encounters in all circles in China) was roughly expressed by Mao on an occasion when he was upbraiding a meeting of party faithfuls: ‘Some people are so undiscriminating that they say a Russian fart is fragrant ... the Russians themselves say it stinks.’ (Mao shared with Lyndon Johnson a penchant for using body allusions to reinforce his arguments. Another example was the advice he offered his Politburo: ‘Comrades, you must all analyse your responsibility. If you have to shit, shit. If you have to fart, fart! You will feel much better for it!’)

The Chinese finally expelled the Russians when they felt they were in danger of being overwhelmed by them: one should not rule out the chances of the present honeymoon between Chinese Communism and Western technology ending equally abruptly. Against this view it can be argued that China is no longer as vulnerable as it was immediately after the Communist victory. The Chinese leaders are now in a position where they can choose what they want from the West; and the West is no longer felt to be a direct threat to Chinese interests. Nor are the Western powers military rivals: on the contrary, so long as Western-Soviet rivalries persist, the Chinese see a positive value in developing their ties with the West. Nevertheless, the internal contradictions set up by Deng’s policies are fierce. It is hard to see how the Chinese can be kept swaddled in the wrappings of Deng Xiaoping’s Thoughts while at the same time throwing wide open the doors and windows to the West, the Japanese and the Overseas Chinese. The major cities are crammed full with experts and specialists in every field. In our hotel in Wuxi, for example, we met mathematicians from Sweden, plastic surgeons from Tucson, Arizona, managerial consultants from Harvard and Bonn, Japanese hoteliers, British aeronautics experts, Chinese businessmen from Hong Kong and the Philippines and industrialists from France.

Even more important, perhaps, is the likely effect of the crash programme to teach foreign languages (mainly English) to, literally, millions of Chinese. Although the books available for these students are carefully chosen, they nevertheless expose young Chinese minds to different worlds from their own. Foreigners are accosted in the streets by young Chinese who, after a polite initial inquiry about where they come from, are invariably asked: ‘Sir, may I practise my English on you?’; sometimes they are even asked for help in correcting an English examination paper. One such encounter I had in Xiang opened with the question: ‘Sir, do you know about pigeon-racing?’ The young man pressed on: ‘For a long time I have been puzzled about what it means when they say “the day of the toss”.’

While all school-leavers are entitled to a job (they can refuse up to four offers), once fitted into a particular slot they are there for life: career advancement is restricted to their particular field of employment. Among the very few escape routes from work one doesn’t like is either to acquire some new skill in modern technology or a place of influence in the Communist Party. The surest and quickest way for young Chinese to lift themselves above the ruck of a billion others is to gain a place in a university or some other higher place of learning, in which there are vacancies for only one out of every four hundred or so qualified candidates. One means of gaining an advantage over the rest is to offer knowledge of a foreign language, particularly English, in applying for a university place. I was afforded a glimpse of the efforts being made to get ahead of the rest of the field by another chance encounter I had in Xiang: with a university student who, as a private venture, ran a night-class teaching English to school-leavers hoping to enter the local university. Despite the heavy cost of attending his classes (about a full month’s average salary), I found 60 eager young students on the night I visited the school. I was immediately roped in to record a dozen essays from the English reader as an aid to their pronunciation: ‘How Marx Learned Foreign Languages’; a story about Abraham Lincoln; ‘Great Britain and Ireland’ – and ‘Show Jumping in England’:

Today is a great day for Susan. She is taking part in a show jumping event which will decide who is the champion rider in the south of England ... Now she is jumping the first jump. She remembers that the lop bar on the fence is loose, but Bayard goes over easily. Now the wall.

Less than twenty years ago youngsters like these were listening to Radio Xian proclaiming that ‘revolutionary beating, killing and robbing is very good.’