China’s Crisis

Mark Elvin

  • The Dragon’s Brood: Conversations with Young Chinese by David Rice
    HarperCollins, 294 pp, £16.99, April 1992, ISBN 0 246 13809 2
  • Time for telling truth is running out by Vera Schwarcz
    Yale, 256 pp, £20.00, April 1992, ISBN 0 300 05009 7
  • The Tyranny of History: The Roots of China’s Crisis by W.F.J. Jenner
    Allen Lane, 255 pp, £18.99, March 1992, ISBN 0 7139 9060 0
  • Beyond the Chinese Face: Insights from Psychology by Michael Harris Bond
    Oxford, 125 pp, £8.95, February 1992, ISBN 0 19 585116 1
  • Chinese Communism by Dick Wilson and Matthew Grenier
    Paladin, 190 pp, £5.99, May 1992, ISBN 0 586 09024 X

In less than a hundred years, the Chinese have lost two systems of belief. During the first quarter of the present century they rejected Confucianism or, more precisely, scriptural Confucianism as opposed to habits of mind often given the ‘Confucian’ label. And at the beginning of the last quarter of this century, Maoist Communism ceased to be credible. It is not surprising, therefore, that a complex confusion about morals, world-views and the purposes of life now reigns in the thinking stratum of Chinese society, especially among the young. David Rice’s Dragon’s Brood is a marvellously fresh and immediate evocation of this confusion at what one might call the first level of perception – that of the serious visit. Rice is innocent of any real knowledge of Chinese culture or Chinese history, and has to work through an interpreter, but he has a good journalist’s sense of the core of a human character, and a gift for asking questions. He has not been deceived by the usual stage props, and he persuades his informants to say blunt, even brutal, things. ‘I could tell people enjoyed seeing the men killed,’ says one of a political execution. ‘In all our institutions, never forget there is a double tier of existence – one written down, and the other one, the things that really happen,’ says another. Above all, Rice presents conflicting views and avoids peddling a single line of interpretation. In spite of its apparent superficiality, his book achieves real depth.

China first appears in his pages as an emotional black hole. The author’s Chinese friends tell him, for example, that ‘envy, or rather the fear of envy ... is poisoning China.’ And that ‘the deterioration lies everywhere – in the culture, in the people who carry that culture.’ ‘The crux’ is how to make use ‘of the talents of our people here at home. There is a ... drive ... to learn and improve, but the energy has dissipated in internal attrition.’ ‘We have lost our spirit of enquiry, our spirit of freedom.’ ‘What we say is not real.’ ‘People simply do not trust each other any more.’ ‘With a billion people around you, you cannot be close to any of them.’ The leaders ‘think that China is their property ... No one has the right to speak or express different opinions.’ ‘You have to be paralysed and cynical if you want to survive.’ ‘The young generation are dying the whole time ... They’ve given up on everything ... Ninety-nine per cent of my friends have died like that.’ ‘The individuals of our ruling class’ have made ‘society sacrifice itself for them’. ‘We feel pain every minute of the day’ – at the lack of democracy – ‘and it’s worse than the pain of hunger. Democracy here is on the same level [of necessity] as the food we eat.’ And, on Tiananmen: ‘The young student leaders wanted prominence for themselves: their personal ambitions were detrimental to the movement as a whole.’ So the quotations pile up. Enough, one would think, to persuade anyone who still harbours illusions about the place that there is something seriously wrong.

A closer look, however, shows a multitude of sprouts of hope. There is defiance: the Chinese ‘are not slaves, as the Government wants them to be’. There are escape routes: ‘During the last forty years what we suffered most was the loss of normal emotional human life. That’s why music about love has become so popular.’ Rice himself comments on the youngest generation of adults that ‘a sense of beauty has not yet been beaten out of them,’ and that ‘seemingly against all reason, there are young Chinese who devote themselves to caring for others ... Generosity is alive and well in China, and so is sheer downright goodness.’ Rice noted ‘caring attitudes’ particularly in the medical and teaching professions. One of his informants declared to him, unconsciously echoing the old ideal of the Three Imperishable Things (one’s virtue, achievements and teachings), that ‘I will do worthwhile things, so that even after I die the world will know that this man used to exist.’

The pseudo-sophisticated belief that the Chinese care little about individual or human rights, however difficult these may be to realise in a Chinese context, should not survive a reading of these pages. ‘In my first year at university I felt I was surrounded by people in chains. But occasionally I would read Sartre. I was struck by his theory that to exist in this world means to have thoughts by yourself, and to act according to those thoughts ... And this is what we younger people are doing.’ After Tiananmen, ‘there’s a new solidarity ... betrayal is out.’

Rice’s analyses of Chinese society – or, more exactly, of the urban society of China, because he hardly seems to have ventured into the countryside – are anecdotal, but not lacking in perception. Thus China does not have one ‘generation gap’ he argues, but at least three. The four demographic bands are 1. the Old Guard who made the revolution, 2. the Red Generation, reared under a confidently established Communism, 3. the Grey Generation of the so-called Cultural Revolution, who lost education, health and hope, and 4. the Hopeful Generation of present-day youth. Between each of these there is a gulf in values and perceptions. Again, in the Chinese world, according to one of his informants, there are four ways to get on. There is the Red Way: joining the Party, ‘even if you don’t believe in any of it’, so as to acquire power and privilege. There is the Black Way: becoming an intellectual in the hope of changing things in the longer run. There is the Yellow Way: making money through business. And there is the Green Way: going abroad, especially to the USA (whose green card, entitling the bearer to residence, gives this Way its colour). As Rice himself notes, the relative absence of goods has meant that those with money to spend have used it disproportionately on food and entertainment. One acquaintance told him, ‘dancing, banqueting, having a good time – that’s all there is.’ I should add, however, that a colleague who has recently examined food consumption patterns in Mainland China and Taiwan tells me that this imbalance is now more and more a feature of the past.

Rice offers us observations rather than conclusions, but his eye is sharp and he has useful things to say about many important topics. At the next level of perception – the span of a lifetime as opposed to that of the visit – is Vera Schwarcz’s Time for telling truth is running out. This is a record of, and commentary on, the conversations she had over five years with Zhang Shenfu. Zhang (1893-1986) was a philosopher and one of the founders of the Chinese Communist Party. In his extreme old age he tried to look back, to make sense of what he had done, and not done, and to leave a testament, through her, to posterity. As they talked, both the author and her subject sought in their different ways to make use of the other. Both knew it, and knew that it was known.

Even without the web he spun around his own past, Zhang was a complicated and contradictory character. Schwarcz describes him as ‘a Communist who loved mathematical logic and a feminist who betrayed the women closest to him’. Why did he talk to her, and at such length? The answer may be that he underwent a long period of political disgrace starting late in 1957 when the Anti-Rightist campaign brought an end to the limited relaxation of the Hundred Flowers period; he was men rehabilitated under Deng Xiaoping as ‘the earliest founder of the Communist organisation in Beijing ... October 1920’. However, as Schwarcz observes, political rehabilitation ‘is not the same as self-rehabilitation’. Zhang was anxious both to justify himself to himself, and also to be remembered as a philosopher.

He was, in her words, ‘arrogant’ and convinced that he was ‘the greatest philosopher in 20th-century China.’ His ambitions on this latter score are fairly certainly vain ones. Though the author does her best for him, nothing she says even begins to persuade me that he was in the same class as his contemporary Zhang Dongsun, whom K.C. Yap (Yen Qizhong) of the Academia Sinica in Taipei has recently shown to have been an epistemologist of formidable learning and originality.

After a conventional upbringing spent memorising the Confucian scriptures, and suffering at least one severe trauma at the hands of an authoritarian father, Shenfu became a radical closely resembling the late 19th-century iconoclast Tan Sitong (a predecessor whom, oddly, Schwarcz does not mention). In 1919 he wrote in the celebrated magazine New Youth: ‘You think there is such a thing as safe thought? ... All thinking disturbs, revolutionises and destroys ... Thought is bound to upset you, you who would enforce worn-out ideas on social inferiors.’ The state, he declared in 1920, ‘is nothing but an instrument of oppression whose chief aim is to suppress the liberty of its citizens’. Or again: ‘Freedom ... is nobody’s to give or use. It is out there in the world of nature and cannot be realised except through self-emancipation.’ It is ironical that such sentiments underpinned the early years of a Communist Party that was soon to exert the most unrelenting discipline and soul-control over its members. (Since the historical source of the Leninist type of party was probably the Jesuits and the Marian congregations of the Counter-Reformation, a transnational network who organised in cells and used ‘fractions’ to manipulate larger bodies – the evidence, but not the conclusion, is to be found in Chatellier’s The Europe of the Devout – there was an even sharper historical irony about where these techniques finally ended up.)

To the end of his life, Shenfu held to the view that ‘revolution was the only alternative,’ and yet he spoke as early as 1928 of the ‘burden of political consciousness’ (Schwarcz’s phrase), and this was to remain a theme to the end. One of his former students told Schwarcz in 1987 that Shenfu had nonetheless always been ‘political’, and she suggests that ‘through mathematics, and then logic, he found the kind of healing that Liang Shuming’ – a theorist of culture and a practical rural reformer – ‘had sought through Buddhism.’ The cross-currents ran deep.

And nowhere deeper than in his relations with women. In one respect he was a libertine. In Schwarcz’s words: ‘After 1919 Zhang Shenfu sought to love as freely – and often as callously – as was possible in China’s revolutionary times.’ She is, however, unduly shocked by his view of ‘sex as food’. This had deep roots in Chinese culture, was hardly uncommon, and can be found, for example, in the metaphors and allusions of Shanghai social novels of this time. Yet Shenfu was also at least a proto-feminist. ‘Why can’t you take care of yourselves?’ he asked, rhetorically, of Chinese women. ‘Why won’t you develop your own talents? ... Chinese women, why do you let yourselves be trampled on?’ He stressed the need for an ‘inner revolution’ in women’s consciousness.

His own longest relationship (from 1921 to 1948), though interwoven with other liaisons, was with Liu Qingyang, one of the leading Communist crusaders for women’s liberation, although also one who found that ‘the revolution she joined proved inimical to independent-minded women.’ The Party broke the marriage up in 1948 after Shenfu had misjudged the military situation in the Civil War and urged a peaceful settlement. This plea earned him for a time the label of a traitor, and she was obliged to announce she was divorcing him. How far even this long companionship was based on a meeting of minds remains doubtful and Schwarcz leaves us with ‘the dilemma of a man who wrote so much about women yet understood them so little’.

The third level of perception spans the millennia. William Jenner, Professor of Chinese at the Australian National University, and a distinguished historian and translator, is a master of the full sweep of the Chinese past as well as the Chinese present. The Tyranny of History: The Roots of China’s Crisis speaks at its most powerful like the voice from the whirlwind, though it must also be said that from time to time the whirlwind breaks down into a bad-tempered squall before picking up speed again. Fascinatingly, even as he attacks what he sees as the baleful legacy of the Chinese past, Jenner himself seems to take on something of the persona of the fearless Chinese scholar of tradition speaking the truth at no matter what cost to himself. At moments, perhaps, he gets carried away by an enthusiasm for despair, but he is never less than honest with the reader. The book, he says, deals with ‘issues too urgent to be left until they can be viewed with the wisdom of hindsight’. He is right. And he carries his formidable learning with modesty. ‘None of my arguments,’ he says, ‘should be accepted unless it rings true when tested against your experience of China at first or second hand. Even if an argument does seem plausible, it should be treated only as a suggestion, as a possible way of looking at things.’ One could wish that more scholars wrote in such a spirit.

The central thesis is that ‘the state, people and culture’ of China are in ‘a profound general crisis that goes much deeper than that of a moribund Communist dictatorship’. The concept of a long-term historically rooted cultural crisis is not new. It emerged from the debates of the now half-forgotten reform theorists and their conservative opponents (both sides agreeing that something was amiss, though differing as to what) in the later 19th century. It crystallised in the savage indictment of the Chinese past and the Chinese character in Liang Qichao’s Theory of a New Citizenry in the first years of the present century. What is Jenner’s diagnosis? First, that the inherited historical vision of ‘China’ is a psychological prison. ‘History ... plays a role comparable to ... the Last Judgment. The religion of the Chinese ruling classes is the Chinese state, and it is through history that the object of devotion is to be understood.’ This past, though, is selectively created, with a skill that excels in selective omission and the affixing of labels rather than direct fabrication, and it creates an ‘imperialism of the mind that finds self-affirmation in the subjection of others’. The Chinese, he says, ‘actually took pride in their rigid and autocratic structures’, and in early times achieved a ‘peculiarly high degree of control over society’, though this weakened over the long term as society became too numerically vast and too complex for the bureaucrats fully to master. Under the later Empire control became a spoiling exercise: ‘The secret of preventing things from happening was fragmentation, and this was something at which the state got better and better ... Nobody had enough authority to do anything unusual.’ The Communist regime has, he suggests, inherited something from both the early and the later Empire: ‘Like both the interventionist state of the earlier ... dynasties and the minimalist one of later dynasties, it needs to keep society weak.’ Hence there is a fundamental block in the way of progress.

He asserts that ‘China now has a feudal structure reminiscent of Medieval Europe, in which vassals, system bosses, hold their fiefs from a lord in return for duties and obligations and control their sub-vassals on a similar basis ... Peasants remain legally tied to the land’ through the household registration system, and ‘the dependency of urban dwellers on the work unit is much greater than theirs.’ ‘What we have witnessed since 1950 is the feudalisation of China by a revolutionary political party.’ Moreover, ‘the structures of contemporary Chinese society and state are much more conducive to dictatorship than to democracy,’ and it remains ‘easier to imagine a China without the Communist Party than a China without the quasi-feudal pyramids of power that have developed over the last forty years’.

There is much truth in this assessment. Nonetheless it dismisses without, I think, fully understanding them the quite successful attempts at a limited local urban democracy – on a wider franchise than in pre-Reform Act Britain – in the last years of the Manchu dynasty and the first years of the Republic. None of these revealed insuperable cultural barriers to democratic practice, at a local level at least. This also had quite substantial roots in earlier institutions, such as the occasional assemblies of county gentry, the internal government of some guilds, and (probably) mass meetings. Nor does Jenner think it of much importance that there was an intellectual transformation regarding democracy from the time of the late 19th-century reformers, beginning perhaps with Wang Tao and Zheng Guanying. It is true that these initial attempts began with the idea, which was never entirely lost, of strengthening the linkages between the ruler and the ruled, but they also altered the nature of political legitimacy. To use Levenson’s formula, the ultimate fount of authority shifted from Tian (‘Heaven’) to min (‘the people’). Though Communist ideology has since attempted to replace the Mandate of Heaven with the Mandate of History (now also a lost cause), the earlier underlying shift in conceptions seems secure.

Jenner identifies social and economic legacies from the past that would cause trouble even for the ablest of governments. The foremost of these is China’s massive population relative to accessible resources. This has tended to divide the economy into two parts. ‘While the third of the Chinese population living ... near the coast and the big cities ... may well be able to make a go of it in the world economy, the prospects for the other 700 or 800 million are gloomy.’ A basic reason for this is that the natural environment is under heavy pressure (in large measure, one might add, as a result of the last pre-modern surge in growth, when many of the uplands were stripped of forest cover). ‘The underlying ecological problem makes much of the optimism about the prospects for the Chinese economy seem shallow.’

There is also a social problem that he calls ‘walls’: ‘walls on the ground and walls in the mind’. By this he seems to mean a tendency to cellularise social groups, ideas, even nations. Under the Ming, who imposed the so-called Maritime Interdict, and the Manchus, and later under Mao, ‘the price of this walled independence has been poverty and backwardness.’

He argues that traditional family values and institutions ‘teach an approach to living, both inside and outside the family, that is highly calculating. Those brought up this way are not encouraged to do anything for anyone unless it is to repay a debt or store up some credit for the future.’ While this characterisation has much truth in it, it is hard to see that it is an obstacle to modernisation, given that it also applies by and large to Hong Kong, Taiwan and Singapore. More to the point is the argument that, given the low quality of mass education in Mainland China, ‘going beyond the cheap-labour, low-tech capitalism of the 1980s’ will be ‘a hard job’.

His onslaught against the cruel and often arbitrary system of social discipline in contemporary China is more persuasive. As he says, the present system has fewer restraints and internal checks than its precursor under the Manchus. He attacks in savage terms the ritual of the numerous public executions, the marketing of the victims’ organs for medical purposes, and the ‘custom of having a blood-letting before modern festivals ... so that the country’s ancient rulers can enjoy National Day ... Chinese New Year or May Day with the satisfaction of knowing that some of the dangerous young have been destroyed’. And he notes, correctly, that ‘today’s rulers kill many more than their dynastic predecessors.’ On the arbitrary nature of procedures he states that ‘it needs only an application from civil affairs departments of local governments, public security departments, a work unit ... or a parent or guardian to the relevant provincial government office for one to be sent off for forced labour’ – to what he calls, correctly, ‘the slave sector of the Chinese economy’. It seems reasonable to assume that social modernisation cannot have more than limited success until such a system is fundamentally reformed.

He laments ‘the end of ideals’. ‘It was faith,’ he says, ‘as well as terror that drove people into such absurdities as trying to multiply ... harvests by halving the amount of cultivated land and planting the seed ... more closely than normal, or clearing forests to fuel blast furnaces in which useful iron and steel objects were melted down into useless pig iron, or dying to save a log of wood.’ He now sees instead the sinister side of the old ‘folk religion’, ‘like an underground river of fire, coming to the surface ... when social and political structures are ... cracking’. Its essence, he says, is ‘a terrible vision of the present world as an evil one ruled by demonic forces that have to be destroyed through cleansing violence.’ And he adds that ‘the Communists’ victories in 1949 owed more than is generally acknowledged to then ability to draw to the surface and control these underground millenarian traditions ... offering the way to a new world.’ The suggestion is that such forces may be stirring again.

The conclusions are dispiriting. Homegrown economic development within the present system has political limits as the Communists are ‘more comfortable with big and powerful enterprises’, ‘wholly or mainly foreign-owned’, than they would be ‘with a strong Chinese bourgeoisie that found some political muscle’. Breaking the system opens up a frightening prospect of disorder. ‘The future must offer something better than the choice between mental death, as minds are crushed by ageing traditionalists struggling to maintain their ... monarchy, and liveliness to be bought at an incalculable price in physical losses if the empire breaks up through violence and ... civil wars.’ He sees some hope in a scenario of de facto independence for China’s regions, especially those along the coast. But ‘nobody can deal with the underlying problems of inner China.’

Michael Bond’s Beyond the Chinese Face is in some ways the perfect foil for Jenner. It is a practical, straightforward pocket guide to social psychology that dissolves the uniqueness of Chinese society. Although it can make sense to talk of ‘Chineseness’, Bond argues, nevertheless different groups of Chinese differ at least as much among themselves as they do from the members of other cultures. More specifically, ‘the Chinese do not agree very strongly among themselves, and other cultural groups may be more Chinese than the Chinese’. In Robert Levine’s study of the ‘pace of life’, Taiwan was one of the slowest in the sample, while Hong Kong was probably faster than Japan. Bond concludes that, except in the pattern of their particular combination of characteristics, ‘the Chinese are not unique ... They share basic cultural themes with other groups. Japanese also learn ideographs; Italians, too, have a powerful focus on the family; the role of law is similarly undeveloped in Burma; achievement is likewise the basis of hierarchy for Canadians; and the inherent value of hierarchy is shared by Indians, among others.’

Bond cites Vemon’s finding that Orientals ‘score higher relative to Caucasians on spatial, numerical or non-verbal intelligence tests, and less well on verbal abilities and achievements’, and Francis Hsu’s Rorschach test results showing that ‘the stimulus as a whole has more salience for the Chinese; the parts for the Americans.’ Chinese upbringing leads to the ‘inhibition of exploratory playfulness’, and ‘Chinese are less creative than Americans.’ Chinese ‘make a critical distinction between established acquaintances and others’, strangers having ‘no place in this social logic’. Furthermore, the Chinese lack ‘emphasis on self-expression’. ‘Face’ and the exchange of obligations dominate social action. Thus ‘name-dropping, eagerness to associate with the rich and famous, the use of external status symbols, sensitivity to insult, lavish gift-giving, the use of titles, the sedulous avoidance of criticism, all abound, and require considerable re-adjustment for someone used to organising social life by impersonal rules, frankness and greater equality.’ The open acknowledgment of sexuality tends to be suppressed because it would ‘undermine the power structure of the family’. Chinese leaders in all spheres of life are ‘bossier’ than their Western counterparts, and ‘Chinese managers spend more time making decisions alone.’ The key concepts are a belief in hierarchy, attainment of high position through achievement, preferring the rule of men to the rule of laws and regulations, and giving a preponderant weight to the cultivation of human relationships over other values.

On the whole, the picture that emerges is only slightly different, though it is much more conceptually refined, from that conveyed by the earliest major work on the subject, Arthur Smith’s Chinese Characteristics (revised edition, 1900, unmentioned by Bond). Smith was a remarkable observer, and in spite of being a missionary was quite unsqueamish about such customs as the practice of Chinese mothers and elder sisters of masturbating baby boys to sleep. Some later but still early investigators like Warner Muensterberger, whose ‘Orality and Dependence: Characteristics of Southern Chinese’ (1951, and also not mentioned) took a wider approach to their subject than Bond, and tried to relate what they found in the field to the world of literary culture. In Muensterberger’s case, he used it to offer a by no means unconvincing social-psychological interpretation of the novel Monkey. The neglect of present-day popular literature, which is a staggeringly rich field for such themes as the ‘modernisation’ of Chinese emotional life, or attitudes towards the human body, makes Bond’s treatment seem rather thin, though it is always judicious.

The absence of any analysis of Chinese humour can only be deplored. Humour serves as one of the basic systems for circuit-testing and maintaining shared attitudes in human groups (as J.Z. Young pointed out many years ago). Being able to see a joke is one of the tests of membership of, or at least affinity with, a particular group. Chinese humour, past and present, covers a wide spectrum of accessibility so far as Western observers are concerned, and is one of the subtlest ways of measuring the psychological distance between us.

The most heartening aspect of these four excellent books is the sense they give that the study of China is alive and well. The same cannot be said of Wilson and Grenier’s Chinese Communism. It is not in any obvious sense a bad book; it is certainly not an ill-informed book; it is written quite carefully and clearly. But it is a dead book suggestive of a mummified Pekinology. ‘For all their progressive ideas and promise, the Chinese Communists have failed to ensure that steady sustained implementation of theory’ (what theory? Maoism?) ‘on which any substantial lasting social change must depend.’ ‘It would be fair to say that in 1949 Chinese Communism offered a model of development towards a more equitable society, but after forty years of national government the Party has been unable to live up to those expectations ... the over-arching contradiction between Chineseness, and Communism appears to be finding its unity in politics that are recognisably more Chinese than Communist ... That new Chineseness will not be the old Chineseness ... It will have been transmuted in the fire of Maoism to reveal new characteristics more appropriate to the time.’ Having written the fore-going I am seized – for a moment – with the fear that I am being unfair. But then I realise that most books on present-day China used to be written like that. Thank God we seem to be escaping.