Spreading Tinder over Dry Scrub

John Gittings

  • One China, Many Paths edited by Wang Chaohua
    Verso, 368 pp, £20.00, November 2003, ISBN 1 85984 537 1

The newsagent at the end of my lane in Shanghai always sold out of Nanfang Zhoumo (‘Southern Weekend’) within hours. For those reporting on China, this famous – and to the Communist Party leadership, maddening – investigative weekly published in Guangzhou was, and still is, essential reading. One week it might contain a serious discussion on the death penalty, the next a critique of the restrictions imposed on migrant workers, or an exposé of the penetration of the China market by US agribusiness. None of these topics is explicitly forbidden, but they are all sensitive subjects that the Communist Party prefers not to air.

Other Chinese magazines and papers also carry riveting articles, although less regularly and with less risk to their editors’ careers. There was always at least one good piece in the Xinmin Weekly, published by the Shanghai media group, whose tabloid Xinmin Evening News was also much more popular than the Party broadsheet. I remember one cover story on the computer junk trade which described Chinese peasants breathing in toxic fumes as they dismantled mountains of VDUs and motherboards shipped in from abroad. A second story exposed a mining disaster: the owner had bribed local officials to cover up the death toll and had dumped the victims’ bodies in a ditch.

Another source of ideas during my time in Shanghai between 2001 and 2003 was a new environmental group whose meetings were called ‘tea parties’ so as not to alarm the authorities. One of the first speakers was Li Changping, an outspoken campaigner against the crippling taxes imposed on poor rural communities. Li runs his own website called ‘Friends of the Farmer’, which has links to a dozen other sites concerned with China’s social and economic problems. Liang Congjie, the founder of China’s Friends of Nature (and the son of a famous architect who protested in the 1950s against the destruction of old Beijing), spoke at another tea party. Friends of Nature was one of the first Chinese NGOs – a term that would have sounded absurd only a few years ago – and such groups now deal with a range of sensitive issues from the environment to Aids.

There is far more argument and debate in China today, much of it challenging to Party orthodoxy, than the headlines of Western news stories reporting the latest ‘crackdown on dissent’ would suggest. The climate varies according to the political situation (don’t mention anything controversial – certainly not Sars – during the run-up to the annual National People’s Congress) and the choice of medium: the internet is freer than print journalism because the ‘old fellows’ at the top don’t know how to access the web. A number of subjects – anything about Tiananmen Square or the more recent suppression of the Falun Gong – remain out of bounds and those who transgress are punished harshly by the unreformed power of the ‘organs of state’.

Yet the issues which lie behind these forbidden topics – democracy versus political stability, freedom of expression against Party conformity – form part of an active debate in which thousands of intellectuals are asking the question that has preoccupied Nationalists and Communists alike for the past century: where is China heading? Very little of this debate has reached the outside world, which is much less interested than it used to be in China’s development. In the 1980s, as the country emerged from Maoism, we still asked questions about the future of Chinese socialism. Then, after the trauma of 1989, Deng Xiaoping got China moving again by declaring that isms no longer mattered, only economic reform. As China embraced the global economy and adopted the values of an emerging pan-Asian consumerist society, we stopped asking where it was heading, because the answer seemed obvious.

It is by no means as clear in China itself, and this collection of writings and argument from the 1990s illustrates the richness (within certain limits) of the debate which has resurfaced among intellectuals since Tiananmen Square. It has been influenced, Wang Chaohua writes, by two significant structural changes in intellectual life. The first was the emergence of ‘an international field of communication and exchange . . . that now extends from the mainland to Hong Kong, Taiwan and Singapore, the US and Australia, with outposts in Japan and Europe’. Mainland websites such as Xue er si (‘Study and Thought’) link to the influential Hong Kong magazine Ershi yi Shiji (‘21st Century’), which in turn connects with the wider diaspora. The second change is the growing autonomy of Chinese intellectuals. The Party no longer requires academic ‘writing groups’ to produce weighty theoretical polemics because politics is now driven by economic, not ideological, power. Today’s intellectuals are ‘much more likely to have university posts, and to fill them in ways resembling their counterparts in the West’.

Universities play a ‘bridging role’, holding conferences and organising exchanges with academics abroad, especially in the US. This is largely the result of the superior purchasing power of American institutions which, since the 1980s, have outbid European competitors for ‘access’ to the Chinese academic market. Such links haven’t always encouraged independent thought, and many Chinese intellectuals have exchanged the tyranny of the Party for the tyranny of the market. Mainstream economists in the late 1990s, Wang writes, ‘typically presented the reform process in a bland and euphemistic light’, providing a justification for the official doctrine of ‘capitalism with Chinese characteristics’.

Yet as this volume shows, there is also a strong current of dissent among intellectuals, whose scepticism dates back to their youthful experiences in the Cultural Revolution when they were ‘sent down’ to the countryside. This both gave them an insight into rural realities which is still valid today, when the peasants are again being exploited, and provided them with unexpected opportunities to read outside the Maoist canon.

Mao had ordered books from the Soviet Union and the West to be published for internal circulation, so that Party officials could learn for themselves the perils of ‘Soviet revisionism’. In the chaotic political climate of the time, the sent-down students often got hold of these. The philosopher Zhu Xueqin says this was like ‘spreading tinder over dry scrub’. Zhu’s group of students in rural Henan, he recalls here, practised a communal lifestyle, ‘sharing everything among ourselves, reading while working’. Zhu wangled a letter of authorisation so that, when visiting Shanghai on home leave, he could ransack the restricted shelves in the bookshops. Sartre’s Critique of Dialectical Reason and Sidney Hook’s Ambiguous Legacy became unlikely favourites.

In Guangxi Province, the sociologist Qin Hui found a treasure trove of books in the county library, including Djilas’s The New Class. Qin remembers the peasants there telling him that during the Great Leap Forward, ‘people had starved to death in every village.’ The economist Hu Angang spent seven years on the north-east border with Siberia, and as a driller in a prospecting team in northern China. He often travelled to remote villages in mountainous areas:

Witnessing their absolute poverty, I became acutely conscious of the degree of China’s backwardness, and was stirred to try to understand and help overcome it. After a day of heavy physical labour, at night I would study whatever I could get hold of, from official texts to the natural sciences, by gaslight, using my bed as a writing desk – determined to follow Gorky’s example of attending the ‘university of life’.

Li Changping was six years old in 1969, when embankments on the Yangtze were breached and his family’s village was flooded. His parents set off to beg for food elsewhere, leaving their children behind in a refuge above the water level. That night, Li’s sister had her ears bitten by a rat: her head swelled so much that she could no longer eat, and she died within a fortnight. Three decades later, Li had become Party secretary of a rural district in Hubei Province, where he found the peasants struggling to pay the ever-increasing amounts of tax demanded by corrupt officials. He often met ‘elderly people who would hold my hands, weeping and praying for an early death, and little children kneeling down to appeal for a chance to go to school’. Some 70 per cent of the population could not afford to see a doctor.

Though he does not tell the story here, Li then did something which would make him nationally famous: he described the peasants’ plight in a letter to the premier, Zhu Rongji, which was published in Nanfang Zhoumo. Stirred by the bad publicity, the government sent a team to investigate, but the result was an empty victory: the local officials announced they would cut taxes, and then sent thugs to collect them instead of official tax collectors. Li lost his job, and expanded his report in a book, Wo xiang zongli shuo shihua (‘I Tell the Truth to the Premier’).

Li’s book is on sale at every railway station bookstall, but his fate illustrates the general paradox of intellectual debate in China over the past decade: while the boundaries of what is permissible have widened, the influence of intellectuals in government has shrunk unless they offer supportive advice. All kinds of new ideas can be discussed at academic seminars, especially if they have a foreign co-sponsor, but few will have any impact on policy-makers. The 1980s, as Wang Chaohua reminds us, are thought of with nostalgia ‘as a brief time of explosive energies in which new ideas were eagerly explored, in a hopeful and creative climate’.

In the great debate of the mid-1980s, authorised (with some reluctance) by Deng Xiaoping, scholars such as Su Shaozhi, Li Honglin and Wang Ruowang mounted outspoken attacks from within the Party against its ‘feudal mentality’ and its ‘alienation of the people’. There were calls for the ‘toppling of old idols’, the development of a ‘real scientific spirit’, proposals for checks and balances on government and for internal Party democracy. Li Honglin demanded democracy ‘even if it grates on the ears of the leaders’.

It is common now to criticise the 1980s intellectuals for the predominantly Marxist mode of their discourse, yet this ensured that their ideas had a direct impact on those in power (though ultimately provoking the conservative reaction which led to the crisis of 1989). At the time, too, many Western diplomats and China-watchers rubbished the young activists at Beijing’s Democracy Wall in 1979-80, saying they were ‘better at writing poems than political manifestos’. Even the students in Tiananmen Square ten years later would be derided for ‘not really knowing what they mean by democracy’.

Such judgments are even more unfair from the very different perspective of a China totally transformed since the Beijing massacre put an end to the last hope of a more genuine socialism. Although for a while the Communist Party seemed terminally at odds with the rest of Chinese society, Deng Xiaoping saved it by abandoning socialism for capitalism in the economic fever stirred up by his famous ‘southern expedition’ of 1992. The debate is no longer between unreconstructed Maoism and semi-socialist reform: it is between unfettered marketisation, whose partisans often endorse exploitation and corruption as necessary for progress, and a social agenda which might humanise China’s new order.

This is often described as an argument between ‘liberals’ and the ‘neo-left’, though both terms are inaccurate. Wang Hui, co-editor of the semi-independent Du Shu (‘Readings’), and himself labelled as ‘neo-left’, calls it a prejudicial term applied to ‘anyone who criticised the rush to marketisation’; ‘critical intellectuals’ would be fairer. As for the ‘liberals’, many of them represent a contemporary Chinese Right, especially those economists ‘who advocate privatisation and marketisation without any reservations or limits’ and who typically work with big companies or the government. The crucial difference is that the critical leftists are mostly outside the political establishment while the liberals are inside.

There are some genuine liberal voices who try to bridge the divide, represented in this volume most effectively by Zhu Xueqin. Liberals, Zhu says, while advocating empiricism and endorsing the market system, should also pay close attention to the ‘increasingly pronounced social divisions and conflicts of interests around us’. He admits that conservatism is now in vogue and attributes this to ‘an exercise in survival skills’ on the part of intellectuals. Like other less moderate liberals, Zhu insists that the problem is that the Chinese market is still too weak. Only by developing it further can income disparity and endemic corruption be reduced. Yet such arguments are becoming harder to justify as the gap continues to widen between rich and poor (the ‘Gini co-efficient’ which measures that gap is now part of everyday political vocabulary), and even the Party elite, under the new management of President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao, acknowledges that the allocation of resources should not be left to the market.

China’s entry to the WTO in 2001 was the high point for the marketeers: for a while it was claimed that everyone would benefit from a ‘win plus win’ outcome. But as He Qinglian argues here in a brilliant analysis of the country’s changing class structure, China’s WTO entry was bound to ‘accelerate its rapid social polarisation’. The richer provinces and the economic elite with their superior business knowledge will maximise their advantages – no wonder Chinese universities are now swept by ‘MBA fever’. The plight of the migrant workers whose cheap labour underpins the economic boom, but who are often paid late or not at all, has become a national scandal. He Qinglian is an economist trained at Shanghai’s Fudan University and is the only contributor to this volume who has been forced to leave China because of her views: she showed that the Party power-holders and their hangers-on acquired property on a massive scale in the course of privatisation.

Many of the policies which are now causing social dislocation were launched in the mid-1990s in the dubious name of ‘macro-economic reform’. Wang Shaoguang and Hu Angang, the liberal scholars who proposed the reform, sought to strengthen the authority of central government during the ‘transition to a market economy’ rather than surrender it all at once to the market, but the effects were disastrous. The policy divided tax revenues between Beijing and local authorities, onto whom the burden of health, education and other social services was shifted. The result has been that local taxes are diverted for extravagant infrastructural projects, or simply creamed off, while head teachers have no money to pay their staff and rural doctors can survive only by over-prescribing. In the most notorious example, provincial health officials in Henan set up commercial ‘blood-collecting stations’ in an attempt to maximise revenue: the unsafe recycling of blood to donors after the plasma had been extracted has infected up to a million people in rural villages with HIV.

Commenting on the results of this disastrous shift in taxation, Wang Chaohua merely observes that ‘major social consequences . . . are still unfolding.’ This is putting it too mildly; as Wang Hui observes, liberals react ‘with the greatest alarm’ to any criticism of what was effectively an IMF-type reform. To be fair to Hu Angang, he has focused increasingly on the social deficit and argues here and elsewhere that China ‘should turn from mere pursuit of GDP growth to goals of human development’.

This book is a welcome reminder (so far it is the only work of its kind available in English) of the growing diversity of Chinese intellectual thought, but anyone looking for answers to the most obvious question about China – what will happen to the Communist Party? – will not find them here. This is only partly due to natural prudence: even among dissenting Chinese intellectuals abroad there are very few who advocate the overthrow of the Party or offer a coherent alternative to it. Most pin their hopes on reform from within of the ‘ruling’ party – the term the theoreticians of the Central Party School in Beijing now prefer, avoiding as far as possible the dreaded C-word.

The debate on political reform, in so far as it exists (it is represented here in an essay by Gan Yang), has been mostly about the relationship between the centre and the provinces, and federalism versus unitary control, issues which date back to the disunity of the first republic (1912-27). Gan expresses the widespread view that the Party has to ‘take the initiative to expand electoral politics’ in order to re-establish itself as a ‘mass party’. This means moving from an indirect to a direct voting system at elections to the People’s Congresses, at local and national level. The Party should transform itself from a hegemonic to a ‘predominant’ party, presumably (though this is not spelled out) by offering a choice of candidates and allowing independents to stand.

All this reflects the paradoxical legacy of Deng Xiaoping: most Chinese curse the Party freely and sigh for democracy, but no one wishes to stir up the dreaded luan (‘disorder’) that the Party’s overthrow would entail. There is a rather blurred hope for the Party’s peaceful evolution: the possibility which Mao feared and launched the Cultural Revolution to prevent. Young journalists go abroad for further training in order to prepare themselves for a time of greater press freedom. Young business people keep in close contact with fellow graduates who have chosen the Party as a career, and look forward to more radical changes within the decade.

Unlike the former Soviet Union, China, for all its social and environmental problems (and with the exception of Tibet and Xinjiang), is not a fragmented nation: the age of warlords and independent kingdoms is long past. Virtually no Chinese believes in Western doomsday forecasts about ‘the break-up of China’ and in this sense the ‘One China’ of this book’s title is justified. The intellectual debate has not so far been an exploration of ‘Many Paths’. Revolution and socialism have been excluded by recent history: Deng’s de facto capitalism has prevailed.