There is a ton of books now hitting the stands about China, each peddling its own version of China as a country in transformation to becoming, variously, an 800 pound guerilla on the world stage, a member of the democratic family of nations, an economic and ecological basket case, or a world leader in hi tech industries. The value of George Walden’s book is to remind us that for centuries westerners have looked at China through western prisms, found what they wanted, and extrapolated their illusions to a future which inevitably disappoints. This is a luxury, Walden says, that we cannot afford, now that the communist party of China has decided that China must join the world, without having repudiated Mao-the founder of the People’s Republic.
Walden was a Russian specialist, when the Foreign and Commonwealth Office decided that it needed Mandarin speakers to find out more about what was happening behind the bamboo curtain. So Walden went to Hong Kong, and then to the British Embassy whence he witnessed first hand the events of the Cultural Revolution, launched in 1966 by the Great Helmsman to eradicate any vestige of China’s inheritance in a vain attempt to purge China of its past. When Mao finally passed on in 1976, communist China was isolated, an impoverished backwater, befriended by the likes of Marshall Mobutu, Enver Hoxha and the Khmer Rouge. As Jung Chan has shown in Mao: The Unkown Story—a book banned in China—, the founder of the People’s Republic was responsible for the deaths of 70 or more million of his fellow countrymen and women, not counting the lives devastated by his efforts to abolish the family, the millions languishing in the forced labour camps scattered around China, or the 400 million of China’s population of 900 million living in extreme poverty.
Walden rightly argues that the China we observe springs from this experience, and particularly the disasters accompanying the Cultural Revolution, just as much as modern Europe has been shaped by the defeat of Hitler. Treasures from the past were destroyed, all learning—other than what could be culled from the Great Helmsman’s Little Red Book—was decried as bourgeois, the young were turned against their elders, the shouting of slogans substituted for debate, and the country turned into a cultural wasteland. Business people who first went to China in the late 1970s, as Deng Xiaoping moved to open China’s door, recount the avid interest displayed by the Chinese in all things foreign. In my view, it was this eagerness to learn about things foreign among a generation of young Chinese that was the unexpected result of Mao’s madness. Deng opened the door for the people of China to learn about the rest of the world in a way they had never ever done before.China has not looked back.
Mao’s appalling record did not prevent legions of fellow-travellers from Europe to drool over his alleged successes. Jean-Paul Sartre, the French philosopher, opined that China was a quarry where the New Model Man was being created, and Alberto Moravia—the Italian novelist—acclaimed Mao as ridding the country of the weight of its past. Mao’s Little Red Book featured on US university campuses in the 1960s, and was widely cited during the student movements acrossEurope. Their intellectual heirs now decry China as a neo-liberal hell, whose exports threaten the livelihoods of western workers, and whose corporate hunger for world minerals has driven global prices sky-high.
They have a point. Growth is the CCP policy to escape the fate of the Soviet Union. As Deng stated in his famous trip to Guandong, a couple of months after theUSSRwas wound up,” it is glorious to get rich”. Party members took him at his word, and got down to the serious task of doing what they consider bourgeois regimes have always done. As Warden points out, 90% of the richest Chinese are offspring of government cadres. He could have added that there are 70 million shareholders, and the same number of party members. Marx is still taught in Chinese universities, and the message that is conveyed is that the CCP is exploiting the Chinese masses for the benefit of the country.
Will Hutton, in his book The Writing on the Wall, thinks this can’t go on, and like other westerners before, is no shrinking violet when it comes to dispensing advise to the Chinese. They need democracy, the rule of law, a free press and a social market economy, with the emphasis heavily on the social and rather less on the market. Only by espousing the values of the Enlightenment will the future presently in store for China we avoided.
The trouble with this type of thinking is that many Chinese consider that the European Enlightenment has had its hour inChina, and been found wonting. What is not European enlightenement, if not Marxism and all its works? the rhetorical question may be asked. Mao’s permanent war on the Chinese people, in this view, was nothing more than an “enlightened” laboratory experiment applied to the Chinese people. European and US fellow travelers recognized this, but did so from the comfort of countries, where all those deplorable bourgeois freedoms could be enjoyed to their full.
Warden rightly advises us to be cautious about projecting western thought patterns and expectations on such an ancient culture. In all probability, he says, we are likely to see more of the same authoritarian leadership in a strong state under the guidance of a single party. The title of his book,China: a wolf in the world? ends on a question mark to indicate that the future is wide open, and is derived from the title of a book by Jiang Rong, a democrat, who hopes that the Chinese will stop behaving like sheep, and assert themselves more fearlessly in the world. Walden does not say they will, but in a country laid by Mao into a cultural wasteland, anything becomes possible.
The leadership know this only too well. What to do about the moral wasteland of post-MaoChinahas become a subject for discussions in the Politburo, and has led to a serious effort to revive those elements of Confucianism which are compatible with continued CCP leadership. The new teaching was visible in the opening ceremony of the Beijing Games, whereChina’s past was celebrated without any mention of the terrible times of trouble(luan), which in the regime’s book began to come to an end in the late 1970s.
And this is Warden’s main point. The official verdict on Mao’s record, delivered by the new collective leadership in 1982, held that Mao was 70% right, and 30% wrong. Despite recurrent attempts to have an open discussion about the Mao years, no CCP leader has done to Mao what Khruschev did to Stalin. At the XXth Party Congress in February 1956, Khruschev denounced his former boss for his own “cult of personality”, and for hounding party members during the great purges of the 1930s. The communist movement never recovered.
Until full light is shed on Mao, the tyrant who created the People’s Republic, we cannot be sure which path China takes. No leader has dared to do so for fear of shaking the regime to its foundations. Coming to terms with the regime’s own past is Warden’s key toChina’s future, not western prescriptions predicated on western preconceptions of what is right and wrong for the Middle Kingdom.