On the New Turn in China

On the New Turn in China

China’s New Left

Tiananmen Square, 1989. Photo: Bob Gannon

[This article appeared in Dissent‘s Fall 1989 issue]

This may hardly be the ideal moment for general reflections on the significance of the present tragic turn in Chinese affairs. The brutal repression in Tiananmen Square was a decisive event, but the shape of things to come is still not entirely clear even though the signs are increasingly ominous.

Before I deal with the recent events, I want to say something about the episodic nature of the history of mainland China during the last forty years and its significance for the entire enterprise of what has come to be called “China watching.” Without claiming any particular wisdom for the highly diverse group of academics and journalists who engage in this enterprise (their ability to predict specific events is certainly not greater than that of American economists), we can say that they have all been forced to relate themselves to the shifting turns of political history. Since these episodic shifts have generally been associated with the conscious political decisions of political actors, a good deal of attention has necessarily focused on what is considered by many in the academy to be the superficial and unfashionable discipline of political history. Much attention has been devoted to the decisions themselves, to the role of ideology, of personality, of factionalism, of political-interest conflicts, and so on. In the opinion of some, there has been a deplorable neglect of the “deep underlying” socioeconomic structures of the “system.”

A contrast has often been drawn with the Soviet watchers, who during the sixty or more years in which the “Stalinist system” prevailed were able to provide us with ample accounts of the “deep structures” of Soviet political organization, the Soviet economic system, the system of police control, and the systems of ideological control. In earlier years there was some debate in Soviet studies over whether extreme state terror and gulags were a vital organic part of the system, but after Stalin’s death, there seemed to be a general consensus that the system could survive without these more extreme phenomena. Khruschev created some problems, but with his demise the essential features of the system remained in place. To the extent that one could continue to say “more of the same next year” one could say that the Soviet system was predictable. Finally, there was even the notion that the system could persist without Stalin. The role that political conflict and political decisions had played in inaugurating the system during the twenties somehow faded into the background and it came to be treated as a kind of enduring geological formation.
Now it is by no means my contention that there have been no enduring constants in the forty-year history of the People’s Republic, although I would prefer not to use the mischievous word “system” in the full and comprehensive sense of that term. The Communist party succeeded very quickly after 1949 in imposing a fairly efficacious political control of mainland China, and despite all the vicissitudes of the following years (some created by Mao himself), the political unity of China has been maintained for good and ill. It has certainly been sufficiently effective to raise to unprecedented heights China’s standing as a nation in the international arena. The Leninist conception of the transcendental authority of something called “The Party” has, in one form or another, survived all vicissitudes, including the most recent threat to it (as perceived by Deng Xiaoping) in the spring of this year. When I refer to the Leninist conception of transcendental party authority, I am not necessarily referring to the party’s formal organizational structure or even to the corporate apparatus of the party. During the cultural revolution this transcendental authority was presumably concentrated in the person of Chairman Mao himself as against the established organization and apparatus, and at present it resides in the group of Deng and his closest cohorts whatever their formal party positions. Also, for a large part of the history of the People’s Republic (perhaps least marked in the last ten years) political functionaries of all ranks have played a highly obtrusive role in the lives of the entire population. No doubt other constants could be mentioned. Yet all these constants taken together have provided us with little predictive power in plotting the evolution of shifts in policy.

It may, of course, be argued that policy decisions belong to the superficial sphere of the “history of events” while the more or less enduring constants belong to the “deep structure.” In fact, of course, the decisions were made by a Leninist leadership that took for granted its power to shape such “deep structural” factors as the fundamental organization of agriculture, the role of intellectuals, and even models of economic development. What, then, is the relationship of the “history of events” to the deep underlying forces? If one is confident of one’s theory or model, one may simply dismiss policy decisions that move in another direction as evanescent wave patterns on the surface of the sea. At this very moment there may be adherents of the “totalitarian model” who feel thoroughly revindicated by the latest events in Beijing. On the other hand, some political happenings may be treated as volcanic eruptions that reveal deep shifts in the geological structures. Even the shifting decisions of leaders can come to be regarded as manifestations of well-rooted “social evolutionary” forces. Hegel, in coping with the problem of the “great man” in history, was prepared to see Napoleon as the World Spirit incarnate while Stalin has been regarded as the embodiment of a necessary stage in the laws of economic development in backward countries. Thus at the beginning of episodes such as the “hundred flowers” (1956—57) and the “great leap forward” (1958—60) in China—episodes in which Mao truly played a commanding role— foreign observers could never be sure whether shifts of policy were “superficial” political shifts or represented long-ten shifts in the “underlying forces.” China watchers, particularly if located in the social sciences departments of universities, were under unremitting pressure to come up with the “deep theory” or “model” that would explain the latest episode. Naturally all such models, since they were “deep,” implied the capacity to extrapolate the long-term consequences of the model into the distant future.

In the period 1952—55, when China seemed to be slavishly internalizing the Stalinist system in every field of social and political life, and when the trajectory seemed to point to an ever closer approximation to that system, the “totalitarian model” enjoyed enormous prestige. Its plausibility was even enhanced by Karl Wittfogel’s theory of “oriental despotism,” which added a sociocultural dimension to the modem Western theory of totalitarianism. By the “totalitarian model,” I refer not only to what might be called the “totalitarian aspiration” but to the notion of the actual achievement of the total control of every aspect of human life including the ability to transform the psyches of vast populations. In the case of China the millennial history of oriental despotism had perhaps made available exotic techniques of social-psychological control that were not available even in the West, leading to much research on the peculiar efficacy of thought control (“brainwashing”). The French journalist Robert Guillain, who traveled in China in the fifties and who was able to elicit the same stereotyped responses to all questions wherever he went, reported that China had effectively been transformed into the kingdom of blue ants. Any argument that there may have been present on the Chinese scene silent factors that ran counter to the possibility of a total internalization of the Stalinist system tended to be dismissed. Even such a simple question as whether— given the demographic facts of Chinese life — China could long afford to indulge in the kind of neglect of the agricultural sector that was built into the Stalinist model received little attention. The question of whether “oriental despotism” provided an adequate “key” to the vast and complex sociopolitical history of China resounded all the more majestically in the vast cavern of ignorance of China’s complex past.

Stirrings among the Flowers
In the years 1956—57, however, the “hundred flowers” movement emerged in which Mao and others played a considerable role. Even in terms of elemental political psychology one might have entertained the possibility that a Chinese leader who had actually developed his own ideas in Yenan before 1949 and who probably was deeply ambivalent about Stalin’s claim to supreme authority might not have been forever bound to all the particulars of the Soviet system and might even have been open to new suggestions. It was indeed in the “hundred flowers” period that Mao found himself again as the effective political and ideological leader of China. It was in this new mental frame that he was prepared to entertain the idea that China needed to reassess the role of its intellectuals despite his continued suspicion of them. With this opening up of new spaces of discussion and experimentation in the economic and cultural spheres, the “totalitarian model,” with its emphasis on stasis, suddenly became questionable and gave way to “developmental” and “modernization” models. In both the Soviet Union and China there had been impressive economic growth. Had these economies not begun to approach a level where one could begin to expect economic, cultural, and perhaps even political liberalization? Did Mao Zedong not comprehend the long-term implications of his new policies? By the summer of 1957, however, it became clear that
in fact he was to become much more obsessed with certain unanticipated short-term political consequences, particularly by what might be called the emergence of the student factor. A new generation of university students (undoubtedly influenced by some of the older intellectuals), which had been subject from early childhood to all the totalitarian techniques of thought control, suddenly began to express devastating critiques of the party’s claim to transcendental authority — to the obvious dismay of both foreign adherents of the totalitarian model and Chairman Mao himself. Like the Deng of 1989, Mao had not come to power to witness any challenge to the transcendent authority of the party.

With the abrupt shift to the anti-rightist campaign of 1957 and finally to the apocalyptic vision of the “great leap forward” (1958—60) there was an abrupt decline in the fortunes of a development theory that relied heavily on economic analysis and on Weberian notions of rationalization. On the rise of the communes, the emphasis on the collective moral fervor of the peasant masses, and the combination of fervent faith in rapid development with an anti-economist view of the motive power of this development, we find a revival of the totalitarian model and of the notion of the peculiarly exotic “Asian” nature of Chinese totalitarianism. After all, Stalin at his most totalitarian had never denied the role of material incentives and of technology. It was at this juncture that talk of a new “Asian Communism” came into vogue. Many members of the “New Left” of the sixties, having become enthralled with the Mao of the “great leap forward” and later of the “cultural revolution,” became convinced that he had indeed discovered a sovereign method to bypass all the evils of inequality, individual self-interest, and bureaucracy, even while pushing forward the modernization of the society as a whole. Mao was indeed the voice of the masses incarnate and thus no deep and painful inquiry was required into how his visions related to grim realities on the ground.

Although the “New Left” Maoists were to blend the visions of the “great leap forward” and the cultural revolution into a new “model,” we now know that disastrous events unanticipated by Mao brought an end to the “great leap” and created a rift between himself and the bureaucracy as a whole, which in the end rejected his anti-economistic bias. Thus when Mao retired to the background during the early sixties, the bureaucracy returned to a more economically oriented “pragmatism.” They were no longer enthralled with the Stalinist model, and there was even cautious revival of some of the intellectual openness of the “hundred flowers” period. Among Western China watchers in search of a model, there was for a brief time a revival of the rational- development model—a revival soon aborted by the wrath of the aging Mao.

The cultural revolution of 1966 posed in a most acute form the problem of the role of a “great man” in history. One could truly say, “No Mao Zedong, no cultural revolution.” Relying on the sheer potency of his own cult, Mao managed (with tacit support from at least some sections of the military) to override and humble the party bureaucracy, to concentrate in his own person the mystique of Leninist infallibility, and at least for a time to enchant and enthrall the student youth with his apocalyptic vision of a pure society. No doubt part of his initial appeal to them lay in his systematic desanctification of the party bureaucracy. What then could one say about the deep socio-economic-cultural causes of this episode? To be sure, Chinese society of the sixties was undoubtedly ridden with deep social and economic tensions and conflicts. The cultural revolution did indeed lay bare some of these tensions and conflicts. Would these tensions themselves have produced anything like the cultural revolution without Mao? The New Left admirers of Mao might have had faith that Mao had actually found a new path to modernization that would bypass all the evils of materialistic selfishness and of bureaucracy, but the subsequent course of events proved that the grand old man had no idea of how to implement this apocalyptic vision in concrete terms. The cultural revolution does indeed raise deep theoretical questions about the potency of the Mao cult and the behavior of the human being ins extreme situations, but these questions may relate more to depth psychology or philosophic anthropology than to sociopolitical models.

The Modernizations
With the death of Mao, we finally have the emergence of Deng Xiaoping and the period of the “four modernizations.” Was this then to be only another episode in the episodic history of the People’s Republic or had the country finally entered onto a steady mainstream of development uninterrupted by the arbitrary caprices of the aged Mao? It is quite clear that the period from the late seventies to this year has indeed been entirely different from all previous periods, not only in terms of its duration but in terms of the decisive turn by the leadership (even the “conservatives”) from Mao’s anti-economism to a deep commitment to technological and economic development. In fact the• “four modernizations” have already had a visible impact on the society and there have been tangible, striking successes in the sphere of economic development. In its decollectivization of agriculture the new regime demonstrated its willingness to support deep institutional change in pursuing its developmental goals. Above all, the new spaces of freedom opened up in this period have made it possible for us in the West to come into closer contact with the living reality of Chinese society and to see this society in its complex multiplicity. We have come to appreciate the reality of regional differences, to know a multitude of individuals as living individuals, and even to have direct contact with “ordinary people.” Even if the current turn leads back to a regime of silence and uniform standard responses, I trust that we will never again allow ourselves to return to the stereotype of the kingdom of blue ants. What then can be said of the attitude of the old party leadership, which returned to power after the humiliations of the cultural revolution? They certainly did not come back with any desire to witness the demise of party authority. In fact they were firmly convinced that the authority had been illegitimately usurped by the aged Mao, and there is no reason to assume that Deng Xiaoping, who, in fact, became a leading policy maker, was any more willing than any of his elderly colleagues to witness the demise of the ultimate decision- making power of the center of party authority. When the “democracy wall” movement of 1978—79 raised the dread possibility of imposing institutional limits and controls on the party leadership, Deng promptly proclaimed the “four cardinal principles,” which reasserted the unchallengeable authority of the Communist party, meaning primarily its top decision makers. The legitimacy of this authority derived from the fact that the party virtually represented the “people’s democratic dictatorship” and was presumably based on the doctrines of Marx, Lenin, and Mao, but as a true pragmatist Deng tended to focus on the idea of party authority itself rather than linger on the presumed doctrinal base on which it rested.

What differentiated Deng from some of his colleagues, however, was that having presumably assured the unassailability of ultimate party authority, he proceeded to pursue the goal of a “wealthy, powerful, and modernized China” with enormous boldness and willingness to take risks. He had no doubt that China would require the talents of the intellectuals and also realized that to win the intellectuals it would be necessary to create an atmosphere that would foster a certain space of freedom and security for all intellectuals, just as it would be necessary to secure for the people as a whole a certain sense of immediate improvement in their material lives. He was indeed motto, “Enrich yourselves,” for the population as a whole. He seems to have genuinely appreciated the need for legality in the economic sphere and even in some areas of civil law. He also seems to have been prepared to accept the decentralization of power in the realm of economic life, perhaps on the tacit assumption that such power could always be reclaimed by the center if necessary. Finally, in his own mind he may have drawn a distinction between the extension of individual freedom in the economic and cultural spheres and the call for “bourgeois democracy” as a challenge to the decision-making power of those on top. He often paid lip service to the need for “political reform” and even seemed prepared for minor dabblings with the political structure, but he never seemed really serious in this area. On the question of cultural and ideological control he seemed to vacillate occasionally when his more cautious colleagues urged the need to combat “bourgeois spiritual pollution.” Yet in the end his pragmatism may have led him to feel that “ideas in people’s heads” were not important enough to permit a diversion of energies from the tasks of modernization.

In retrospect, it may have been precisely his pragmatic bent that led him to underestimate the depth of alienation created in the young by the cultural revolution. The extent of the alienation was made plain to me from conversations in 1981 with former Red Guards who had witnessed both the cultural revolution and the “democracy wall” movements of 1978—79. It became clear to me that although they had felt betrayed and tricked by the aged Mao, many had nevertheless also absorbed the message of Mao’s systematic desanctification of the party bureaucracy. Even though they seemed to respond with gratitude to the new policies of “liberalization,” some did not refrain from raising questions about the legitimacy of Leninist authority itself, and Deng responded at the time with predictable anger as well as with the promulgation of the “four cardinal principles.” It is nevertheless clear that this older generation of youth and older intellectuals managed to transmit its rejection of the Leninist mystique to the present student generation.

One can only speculate on why the same Deng, who with his four principles had clearly tried to fence off the question of highest party authority as forbidden territory, continued with occasional vacillation to support bold policies of intellectual liberalization. Perhaps he was convinced that the spectacular successes of the four modernizations in the late seventies and early eighties had won the genuine support of the vast masses, thus isolating the small stratum of intellectuals and students. Perhaps he was also confident that as modernization proceeded the students themselves would be caught up in the practical tasks of modernization and the pursuit of their own careers. While it seems to be part of the current American creed that the concern for “enriching oneself” and ardor for democratic principles go hand in hand, Deng may have thought otherwise. Even the remarkable permissiveness and openness that has prevailed in literature, philosophy, and legal and political thought may have reflected a pragmatic disdain for the practical importance of “ideas in people’s heads.” This freedom helped to foster a congenial atmosphere and might do no harm.

Most recently, of course, China’s economic development, despite its successes, has entered a time of troubles, and one need not deny that economic grievances and disappointed expectations have played a part in the discontents of students and intellectuals. In fact, the economic grievances and genuine political discontents seem to be totally entwined with each other. The economic development of China has shown no simple evolution from “public, planned economy” to “private market economy.” Among the most aggressive entrepreneurs of the new China (some are involved with the world economy) are former cadres and relatives of cadres and even military men, who use their political leverage to launch new enterprises, which, while operating in the market, are not really part of any sharply demarcated private sector. In the eyes of intellectuals who live in the grossly under-funded educational-cultural sector, these new “bureaucratic capitalists” represent a source of gross corruption, inequity, and hypocrisy. Many of these students and intellectuals who in fact claim to be ardent supporters of the “free enterprise” system find the combination of unbridled political power with the avid pursuit of private wealth unacceptable. Here, their attitudes resonate with a long tradition of Confucian moralism that always thundered against public officials who used their power for private gain while hypocritically mouthing the pieties of Confucian ethics; and at the same time, these attitudes make them deeply appreciative of that aspect of Western constitutional democracy that maintains that the corruptions and fallibilities of the political elite can only be tamed by subjugating their power to the constraints of constitutional rules and controls. Contrary to the usual facile assertions that Chinese cannot understand democracy, some of the Chinese students I know understand these notions quite clearly. This does not, of course, mean that the students in Tienanmen Square had any idea of how to realize such democracy within the present framework of power.

The discussion of democracy in the Chinese intellectual media has grown in strength since the beginning of the year. Meanwhile, China’s economic problems have not abated. Even the students and intellectuals do not believe that all the problems are simply due to corruption, but there has been an equal lack of faith that the highest decision makers possess any higher wisdom in these matters. It is also important to note that the year 1989 marks the seventieth anniversary of the famous student uprising of May 4, 1919—an event that many were now prepared to interpret in a way entirely hostile to the official interpretation. A very common view is that what seemed like a promising turn to “democracy and enlightenment” in the May 4th movement was then derailed by the false promise of Marxism-Leninism. One thus had reason to expect trouble as May 4th approached.

All of this taken together with calls for the release of the “democratic wall” hero Wei Ching-sheng, the prolonged occupation of the sacred site Tiananmen, and the insulting challenges to the top leadership, no doubt began to loom in Deng’s eyes as an unacceptable threat to the principle of party transcendence, which he had never for a moment abandoned. His speech of April 26, which we received very late, establishes all the premises for the crackdown of June 4. The preservation of supreme party authority and prestige, we are told, is an imperative that transcends all foreign and domestic opinion and that may even involve bloodshed. It is not a question of whether students can topple the government. China, unlike Poland, does not have to contend with the Catholic church and Solidarity — only with a group of students and intellectuals “who can be dealt with.” However, one must deal with them since they are systematically attempting to undermine party authority.
If the premises for the crackdown were present, at least in Deng’s mind, on April 26, one may ask why the final act did not occur until June 4. There were, of course, large parts of the government and party establishment that obviously did not share his premises, including the vacillating Zhao Ziyang. Deng and his elderly cohorts clearly mistrusted the “deliberative” bodies of the government and party. There was already the hint in the April 26th statement that in the end the army might have to play a crucial role. Despite Deng’s statements of April 26, many seriously doubted whether a disdain for “foreign opinion” would be compatible with an “open door” policy. Yet as May moved on there were further, even greater, challenges to the four principles. It appeared that most of the urban masses were prepared to express solidarity with the students, and after the declaration of martial law it even became evident that there were signs of softness in the armed forces.

From the point of view of Deng and his aged colleagues there was now a clear and present danger to the entire mystique of party authority. Could the students have been handled otherwise? No doubt this was possible. The Gorbachev of 1989 might have handled it differently. In the universe of Deng Xiaoping, however, whose entire life is coterminous with the history of the Chinese Communist party, the decision to preserve the notion of party authority at whatever cost was a thoroughly pragmatic decision. The alternative, in this view, was anarchy.

Were the “China watchers” incapable of predicting the crackdown? In fact the possibility was widely discussed but tended to be regarded as unlikely because of its presumed prohibitive costs. During the last ten years, the “rational- development model” has again become ever more plausible. Many have been able to observe on the spot the results of new policies in agriculture, industry, culture, and in China’s increasing involvement with the world economy and foreign societies. While many have been critical, even pessimistic, about many policies and while it is by no means clear that anyone (including foreign experts) has easy solutions for China’s problems of modernization, the notion that the priority of the emphasis on modernization was now “irreversible” was almost implied by the rational development model. Within this context, Deng’s “four principles” seemed to have less and less relevance.

It may indeed prove true that there are “irreversibilities” in the Chinese scene. The new leadership itself professes to believe that its policies of repression are compatible with certain irreversibilities. Deng insists again and again that the policies of “reform and the open door” are entirely compatible with the current stress on the “four principles.” What was most questionable, of course, was the notion that the government had irreversibly lost both the coercive power and the will to suppress tendencies that it regarded as threats to its survival. Deng has recently even confessed his own errors in underestimating the need for “ideological and political education.” Does he really believe, as Mao presumably did, that his ideology can “transform men’s souls”? What he probably does believe is that it can forcibly mute the communication of dangerous ideas and create again at least the appearance of massive consensus.

It is not my contention that the various deep theories and models that we have imposed on China’s episodic history in the last forty years had nothing to tell us. The totalitarian aspiration, the aims of economic development, the interplay with the culture of the past, the silent weight of demography, the role of nationalism, the ideology and the concept of the party, and other factors have all entered into the complex drama of the history of contemporary China. Yet, if we must have a “framework,” I would precisely recommend the metaphor of an unfolding and unresolved drama rather than that of all-encompassing models or “deep theories” with their claims to provide totalistic, predictive knowledge. These factors have entered the drama as conflicting themes rather than as all-embracing models. If the word “crisis” were not now a watered-down cliché, I would say that in the case of China what we have is a mammoth and sustained cultural- historical crisis involving the interaction between the society and culture of the past and claims of modernity (both of these terms themselves refer to vast and unresolved complexities). It would appear that the Communist revolution by no means ended this crisis and the Chinese (like the rest of us) will continue to grope toward their own solutions.

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