issue 170 - April 1987
China has opened its doors to the West.
Chris Brazier reports on the results.
Students on the streets chanting slogans, eyes bright with fervour for a new world. The second most powerful leader in the country ousted because of his 'bourgeois liberalism'. China at the start of 1987 was suddenly reminiscent of the heady 1960s when Chairman Mao launched his ideological shock troops into the fray.
Could this be the China of Deng Xiaoping, the Western hero whom Time magazine twice made Man of the Year, who dismantled the People's Communes, who assured peasants that 'to get rich is glorious' and welcomed Western business interests with open arms?
It was. And the students who hit the world's headlines were Deng's supporters, agitating not, like their parents, for purer communism, but for greater democracy and openness to the West. Their message might be loosely paraphrased as 'we are strong supporters of Deng Xiaoping and his policies, we just wish they could go farther and faster'. Hardly earthshaking, radical stuff - yet it has plunged China into its most serious political crisis of the 1980s.
Interpretations of the student unrest differ, as usual, according to which authority you trust. And that is part of the problem with watching China - every watcher has their particular axe to grind, their view of the Communist Revolution and of Deng's reforms. Assessments of China are rarely impartial. Western governments in the 1950s and 1960s, for instance, saw the alleged fanaticism of China's Marxism as a sinister threat. But governments fortunately do not monopolize public opinion and there was a strong alternative Western view which saw China as a shining symbol of justice and equality.
I doubt that you will be surprised to find me in the latter camp. When I visited China for the first time last August one of the first things I did was to shuffle past Mao Zedong's frozen body in silence along with the endless queues of Chinese still anxious to pay tribute.1 I was not just acknowledging a great historical figure - I was remembering that, once upon a time, I had called myself a Maoist. Sure that I'd found The Answer, I had solemnly bought the four volumes of Mao's collected speeches and theorising - and they remain on my shelves, unread to this day.
Photo: Adrian Neville
I was by no means alone in this reverence for Maoist China. The Third World development lobby also saw China as a great example to the world. Here was a nation which put feeding its people first, not only growing enough food for 22 per cent of the world's population on only seven per cent of the world's cultivable land, but also distributing it more fairly. Here was a developing country which invested in small-scale projects for local communities rather than huge and prestigious follies. Here were 'primary health care' techniques - training local people to fight the most basic diseases and teach health education - pioneered many years before they became internationally accepted.
The early New Internationalist was a supporter, too - a 1974 editorial saw China as 'the only large nation since the Second World War actually to succeed in making the transition from poverty to development'.
Yet when Mao Zedong was eventually replaced by Deng Xiaoping a different chorus started singing the country's praises. Western politicians, and periodicals like Time and Newsweek, trumpeted Deng's reforms as the resurgence of capitalism, claiming China had seen the error of its communist ways. The new Government said openly that the Cultural Revolution had been a disaster and that Mao's contribution had been only '70-per-cent positive'.
Both the Left in general and the development lobby in particular fell silent, as if they were too embarrassed to speak. The NI, too, was unusually quiet - this is its first special issue on China ever. More than ten years after Mao's death, it is high time for a clear-eyed assessment of the new China. Should we, like the student demonstrators and the Western governments, support Deng Xiaoping's work? Or are the changes since Mao's time misguided capitulations to a global economic system of which we disapprove?
The answer, almost inevitably, lies somewhere between the two. Most of the positive claims about Mao's China were justified. The Chinese Revolution from 1949 onwards was one of the greatest achievements in human history. It did the impossible, dragging almost a quarter of the world's population out of a nightmare past of colonial carve-up, mass poverty, famine and civil war. Life expectancy figures are often the best single indicator of a nation's state of health. Before the Revolution average life expectancy was as low as 36. Yet by 1960 this had climbed to 47; and by 1975 to 65.2
But where the Western Left did misjudge matters was in underestimating the devastation caused by some of Mao's policies. The collectivization of agriculture at a stroke in the Great Leap Forward of 1958, for instance, joined with drought and flood to create a famine that cost at least 13 million lives. The Cultural Revolution, meanwhile, is seen as a disaster not just by the current leadership but also by an apparent majority of ordinary Chinese people. Estimating Chinese public opinion is a difficult business - the only opinion polls are those conducted by the Government, while one distinguished opponent of Deng Xiaoping's policies warned me against accepting what people told me as necessarily the truth. 'Every time I've been to China,' he said, 'most people would simply spout whatever was the latest official line - now is no different.'
But there is a general consensus that the Cultural Revolution was unpopular. This is not because it wrought havoc in the economy - production actually grew steadily throughout. What the average Chinese does not remember with affection are the days of endless political meetings, of ideological campaigns such as 'Criticize Confucius and Lin Biao', of worry about being denounced as a reactionary element. Even at its best - and the new China is still using as a springboard the infrastructure built up at the time - the Cultural Revolution was an age of austerity and effort to which it is quite understandable that people would not want to return. Perhaps the best way to understand how the Chinese feel is to think of the atmosphere in Western societies of the late 1950s and early 1960s when living standards were rising, new horizons opening up, there was faith in scientific progress and people wanted to put behind them the wartime years of grim self-sacrifice.
The Cultural Revolution officially ended in 1976. Mao's death in that year provoked a power struggle between the Left and Right of the Communist Party which eventually resulted in the imprisonment of the Left's standard bearers, the Gang of Four, and the return from exile of former 'capitalist roader' Deng Xiaoping in 1978. Since then the scale of the changes Deng set in motion have been almost as breathtaking as the sweeping revolutions of previous decades.
The People's Communes were disbanded and a 'responsibility system' introduced in rural areas. This allowed individual peasants to keep profits which would previously have gone automatically to the collective. Now the same system has been applied to urban areas and to industry. The whole package is aimed at increasing production and modernizing as fast as possible.
Deng has also opened the gates to Western commerce. Foreign companies are now allowed to own businesses and employ local workers in special economic zones, while China has even joined the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund.
The joy of Western business at this mouth-wateringly large new market being unveiled is understandable. Mao would doubtless have been less happy and Deng himself has chuckled at the idea of Marx looking disapprovingly down at him from Heaven. It is certainly difficult to see the reforms as socialist, though the Chinese are adamant that they are. But in a world where anything from Tito's Yugoslavia to Hawke's Australia, Hoxha's Albania to Wilson's Britain, is routinely called 'socialist', it is probably not very useful to argue over whether or not China merits the term. What is important is what effect the changes are having upon ordinary Chinese.
On the whole, there is no question that the Chinese are more prosperous since Deng took over. There is a lot more money around and people are enthusiastically spending it on consumer goods, with televisions and refrigerators at the top of the list. And why shouldn't they? Some onlookers find this consumer boom slightly depressing, as if the Chinese people should have been above such materialism. But the main reason people gave me for buying a TV was, encouragingly, 'to find out what is going on in the world'. Besides, the egalitarian foundation laid by the Revolution means that such goods are now within reach not just of a tiny elite, as in most Third World countries, but of the vast majority of urban families3 and growing numbers of peasants.
People inevitably associate any new prosperity with the reforms - there is no doubt that Deng Xiaoping is popular. But there are plenty of alarm bells to sound. For a start inequalities are beginning to emerge. China could claim with justice to have been the most equal society on earth, for all its mistreatment of ethnic minorities and its privileges for Party officials. Deng's reforms then encouraged people to make money so as to boost production - peasants were urged to 'get rich', to emulate the social example of the 'ten-thousand-yuan households' (China's equivalent of millionaires).
This distasteful phase is now over. But the inequalities are still growing - in China, as everywhere else, money begets money while poverty is a vicious downward spiral. At the moment you could say that while only a few have become rich, the vast majority are also better off - but as time passes both resentment and pockets of poverty are bound to build up.
The alarm bells jangle again as China joins the global economic club - and is increasingly tied to the vagaries of the world market in just the way other developing countries have found so damaging. But even this was probably inevitable. It was China's previous isolation from the global economy which was strange, not its current participation in it. Arguably the greatest single cause of the Cultural Revolution was US rejection of China's friendly overtures in the 1950s. Equally Deng Xiaoping's reforms and the Open Door policy could not have happened had Nixon and Mao not let bygones be bygones in 1971. Isolationism is increasingly impossible in the shrinking world of the 1980s.
But whatever alarm bells we might sound, Deng Xiaoping and his initiatives seem popular. So why the sudden crisis?
The key issue is democracy. Deng's faction within the leadership has held the initiative for over eight years. But it has never managed to win complete control and has had to make concessions all along to more conservative politicians. The main concern of these 'conservatives' is to preserve the authoritarian control of the Party and they have a dogmatic interpretation of 'Marxism-Leninism and Mao Zedong Thought' (still the State orthodoxy). As a result the only thing which galls them more than the current economic liberalization is the idea of more 'bourgeois democracy'.
The idea of political reform has been around since 1979 when the early signs of economic liberalization produced a grassroots 'Democracy Movement'. But that was suppressed and it was not until the summer of 1986 that Deng felt secure enough to make speeches resurrecting the idea of political reform. He was very cautious, predicting it would be '20 to 30 years before national elections'4 but expectations elsewhere were high.
Not least among the students. They may have been inspired to take to the streets in December by satellite TV pictures of student riots in Paris and popular insurrection in the Philippines. But their motive was to lend popular weight to the reformists' case. Instead they did quite the opposite, having failed to understand the peculiar power balance in the leadership. The breakdown of public order, culminating in a defiant ritual burning of the Party newspaper, the People's Daily, made conservative demands for a clampdown incontestable. The student agitation was suppressed. And in January Hu Yaobang, Party Chair and the most Westernized of the leaders, was made a scapegoat and forced to resign.
The battle for control after Deng's death is now on - and the next year will decide who wins it. This has certainly put political reform on the backburner, which is a great shame because it is the only area of Deng's reforms about which we can be unequivocally positive. The vibrant and open atmosphere now abroad in China must be a good thing, together with the profusion of ideas and burgeoning of a culture which was straitjacketed under Mao. It should ideally be followed by greater freedom of speech and by ordinary people participating more directly in political life. The Revolution gave China an economic democracy which does not exist in the West, and it would be tragic if the youthful enthusiasm of those students had shattered the chance of greater political democracy. Tolerance of dissent can often seem a luxury to a beleaguered Third World country - and it is all too easy for Western countries to preach about it from their comfortable distance. But nearly 40 years on from the Revolution the Chinese Government should be secure enough to loosen its reins.
China watchers will go on differing about the merits and the morality of Deng Xiaoping's reforms. And I will go on worrying about the inequalities they are producing. At the very least the reforms are a gamble - the leadership has started a process without knowing where it will end.
But Western commentators should beware of assuming that the Chinese have turned their back on Mao Zedong. The new reforms may be popular but it is also true that most Chinese are profoundly grateful for what communism has done for their country - and the life story which appears below helps us understand why.
What Westerners often fail to recognize is that the current rebuilding of the Chinese economy is taking place on the bedrock of equality that Mao's policies provided. No other developing country has started its dealings with the West and the global marketplace on such a firm footing. In that sense China's example to the rest of the Third World is still its basic equality, its commitment to the collective well-being of its people - even as it sets sail in a different direction.
China now has a unique chance to take the best from the West while leaving the dross behind. We can only hope that it takes it.
1. Throughout this issue Pinyin spelling is used for Chinese names, as has been recommended by the Chinese Government for some years. Hence Mao Tse-tung is now Mao Zedong; Teng Hsiao-ping is now Deng Xiaoping; Peking is Beijing etc.
2. 1948-9 and 1973-5 figures from World Bank Country Study 1983; 1960 figure UNICEF State of the World's Children Report 1987.
3. Beijing Review 15 Dec 1986.
4. Quoted by Robin Munro, China Now Spring 1987.
This special report appeared in the changing the guard - the face of new china issue of New Internationalist. You can buy this magazine or, to get stories like this one through your door every month, subscribe.