John Gittings

Looking at China
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From:  Soundings, No. 30, 2005, pp. 98-110

The question of where China may be heading looms ever larger today as the country begins to be seen as a potential competitor in the unfolding 21st century to the world's only remaining superpower. It is by no means a new question: because of China's size and distance, because of the difficulty of understanding its distinctive culture, and because it often appears to offer an alternative mode of life (once Confucian, later Maoist, now a brand of market economy which does not yet have a name), the question 'Whither China?' has been a compelling one for several centuries. There is no record that Napoleon actually made the prediction attributed to him that 'when China wakes she will shake the world'. Nor did Zhou Enlai really ever observe, in a reverse aphorism, that it is 'too early to tell whether the French Revolution has succeeded'. (Neither for that matter does a Chinese curse exist that 'may you live in interesting times'). This accretion of apocryphal sayings reflects the fascination and confusion surrounding China: 'The China Puzzle' is -- too often -- the default headline for lazy sub-editors putting a feature about the country on their page.

Today as in the past, views on China's future are wildly divergent. At one end of the spectrum there is the naive optimism expressed by Microsoft chairman Bill Gates who, speaking at the 2005 World Economic Forum, described the Chinese system as 'a brand-new form of capitalism, and as a consumer it's the best thing that ever happened.' China's domination of the world market also impresses more sober observers, such as the Financial Times which gave a recent supplement on China this headline: 'World is dancing to a Chinese tune: China's weight in global trade is so great that even a hiccup could shake some markets ' (December 7, 2004).

At the other end of the spectrum is the dire prediction -- as expressed in the title of a much-quoted book by critic Gordon Chang, The Coming Collapse of China, that this brand-new system risks catastrophic implosion. Its headlong economic growth is seen as fundamentally unstable and the source of dangerous new social tensions, while the failure of the Communist Party to match economic with political reform, it is argued, must condemn it to the fate, sooner rather than later, of the former Soviet and East European ruling parties.

This tendency on the part of the outside world to over-dramatise China goes back many decades, and in this paper I intend to draw from my own experience of reporting over several decades to discuss the obstacles to a clear understanding of China's recent past and future -- and of how these are seen by the Chinese themselves. Western opinion in the 1960s was largely polarised between those who regarded the Maoist approach as a wholly admirable 'brand-new system of socialism', and the cold war view that China was, in effect, the world's first evil empire. Attitudes towards post-Mao China have been polarised in different ways: the US in particular has found it hard to decide whether a resurgent China is a shining example for the triumph of the market over ideology, or a looming threat to Western domination of that market, and whether in geo-strategic terms China should be regarded as a partner or competitor.

Looking at Mao's China

The notion that one might write about mainland China without having visited the mainland was not considered unusual in the 1950s and 1960s. Only a small number of European students, mostly from the Scandinavian countries, had the opportunity to study in China: those from the US were limited to Taiwan or Hong Kong. Most of the material available for research into contemporary China existed in written form and often in English translation. The study of contemporary China could be treated in a way not dissimilar to the study of classical China. There was a limited corpus of available material and textual analysis was carried to a fine art.

China scholarship was set in the highly politicised context of a cold -- sometimes hot -- war in which the Beijing government was assigned as time went on an especially demonic role. A skein of links between government and the rapidly expanding field of 'area studies' did much to set the agenda for Western scholarship and journalism. The extent of this operation in the US came under attack during the Vietnam War from dissenting scholars, the Concerned Asian Scholars who organised around the bulletin of that name. The subject was usefully revisited in a 1996 conference, the proceedings of which can be found on the web ('Asia, Asian Studies and the National Security State', Bulletin of Concerned Asian Scholars, vol.29, no.1, edited by Mark Selden).

This created a polarised approach in which it was hard to avoid being (or at least being categorised as) either 'for' or ' against' the new China. When I finally visited China for the first time in 1971, I travelled in a group from the UK-based Society for Anglo-Chinese Understanding (SACU) as a 'friend of China', not as a journalist, although I had already spent a decade writing on Chinese affairs. After five years of Cultural Revolution, visas for visiting Western journalists were unobtainable. Nevertheless the appetite then for even the most slender glimpse of China was enormous: I returned wearing a Mao cap but I wrote a series of five articles for The Guardian which were run in full. We were able on such visits to record an element of idealism in the Cultural Revolution which is generally brushed aside (not least by the Chinese themselves) today. Yet in retrospect we were too committed to allow ourselves to perceive the corrosive violence and the warping uniformity of Mao's cult.. My own conclusion was fairly typical of that reached by many Western intellectuals at the time who sought to distance themselves from the prevailing cold war hostility towards China. The Thought of Mao Zedong was 'not so much a cult of personality but more a collective way of life, which provides the moral imperatives for the youth of China who will inherit Mao's revolution'. (The Guardian, 30 April 1971)..


Looking at Deng's China

In 1972 Kissinger and Nixon re-opened the door to Beijing and the 'Chinese menace' soon waned. Access now became less difficult for Western scholars, journalists and before long for language students. The death of Mao in 1976 and the subsequent repudiation of the Cultural Revolution, coupled with the establishment of full diplomatic relations with the US in 1979, made it possible for the Deng Xiaoping regime to be labelled as 'pragmatic'. Foreign observers looked for continuity and foreign diplomats had a vested interest in predicting it. For them, the most important changes were taking place in external policy, where China had formed an opportunistic entente with the West against the Soviet Union, and in the new opportunities for foreign business offered by the Special Economic Zones and Joint Ventures. Unlike the samizdat-writing dissidents in the Soviet Union, China's Democracy Wall activists (1979-80) won no vocal support from Western political leaders.

Yet the 1980s was the golden time for reporting from China and there was a real desire to know along which road the Chinese would now move. It was not yet taken for granted that China had entirely forsaken Mao’s road to socialism: many Chinese officials stressed that moral incentives would continue as well as those of the new material kind. In spite of the abolition of the people's communes, rural leaders also talked of the need to maintain a balance between public and private interest.

The political scene grew increasingly lively as reform-minded scholars, with some encouragement from the Party Secretary-general Hu Yaobang, discussed the cult of personality, the alienation of the masses from the Party, and the need for internal Party democracy. Others both in the leadership and at the grassroots opposed arguments which seemed to undermine Mao's socialist vision and to diminish their own prerogatives. The tensions which these arguments generated led to the dismissal of Hu in 1987, and to the student protests on his death two years later which raised even more fundamental questions and resulted in the crackdown of Tiananmen Square. Regrettably, the intellectual ferment of the 1980s was often under-rated by Western commentators who failed to fully appreciate an argument still conducted largely in Marxist terms. And even as the army moved in to Beijing, foreign diplomats could be heard to argue that the students 'don't know what they mean by democracy.'

The Beijing Massacre changed the terms of reference under which China was reported in the West and -- to a lesser extent -- the way in which the ruling regime was viewed by Western governments. After the relative optimism of the 1980s, the reactionary backlash of the old guard in the leadership was a dismal shock. What happened on the night on June 3-4, 1989 (and on subsequent days when random killings continued), and the repression of the next several years, seemed to present a definitively negative answer to all those questions about whether the Communist Party could accommodate itself to peaceful political change. Western governments who had previously shrugged off complaints about human rights abuses were now compelled to take them seriously, at least for public consumption. (In private, some of their officials shared the impatience of one Beijing-based British diplomat with the human rights pressure groups and their 'little lists of names (of imprisoned dissidents).'

Yet the changes set in motion, deliberately or otherwise, by the reforms of the 1980s continued to gather pace: there was more social mobility and more entrepreneurial activity, as well as more crime and corruption. Those former students who put economic development in first place joined the flow heading for the economic zones on the coast. After Deng Xiaoping had embarked on his Southern Expedition and kick-started the economic revolution back to life in 1993 -- and in a higher gear too -- the tentative political reforms of the 1980s began to appear dated and, as a new urban boom developed, irrelevant.. Mr Deng's foray confirmed beyond doubt that China was taking the capitalist road: no one talked any longer a return to 'genuine' socialist alternatives, and there was no longer any question about the destination. The speed of Chinese economic progress swept all before it: as British prime minister John Major remarked, when told that it was generating significant social problems, 'there can't be much wrong with eight per cent GDP growth'.

At the same time, the collapse of the Soviet-led bloc left China without a clear strategic value to the West. In the positive view, China was a living workshop for the attraction of the globalised market economy model now being pressed upon the rest of the world by those countries which already dominated it. On the other hand, China’s economic success might translate itself in the future into political and military strength which could pose a threat to those same interests. A new set of images began to appear on the front covers of Western news magazines, embodying a mixture of admiration and fear at the Chinese advance. To quote the headline to a New York Times Magazine special feature in 1996: 'The 21st Century Starts Here: China Booms. The World Holds its Breath'.

Looking at China since Deng

Attitudes towards the emerging Chinese superpower (I prefer to call it half a superpower) have become increasingly schizophrenic in the late 1990s and in the current decade. In a global media dominated by the US, this reflects to a large extent new complications in US-China relations, as well as mixed feelings about China's economic growth. But it also responds to real contradictory pulls and pushes in Chinese society as it becomes more diverse and yet remains confined by a political culture which is increasingly out-of-date. The task facing us is thus twofold: to recognize and discount the hidden biases of Western perceptions, and to identify real changes and perceptions within China where in spite of sporadic censorship there is now a lively debate about the future.

A view of 'Chinese communism' with its origins in the cold war era still persists in the analyses of some right-wing and/or pro-Taiwan scholars and analysts and often spills over into mainstream journalism. This became particularly noticeable in coverage of US-China relations in the late 1990s and early 2000s when these were complicated by the transition from the Clinton to the Bush administration. During Bill Clinton’s visit to China in June 1998 the media had first focused upon the plight of Chinese political dissidents, but then took a generally complacent view after the president was allowed to call for democracy in an address broadcast live on national Chinese television. The White House’s simplistic view that Mr Clinton had established a special rapport with President Jiang Zemin was widely echoed: instead Mr Jiang clamped down within months upon the fledgling Chinese Democracy Party.

A year later, after the US had bombed the Chinese embassy in Belgrade during the Kosovo war, there was little sympathy for China which was frequently accused of over-reacting. The stage-managed character of anti-US demonstrations received more attention than the genuine anger which they reflected -- and which the Chinese government’s control measures sought partly to contain. Western coverage tended to miss the real point that in spite of this provocation the Jiang regime was determined to maintain, if at all possible, good relations with the US. (While there were 'ups and downs' in US-China relations, said the People’s Daily, friendly ties between them were 'of great importance to the whole world.')

Chinese reaction to the incident in April 2001 when a US spy plane made a forced landing on Hainan island was again looked at through a critical American lens. Coverage missed the point that Beijing remained committed to improving US-China relations, and that a wide range of popular views (including some that criticised the government for being too soft) was being expressed. Chinese reaction to the September 11 terrorist attack on New York was also subjected to misinterpretation. By its usual standards, the Chinese media reported the attack with unusual speed and official condolences were quickly sent. Popular opinion on the street, and on the Chinese internet chatrooms, was more varied, with some expressing the view that the US had only got what it deserved. Yet Western commentators were too quick to reproach Beijing for an alleged lack of sympathy: the Wall Street Journal even accused 'an isolated China (of) seek(ing) friends among the rogue nations of the world.'

In reality Beijing wanted to maintain the momentum of improved US-China relations after the spy plane crisis, and had its own domestic reasons to support an international 'war against terror.' Chinese leaders were quietly satisfied that the Bush administration now had a 'real enemy' on which to focus instead of demonising China as several prominent neo-conservative figures in Washington had done since the inauguration. Thus September 11 was described by the People’s Daily as 'a turning-point in the post-cold war pattern' and Beijing took advantage of it to step up repression, with tacit US approval, of its own (mostly peaceful) Muslim separatists in North-west China.

Looking at China's future

So, Whither China, amid all the contradictions and misperceptions which have so complicated the task of analysis in the past and still do today? We must of course start with the Communist Party, although with a different perspective from that of the neo-cold warriors. Contrary to the general view, the Party is now stronger than it was in the 1980s, even though it is also more unpopular, but it is no longer even vestigially 'communist'. While many people in China will casually (and openly) denounce the Party as corrupt and undemocratic, this often means little more than similar complaints in democratic countries that no politician can be trusted.

The Party has achieved its current position by the following means:

(i) The Party has completed the rejection of a socialist project while most of those who advocated such a project have retired or died. Its aim is now straightforwardly to deliver the material goods to the Chinese people by whatever means work best: this is the well-understood meaning of such official formulae as the doctrine of the 'Three Represents' propounded by Deng's successor Jiang Zemin.

(ii) It has redefined itself as a 'ruling' rather than a 'communist' party. This shift is not just a question of semantics but reflects sustained discussion among Party theorists on how to re-legitimise the Party's leading role. A ruling party (perhaps the term is better rendered as 'governing') holds power not because it represents particular classes or embodies a particular project but because it can satisfy the here-and-now requirements of society as a whole. In this respect the concept has something in common with the old notion of a 'mandate' which could be withdrawn if the emperor failed to deliver.

(iii) There has been a large-scale re-composition of the Party's membership. While it remains a substantial force numerically (around five per cent of total population -- a much higher percentage therefore of all adults), it is now more representative of the urban business interests and professional intelligentsia who control or run the Chinese economy. This process was formalised when the 16th Party Congress in 2002 amended the constitution to allow private entrepreneurs to join the Party (many already had).

Social unrest presents another paradox: there is vastly more protest and dissatisfaction than in the 1980s among a sizeable sector of marginalized population: the main categories are the peasants living in depressed rural areas, away from the coast or other booming provincial centres, and the 'laid-off workers' from state industries which have gone bankrupt or have been semi-privatised and asset-stripped. This features prominently in several scenarios of regime collapse: a figure of 58,000 protests across the country in 2003 involving some three million people is quoted. Yet this poses less of a threat than would have been in the case if similarly largely sectors of population had been disaffected in the past, for a number of reasons:

(i) The forces of repression in the rural areas -- police, militia and enlisted hoodlums -- are effective particularly in more remote and deprived locations where those running the state apparatus have a vested interest in defending their privileges. This also strengthens the belief (often an illusion) among peasant protesters that, as in the old days, their troubles stem from local oppression and that the Party/Emperor in Beijing is not to blame.

(ii) Labour protest tends to be based on single work units or at best in single urban locations, and is rarely organized on a wider basis. This is partly because the state makes it clear that it will not tolerate any protest engaging in chuanlian (the phrase used by Red Guards in the Cultural Revolution when they 'made contacts' across the country). It also reflects the self-contained nature of work communities and the posing of demands based on self-interest rather than a broader solidarity.

(iii) Many protests which observe the rules (i.e. do not exceed local boundaries) do get results of a sort -- although this happens more often in urban than rural environments. A regime that has made 'social stability' its top priority is more willing to buy off protestors.: back wages and pensions may be paid (though rarely in full), a few corrupt officials may be punished, emergency funds may be allocated, and some attempt made to deal with housing and welfare problems. In the disadvantaged rural areas, there has been some success in lessening the burden of illegal tax impositions, and the focus of complaint is now shifting towards the misappropriation of land by speculators with good 'connections' in local government.

Social change: China is, to put it very crudely, a large enough country for considerable zones of poverty and protest to exist without impinging too visibly or effectively upon the more dynamic areas of economic enrichment and social change. This might appear to be a scenario for an updated version of Mao's revolutionary strategy in which the 'towns' of capitalist development will be encircled and overwhelmed by the 'countryside' of the marginalized and poor. However the 'towns' are no longer islands of prosperity but have spread out, ink blot fashion, to cover very sizeable areas of the adjacent 'countryside'. (Rural suburbs of many major cities now enjoy a quasi-urban lifestyle). Better communications, education and the loosening of population controls have also over the past two decades led to much greater social mobility. The so-called 'independent kingdoms' of the past -- isolated areas where resistance could fester unobserved -- no longer exist on the scale required to become reservoirs of revolution.

Migrant labour is a critical factor in the social transformation of this 'countryside': at a rough estimate, between 100 and 130 million adults who are still registered in the rural areas -- up to ten per cent of the entire Chinese population -- will be working away from home for months or years at a time. (Many will only return to their families once a year at the Chinese New Year Festival -- assuming that their employers have paid them the wages they are owed). This is clearly a potential source of instability if such a vast labour force were one day to find no work, but at present it is more a stabilising factor and not just because of the cash remittances from migrants to their families. Although urban in-migration is tightly controlled, some long-term migrants do become urbanised: the majority who eventually return home take with them new enterpreneurial skills and ideas which help to diversify rural life.

While some (though by no means all) rural areas remain as 'backward' as before, if not more so, the urban and semi-urban landscape is very different. A social transformation since the mid-1990s has made tens of millions increasingly autonomous from the Party, with their own aspirations and demands. The most visible signs of this shift has been at the material level, as a new middle class expresses its priorities for consumption and acquisition unfettered by any fear of political disapproval. Of equal importance, millions now articulate goals and values across a whole range of issues, from sexual relationships to citizens’ rights, with a high degree of freedom in their everyday lives. As was often explained to visiting foreigners, especially those with experience of previous decades, 'we can say what we like now -- though we can’t always put it in print'. On the negative side, the loosening of Party authority together with the spread of corruption has encouraged new destructive forces in society, of which the saddest example has been the rapid spread of prostitution, human trafficking, and drug abuse.

The environment: This is China's hidden time-bomb. The Dengist strategy, continued by his successors, of maintaining a high rate of economic growth while encouraging the market to run rip has secured popular acquiescence in continued Party rule at a very high price of environmental exploitation. The resulting surge in Chinese output and consumption in the 1990s redoubled the pressure on natural resources which in many areas had already been undermined by unwise policies in the Maoist era. The basic essentials which support human life, reliable water, sufficient tree cover, and fertile earth, have all come under increasing strain. The devastating floods of 1998 were attributed to a combination of deforestation in the upper reaches of the Yangtze, and extensive building and over-cultivation in the middle valley

. The devastating Yangtze floods of 1998 were caused by a combination of deforestation in tributary areas upstream and conversion of traditional flood land for new building and agriculture n the middle valley. They were followed by the drought of 2000 -- the two sides of the same ecological problem caused by excessive exploitation of water resources.

In such projects as the high-profile Three Gorges Dam on theYangtze river, and in other equally large but less well-known hydraulic enterprises, the government remains committed to the 'big dam philosophy' -- in which it has the support of the World Bank which (while careful not to endorse the controversial Three Gorges project) financed an earlier dam at Xiaolangdi on the Yellow River. Work has now begun on an even more stupendous engineering enterprise -- to transfer water from the Yangtze to the Yellow River by three separate routes: no debate has been allowed on this project and its effect on the environment is unpredictable.

Reform and repression:

It has been a truism now for a decade and a half that political reform has lagged a long way behind economic reform. Even the fairly modest proposals for inner-Party democracy and public supervision of government made during the 1980s have been ignored. The one innovation has been village elections but these are limited to the lowest level. In the Marxist-Maoist terms (which the Chinese Party no longer employs) reform of the political superstructure has lagged an exceedingly long way behind the transformation of the economic base. Hopes are raised before successive Party congresses that a new regime will begin to redress the balance, and are soon dashed again: the time, it is always claimed, is not yet ripe. In 2004-05, it is the turn of Party leader Hu Jintao and state Premier Wen Jiabao who had been seen as more responsive to popular aspirations than Jiang Zemin (Deng Xiaoping's successor) to disappoint expectations. Their nervous handling in January 2005 of the death of former Party secretary-general Zhao Ziyang (Jiang's predecessor who had been under virtual house arrest since opposing the 1989 crack-down) confirmed that the long-anticipated 'Beijing thaw' was still an illusion.

The periodic purging of an outspoken newspaper such as the popular Southern Weekend, the censorship of sensitive stories, the imprisonment of lone dissident voices, and the harassment of the brave mothers of Tiananmen Square who still seek justice for their fallen sons and daughters, are deep black marks on a regime which -- while berating Japan for failing to acknowledge the past record of aggression in China -- still refuses to come to terms with its own past. The persecution of the Falun Gong, which unwisely provoked the wrath of Jiang Zemin by demonstrating outside his front door in 1999, is also brutal and unnecessary. (The Falun Gong is a cultish organisation led by from abroad by a 'Master' who expounds a questionable doctrine, but it is no threat to the Chinese state).

Yet these examples of high-profile repression, are only one aspect of a complex political culture which at a less formal level has become much more variegated. There is far more argument and debate in China today, much of it challenging to Party orthodoxies, than the headlines over Western news stories reporting the latest 'crack-down on dissent' would suggest. The internet has played a significant role, allowing the circulation of information and ideas in a less visible form which does not so readily provoke censorship. Even the People's Daily website is more outspoken than the print version of the Party's official newspaper. In spite of controls and censorship, the internet also allows the circulation of information and discussion of sensitive issues among millions of younger Chinese as well as within the academic world. Such issues include the widening gap between rich and poor, official corruption, discrimination against migrant workers, and HIV-AIDS. Some material is even copied from overseas websites run by dissident Chinese to which direct access is banned.

As the state comes to rely more upon professional managers and technocrats to run its vast enterprise, and less upon the 'intellectuals' once employed to provide and bolster ideologically correct theory, the latter have become more autonomous and more like their counterparts in the West (with whom they have much closer relationships). The recent publication by Verso of One China, Many Paths (2004) gives us, for the first time in English, a fascinating glimpse into the diversity of their arguments. Editor Wang Chaohua writes 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.'

The debate is no longer, as it was in the 1980s, between unreconstructed Maoism and semi-socialist reform: it is between unfettered marketisation, whose partisans often endorse exploitation and corruption as necessary for progress, and the advocacy of some sort of social agenda which might humanise China’s new order in the global economy. China‘s entry to the WTO in 2002 marked the apogee of the marketeers' forward march: for a while the air rang with claims that China now enjoyed a 'level playing field' on the global market and that everyone would benefit from a 'win plus win' outcome. But there is a growing realisation that China's WTO entry was bound to accelerate social polarisation, with .the richer provinces and the economic elite with superior business knowledge better able to maximise their advantages. Questions about the future of the Communist Party are part of the debate although they are put more circumspectly. It is easier to assert that the Party 'cannot last for another 100 years' than to put a finer time limit on its existence. Rather than argue explicitly for a multi-party system , there are calls for the introduction of electoral politics within the Party itself, with the implication that it will remain the dominant political force but only after gaining popular consent.

So what are the prospects of the 'collapse of China? The phrase is not as imprecise as it may sound, for the sudden implosion of the Party would in the view of most Chinese, including many political exiles, could be a disaster for the whole country. Wang Dan, leading activist from Tiananmen Square, hopes there is a good chance instead of the Party's 'evolution into something different'. And Wang Chaohua, also a former activist, believes that the present regime could adapt itself to last 'for another twenty years'. Of course there are too many unknown variables ahead, not all of them within China's control. for us to rule out a more catastrophic scenario. One is the speed of environmental degradation which could increase rapidly through mistaken policies or the effect of global warming or both. Another unknown is the future of the global market which now underpins such a significant element of Chinese employment. A third possibility, not so far-fetched as it may seem, would be conflict in the Taiwan Straits involving the US as a result of miscalculation by the Chinese or Taiwan governments or both. However, looking at China from outside, we would do well to avoid the stark dichotomy between 'collapse' and 'miracle', and focus instead on the deeper changes underway in Chinese society which are likely to transform the landscape over time less dramatically, but just as radically.


SOUNDINGS is published by Lawrence & Wishart, 99a Wallis Rd., London E9 5LN