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From Mao to the market

There is more continuity between Maoist and modern-day China than is often recognised, writes John Gittings. It’s the importance of the Chinese people that has been lost along the way

December 1, 2005
9 min read

‘China has stood up,’ Mao Zedong famously proclaimed in Tiananmen Square at the founding ceremony of the People’s Republic. The phrase is remembered today now that his country finally stands – as Mao intended it to – tall on the world stage.

At the World Trade Organisation (WTO) conference this month in Hong Kong, some of the key questions on the ministers’ agenda, as they look across to the mainland, will concern China’s intentions on currency liberalisation, the challenge of its cheap manufactures, the future of its amazing 9 per cent annual GDP growth, and whether it will continue to bankroll the huge US debt with its equally huge trade surpluses.

It is easy these days to talk about Mao ‘turning in his grave’ at China’s central role in the globalised capitalist economy, yet he would not necessarily have disapproved. Already in 1945, he had sought to woo Washington’s neutrality in the coming civil war with Chiang Kai-shek by telling US diplomats that a communist China would offer tempting markets for American goods. Mao has now been proved right in reverse: it is the US consumers who are tempted by Chinese goods.

Nor should those who believe that a Maoist purity has been sullied by his successors forget that what we regard as ‘Maoism’ – the ‘self-reliant’ strategy of socialist transition in the 1950s and 1960s – emerged in a highly abnormal context. In those years of acute cold war, US containment of China helped (and was partly intended) to tilt Beijing into dogmatic and destructive isolation.

Mao abandoned the gradualist approach of the early 1950s and sought to ‘catch up’ with the west by ‘leaping forward’, with well-known disastrous results. But it was Mao who would welcome Richard Nixon to Beijing in 1972, just as he had also approved previous, unsuccessful, diplomatic overtures to the US in the mid-1950s.

If one of the principal objectives of the Chinese revolution – to build a China strong in both economic development and global status – has been achieved, a second goal – to give the labouring Chinese people a real voice in their future – remains almost as far away as ever, and those who call for it risk being labelled ‘subversive’.

Yet on that famous day of 1 October 1949 in Tiananmen Square, Mao uttered another phrase that did not enter the official record and is never quoted today. Leaning over the balcony before the ceremony began, he surveyed the vast crowd, waved and shouted out to them the simple words ‘Long live the people!’ He did so, he told someone later that evening, because ‘it was the only way I could do justice to them’.

‘Long live the people’ was no empty phrase. Mao had just completed a revolution, which depended for its success upon active popular support. He had lived since 1927 deep among ordinary Chinese in remote rural areas. Without the people, as Mao often said, there would have been no revolution, no Red Army and no Communist Party. China’s tragedy (and that of Mao himself) was that ‘Long live Chairman Mao’, not ‘Long live the people’, became the obligatory slogan for the next quarter of a century. To hail the Chinese people became not only rare but frequently subversive. In the Cultural Revolution, the spirit of ‘Long live the people’ was conveyed not through its dogmatic polemics denouncing the ‘class enemy’ but in the manifestos of dissenting Red Guards, alienated by the perversion of its original ideals.

Significantly, the only time that ‘Long live the people’ ever appeared in an official statement was two years after the Cultural Revolution, when a new, more open-minded leadership was attempting to undo the damage. Inspired by the reformist general secretary, Hu Yaobang, the Communist Party’s official People’s Daily published a long editorial in December 1978 under that headline. It urged party cadres to respect the ‘democratic spirit’ of the ordinary people and to understand that sometimes the masses could be ahead of them. This had happened, it said, two years earlier when a popular demonstration in Tiananmen Square (in April 1976) was staged against the then leaders of the Cultural Revolution.

This official endorsement for spontaneous initiative is unique in the history of a party whose instinct is to repress, not approve, independent mass action. When Tiananmen Square was occupied again, by the pro-democracy student movement in April-June 1989, Deng Xiaoping and his fellow veterans sent in the tanks. The most significant feature of this episode was the support given to the students by the laobaixing, the ordinary working people of Beijing. And when the students were hailed by them with approving shouts of ‘Long live the students’, they replied with one voice ‘Long live the people’. The same slogan appeared on banners in the square alongside ‘Long live democracy’, another deeply subversive idea. Neither has been heard or seen since then on the streets of Beijing.

Yet the spirit, if not the slogan, of ‘Long live the people’ is still very much alive in China today. When laid-off workers demonstrate against corrupt officials who asset-stripped their factories, or peasant communities protest against illegal levies imposed by local officials, they are not calling for western-style democracy. They are asserting the values that infused the revolution and the early years of post-1949 socialism at their best, and that resonate with a deeper sense of communal equity dating back to traditional Chinese society.

Since the crisis of 1989, the Communist Party has itself moved some way towards recognising that it is only entitled to rule if it can deliver results – a modern version of the ancient theory of the ‘mandate of heaven’, which the emperor would forfeit if he failed to provide for his people. The party no longer describes itself as the vanguard of the proletariat but as the ‘ruling party’, whose continued right to rule depends on satisfying ‘the material and spiritual requirements of the people’.

The current leadership under President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao is now more willing to recognise that maintaining a trade surplus and boosting GDP growth are no measure of success unless serious efforts are made to tackle rural poverty, income inequality, corruption and environmental degradation. But so far, their efforts have failed effectively to confront the vested interests of the new forces of bureaucratic capitalism, which have flourished under the ‘Get Rich First’ policy, first proclaimed by the late Deng Xiaoping 20 years ago.

Nor is it likely that Hu and Wen or any future leaders will manage to bridge these dangerously widening gaps in Chinese society as long as the ‘democratic deficit’ allows so few avenues for popular scrutiny of government. While argument and even protest is now tolerated on the environment and to some extent on rural poverty, critical areas such as labour relations and official corruption remain closed to public argument. The official rationale for suppressing public dissent is that there is an over-riding need to maintain ‘social stability’. More often this is an excuse for preserving elite privilege and protecting family or business connections.

For socialists abroad, it has never been easy to decide how to judge progress in post-revolutionary China, far less whom, if anyone, to support. In the polarised decades of the cold war those who defended China and Mao to the hilt – sometimes known as ‘110 per centers’ – argued that criticism would play into the hands of Beijing’s external enemies. Cold war attitudes still persist in the west, particularly in the US, where the neo-con view of China as a future ‘strategic threat’ is echoed in parts of the media. But Beijing can now look after itself.

Today’s ‘110 per centers’ are those who condemn root and branch the entire Maoist era, ignoring the extent of popular support for an admittedly flawed socialist agenda, and blaming everything on one man. This approach has been taken to new lengths in the biography by Jung Chang and Jon Halliday, Mao: The Unknown Story, published this year.

China has become much more complex and diverse since the Mao era, but there is still significant continuity with the past. Many Chinese who are critical of the party resent foreign efforts to write off the socialist decades as nothing but ‘chaos’, or to label Mao as no more than a ‘monster’. Nor can China and its problems be viewed in isolation from the international environment – indeed, as argued above, the external context has always been an important factor and remains so today.

How can the western consumer enjoy a constant supply of ridiculously cheap electronic goods assembled in China and then berate the country for its sweatshop production lines? Is it not hypocrisy for the World Bank to urge Beijing to close down ‘uneconomic’ state-owned enterprises, and then lament the plight of the laid-off workers? Are the WTO rules obliging China to open its markets to foreign agricultural products really in the interests of impoverished rural producers? And how can we deplore the growth of a consumerist culture that is demanding more energy, and creating more pollution, when its values are modelled on our own?

Books and articles used to be written about ‘China and the World’. Now, even more than before, China is in the World, and its problems are our problems too. But if there is one principle still to assert amidst all the complexities of 21st century life, it remains the one proclaimed by Mao Zedong in 1949 – but unhappily neglected by him as he became more distant from the real makers of the Chinese revolution. It is to declare, above all other considerations: Long live the Chinese people.John Gittings first visited China in 1971 and was China specialist and foreign leader-writer at The Guardian, 1983-2003. His latest book is The Changing Face of China: From Mao to Market (OUP, 2005)

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