Saturday, April 24, 2010

A corrective, on China

There are so many novels published in this country that portray the 30 or so years after the 1949 Chinese Revolution, and especially the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution of the mid-1960s to early 1970s, as a time of unparalleled horror and inhumanity that it's practically an industry in itself. A sub-industry within the larger U.S. publishing industry, devoted to convincing people -- and then re-convincing and re-convincing because these sort of Big Lies must needs be pounded into people's heads again and again -- that the effort to build socialism in China was a foul and nefarious project. That Mao Zedong was a murderous monster on the order of Adolf Hitler. And that Chinese communism was a particular enemy of the arts, of thought, of humanism.

It's all hogwash, as is its counterpart the mini-industry of novels that slander the Cuban Revolution, as well as literary propaganda against the Democratic People's Republic of Korea, a sorry little sub-genre that seems to be lately emerging. But it's highly effective hogwash. How could it not be? Its purveyors have a monopoly on readers' attention. No contrary argument -- no stories of the glorious accomplishments of the Revolution -- has a chance of publication. It's funny how the U.S. bourgeois literary establishment's ironclad rule that art can't be political, that quality fiction must not serve a political agenda, is suspended in these cases. Turns out it's ironclad only as regards revolutionary literature.

I've made this complaint before. But here's something new: a book that cuts through the fakery and provides factual truth about the Revolution, -- as well as about its literary and intellectual detractors, their background, class allegiance, and animosity to the working class.

The book is The Rise of China and the Demise of the Capitalist World Economy by Minqi Li, which I'm currently reading. Professor Li considers the revolution in China to be by now completely undone, utterly overtaken by capitalism, a view I don't share, but I do share his optimism about the inevitable worldwide move toward socialism. And I do share, in fact I find quite exhilarating given the paucity of such information and analysis available in books published in this country, his take on the greatness of the Chinese Revolution and all it accomplished. Furthermore, in the first section of this book, which is as far as I've read so far, he presents an extremely astute unpacking of the class character of the opposition to the Revolution, opposition that, especially in the realm of the arts, cloaks itself in nice words like "democracy" and "freedom" and so on but that is actually, insidiously, and demonstrably on the side of inequality, exploitation and oppression -- that is, capitalism -- not least because its own class interests are definitively on that side.

Li is of the generation of Chinese students who were swept up in, and he himself did take direct part in, the so-called pro-democracy movement of the late 1980s that culminated in the events at Tiananmen Square. He spent some years in prison. Unlike most of his cohort who continued along the pro-capitalist road after 1989, Li decided to study Marxism, and was won over to the cause of working-class revolution. During his prison time he read most if not all of the works of Marx, Engels, Lenin and others. He read all three volumes of Capital three times! Ever since, he has made a deep study of the actual, concrete history of China during and after the Mao years. It's so refreshing, such a corrective to the corrosive outpouring of untruth to which we've been subjected for over 20 years now, to read his commentary on the events of the late 1980s in China. He calls out the crap about "democracy" and clarifies that that word was and remains a subterfuge covering the real goal, which is free-market capitalism. The only "freedom" sought, he explains, was and is the freedom to exploit workers in the drive for capital accumulation.

His characterization of the Cultural Revolution and of its opponents, including the student generation of which he was a part, is a particular contribution. For example, one of the supposedly wretched crimes of the Cultural Revolution, a charge leveled repeatedly in fiction and non, is how professionals and intellectuals were made to leave their university or other urban lives and go into the countryside to work with the mass of agricultural workers. Yes, they were uprooted from their cushy positions and, horror of horrors, moved to where they might do some actual good. An excerpt from Li:
Mao Zedong critically observed that the Ministry of Public Health only worked for "fifteen percent of the total population" in the cities and it should be renamed as "the Ministry of Urban Gentlemen's Health." Mao pointed out that medical examination procedures and treatment used by hospitals were not appropriate for the countryside and that the training of doctors was designed to serve primarily the urban elites. ...

During the Cultural Revolution, the entire national health care system was radically decentralized. Urban hospitals and medical schools established clinics and local teaching institutes in the rural communes. Mobile medical teams were dispatched to the countryside. ...

Before the Cultural Revolution, the education system was based on formal exams and conventional grading systems, with the aim of training students for professional careers that would serve the interests of the urban elites. During the Cultural Revolution, primary schools were extended to even the most remote rural areas and primary and secondary school enrollment surged. Peasants were given a greater say in selecting teachers and teaching materials. Tuition fees, entrance exams, and age limits were abolished. Spare-time and work-study education programs were set up. The basic idea was to combine education with productive labor, to relate learning to students' real life, and to direct education toward local conditions and local needs. University students were admitted only after having completed years of productive labor and were required to return to work in their home areas after graduation, so that university education would not become a path for careerist students seeking to join the elite class.
If, like me, you've suspected that these U.S.-published and highly celebrated novelists with their sad tales about the horrors of the Cultural Revolution in fact come from or are the descendants of the old privileged classes in China who just hated the effort to lift the workers and peasants and bring about equality, it turns out you're right. Here is Li on the class character and background of these counterrevolutionary intellectual/artistic/literary critics, specifically including those who left China for the West. And remember, he himself was part of this current, as he acknowledges.
In the 1980s, the word "intellectual" broadly referred to anyone who had gone through higher education in China, including university teachers, engineers, doctors, writers, artists, and university students, who were to become China's emerging urban middle class. Traditionally, intellectuals were a privileged social group in China. Their material privileges were significantly reduced (though not completely eliminated) during the period of Revolutionary China. Most Chinese intellectuals in the 1980s were from families that had been capitalists or landlords before the Revolution. Their resentment against the Revolution (especially the Cultural Revolution) was strong and they often did not hide their contempt and hatred for ordinary workers and peasants.

The intellectuals favored the growth of market relations. They hoped to have greater material privileges with greater degrees of social and economic inequality. They also hoped that through greater integration into the global capitalist market, they would have better opportunities to emigrate to the core states [of world capitalism, e.g., Europe and the U.S.] or to earn higher incomes by working for transnational corporations, so that their incomes and living standards could approach their counterparts in the core states. Toward the late 1980s, many of them openly called for full-scale privatization and a free-market capitalist system.

While the intellectuals and the ruling elites shared the broad objective of transition to capitalism, there was no agreement on how political power and the economic benefits of capitalist transition were to be divided between them. The intellectuals were dissatisfied with the fact that as wealth was gradually concentrated in the hands of bureaucratic capitalists and private entrepeneurs, they did not have a share of this newly accumulated capitalist wealth. Many of them complained that their income did not grow more rapidly than that for the urban workers.

All of these were behind the intellectuals' call for "freedom and democracy." In effect, the Chinese urban middle class was demanding a bigger share of the power and wealth as China moved toward capitalism. Some intellectuals explicitly called for "neo-authoritarianism," citing Japan, Taiwan, Singapore, and South Korea as models, that is, they advocated a capitalist model that would be repressive toward the working class but could secure "property rights" for capitalists and "civil liberty" for intellectuals.
There's more, just wanted to offer this taste. And this reminder, also confirmed in Li's book: there is a building Left movement in China today. We hear little to nothing about it in this country, inundated as we are instead with laments for the bosses' and landlords' losses during the high period of the Revolution. It is there, though, and it is on the rise, coinciding with the final crisis of capitalism now under way worldwide.