Prisoner of Mao
China Behind the Mask
A Chinese View of China
In the global community of the postcold war world, freedom of individual expression is becoming a universal problem like food and energy. It is at issue on the Watergate and other fronts in the United States, and on the Sakharov-Solzhenitsyn front in Moscow, but will there be any Chinese Sakharovs? China is achieving technological development without political expression for the individual technician. The degree of individual freedom to be expected in the world’s crowded future is more uncertain in China than in most places because the Chinese are so well organized and so anti-individualist in custom and doctrine. Are they going to prove individualism out of date?
China is usually fitted into the international world either by a theory of delayed progress or by a theory of uniqueness. The first theory assumes that China has merely been slow to get on the path of modernity, but once launched will come along like all the rest of us with industrialization and all its ills and triumphs. The second theory, which of course is the stock in trade of most China specialists, is that China is unique and will never be like other countries. (Since China is obviously both like and unlike other places, this whole discussion is a great semi-issue in which each contestant must make his own mixture.)
The view that China must follow universal laws of development, which appeals to Marxists among others, can lead one to conclude that China’s growth in modern scientific scholarship still lags behind that of the Soviet Union, and so cases like that of academician Sakharov have not yet emerged in China but will do so in the future. Eventually, it may be assumed, a specialized scholarly elite cannot help having individual views and speaking out, but the People’s Republic is still at the stage of its evolution where egalitarianism is the dominant creed, education is to be only a matter of acquiring technical skills for public purposes, and in order to avoid the revival of the old ruling class tradition, no scholarly elite can be allowed to grow up in the universities. By this reckoning China, like the USSR, is on our track but has a long way still to go.
If one takes the other tack stressing the special character of Chinese society, one may conclude that the Chinese are far more sophisticated in their social organization and political life than we distant outsiders commonly realize. This view is compatible with the Maoist orthodoxy in China, which claims that the Soviets have lost the true communist vision while China retains it and can avoid the evils of capitalism including the American type of individualism.
From either point of view, China is seen to be setting a new style, achieving her own new solutions in applying technology to modern life. For example, helped by the press of numbers which makes automobiles for individuals inconceivable, the Chinese may escape the corrosive effects of automobile civilization. In such a crowded country, communities cannot be…
This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all all content on nybooks.com.
Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.
Purchase a trial Online Edition subscription and receive unlimited access for one week to all the content on nybooks.com.