The Chinese Difference
Notes from China
A China Passage
To Peking and Beyond: A Report on the New Asia
With the exception of Joseph Kraft’s short work, all the books on China mentioned here have been padded. Barbara Tuchman includes a fascinating historical essay. Galbraith has animadversions on San Francisco, Paris, TWA, and many other matters, and Harrison Salisbury adds chapters on Korea, Vietnam, and Cambodia. Salisbury has a great deal to say about China, but the others would have done better to follow Joseph Alsop’s example and content themselves with two or three magazine articles instead of writing one slight and anemic book. The books tend to reveal more about their authors than about China. This does not mean that they are worthless. The authors are all intelligent and skillful. What is more, some of them had seen China before 1949, and Harrison Salisbury and Barbara Tuchman were on the fringes of the group of Americans who between 1925 and 1950 established the closest and most useful personal relations foreigners have ever made in China.
Anna Louise Strong, Edgar Snow, Nym Wales, Agnes Smedley, Owen Lattimore, and Jack Belden were able to reach the center of the Chinese revolutionary movement. Many were reporters, but unlike most journalists in Vietnam they did not even try to maintain an impartial view of a monstrously unbalanced situation. They did not attempt to equate the Japanese invaders with the local resistance or the corrupt and brutal Kuomintang with the sometimes bureaucratic but efficient and overwhelmingly popular communists. As a consequence their writings were more lively at the time and can now be seen to have had far greater historical value than those of their more “objective” contemporaries.
There are several reasons why Americans, rather than people of other nationalities, were able to create such close rapport with the Chinese. First, although American imperialism was deeply concerned with China, its impact on it was indirect. Since the US had achieved “most favored nation” status in the 1840s, gaining all the political and commercial privileges given to other powers, there was no need to fight China for advantages that could be gained through British, French, or Japanese coercion, a situation well described as “hitch-hiking imperialism.” Furthermore American investment in China was far smaller than that of Britain and Japan. US commercial interest was always more potential than actual. Nevertheless the potential alone was sufficient to sustain the vague feeling that China was the “last frontier” after San Francisco, a country from which American business would some day draw huge profits.
However, the relationship cannot be explained simply as a matter of economics or politics. China possesses an ancient civilization to which Americans have equal or better access than Europeans. Mrs. Nixon is as well qualified to talk about Chinese cooking as Mme Pompidou. Far more important are the resemblances between Chinese and American cultures. To take a contrary example, there have been remarkably few American Arabophiles, notwithstanding the huge American economic interests in the Middle East. Unlike many upper-class Englishmen, Americans find it hard to accept the combination of aristocracy and homosexuality one finds there. On the other hand Chinese peasants have qualities that appeal to many Americans—who are not directly threatened by their competition. They are enterprising and hardworking, thrifty and clean, and they have a myth of equal opportunity that before 1949 was similar to that of the US both in its power and in its spuriousness. Chinese peasants thus seemed tantalizingly close to Protestant Christianity. It is for this reason that, in spite of meager results, missionary activity was intense in China and many Americans were able to overcome their racial feelings in their desire to reach Chinese people.
Chinese too sensed these affinities. The hierarchical and insular British and Japanese with their intricate manners may have fascinated inquisitive Chinese, but warmth and openness with them were impossible. By contrast, some Americans knew how to act as equals. This, together with the indirectness of US interference, allowed them to be seen as more human than other imperialists, and as such they became an important link between the Chinese and the outside world.
During the 1930s the Nationalist government in Nanking had such close American connections that one can usefully look at it as a prototype for the US dominated neocolonialist governments set up after the Second World War. At the beginning these connections were friendly ones. However, the increasing economic and military dependence of the Nationalists upon the US created such deep resentment among them that by the time they had been reduced to puppet status in Taiwan, warm human contacts were almost impossible.
Personal relations with Chinese communists were more straightforward. In spite of their hostility toward communism, nearly all Americans who met both sides found they preferred the communists, with their Chinese peasant virtues, to the grasping and devious Kuomintang. Radical North Americans and other non-British English-speaking people—Edgar Snow, Rewi Alley, Norman Bethune, George Hatem, and others—made themselves useful, particularly by giving and obtaining information. At guerrilla headquarters they were pumped for news of Europe and America. In return they were given extraordinarily good facilities with which to study the new revolutionary movement and its leaders so that they could provide detailed and accurate reports of them to the outside world.
This was possible because the revolution had more or less active support from most of the local population; there was little to fear from exposure, and the war, being protracted, gave observers time to write about it. But still it is surprising that the Chinese revolution has been the best reported mass revolution in the twentieth century. The communists selected Americans for this task partly because they saw that propaganda efforts were best concentrated on the US; it was the greatest world power and the one most involved in fighting the Japanese or supporting the Kuomintang. Even so the qualities of these American reporters were also extremely important.
In the 1950s, during the alliance with the Soviet Union, Chinese leaders appear to have made no similar revelations to Russian journalists. Ministers and heads of state do not have the time and flexibility of guerrilla leaders, and the Soviet press did not encourage frank reporting. Moreover, Russian bluntness and pushiness seem to have been more off-putting than the American variety. It is also possible that racial prejudice was involved, Russian fears setting up barriers against East Asians as insurmountable as those white Americans erect against blacks.
In any event, between 1949 and 1960, Mao, Chou En-lai, and other Chinese leaders had little communication with the outside world. Only after the Sino-Soviet split did they feel free to invite Edgar Snow to China. Snow managed to avoid the restrictions put upon other travelers by the State Department, which was frightened of attacks from hysterically anti-Chinese politicians like Richard Nixon and journalists like Joseph Alsop. He was able to see a certain amount of the country but, far more important, he was able to interview his old friends, to transmit their ideas to the world, and to return every few years until his death in 1972. Some conversations were contrived with particular ends in view. For instance, in their meeting in January, 1965, Mao played the role of a contemplative sage waiting for death. No doubt many of his statements on immortality reflected genuine feelings. But they also helped to lull Liu Shao-ch’i and the other party leaders just a few months before the devastating attacks launched on them during the Cultural Revolution. Nevertheless these interviews provided extraordinary insights into Mao’s thinking.
It was not until Nixon’s somersault on China became public in 1971 that other Americans could return to China and report on it. It is clear that Mao and Chou have retained their faith in American reporters, and for this reason some have been given startling privileges. Many have had long, wideranging interviews with Chou En-lai. Some, like Harrison Salisbury, have heard detailed descriptions of the Cultural Revolution and one American scholar has even been given the life story of Mao’s wife Chiang Ch’ing.
Are they capable of grasping these exceptional opportunities? Some like William Hinton clearly are. His book Hundred Day War: The Cultural Revolution at Tsinghua University* is a historical source of extraordinary value. Hinton has the striking advantages of having been in the thick of the revolutionary movement during the 1940s and of having relations who have lived in China, since 1949. But most of the other observers have not so far made full use of the chances given them in China.
Harrison Salisbury’s book is packed with useful information. Instead of looking for news, places, and institutions never previously seen by Westerners, he clearly made an effort to visit places that had been well described before. For instance he went to Liu Lin Commune in the desperately poor countryside near Yenan, which Edgar Snow visited in 1960 and which was the subject of Jan Myrdal’s fascinating Report From a Chinese Village. By doing so Salisbury was able to construct a picture of economic progress and social changes over the last, thirteen years. His reporting meshes well with relevant quotations from earlier Western visitors. Although he tends not to use written Chinese sources, the material he has gathered from discussions and interviews is superb. Some of the book’s most interesting sections are descriptions of the Cultural Revolution by its participants. Like William Hinton in his fuller work, Salisbury uses the analogy of the Western student movement to approach an understanding of the turmoil in Chinese universities.
Galbraith’s unpretentious book is simply a diary of his trip. Unlike many other middle class visitors to China, he has seen factories in different parts of the world, has himself worked on farms, and he took his first academic degree in animal husbandry. These qualifications give him some standards of comparison that other academic visitors lack.
Barbara Tuchman, too, would not make large claims for her book, Notes from China. She is an expert in Sino-American relations during the 1940s, and has written the standard account of the misunderstandings between Chinese and Americans during the Second World War. One is therefore disconcerted to find that in this book she appears so tightly bound by her own culture. For example, she is scornful of the way in which Chinese attribute monuments and works of art to the labor and wisdom of the masses, without mentioning the contributions of the original architects, artists, or designers. She does not criticize the equally significant and far more absurd Western view of works of art and construction as created by the genius of one man, regardless of his social and cultural milieu and the physical labor of others.
Almost half of Joseph Kraft’s book is devoted to Nixon’s visit to Peking, which he captures in all its banality. The rest consists of thoughtful essays built around his discussions with foreign diplomats—some of them quite shrewd—and visits and interviews made during his two-week stay after Nixon’s departure.
But one major disadvantage of these writers is simply that they have been cut off too long. In varying degrees their knowledge of prerevolutionary China has enabled them to make comparisons between the 1940s and 1972, but they appear to have relatively little conception of the intervening history. To take a small example: When Harrison Salisbury visited Mao’s birthplace in 1972, he saw in the parents’ bedroom portraits of Mao’s mother and younger brothers “but not his father whom Mao hated.” All absolutely true. However when I went there a year earlier there was a picture of Mao’s father, who was praised for helping poor peasants and for being the father of a revolutionary family. This change may have been small but it was not trivial. In March 1971, Mao was still the Mao of the Cultural Revolution—a perfect being with a perfect family—necessary as a symbol of national unity while the government and Communist Party were under attack. In 1972, it was possible and desirable to reduce Mao to the position of a great but human revolutionary leader.
One can never say with certainty how things in modern China are. Everything changes, and these changes are confusing because they are not smooth or regular but zigzag and dialectical. Few of the writers under review have grasped the degree to which Mao’s version of the dialectic impinges on the country they visited. For Mao, as for all dialecticians, the essence of the dialectic is the notion that everything is simultaneously united and divided into mutually exclusive opposites. For him, as for all Hegelians and Marxists, it is this tension or contradiction that generates progress. Recognizing the realities of post-revolutionary China, Mao took up and developed the strand of Leninism that maintained that contradictions existed in all historical periods including the socialist one. However Lenin and Mao saw two types of contradiction, “antagonistic” and “nonantagonistic.” The former destroyed the systems in which they existed, while the latter were necessary for its vitality.
There is no clear theoretical method for distinguishing between the two types, apart from the circular one of asking whether or not they are destructive, and in practice they are often difficult to diagnose. Nevertheless Mao considers the distinction essential because he believes they should be handled entirely differently. “Non-antagonistic contradictions,” which he describes as contradictions “among the people,” should be treated gently and with persuasion, while “antagonistic contradictions,” which he sees as those “between the people”—those who broadly support the revolution—and the enemies of the people—those who oppose the revolution—should be fought with the utmost ferocity and violence.
Thus while the strategy for antagonistic contradictions is straightforward, nonantagonistic contradictions require “correct handling.” Mao maintains—and in this he goes beyond Lenin—that mishandling nonantagonistic contradictions can lead to their becoming antagonistic and hence destroy the society in which they exist. This means that it is essential to deal with them in a sensitive and flexible way. This is especially important for those whose final resolution will only take place in the distant future. Faced with a nonantagonistic contradiction, say the competing claims for industrial and agricultural investment, most Western liberals would in theory look for the golden mean. They would try to achieve a “right mix,” giving appropriate sums to each in a formula that could be projected into the indefinite future.
Mao and most of the Chinese leadership do not accept this. For them the elements in a dialectical relationship are mutually exclusive. As they see it there may be a balance over the long run, but the normal state of affairs at any given time is movement and disequilibrium, which are not seen as negative but as positive dynamic forces. Thus in any given period when aspect A of a nonantagonistic contradiction is dominant, policies favoring B should be promoted. When problems arising from movement to B become greater than those stemming from A, the direction is reversed. The impetus for policies in both directions is created by campaigns or “movements” in which people are mobilized to attack what are considered to be the most urgent problems. In China there are always “movements” for, or more often against, something: “corruption,” “commandism,” lack of discipline, waste, sparrows, flies…. This concentration of energies on one target is bound to be at the expense of other problems. Furthermore if it is sufficiently dynamic to move at all it will almost certainly run to excess and require correction and reversal.
But reversal should not be repetition. In orthodox Hegelian and Marxist dialectics, thesis and antithesis are resolved in synthesis, which incorporates the two and carries them to a higher level, and from which a new thesis and antithesis emerge. In some respects the new thesis may resemble the old, but because it includes both the old thesis and the old antithesis it is qualitatively new. Mao’s concern with contradictions that have no final resolution in the short term weakens the progress that can result from the dialectic, as does his notion that nonantagonistic contradictions can become antagonistic. However he is determined to retain the idea of progress, if only in a modified form.
In his view the resolution of some contradictions can transform the whole situation, and the forms of all other contradictions can change accordingly, but their essence remains the same. For instance the situation in China was transformed by the revolutionary seizure of governmental power in 1949, which led to a complete alteration of the form of the “principal contradiction” between the proletariat and the bourgeoisie—the positions of ruler and rebel were reversed. Nevertheless its essence, the desire of each class to hold power, remains the same. Hence the threat that the bourgeoisie could return to power and reverse the progress made since the revolution still persists.
Despite the weakening of the belief in the inevitability and irreversability of progress, there is no doubt about the striking advances made in nearly all aspects of Chinese society since 1949. Therefore what appear at first sight to be mere alternations from policy A to policy B are better seen as zigzags or facets of an upward spiral. For example, the movement for rural industrialization that has taken place from the end of the Cultural Revolution is in many ways similar to that of the Great Leap Forward in 1958. But it is different and progressive in that it incorporates the policies of the past. This time more has been achieved. First because of the extension of urban industry and electrification and the larger agricultural surpluses, all carried out during the period of centralization and economic rationality of the early 1960s. But also because of the existing rural industry and the peasants’ technical and organizational capacities that were developed during the frantic enthusiasm of the earlier movement.
After 1949, Mao saw China as having nonantagonistic contradictions of all sorts: between town and country, soldiers and civilians, intellectuals and toiling masses. However, Chinese leaders have been particularly concerned with government. As Mao put it in “On the Correct Handling of Contradictions among the People”:
Within the ranks of the people democracy is correlative with centralism and freedom with discipline. They are two opposites of a single entity contradictory as well as united and we should not one-sidedly emphasize one to the exclusion of the other. Within the ranks of the people we cannot do without freedom nor can we do without discipline…. This…constitutes our democratic centralism.
The word “centralism” with its connotations of government control from Peking and Communist Party supervision of all activities is not difficult for Westerners to understand. Democracy presents more problems. Clearly it does not mean the freedom to accumulate private fortunes or freedom for rich and influential individuals to use the mass media. What it does mean is freedom for anybody “within the ranks of the people,” whom Mao estimates to comprise 95 percent of the total population, to criticize anything or any person, including government or Party officials, so long as the criticisms fall within the assumptions of Chinese politics.
Looked at from the West these assumptions often seem very narrow. Joseph Kraft is amazed that “disputes on such limited issues should generate such heat,” arguing that this is a sign of political immaturity. In its ideal form Chinese democracy allows villagers to decide where to plant crops and build houses, what local industry should be set up, whether or not the draft national economic plan is feasible for their area, and who should head their production units. They cannot elect higher officials or appoint people to the Communist Party nor can they refuse to pay taxes or break up the collective production teams into private plots. This may indeed seem limited, but looked at from China, Western politics also seem narrow. Americans can elect a Democrat or a Republican but this seldom has any direct influence on their lives. Both parties support the existing constitutional and economic systems. Could a majority of the citizens of, say, Newark legally decide to distribute its wealth evenly? In both societies there is room for local change and partisan heat but the structure of government, the use of coercive force, and property relations are virtually always outside the realm of “politics.”
In China, democracy and centralism come in a package that includes other contradictions. One can usefully associate the two clusters with Mao and Liu Shao-ch’i, Mao with democracy and Liu with centralism. I should stress that the differences are ones of emphasis and that both men recognize that since these contradictions are nonantagonistic with no immediate prospect of resolution, both are necessary. With Liu and discipline are associated hierarchy, respect for experience and expertise, recognition of objective difficulties, rational planning, coordination, economic interdependence, an organic society, urban industry, and stress on the importance of the industrial workers. With Mao and freedom come spontaneity, equality, youth, power of will, generalism as opposed to specialization, agriculture, small-scale industry, economic self-sufficiency, and local political autonomy—in general a segmented society.
It is not surprising that each man should be identified in this way. Liu’s revolutionary experience was largely underground in regions controlled by the Kuomintang, working with industrial workers and making compromises with the urban bourgeoisie and intelligentsia. In these circumstances, which were analogous to those of the Bolsheviks before 1917, the successful Leninist model of a flexible, tightly disciplined party was altogether appropriate. On the other hand, since 1927, Mao worked openly—within the perimeter established by the Red Army—among peasants in a society of extreme poverty and simplicity. In this situation new political methods and new ideologies were necessary, and it was in these circumstances that his policies of “the mass line,” which involved active political participation from people outside the party, developed.
While all Chinese leaders seem to be agreed that both aspects of these contradictions are necessary, the principle of dynamic disequilibrium means that a correct balance cannot be achieved at any one time. To deal with this tactically there have been frequent “movements” in one direction or another throughout the last twenty-four years. Chinese history over this period can crudely but usefully be seen as a series of alternations, in which first one then another aspect has been stressed.
1949-1956 (Period of the Soviet model) Centralism
1957-1960 (Rectification, Hundred Flowers, Great Leap Forward) Democratic
1961-1965 (Economic Recovery) Centralism
1966-1968 (Cultural Revolution) Democratic
1969-197? (Re-establishment of Party control) Centralism
These alternations are not entirely determined by internal forces. Outside pressures have clearly been important. The weakening of China’s links with the Soviet Union influenced her development of an independent political and economic strategy after 1957. In 1968 China’s fears after the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia coupled with her hopes after the American losses in Vietnam affected at least the timing of the end of the Cultural Revolution.
If the Cultural Revolution was the most extreme period of democracy, the rebuilding of the government and Party over the last four years has been equally striking. Hierarchy, expertise, and respect for objective science are receiving great emphasis. It is paradoxical that this movement to re-establish discipline is seen in these books as one of relaxation, during a period in which contact between Chinese and foreigners has become easier than at any time since the mid 1950s—another period of discipline. This effect comes from the fact that foreign contact is almost always with leaders and interpreters, and foreigners tend to equate the increase of their privileges—freedom to read foreign books, take holidays, hear Western concerts, etc.—with improvements of life and opportunity for the population as a whole. For the time being, high Chinese officials are secure from being called to account for their actions by the standard of Maoist values, which allows them to be charming and sophisticated with foreign guests.
What predictions can one make on the basis of this zigzag scheme? First, that the present trend will continue for three or four years. New constitutions for Party and government will be published, confirming their hierarchical nature. Party leaders “pulled down” during the Cultural Revolution will be brought back. It is even possible that Liu Shao-ch’i will reappear. This would be justified on the grounds that the Cultural Revolution was against his ideas, not his person.
After 1976 prophecy is far more difficult. If, as is likely, the Soviet threat to the frontier remains and American armed presence in Southeast Asia continues, there will be no great change in China’s foreign policy of cool but correct relations with the superpowers. If there is no crisis in foreign relations, internal pressures for a new cultural revolution will grow among discontented groups in a population mobilized by revolutionary experience and inculcated with Maoist egalitarian and rebellious values. To face this the Party will at least have a “rectification campaign”—a movement of criticism of the Communist Party from the outside. We can then expect punishment of the leading critics, a modification of official arrogance, and more responsiveness to those below them.
There would be major benefits if major upheavals of this sort did not take place. Stability would avoid the suffering caused to people caught on the “wrong side” and it would allow for long-term economic planning. Because this agrees with their own concept of ordered material progress, most American observers would welcome an end to what Joseph Alsop calls “those strange convulsions.” On the other hand, failure to have rectifications or making them merely nominal would lead to the entrenchment of official privilege and more coercion to hold down the discontented. In other words it would mean the Soviet pattern of impressive economic advances at the cost of huge injustices.
All of the writers under review were impressed by the impact of the Cultural Revolution and the seriousness of its attempt to create a new selfless man. But all were more or less skeptical of its long-term success. They see the Cultural Revolution as Mao’s noble but futile desire to escape Weber’s iron law that revolutionary charisma must make way for bureaucratic rationality. They tend to believe that the smooth centralist China they saw is the “real” post-revolutionary China and that contrasting periods in the past were aberrations. They fail to grasp that the dialectical dynamic has been essential to the development of China.
The failure to appreciate the mobile and irregular shows how little these observers have been influenced by Western radicalism in the 1960s. Indeed one of the most surprising features of their books is the extent to which these highly intelligent authors have, with the exception of Harrison Salisbury, survived the past decade with their middle-class American certainties unscathed. Barbara Tuchman is appalled at Chinese reporting of foreign affairs. There is no doubt that it is extremely patchy, selective, and one-sided. But Mrs. Tuchman might have asked herself whether the reporting on the world in, say, Omaha is much better.
In his book, Joseph Kraft describes a conversation with Professor Ch’ien Wei-chang, a well-known physicist. At one point Kraft asked who in Ch’ien’s view ruled the United States. “The monopolists,” he said flatly. Kraft denied this and said, “If any single group runs the United States it is the lower middle class. They have the majority. They dominated all the elections.” Kraft obviously saw this part of the dialogue as one between communist dogma and reason. Perhaps it is not so clear cut. The list of contributors to Nixon’s re-election fund is not dominated by the lower middle class, nor is the list of corporations which have received extraordinary favors during his administration. In these circumstances it might be wise not to dismiss Professor Ch’ien’s statement as mere jargon. To understand revolutionary China one must, like Snow, Belden, and Hinton, begin by being critical and thoughtful about one’s own society.
Monthly Review Press, 1972. See NYR, April 19, 1973.↩
Monthly Review Press, 1972. See NYR, April 19, 1973.↩