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China: Politics as Warfare

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Private Collection
Tang Xiaohe: Strive Forward in Wind and Tides (detail), 1971; from the Asia Society’s 2008 exhibition ‘Art and China’s Revolution’

Mao’s Invisible Hand is one of those books that make one feel good about scholarship. It describes inner workings of Chinese Communist society about which few nonexperts know anything—it may even surprise the experts—and it will interest anyone professionally interested in China. Its central purpose is to explain how China has escaped the disintegration of other Communist states; but the contributors to the book do not cram their research into a template that promises more coherence than Chinese realities can provide.

The big idea advanced by Sebastian Heilmann of the University of Trier and Harvard’s Elizabeth J. Perry, both well- established scholars of Chinese politics, concerns the ability of the Chinese Communist regime to adapt. Many China-watchers, they recall, predicted that the People’s Republic would collapse after Tiananmen in 1989; nowadays some maintain that the spread of the market will inevitably lead to a civil society and even some form of democracy. From the regime’s point of view, such predictions may recall the warnings of Lenin, quoted by one of the contributors to this volume, who in 1902 urged that the Party must “struggle against spontaneity” because the spontaneous impulses of the masses can result “in the ideological enslavement of the workers by the bourgeoisie.”

In their first chapter, however, Perry and Heilmann contend that the post-Mao regime has “become increasingly adept at managing difficult challenges ranging from leadership succession and popular unrest to administrative reorganization, legal institutionalization, and even global economic integration.” Yet there is no implication anywhere in this book that the editors and their colleagues approve of the regime’s strategies; they are concerned to show how they evolved and actually work.

They state that the regime’s “staying power” is observable “up to this point” and has very dark sides: official corruption, the ruin of the environment, and no civil liberties. “Up to this point,” as is usual with volumes based on conferences, can mean some years ago. Right now is an even worse time for Chinese civil liberties, with the Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo behind bars, many of his supporters and human rights lawyers detained, and the arrest in 2011 and release eighty-one days later of the now largely silenced artist Ai Weiwei—to name only two of the nonviolent dissidents who have been subject to repression. Chen Guangcheng has made it to NYU but his wife and associates have been treated brutally.

The editors and contributors agree that Mao’s successors have retained, although in often-changed form,

a signature Maoist stamp that conceives of policy-making as a process of ceaseless change, tension management, continual experimentation, and ad-hoc adjustment.

The editors insist this has been a relatively recent development in governance that is understood neither by political science nor theories of modernization. China’s record poses a paradox for those convinced that deviations from the standard modern assumption about progress—that economic development will lead to more open societies—must fail. The Maoist strategy, the authors write, began during the thirty-year period starting in the early 1930s when the Party was driven out of the cities into the countryside and the Long March of 1934–1935 took place from south to north China, with guerrilla headquarters being established at Yan’an in 1936.

This meant surviving in some of China’s poorest hinterlands and relying on improvisation. The authors of Mao’s Invisible Hand argue that China’s post-Mao leaders, especially those like Deng Xiaoping whose memories reached back to the darkest days before the 1949 revolution, similarly used new ideas and techniques for purposes that Mao would have condemned, especially for reforming the economy, but that reflect his unpredictable and experimental approach.

Roderick MacFarquhar calls this “guerrilla-style policy-making,” a term used throughout the collection; that notion animated Mao throughout his career and long after the Communist victory in 1949. It could be disastrous, as with the Great Leap Forward of 1958–1961, which led to the worst famine in Chinese, if not human, history. But such an approach “proved highly effective when redirected to the economic modernization objectives of Mao’s successors.” The Maoist elements, which the book’s contributors underline, “encourage decentralized initiative within the framework of centralized political authority….”1

Central to understanding this sometimes disastrous, sometimes successful “guerrilla policy,” the editors emphasize, are its resilience and adaptability. Resilience means absorbing shocks when things go wrong; adaptability is the capacity to find ways of being what they call “proactive,” “reactive,” and “digestive,” together with the determination to try something new, thus making use of fresh challenges and opportunities. What Mao’s successors have always held in reserve is their power to crush those who stray from what Maoists call “the commanding heights” of priority and command.

The editors, and for the most part their contributors, do not duck the fact that many of the “grievous and growing social and spatial inequalities” attendant on guerrilla policymaking “would surely have undone less robust or flexible regimes.” They describe, too, vast upheavals like the hundreds of uprisings in the spring of 1989 that the leadership violently repressed. Decades earlier, as they dealt with civil war, Japanese occupation, and leadership divisions within the Party, “Mao and his colleagues had come to appreciate the advantages of agility over stability,” although, I would add, stability is exactly what they invariably claim to be preserving no matter what changes they make.

Mao’s closest comrades, including Deng and Hu Yaobang, absorbed the chairman’s “work style,” which the editors, brilliantly, in my opinion, sum up as marked by “secrecy, versatility, speed, and surprise”—in short, politics as warfare. The leaders carefully keep for themselves the power to make decisions about strategic policies and the overall direction of the economy; but they encourage much local initiative—unless it goes wrong or goes too far astray. In that case all alliances can be broken or newly reestablished. The guerrilla style means maximizing the leaders’ choices and initiatives “while minimizing or eliminating one’s opponents’ influence on the course of events.” In the face of most informed opinion at the time, including mine, this is what enabled Deng and his colleagues, as they dismissed in 1989 their high-ranking, long-term comrade Zhao Ziyang, not only to survive Tiananmen but to emerge tougher and more successful than ever, in part, as this book shows, by buying off some of their severest critics.

Perry and Heilmann characterize this style of policy as “fundamentally dictatorial, opportunistic, and merciless.” Scholars of modernization will have to consider, as a result of this book, what many may find discouraging, or even gloomy:

The adaptive capacity of China’s non-democratic political system offers a radical alternative to the bland governance models favored by many Western social scientists who seem to take the political stability and economic superiority of capitalist democracies for granted…. [These social scientists should take] a sober look at the foundations of innovative capacity displayed by non-democratic challengers such as China.

A capacity, the editors point out, that can also be damaging and dangerous for large parts of China’s population.

Tracing the origins of the Maoist experimental method, the contributors—astonishingly, at least to me—reach back to John Dewey, whom Mao heard lecture. They go on to describe Mao’s involvement in rural health care, the function of unofficial or voluntary organizations, the uses of the law and the press, and the methods of local administration. In every case we see two things at work: local or at least noncentral bodies trying things out, being observed or finally noticed at the center; and central control then being brought to bear, including or adapting some of the bottom-up ideas and actions, while snuffing others out.

According to Heilmann, a strategy Maoists called “proceeding from point to surface” meant that a local initiative, if encouraged from the center, could become a “model experience” and then national policy. Such procedures appeared as early as 1928, during the years when Communist forces were active in the countryside and long before Mao rose to supreme power inside the Party. “In sum,” writes Heilmann, “experimentation has been a core feature of the Maoist approach to policy- making since revolutionary times.”

These experiments may have begun with another Party member, Deng Zihui, who consulted local people about their ideas on land reform. Mao, working elsewhere, was impressed by Deng’s findings (although in 1955 he characteristically attacked Deng’s rural experiments as “right opportunism”). After the establishment of the remains of the Party at Yan’an in 1936, local Party activists at a “base area” some distance away were instructed to become “labor heroes” in experiments with land reform. One of the leaders of such efforts was Deng Xiaoping, and Heilmann suggests that the “active experimentation…may have exerted considerable influence on his approach to policy-making in the later stages of his political career.” Mao would declare such experimentation to be “much closer to reality and richer than the decisions and directives issued by our leadership organs” and that, as Heilmann writes, it “should serve as an antidote against tendencies towards ‘commandism’ within the party.”

This statement strikes me as ironic when we consider Mao’s early violence against those who appeared to defy him.2 Indeed, the Party’s basic position, which is to eliminate its enemies, is a weapon he handed down to all his successors. The perception that enemies, including fellow Party members, must be destroyed appeared as early as 1930 when Mao, still only a senior Party member, began the “AB”—the “Anti-Bolshevik”—campaign that led to the executions of some thousands of Party followers he deemed “objectively counterrevolutionary.” After 1949 this violence intensified.

Such brutality was characteristic, too, of Deng Xiaoping, who as Party general secretary oversaw the 1957 anti-Rightist campaign, resulting in the purge of hundreds of thousands, and who, in 1989, ordered the internal exile of the Party’s general secretary Zhao Ziyang and the Tiananmen killings. In 2010 Deng’s successors perceived the wholly nonviolent Liu Xiaobo, the Nobel Peace Prize winner, as a danger to their rule and, with considerable success, threatened foreign ambassadors who had been invited to Oslo to see the prize awarded to Liu in absentia, discouraging several from attending.3 This was not experimentation, but Maoist-style paranoia and persecution.

Even without violence, as Heilmann observes, “The party center always reserved, and regularly exercised, the power to annul local experiments or to make them into a national model.” By the 1950s, moreover, experimentation was weakened by the spread of central directives, especially during the ill-fated Great Leap Forward and the decade of the Cultural Revolution between 1966 and 1976. After Mao’s death in 1976, top-level backing for experimentation, always under central supervision, resumed.

While Party historians attribute the notion of learning from local experiments to the chairman, Heilmann insists that this is not the case. It was, he says, John Dewey’s pragmatist philosophy, especially his emphasis on “intentional anticipation instead of…blind trial and error,” that had a great impact in China. Mao attended a lecture by Dewey in 1920, read one of his books, and had it stocked in the bookshop he opened that year. Dewey’s notions attracted open-minded Chinese thinkers like Hu Shi and James Yen—a Yale graduate—whose ideas were to influence the Communist plans to select rural districts for “intense and extreme experimentations.”

  1. 1

    Perry makes much the same points in her chapter “Sixty Is the New Forty” in The People’s Republic of China at 60: An International Assessment, edited by William C. Kirby (Harvard University Asia Center, 2011). 

  2. 2

    Mao expanded this violence from the first years of his rule. See Klaus Mühlhahn, “‘Turning Rubbish into Something Useful,’” in Kirby, The People’s Republic at 60

  3. 3

    Perry Link, “At the Nobel Ceremony: Liu Xiaobo’s Empty Chair,” NYRblog, December 13, 2010. 

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