Roving thoughts and provocations

China at 60: Who Owns the Guns

People’s Liberation Army soldiers marching past Tiananmen Square, October 1, 2009 (Frederic J. Brown/AFP/Getty Images)

The most striking feature of China’s October 1 celebration of sixty years of Communist rule was the spectacular and tightly choreographed military parade in the center of Beijing. The display of crass militarism—paralleled only by parades in Pyongyang or, a few years ago, Moscow—cannot have done much for China’s image around the world, but China’s rulers may not have cared about that or even been aware of it. They no doubt had a domestic audience in mind. Their aim was to stir nationalism and cast themselves as its champion, or—in the case of Tibetans, Uighurs, or protesters of various kinds—to make it very clear who owns the guns.

But there remains the question of looking back at those sixty years. Last summer, at the opening of the Beijing Olympics, a similar extravaganza led viewers through 4000 years of Chinese history and then—in a telling silence—skipped the years 1949 to 1979. Those Mao years are hard to look at, and a lot of flash is needed to cover what actually happened. A man-made famine killed at least 30 million people; ideological campaigns and labor camps killed millions more, traumatized the entire society, undermined a nation’s idealism, and turned public political language into a cynical game of intimidation and word-manipulation. (And this leaves out the initial violence that brought the communists to power.) These are the major facts of those years, and it is a trick to celebrate them.

Defenders of the Communist Party’s record argue that “the second thirty years” are very different from the first. “Reform and opening” has brought economic growth, higher living standards, integration with the world, and greater flexibility in daily life. These indeed are important advances over the Mao period, but to “credit” them to China’s ruling elite, rather than to the billion or so people who are ruled, is a bit perverse. Imagine things from the point of view of an ordinary Chinese worker: a brutal regime has its foot on your neck for years; then it relents, but says “now you may make money, but only that—no politics, no wayward religion, no trouble-making.” So you take the one category of freedom you are offered and pour everything into it.

Hundreds of millions of Chinese have taken this deal, and have worked long and hard, for low wages, often in sweatshops, with no unions, no medical insurance, no workers’ compensation, no recourse to independent courts—and have made money, at least more than they had before. About a quarter of the population still lives in dire poverty, while the ruling elite, now leaders of a large political-economic interest group, has been catapulted to wealth and even to gaudy opulence. Economic polarization is now greater in China than in the U.S. (where it has been growing). The Communist Party credits itself with “lifting millions from poverty,” but it is more accurate to say that the millions have lifted the Party.

The “first thirty” and the “second thirty” years indeed have differed, yet in some crucial ways have not. One-party rule has been constant, and the same group of families has dominated the ruling Party. The main reason for prohibiting honest discussion of history is that the rulers feel—and here they are probably correct—that this would endanger their grip on power. Another noteworthy continuity has been the exploitation of farmers. The Communists called theirs a “peasant revolution,” and in a sense it was: peasants were the deep pool from which Communist armies drafted their soldiers in the 1940s, peasants saw their farm economy exploited to support heavy industry during the Mao years, and farmers now provide the low-wage migrant labor that has fed the economic boom. They have also been among the primary casualties of the recent recession. The only thing peasants have never been able to do is get out from underneath.

In the 1950s the interests of the elite were mixed with a socialist ideology that had life and credibility in society. “Serve the people” was taken at face value, even if there were some problems. Now, though, such language is utterly empty and everyone knows it. The Communist Party has become a huge interest group. Young people flock to join it, and master Party lingo along the way, not as something to believe in but as a tool for getting to the top.

In the 1980s, at the outset of “the second thirty years,” Chinese intellectuals began to worry about a “thought vacuum” after the death of socialist ideology. What could people believe in? What, in particular, could they use as shared public values to hold a civil society together? And how could there be a societal discussion of these questions, given that the Party controls the media and also crushes any political or religious group that it does not control? With no answers to these questions, bald materialism seemed to be filling the void. The poverty and asceticism of the Mao years had created a psychological rebound into frenetic materialism. (This rebound, by the way, is another reason why it is a mistake to entirely separate the “first thirty” and the “second thirty” years.)

The other Party-approved public value of the second thirty years has been nationalism, which the celebrations of the 60th anniversary were obviously designed to magnify. The Party uses nationalism to distract attention from domestic problems (corruption, injustice, pollution, etc.) and to position itself as a hero and spokesperson for all the Chinese people. Beneath these maneuvers, a well of cultural pride and a sense of aggrievement about the last two centuries of world history do lie deep within the modern Chinese psyche. An inflamed Chinese nationalism, put to the purposes of an authoritarian government, could be disastrous for China and the world.

The good news of recent years is that unofficial China has made progress toward building civic values. “Rights consciousness” of a kind that was unthinkable in the Mao years has spread widely, even to farmers. The Internet, which the Party has failed, despite assiduous effort, to muzzle entirely, has freed people to speak with one another in ways unprecedented since 1949. Citizens who have led the way—journalists, lawyers, activists—have paid for this progress in threats, beatings, confiscations, and imprisonment. But they sense that history is on their side, and keep going.

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